Kabbalah in Art and Architecture
By Alexander Gorlin
Pointed Leaf Press, $60
How often is it that we consider the cultural contributions of this intriguing, ever decimated, and re-succeeding people? Their run—which has taken them from ancient Egypt through the ghettos of old Venice to the oceanic explorations of the 1400s to early human rights advances in Holland—is the story of the Jews. And yet, here today, in America, it is just not cool to be one.
Actors wipe the association from their name, architecture’s most famed practitioner works under an appellation he was not born with, and when assigned this review I truncated a word in a book’s title and assumed my editor was referencing the 1970s SciArc cabal of Eric Owen Moss, Thom Mayne et. al. because that had been our recent discussion. When a lush “art book” which featured an intoxicating cover photograph—the glow of hundreds of candles turning darkness into a golden haven—I knew that I was wrong.
The volume, Kabbalah in Art and Architecture, sets about to reveal the embodiment of the mystical Jewish teaching within the two avocations. To undertake such an act, author Alexander Gorlin must first establish a basic understanding of the texts, a goal that history has found as perplexing, illusive, and torturous as making art itself. If the late Philip Seymour Hoffman talked about the toll of an artist’s perfectionism and Rothko, who is featured in the book, committed suicide, consider this: Of the four Rabbis who first undertook to study and convey the Kabbalah, only one remained standing, sane, and able to speak of it. Gorlin contends the teachings, which attempt to explain the inner workings of G-d, are rife with allegories, metaphors, or actualities that permeate great architecture and art. Some referenced by their makers purposefully others by accident.
Most particularly, he focuses on Zohar, the Book of Radiance, Kabbalah’s foundational text, an artist’s Book of Genesis, except that it is an account of what preceded that epoch. The tale begins with a void, the vacuum the Divine leaves as G-d recedes to make room for creation. Into the space enters light, first as a single beam, then flowing forth into ten vessels. But as this illumination is a sacred force of the Divine it is too powerful to contain, the volumes shatter. It is for man to retrieve and re-compose these sacred shards, to bring order to chaos. If the Hebrew word for this final lesson, Tikkhun, has been popularized as action for the greater good, its origins also would seem to imply the labor of “architect.”
Gorlin and the book’s designer organize the volume in chapters each of which first offer an essay that explains a concept or symbol(s) essential to the Kabbalah—citing works, artists, and architects that have employed it (knowingly or not) followed by well-captioned corresponding visuals which range in era from the 1200s to the present day.
Readers turn a page to find Moshe Safdie’s triangular void which frames Yad Vashem’s harrowing journey through the Holocaust just as the volume releases into a vast expanse: an elegy that momentarily escapes the heaviness of history to enter the vast domain of the horizon. A stream of light reflected in water pierces Louis Kahn’s Salk Institute for Biological Studies at dawn while, presented on the opposite page, a singular white band makes its way through the blue of a Barnett Newman canvas. A third informational type, quotes from the bible or the Kabbahal itself, are intermingled through the exampled images.
Sometimes the book doesn’t work. Its essays are difficult, due to its attempt to condense the highly evocative and esoteric into the flatness of language. It is a reminder as to why artists so often prefer to let the mystical remain so. The book is uneven. It is neither systematic in documenting Kabbalah’s direct influence nor a survey of the inadvertent parallels between the teachings and the two fields. In terms of building typologies its emphasis is on places of prayer and memorials, but the art it offers is most often exhibited in secular institutions. It notes the California Light and Space trio of James Turrell, Robert Irwin, and Doug Wheeler but omits the West Coast’s Wallace Berman, whose Verifax collages were drenched in the Kabbalah. In this, Kabbalah in Art and Architecture has the gravitas of a hardback but can function as an informal notebook, examples selected by the writer for his own reference.
Yet, the simple recording of them is important. In terms of the specific, for architects it offers a rich collection of places that connect man to G-d. But, considered in its entirety, Kabbalah in Art and Architecture is about universality.
Collected under one cover is an ephemeral installation of the British sculptor Andy Goldsworthy, sketches by Frank Lloyd Wright of Temple Beth Shalom, an entire epilogue devoted to Anselm Kiefer and Steven Holl’s Chapel of St. Ignatius, a catholic place of worship that referenced the Kabbalah’s vessels of light.
If the book is unfocused, so to it tantalizes and inspires. Once grasped, Kabbalah, as a lens through which to see these projects, mesmerizes. That was Gorlin’s intent.