Shuls on Fire? (Synagogue Fire and Smoke Real and Abstract):
Ibram Lassaw and Temple Beth El, Springfield, Massachusetts
by Samuel D. Gruber
A few weeks ago I participated in a symposium about synagogue art and architecture at Temple Beth El in Springfield, Massachusetts, a building designed by noted modernist Percival Goodman and decorated with many artworks by Ibram Lassaw, one of the best abstract artists to provide artwork for American synagogues in the 1950s and 1960s. The symposium was mostly about the career and work of Goodman, but on my this visit to Beth El, I was particularly drawn to the sculptural work of Lassaw, whose metalwork marks the building exterior, and can also be found throughout the synagogue in functional and ritual roles.
Based on his success at the recently completed Congregation B'nai Israel synagogue in Millburn, New Jersey, Goodman had assembled a team of artists to design art for the newly planned Springfield synagogue. For both projects, all the artists came from New York's Kootz Gallery, but for Springfield the still little known Lassaw was chosen to replace sculptor Herbert Ferber who has created the outdoor relief "The Bush Was Not Consumed" in Millburn. Other artists Adolph Gottlieb and Robert Motherwell worked on both projects. From Lassaw's account of the project, it seems that he did not get specific instruction from Goodman, nor any instruction about or instruction about subjects from the congregation's rabbi.
According to art historian Nancy Gale Heller, Lassaw produced sixteen pieces for the Temple Beth El (Springfield) in all, including “two menorahs, an eternal light, a lamp-lighter, [and] many decorative forms for various parts of the buildings." Fire destroyed the Beth El sanctuary in 1965, but fortunately most of Lassaw's work survived and was reinstalled in the new building, also designed by Percival Goodman.
The sculptor says: “I stood in front of the building and began visualizing different shapes in that particular niche, and when I had the sculpture pretty well made in the small maquette, I cast about for a title and 'The Pillar of Fire' came to me as appropriate. But I already had the sculpture pretty well established before I got the title – so this isn't representing an idea.”
“…The work reveals a submission to the material, to its properties and possibilities. The artist is not representing reality, but creating it. The viewer senses a heightened participation in the act of creation akin to the intensity with which the mystic worships God….Lassaw combines a commitment to modern technology in all its various forms—electronic, space physics atomic science—with an intensely mystic conception of the universe which has led him to search the popular philosophies of Zen Buddhism, as expounded by Suzuki, and Chasidism, familiar to him through the writings of Martin Buber. All of these influences find their symbolic expression in his art. He allows them to determine the choice of his material, the process of his work, and the outcome. Lassaw also brings spontaneous enthusiasm to his work. In the “Pillar of Fire” he has transformed his intellectual and physical environment into a non-static, ethereal sculpture.”After more than a half century, the piece remains a powerful one, and in retrospect, one of Lassaw’s most effective works. Art and architecture complement each other. For many people, it was their first substantial encounter with abstract art – there were very few pieces of public modern art of any kind visible in American – let alone Western Massachusetts. In 1953, the work was a revelation.
We know that Lassaw was familiar with Ferber's work, and that this work in form and name was a response of some kind. Perhaps Goodman (or the congregation) made it explicit that they wanted something like Millburn. As far as art goes, the two works are quite different. Ferber's relief boldly protrudes from the wall while Lassaw's is recessed in a niche. One looks like sharp shards and blades of metal suggesting perhaps tongues of flame; the other is a dense interlace of thinner, more organic forms - more smoke than fire.
Still - in the world of synagogue art - these two works of the early 1950s stand out as related, since no other similar outdoor or abstract sculpture for synagogues was known at the time. Each inevitably calls the other to mind - in part since there were so few publicly visible similar abstract metal relief works to be seen anywhere else.
Ferber created an abstract work that simultaneously evokes the traditional biblical motif of the branches of the Burning Bush, from which God first reveals himself to Moses, and the Tree of Life, symbolizing God as the source of all things. As with his contemporaries working in both two and three dimensions, Ferber’s concerns evolved from an interest in the unconscious into an abstract expressionism in which forms emanated from the mind and body without becoming representational. The imagery of his sculptures was conceived, as he stated, in a “knowing but nonrational way.”
The Millburn project occupied Ferber for over a year. He began with small pen-and-ink sketches before creating two copper models, each a foot tall, which he submitted to the architect and the rabbi for approval. The original commission was for a six-foot-tall piece, but Ferber thought this would be too small for the synagogue’s façade and volunteered to double its size. To create the final sculpture, Ferber bent cut-out sheets of copper into long hollow forms, which were then covered with lead to achieve a uniform color.
At the request of the Museum of Modern Art, the synagogue delayed its art dedication ceremony by several months so that Ferber’s new sculpture could be included in the museum’s Fifteen Americans exhibition of 1952. Once installed on the synagogue’s façade, the work’s stark, abstract appearance proved shocking to many, and was even reported to have distracted drivers on busy Millburn Avenue. Even the rabbi took a while to become accustomed to its aggressive spikes and rough texture, ultimately finding sustenance in its forceful forms. Ferber’s additional synagogue work included a sculpture commissioned by Goodman for the Fairmount Temple in Beechwood Village, Ohio. - See more at: http://www.thejewishmuseum.org/millburnferber#sthash.PyYu08Z1.dpuf
Shortly after completing the Springfield work, Lassaw came back to the Pillar of Fire theme and produced two metal free standing openwork towers - titled "Pillar of Fire" and "Pillar of Smoke" that were installed flanking the ark of Temple Beth El in Providence, Rhode Island. These works - not reliefs - were more in keeping with the bulk of Lassaw's work.
Back inside Temple Beth El in Springfield, Lassaw’s best work was his Ner Tamid, or Eternal Light, and his work in the chapel. The Ner Tamid, hung like some heavenly galaxy in front of the Ark. This openwork metal sculpture was destroyed in the unsolved 1965 fire. Lassaw made a similar, but more compact one to replace it.
Springfield, MA. Temple Beth El. Replacement Sanctuary Ner Tamid. Ibram Lassaw, Sculptor, 1968. Photo courtesy of Temple Beth El.
At the rededication ceremony of Temple Beth El, on May 12, 1968, Goodman linked the devastation of the fire to past Jewish disasters, giving added weight to rumors that the fire was the result of arson. it also seemed he remember Rabbi Grunewald's admonition that "the bush was not consumed."
"The real mortar which holds this building together is not found in the architect's specification - it is in the hearts of the congregation. The truth of this has again been borne out. Fire raged through the building, the walls cracked, the mortar fell out, the physical work was destroyed. Time and time again this has happened to our history and each time, and whether in Jerusalem, Spain, Russia, or Germany, we found the real mortar intact -the fortress of our faith has remained solid though all was in ruins around it." 
Fortunately, the chapel of the original building and all its artwork survived the fire - and this simple space is one Goodman's best early designs. It has the simplicity, austerity, and integrity of a medieval Carthusian Chapel or a work by Brunelleschi. But most of all it is in the style of Millbrun that combines a modern functionalism and rustic simplicity - best seen in its wood roof (as a modern space, to me this chapel is the equal of Louis Kahn's Trenton Bathhouse which opened in 1955, two years after the Beth El Chapel.).
Springfield, MA. Temple Beth El Chapel. Percival Goodman, architect, 1953. Photo courtesy Temple Beth El.
Part of the effect of the chapel is due to Lassaw's art, which he has toned down to match the muted architecture. Lassaw decorated the portable wooden Ark with solitary star or sun bursts – suggesting perhaps the light emanating the Torah, or at least intimating a link to the idea of creation – more of these can be found around the building. He also made a small Ner Tamid and a menorah for the chapel that survived the fire, and which you have probably already seen. The Ner Tamid would have have been - and still should be seen - against the brightly colored Robert Motherwell-designed tapestry that hung behind the Ark. The wall carpet was removed from the chapel many years ago. It now hangs in the Temple Social Hall, but plans are being made to restore it return it to its original location.
Springfield, MA. Temple Beth El Chapel. Ark decoration by Ibram Lassaw and Robert Motherwell. This photo suggesst the sunburst decorations on the ark were added later by Lassaw. Photo courtesy Temple Beth El.
Lassaw also made a small metal screen that serves as a valence above the Motherwell piece. The work foreshadows Lassaw’s great screen that signaled the ordering of chaos into Creation for the bimah of Congregation Kneses Tifereth Israel Synagogue, Port Chester, NY, a synagogue designed by Philip Johnson. Lassaw’s work there has recently been acquired by and moved to the Jewish Museum in New York, after an ill-considered synagogue “renovation.”
Springfield, MA. Temple Beth El Chapel. Art decoration by Ibram Lassaw, 1953. Photo: Samuel Gruber (2012)
Springfield, MA. Temple Beth El Chapel. Ner Tamid. Ibram lassaw, sculptor. 1953. Photo courtesy Temple Beth El.
Fifteen years after the Beth El project, Lassaw, when asked about the collaboration of painters and sculptors with architects, "asserted that there IS none. Lassaw claimed that he had never truly collaborated with an architect; instead the architect had simply assigned him a niche within which to design his sculpture, adding that he had “no way of influencing the environment beyond the scope of the sculpture.” 
 Ibram Lassaw, interview with Dorothy Secklet, East Hampton, New York, Nov. 1, 1964; transcript at Archives of American Art quoted in Nancy Gale Heller, The Sculpture of Ibram Lassaw, Ph.D. thesis Rutgers University, New Brunswick, NY, 1982. (Ann Arbor, MI: UMI, 1982).
 Quoted in Temple Beth El 1913-2013 (Springfield, MA: Temple Beth El, 2013), 62.
 Nancy Gale Heller, The Sculpture of Ibram Lassaw, Ph.D. thesis Rutgers University, New Brunswick, NY, 1982. (Ann Arbor, MI: UMI, 1982), p. 198-199]