Kabbalah Architecture and Art (Alexander Gorlin)

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My mother sent me this link to the NYT home section a couple of weeks back. It features an excerpt of an interview with Alexander Gorlin promoting his new book Kabbalah in Art and Architecture. Whenever a working artist or architect picks up on this kind of stuff, my ears pick up. The interview was so-so. Interesting, but not necessarily imrepssive, whereas the book itself is both interesting and impressive.

But is Kabbalah in Art and Architecture just a big pretty coffee table book? I’m going to argue that the argument made by Gorlin is a visual one, not a discursive one. Kabbalah and modern-contemporary art and architecture are forced by Gorlin to refract the same types of material-spiritual dynamics. Caspar David Friedrich, Anselm Kiefer, Louis Khan, Mark Rothko, Barnett Newman, Frank Ghery, Le Corbusier,  Daniel Liebeskind, Peter Eisenman all make their appearance. It “reads” like a reprise of Robert Rosenblum’s classic Modern Painting and Northern Romantic Tradition. Except this one is mediated by Moshe Idel and presided over by the ghost of Gershom Scholem, interspersed with passages and driven by concepts drawn from the Zohar and Lurianic Kabbalah.

Kabbalah in architecture and art takes shape in the forms of arks and tents, crystals and crowns, geometric voids and radiant light, shards of stubborn matter, violent rupture and theurgic repair and restoration of primitive elements. Archaic and modern, examples are taken from prominently German and Jewish architects and artists and from sites in Israel and Germany, the look and mood are post-Holocaust. To be the sure, the relations or associations or networks established between kabbalah with the art and architecture are artificial, representing the artifice of Gorlin, the author-architect. It’s what Harold Bloom would call a “misreading.” I think Gorlin’s happens to be a strong one. The point of the art and architecture is not to illustrate kabbalistic themes in a direct sort of way. Nor is the kabbalah meant to depict or explain the art and architecture. The point of the experiment is to establish a network of associations and to see how affinities might overlap, conceptually and visually.

The interview in the NYT was a little cute, or at least did not provide a lot of detail. What kind of architecture isn’t spatial and dependent upon light? So while architecture and kabbalah may have nothing to do with each other, this part sounds intuitively right: I went to CBST, the gay and lesbian synagogue. It’s in the Javits center, in the crystal cathedral. Have you ever been in that space? It has all these interlocking cubes with a space frame that creates diagonals, a bit e kabbalistic diagrams called sefirot. You’re in a cube of light, basically, facing the Hudson.

The synthesis of Zohar, art, and architecture are meant to dazzle the eye. However, unlike in the Zohar, there’s not a lot of sex in Gorlin’s architectural Kabbalah. Like most contemporary architectural bodies, the aggressive energy is hard and masculine. Not since the Zohar, I’m not sure anyone has figured out how to construct a structure out of the conjugal pairing of Tiferet and Malkhut.

About zjb

Zachary Braiterman is Professor of Religion in the Department of Religion at Syracuse University. His specialization is modern Jewish thought and philosophical aesthetics. http://religion.syr.edu
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