Thursday, March 25, 2021

USA: Fine Modernism at Temple of Aaron in St. Paul, Minnesota

Saint Paul, Minnesota. Temple of Aaron. Percival Goodman, architect, 1956. Photo: Samuel Gruber 2018.

Saint Paul, Minnesota. Temple of Aaron. Percival Goodman, architect, 1956. Photo: Samuel Gruber 2018.

Saint Paul, Minnesota. Temple of Aaron, relief sculpture facing River Road, Herbert Ferber, sculptor 1956. Photo: Samuel Gruber 2018.  

Saint Paul, Minnesota. Temple of Aaron. Percival Goodman, architect; William Saltzman, stained glass, 1956. Photo: Samuel Gruber 2018. 

USA: Fine Modernism at Percival Goodman's Temple of Aaron in St. Paul, Minnesota 

by Samuel D. Gruber   

I have written about innovative and influential synagogue architect Percival Goodman many times before. Because he was so prolific, however, many of his notable synagogues go unnoticed. One of these is the Temple of Aaron in Saint Paul, Minnesota, built for a Conservative Congregation and completed in 1956 and still beautifully maintained by the congregation today. Rabbi Bernard S. Raskas (1924-2010) and his wife Leah who had a Fine Arts degree, engaged closely with Goodman on the design and construction of Temple of Aaron. Rabbi Raskas was an active and popular leader in the Twin Cities for many decades and was intimately associated with the synagogue throughout his long life.

Raskas had an optimistic belief in a new American Judaism expressed in part through art and design. He described some of the process in an interview in 2005 (at the 40 minute mark). Significantly he says that Goodman didn't want windows - said synagogues did not have windows - and Raskan countered with non-European examples. Raskas also wanted to have a Jewish Minnesotan design the windows, since "he [Goodman] had these big New Yorkers." Like many of his American-born post World War II colleagues who engaged prominent architects in the 1950s (i.e Mortimer Cohen and Frank Lloyd Wright, Philip Bernstein and Pietro Belluschi), Raskas played a double role. He helped introduce modernism to a broader Jewish community, and helped to educate modern architects about religious and Jewish history and idealism.

The Temple of Aaron has all the hallmarks of Goodman's confident style of the 1950s and early 1960s. Though modest in size and materials it is distinctive in look. The shapes are sharply angled, but not aggressive. The brick and wood are used proudly with steady competence and without ostentation; together with a series of tall stained-glass windows they mold a sanctuary space that soars but remains remarkably warm and intimate. Though I did not have the opportunity to attend services in the sanctuary and experience it within the community and purpose for which it was designed, I was still drawn to the space and felt comfortable within it.

Saint Paul, Minnesota. Temple of Aaron. Percival Goodman, architect, 1956. Photo: Samuel Gruber 2018.

Saint Paul, Minnesota. Temple of Aaron. Percival Goodman, architect, 1956. Photo: Samuel Gruber 2018.

 

Goodman engaged a talented team of modern artists to add sculpture and glass to the design. There is an abstract, but vaguely symbolic, sculpture on the exterior by Herbert Ferber, who also worked with Goodman on the synagogue in Millburn, New Jersey and elsewhere. Ibram Lassaw, who worked with Goodman on many projects including Temple Beth El in Springfield, Massachusetts; and the Fairmount Temple in Cleveland; added a distinctive menorah as wall sculpture in the chapel and the Ner Tamid in the sanctuary and other works. These two artists helped set a mid-century trend for exterior metal relief sculpture on synagogues, and also with a few others (Seymour Lipton, Richard Filipowsky, etc.) transformed our ideas about the proper forms for synagogue ritual art.

Similarly abstract stained glass windows by local artist William Saltzman are inside and the parochet covering the ark was designed by Helen Frankenthaler. Goodman rarely engaged women artists for his synagogue decoration, but here in  traditional woman's role of textile artist Frankenthaler contributed a vibrant, almost explosive design, that implies a burning bush. "The bush was not consumed" is a motto of the Jewish Theological Seminary, where Rabbi Raskan was ordained) but also inevitably refers to the Holocaust which was, indeed, the title of a painting of the same year (1955).

Saint Paul, Minnesota. Temple of Aaron. Percival Goodman, architect, 1956. Photo: Samuel Gruber 2018.

Saint Paul, Minnesota. Temple of Aaron. Ark. Percival Goodman, architect. Menorah by Herbert Ferber; Parochet design by Helen Frankenthaler, 1956. Photo: Samuel Gruber 2018.

As with many of Goodman's buildings of this period which recognize the car culture of suburbia, there are architectural transitions at both front and back from parking lot asphalt to the building entrance and its main mass. Goodman, who with his brother Paul, was known for his urban and community vision and planning ideas, did not champion suburban synagogues. Still, he designed a lot of them and helped create the lasting idea of an expressive and functional suburban religious place. Goodman designed the projects the were required in the time he lived. 

The Temple of Aaron stands in a transitional space. It is urban by the standards of the Midwest, but occupies a large lot on the edge of low-scale residential neighborhood and faces plenty of green space and the Mississippi River. Its setting, in fact, recalls many of the new American synagogues of the 1920s which, built away from crowded immigrant neighborhoods, often face city parks. If Raskas and Goodman might have known, too, that in 19th-century Europe, many impressive new synagogues, such as the Synagogue at Stora Nygatan in Gothenburg,Sweden (1855), also faced waterways. It is probably too much to find a link with Minnesota's Scandinavian past here, but it is a convenient comparison.

In the front of Temple of Aaron a covered walkway is perpendicular to the main mass, and leads to the entrance. In the rear - used as much as the front most days - a second portico is aligned against one the angled walls. The low flat-roofed space offers shelter from the rain and snow while allowing the eye and body to adjust as the building scales up. Many of Goodman's synagogues of this time push visitors/worshipers through a series of low places - the places of everyday life - until they are squeezed through the doors toward the sanctuary. Only there does the pressure ease, and the worshipers can breath deep, though space is breathtaking in its unobstructed freedom.

Saint Paul, Minnesota. Temple of Aaron. Percival Goodman, architect, 1956. Photo: Samuel Gruber 2018.

Saint Paul, Minnesota. Temple of Aaron. Percival Goodman, architect, 1956. Photo: Samuel Gruber 2018.

Saint Paul, Minnesota. Temple of Aaron. Percival Goodman, architect; William Saltzman, stained glass, 1956. Photo: Samuel Gruber 2018.

A high point of the synagogue are the large abstract stained glass windows by local artist William Saltzman (1916-2006) that line both sides of the sanctuary. These sides bend out from the central space so that each window is seen at an angle from all the others. This architectural shape enlivens the windows which have shapes and movement in their designs, but are further animated through the impression of movement of the walls. The windows seem very much a part of the walls since the palette is largely brown and yellow, and this plays against the similar shades of the brick walls and the laminated wood arches the support the vault and space the space. 

The window patterns are each set within tall windows, framed by narrow panes of clear glass, so Salzman's swirling patters are separated from the adjoining walls and appear framed and suspended by light.

Avram Kampf, who probably spoke to the artist, included a description and detailed interpretation of the windows in his important book Contemporary Synagogue Art, pp. 239-240.

"In bold rhythms, Saltzman designed ten stained glass windows conveying experiences both universal and pertaining specifically to the life of the congregant. The overall theme is "The life cycle of a Jew." The windows, in their abstract design, suggest: birth, the first steps, Hebrew education, Bar and Bat Mitzvah, marriage, Parenthood, community responsibility, old age, and immortality. The relationship to one another is logical and together they create an aesthetically pleasing effect. In a number of cases of Talmudic idiom has been employed by the artist as an idea for the design. For example, the Talmud relates that at every birth a shout echoes through the entire cosmos. The mystery of creation is renewed again and again. The artist has transformed this idea into a design based on the diagrams of a splitting atom, but endowed with warmth and color in setting of human hope in prayer. The abstract motif is easily understood by the beholder. Yet although it is impossible to recognize, in the finished work, the original tamudic source, the viewer must reconstruct and reorganize some of the details in order to comprehend the meaning because the artist has simplified and condensed his theme.

"Train up a child in the way he should go" (Prov. 22: 6). The unsteady steps of a little child who falls down and gets up again are conveyed in the zigzagging white path which weaves through the red and yellow composition. In the window representing education, the Hebrew letters are fully integrated into the design without being distorted. In the bar and bat mitzvah section, elements of the talit and the t'filin have been selected to create a pattern of interlacing bands that convey the idea of initiation into religious rights. The basic experiences of man birth, marriage, Parenthood and death are interspersed with windows dealing with those institutions of the congregation which assure its survival bar mitzvah, Hebrew education, and social responsibility. The accent throughout is on the relationship of the individual to the community. The designs consist predominantly of linear bands which suggests the ties individuals have to one another or to large social bodies. The individual is represented as a nucleus or a center of a larger field from which forces emanating upon which forces impinge. Bands, ever widening circles, and ever diminishing lines of force are narrowly condensed where the impact is heavy and disperse where it is slight. The concept underlying the theme and designs themselves reflect both the age of psychology and the age of the atom. Such concepts as belonging, and relatedness, lines of force, and nuclear energy have found their graphic expression in the design of the windows. These represent a work of art which incorporates significant aspects of the synagogue today and really as we experience it. They reflect the quest for community which the religious institution, with its rights, customs, history and tradition, promises its members.”

Salzman was a leading Minnesota artist in the mid-20th century. He was painter, sculptor, muralist, and designer working in many materials. He began entering work into Minnesota State Fair exhibitions in 1936, when he was just twenty, and then during WWII, was a camouflage advisor for the US Government. From 1948 to 1964 he was the Director of the Rochester (Minnesota) Art Center. Saltzman produced art for many Minnesota architectural settings besides the Temple of Aaron, including St. Mark's Evangelical Lutheran Church, Mount Zion Temple, Vinje Lutheran Church (Willmar), United Hospital, Mayo Clinic, and the University of Minnesota.

Saint Paul, Minnesota. Temple of Aaron. Percival Goodman, architect; William Saltzman, stained glass, 1956. Photo: Samuel Gruber 2018.

Saint Paul, Minnesota. Temple of Aaron. Percival Goodman, architect; William Saltzman, stained glass, 1956. Photo: Samuel Gruber 2018.

The dedication publication of Temple of Aaron featured Stained glass windows illustrations and descriptions of the windows (and the other art in the complex).

Saint Paul, Minnesota. Temple of Aaron. Percival Goodman, architect; William Saltzmann, stained glass, 1956. Photo: Samuel Gruber 2018.

Saint Paul, Minnesota. Temple of Aaron. Percival Goodman, architect; William Saltzmann, stained glass, 1956. Photo: Samuel Gruber 2018.

Here are other views of the synagogue.

Saint Paul, Minnesota. Temple of Aaron. Percival Goodman, architect, 1956. Photo: Samuel Gruber 2018.

Saint Paul, Minnesota. Temple of Aaron. Percival Goodman, architect, 1956. Photo: Samuel Gruber 2018.

Saint Paul, Minnesota. Temple of Aaron. Ark. Percival Goodman, architect. Parochet design by Helen Frankenthaler, 1956. Photo: Samuel Gruber 2018

Saint Paul, Minnesota. Temple of Aaron. ntrance doors to sanctuary and social hall. Percival Goodman, architect, 1956. Photo: Samuel Gruber 2018.

Saint Paul, Minnesota. Temple of Aaron. Sanctuary, view from bimah. Percival Goodman, architect, 1956. Photo: Samuel Gruber 2018.

Saint Paul, Minnesota. Temple of Aaron. Daily chapel. Percival Goodman, architect, 1956. Photo: Samuel Gruber 2018.

Saint Paul, Minnesota. Temple of Aaron. Daily chapel. Wall menorah sculpture by Ibram Lassaw, 1956. Photo: Samuel Gruber 2018.

Saint Paul, Minnesota. Temple of Aaron. Social Hall. Percival Goodman, architect, 1956. Photo: Samuel Gruber 2018.

Saint Paul, Minnesota. Temple of Aaron. Social Hall ceiling. Percival Goodman, architect, 1956. Photo: Samuel Gruber 2018.

Saint Paul, Minnesota. Temple of Aaron. Social Hall laminated wood supporting arch. Percival Goodman, architect, 1956. Photo: Samuel Gruber 2018.



Sunday, January 3, 2021

Happy Birthday Jack Levine

Jack Levine, Jewish Cantors in the Synagogue, 1930. Ars Judaica, 3:79




    

https://cdn1.nyt.com/images/2010/11/09/arts/design/20101109-levine-ss-slide-MXB4/20101109-levine-ss-slide-MXB4-jumbo.jpg
Jack Levine. The Feast of Pure Reason, 1937.
 

Jack Levine. Adam and Eve (Eve Offers Apple), ca. 1981. Oil on canvas, 48x42in, Jewish Artists & the Bible, p31


Happy Birthday Jack Levine (1915-2010)!

Today is the birthday of the American-Jewish artist Jack Levine  (January 3, 1915 – November 8, 2010), a Social Realist painter and print maker known for his satires on modern life and political corruption, and for his sensual and sometimes comic biblical narratives. Levine made works on Jewish themes all of his life. His Cantors in the Synagogue is a fine drawing of 1930 when he was only 15 years old. In the 1930s he began his Street Scene paintings which aimed to capture the rough mix of Boston's immigrant life in city neighborhoods.

Jack Levine, Street Scene no. 1, 1938. Boston Museum of Fine Arts. Photo: Samuel Gruber 2018.

Born to Lithuanian Jewish parents, Levine grew up in the South End of Boston and attended Harvard University (1929-33) where his artistic abilities were recognize. In 1932 his drawings were included in exhibition at the Fogg Art Museum, and in 1935 twenty drawings were added to the museum's collection.

Later in life, he painted scores of canvases of biblical scenes, including many variations on the Adam and Eve story and also the Planning of Solomon's Temple.

For the present age of income inequality and continuing systemic racism and  overt police violence against Black Americans, we should remember Levine for his scathing portrayals of plutocrats and their political and military cronies, as well as his strong series of paintings in response to the police violence against civil rights protesters in Birmingham, Alabama. He continued to include politics and social critique overtly and by association in his works through most of his career. 

Jack Levine, Birmingham ‘63, 1963

Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco

Jack Levine, The Arrest, 1983.

The Hunter Museum of American Art. Read more about The Arrest here.

His 1937 painting  “The Feast of Pure Reason,” that shows a police officer, a capitalist and a politician as cronies at a table, with bloated faces "oozing malice,"remains just as much an indictment of today's power structure as it was more than 80 years ago.

In his New York Times obituary he is quoted as saying “It is my privilege as an artist to put these gentlemen on trial, to give them every ingratiating characteristic they might normally have, and then present them, smiles, benevolence and all, leaving it up to the spectator to judge the merits of the case,”Read his full 2010 New York Times obituary here.

Levine was in the Army from 1942 to 1945 after which he painted painted Welcome Home, mocking military power. Later when the work was shown in Moscow he was investigated by the House Un-American Activities Committee.

Jack Levine, Welcome Home, 1946

Jack Levine, The Reluctant Ploughshare, 1946. The Brooklyn Museum.
  

Together with his Boston-born Harvard classmate Hyman Bloom, Levine helped create an alternative American Jewish modernism to the the New York School. He and Bloom preferred expressionism over abstraction, and remained true to narrative and social engagement. In this they were much more influenced by American Social Realists and inter-war German expressionists and satirists than their New York contemporaries who were more inspired by the formal trends of France. Levine hated abstraction. He is quoted as saying (I don't know the source): "I’m not a child of Cézanne, I’m a child of Daumier. I have a right to be. It’s a free country."

I suspect that over time, Levine's work - especially that of his early decades - will continue to grow in renown and influence. 

A documentary film about Levine titled Feast of Pure Reason was made in 1989. He died at his home in Manhattan, New York on November 8, 2010 at the age of 95. It can be rented here: http://vimeo.com/42791172

 

Read more about Jack Levine in Samantha Baskind's "Midrash and the Jewish American Experience in Jack Levine's Planning Solomon's Temple," in Ars Judiaca (2007), available here.