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Modern art icon is returned to its traditional perch
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Modern art icon is returned to its traditional perch

Reinstallation recalls B’nai Israel’s role as sculptor’s muse

Staff Writer, New Jersey Jewish News

The sculpture restored to its original place at B’nai Israel. Photos by Johanna Ginsberg
The sculpture restored to its original place at B’nai Israel. Photos by Johanna Ginsberg

Having enlightened visitors to Manhattan’s Jewish Museum, a monumental work by famed sculptor Herbert Ferber is back home, gracing the facade of Congregation B’nai Israel in Millburn.

Gently cradled in a wood frame, the abstract metal sculpture was swung into place by a boom and secured to the building over the course of the day on July 21.

The sculpture, And the Bush Was Not Consumed, had been removed for cleaning, repair, and restoration while the Conservative synagogue was undergoing a major renovation. During 2010 it was part of an exhibit at the Jewish Museum, which paid for the restoration in return for the loan.

The abstract sculpture depicts the moment when God appears to Moses in the form of a burning bush, as well as a tree of life.

The work is one of three by major avant-garde artists commissioned in 1951 by the synagogue’s architect, Percival Goodman. It was the first time modern art was brought into the synagogue and the commissions started a trend that continued through the 1950s and into the ’60s. The other artists were Robert Motherwell, who created an abstract mural still on loan to the Jewish Museum, and Adolph Gottlieb, who made the original Torah curtain. Now in the museum’s collection, the curtain was a gift from B’nai Israel when maintenance was no longer feasible. The synagogue now uses a replica.

The synagogue’s religious leader at the time, Rabbi Max Grunewald, suggested the sculpture’s theme: “The burning bush burned but was never consumed, which reflects the fate of our people,” said Grunewald, who had fled Nazi Germany.

The 2010 museum exhibit recalled the national acclaim that greeted the then unique marriage between a suburban house of worship and modern art.

Andrea Hirschfeld and Nan Greenwald, both B’nai Israel board members, came to the synagogue to watch the sculpture’s reinstallation. “I just knew when this sculpture came back I would take the day off from work,” said Greenwald. “When are you ever going to see this?”

The installation was overseen by a logistics professional from the Jewish Museum, as well as Steve Tatti, an independent art restorer and conservator who had refurbished the piece. He explained that the sculpture, made of copper, had oxidized and turned green and black. He removed the oxidation, put on a protective coating, and brought back the original dark copper color. In addition, parts of the copper had separated at the seams and joints and needed to be soldered back together and repaired structurally.

Tatti praised B’nai Israel for continuing to appreciate artwork commissioned mostly in the 1950s and 1960s.

The Motherwell mural will be returned to the synagogue by the time the renovation is completed sometime in the fall.

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