by Pac Pobric
Below the Horizon
MUSEUM AT ELDRIDGE STREET | APRIL 12 – OCTOBER 10
One hundred and thirty-two years ago, the leaders of Kihal Adath Jeshurun (“People’s Congregation of the Just”) bought three lots on a narrow street in lower Manhattan surrounded by tenements crowded with Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe. The lots contained only a humble group of wooden row houses, but standing on that street in 1886, they imagined the space filled by a synagogue worthy of the shuls of Paris or Berlin—one that could inspire the impoverished Jews of New York and offer them a place for respite and reflection. Less than a year later, on a budget of $92,000, they completed the synagogue at Eldridge Street, a soaring, neo-Moorish temple and at once the tallest building in the neighborhood, capped by finials with the Star of David.
By the mid-20th century, however, the synagogue’s wealthier members had left the area, and the building had fallen into decay. The main chapel had closed, and congregants prayed in a smaller, more modest room downstairs. The temple’s original stained glass window, which looked east towards Jerusalem, was in a broken state. In 1945, it was replaced with simple glass blocks that were austere and colorless but affordable.
The blocks remained until 2010, when Kiki Smith and the architect Deborah Gans installed a magnificent replacement that capped a more than twenty-year restoration and renovation project. Their radiant, circular, stained glass window—made of 1,200 parts weighing 6,000 pounds and spanning 16 feet in diameter—is organized around six curving triangular sections framing a brilliant blue Star of David in the middle. Smith’s idea was to draw upon the building’s native decor, so she looked towards the central upper dome, where earlier designers had painted dozens of five-pointed gold stars. That form repeats in Smith’s and Gans’s design, and their stained glass stars radiate as if up towards the sky.
Stars are again on Smith’s mind. Her unassuming new show of fifty works at the synagogue, now a museum, is titled Below the Horizon, in recognition, according to the exhibition, of the fact that we only see the stars once the sun has gone down. Sunsets are a fine metaphor for the museum’s extended period of decline. In its worst state, the roof was collapsed, water damage was rampant, and whole sections of glass lay broken on the floor. But Smith finds life and humor in the building’s history of disrepair. Three of her sculptures on the museum’s top floor, which was once reserved for female congregants, who are separated from men in the Orthodox tradition, are of pigeons sitting on chairs. This, it seems, is what the synagogue must have looked like at its most impoverished, with wildlife flocking into the site. There is real joy in these sculptures. In one, a bird settles into her chair by flapping her little wings. Her face is not notably rendered (Smith is generally economical with her sculpture). But she seems generally at ease, and it’s not difficult to imagine a happy pigeon settling into the peace and quiet of a disused building.
Most other works in the show are grouped in cases and sit on the pews downstairs, where the men once prayed. These sculptures—all hand-painted, cut-out plywood reliefs with incised cross-hatching patterns set on simple wood bases—are not especially remarkable. A few of the more interesting ones are of lively cats of various colors; other works depict portraits of women or hands holding hearts and birds. Elsewhere, there is a sculpture in bronze titled Blue Moon II (2011), which imagines a dusty moon surrounded by stars, and plays gently with the idea that the modest moon also has a role to play in God’s grand scheme. These generally feel tentative, like the early stages of an idea that has yet to be developed, and their connection with one another, if there is one, is not immediately apparent.
On the whole, this show is deferential to the museum, hovering in the background so that the bigger and better story of the synagogue’s history can emerge without distraction. This is as it should be: the Museum at Eldridge Street is not an art museum. At the center of its mission, which began with the impressive restoration of a dilapidated gem, is Smith’s and Gans’s stunning window. At the right time of day, before the sun has moved westward, light filters through the glass and a serene, lambent mood washes over the shul. That kind of experience will linger in the minds of even the most agnostic among us. In another time and place—say, the Jewish Lower East Side of the early 1900s—it fell on religion to encourage speculation on questions of truth and knowledge. In a more secular world, art now carries much of that burden. But temples can still inspire. How lovely that the Museum at Eldridge Street does so with such elegance and grace.
Pac Pobric is a frequent contributor to Artseen and an editor at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.