Modern Painters, Autumn 2001, p. 98                                      Back to Bibliography

Abstraction and Nature

Lance Esplund

Paint, glass, light and steel: different artists on show around New York transform materials into something vital and organic.

. . . Deborah Rosenthal is a painter who knows just where she stands in relationship to nature. For years, Rosenthal has been combining elements of dream and myth with religious subjects, including the Garden of Eden and the figures of Adam and Eve, in her abstract paintings. Recently, she was commissioned by Minyan M'at at Ansche Chesed Synagogue on New York's Upper West Side, to design two stained-glass windows to flank the ark of the Torah in the synagogue's sanctuary. The windows are identical in size, each is two and a half feet wide by five feet high, and they are approximately 25 feet apart. In a recent television interview, Rosenthal stated:
I don't think it is possible to create sacred art at this point. Sacred art is the collective expression of a society. Even among religious people there isn't an audience that readily understands all of the signs and motifs . . . what I'm doing is working out of my own belief, out of my own obsessions, some of which have to do with religious thoughts, religious impulses; but I know I have to speak to you as the viewer, whether you are moved by a religious impulse yourself or not.
To do this, to speak more universally, Rosenthal explored nature as a metaphor, wedding architecture and organism through abstract form.
      As we take in the colour of Rosenthal's windows, we become immediately aware of line. Line is a rich metaphor for the artist. It denotes not only boundary, edge or contour, but is an agent of location, energy and growth. It is literally
Deborah Rosenthal: Pomegranate  
Deborah Rosenthal, Pomegranate (left) and Tree of Life (right), both 2001, stained-glass windows for Ansche Chesed Synagogue, New York, each 60 x 30 in.
Photo: Willy Nash
movement and change— life itself. Originating as point, and evolving into plane, line is a metaphor for the base element of all artistic creation, where, as Kandinsky points out, 'the leap out of the static [the point] into the dynamic occurs'.
      In a place of worship, the stained-glass window, traditionally, is also a metaphor. The ever-changing light of God passes through the coloured forms, the figures and stories, as it transforms them, making them almost palpable. The structure of the window requires that its forms be connected by line—the window's leading. In a stained-glass window, line is skeleton, boundary and, like the glass itself, a continuation of the architecture.
      Rosenthal has fully employed the richness of these metaphors in her windows. She selected both translucent and opaque cathedral glass to allow for multiple qualities of diffusion. And she varied the thickness of the leading within the structure of a bilateral grid. Choosing not to paint or modulate the glass surface in any way, she allows us to experience the fullness of each form as coloured light. This gives the windows a flat, abstract purity that places them clearly in the modernist tradition.
      For the left-hand, or north, window, Rosenthal chose the subject of the pomegranate, a symbol for the old temple. For the right-hand, or south, window, the subject is of the tree of life, which symbolises the Torah, or Bible, as a 'tree of life for those who cling to it'. The tree of life represents the new temple, or synagogue, as a place of prayer and study as opposed to sacrifice.
      The windows, which function extremely well independently, really begin to sing to and play off one another when seen together. From the middle of the synagogue, where both windows are visible
Line is a rich metaphor for the artist. It denotes not only boundary, edge or contour, but is an agent of location, energy and growth. It is literally movement and change— life itself.
simultaneously, Rosenthal's full exploration of her chosen themes becomes apparent. The pomegranate window's centre-line is made of leading, bisecting the window and the pomegranate. Half way up the window, the centre-line is interrupted by a diagonal of berry or seed-like forms, which feel suddenly internal within the opened fruit. This intersection breaks, or facets, the plane, so that we are now aware of every diagonal throughout the window. Diagonals turn into curves, which rotate outward, pushing the volumes of the fruit upward as well as outward against the frame. The fruit appears to rock from side to side, to breathe in the plane, to swell like a beating heart. The reds, which vary from blood red to a deeper crimson, seen against opaque white, move like liquid. In the cross section of the pomegranate, which suggests the inner chambers of a womb, colour feels fertile, wet with life.
      What struck me, looking from one window to the other, was how quickly the room dissolved in light and colour, how quickly I became absorbed in the pure experience the artist had designed for me. As my eyes moved back and forth between the pomegranate and the tree of life, I became aware, through comparison and analogy, of differences and similarities between the windows. Going from side to side, old temple to new, fruit to tree, female to male, inner to outer, a rhythm developed that added up to a comprehensive whole.
      In the pomegranate, we are made aware of the bisection, the opening of the fruit. In the tree of life, where the tree itself becomes centre-line, replacing the leading as central structure, the tree bisects the window through its own upward and outward growth. We experience a continuation, in living form, of the temple. Centre-line transforms from division into an active force. White, felt in the pomegranate as root, as beginning, as internal and intimate, in the tree of life flowers forth, opens like a sail and spreads across the plane. The tree rotates in the flatness as it rises, shifting plane into volume, uniting window (architecture) with viewer. As the viewer's eyes pass from window to window, they pass through the ark, the Torah, emphasising the purpose, past and present, of the synagogue itself.
      Rosenthal may be wrong about the impossibility of making 'sacred art at this point', for she has succeeded in creating with these windows, as Matisse did with the Vence Chapel 50 years ago, an art that, like a medieval cathedral, surpasses metaphor (and the notion of art) into pure function, to become a living spiritual presence. . . .

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