Sunday, September 7, 2008

Ibram Lassaw (1913-2003) Sculpture and Drawings on View in Matera, Italy until October 18th

Not Jewish Art, but a Major Jewish Artist: Retrospective Exhibition of Ibram Lassaw (1913-2003) Sculpture and Drawings on View in Matera, Italy until October 18th
by Samuel D. Gruber

(ISJM) One of the major retrospective exhibitions of an American and Jewish artist this year has gone virtually unnoticed in the US press. But in Italy, where the major exhibition of sculptor Ibram Lassaw’s work has been dramatically mounted in the Sassi (caves & cliffs) of the southern Italian town of Matera, Lassaw’s work has received extensive coverage, with over 80 newspapers articles heralding his work.

"The Great Exhibition in the Sassi" 2008 opened June 14, 2008 and will be on view until October 18 2008. The exhibition features approximately 80 sculptures and 50 drawings made from 1929 to 1996, loaned from the Ibram Lassaw Foundation in East Hampton, NY and from private American collections and museums including the Whitney Museum of American Art; Heckscher Museum of Art - Huntington; Guild Hall Museum - East Hampton; New Jersey State Museum - Trenton; Neuberger Museum- Purchase and from the Peggy Guggenheim Museum in Venice. The exhibition is co-curators Giuseppe Appella and Ellen Russotto, illustrate in depth Lassaw's artistic life.

Lassaw was born in Alexandria, Egypt, in 1913. He moved to New York in 1921 and died in East Hampton in 2003. He began to make abstract sculpture in the 1930s, and over the new two decades he strove to create a formal balance between geometric and organic form. He was one of the most important American artists of the "New York School". His can also currently be seen in the exhibition Action / Abstraction at the Jewish Museum in New York.

Lassaw also was part of the first generation of abstract artists who made work for synagogues. One his greatest works was the sculpture designed for the bimah and Ark wall at Port Chester’s Congregation Knesseth Tifereth Israel designed by Philip Johnson. The work was recently removed from the synagogue in a redesign and is now part of the permanent collection of the Jewish Museum, New York (for more on this work and its context see my book American Synagogues: A Century of Architecture and Jewish Community (Rizzoli, 2003). An Eternal Light from the synagogue appeared like a metallic sunburst. Atypically, it hung off center, to the left of the Ark. A large screen of welded copper, bronze and aluminum wire formed a backdrop to the bimah and Ark. The intricate wire pattern appears as graffiti-like drawing against a white painted backing. This work, entitled “Creation” measures 12 by 34 feet and projects one foot out from the wall plane. Lassaw, in a letter of 1986, described the work this way; “I think of it as a symphony structured in space rather than sound. It is an offering in praise and wonder of the living universe, without intending to portray the universe. One might say it is inspired by the starry fields, the galaxies and galactic clusters of which we are a part. These are not symbols but only what is there before you.” As I wrote in 2003, “One can view Lassaw’s ethereal ordered disorder as an antidote to the inspired, but still stolid geometry of Johnson’s modernism, or one can view it as the chaos of creation out of which God created the order of man’s thought and action, described by the laws and traditions of Judaism, and embodied in the purpose and form of this synagogue.”

Lassaw also created synagogue art for Temple Beth El in Springfield, Massachusetts designed by Percival Goodman. There his menorah and eternal light were much less assertive. They were essentially wire sculptures made of welded metal rods, similar to some of the pieces on view in Matera. They are transparent and appear to float in a sanctuary that is warmer and more engaging than the Congegration Kneses Tifereth Israel.

I asked Lassaw’s daughter Denise how her father’s work came to be in Matera, and why now? She told me that Lassaw was in a group exhibition Sculptura in America installed in Matera in 1990 by the Museo della Scultura Contemporanea Matera (MUSMA), which opened that same year in the Sassi, the extensive cliffs of cave dwelling (natural and man made) in which residents of Matera have lived for millennia. The museum is in two places in the Sassi: a dedicated museum that is part cave and part building; and lower down the gorge, a series of interconnected Sassi, old churches with frescoes and Neolithic storage pits; that all open to the gorge and the river below, amid the tangle of small bushes and trees, goats with bells. The Lassaw exhibition is in both places.

MUSMA is dedicated to sculpture and alternates between featuring an American or an Italian work each year. It was founded by men who grew up in Matera and played in the caves (Sassi) as kids. When in 1990 MUSMA flew all the sculptors and their families to Matera for the show, Ibram fell in love with the Sassi and loved the way his work looked in the caves. Denise feels her father would have been very pleased with the installation. She says, “These Italians really know how to do things nicely!”

For those who do not know Matera, its unique mix of landscape and architecture create one of the most unworldly and evocative environments in Europe. Though in antiquity and the Early Middle Ages there were hundreds of Jewish communities scattered across Southern Italy (remains can be seen not far form Matera in Venosa and Trani), there are no Jewish monuments known in Matera . But because to many, the landscape evokes ancient Judea, the Sassi have been a backdrop for many Biblical films ranging from Pasolini’s Gospel According to Saint Matthew (1964) to Bruce Beresford’s visually stunning King David starring Richard Gere (1985). In the post-World War II period “optimistic modernism” the Sassi were deemed unhealthy slums, and beginning in the 1950s the Italian government began a program of forced relocation of Sassi residents. The museum is part of more recent program and to reclaim and preserve the Sassi, and today, they are a major part of the tourist and artisan economy of the region.

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