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Tobi Kahn’s New Harmony

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Shalev at New Harmony, Indiana;
Thresholds at The Library of the Jewish Theological Seminary
3080 Broadway, New York, N.Y.   (212) 678 8082
Sunday through Friday; 9:30 a.m. – 5:00 p.m.; Free Admission
Until June 30, 2009



        Imagine if we could all work and live together in harmony.  We ask for this three times a day, “May it be good in Your eyes to bless Your people Israel at every time, in every hour, with Your peace.”   This ancient plea, harmony between us and our G-d, harmony between us and our fellow Jews and mankind, is one of the most fundamental yearnings we experience.  We are not alone in this deeply human quest.  In 1814 a group of Separatists from the German Lutheran Church led by Johann Georg Rapp came to Indiana’s frontier to find religious freedom and establish a utopian communal society in a new town named New Harmony. The community lasted barely 10 years before moving back to Pennsylvania but in that short time was a successful enterprise of cooperation and pious living.   The town is still there and at the New Harmony Inn that 185 years ago used to welcome seekers, Tobi Kahn’s monumental sculpture, Shalev, stands, promising a kind of refuge from the struggles of daily life that still besets us all.


       The rough-hewn granite sculpture commissioned by Jane Owen and the Robert Lee Blaffer Trust in 1993 stands close to 13 feet high and is composed of three colossal blocks; two rectangular pillars that support a massive lintel. Paradoxically, the monument itself cannot itself give shelter, since the “sanctuary” space is occupied by an abstract bronze figure, a sculptural everyman.  The giant stone lintel seems to loom out at anyone who approaches the sculpture.  This elemental quality radiates a sense of welcoming but primitive protection, a hope of shelter.  Its idiosyncratic title, “Shalev,” a contraction of shalom (peace) and lev (heart), echoes this sentiment.  Indeed the attempt to find a harmony between the viewer and the surrounding uncertain world is exemplified by the adjacent landscape.  While most of the year bucolic fields stretch beyond the sculpture the rainy season brings a flood from the Wabash River right up to the foot of the monument, sorely testing our faith in the artwork’s message.   We identify with the protected figure and feel a strange kind of comfort in its safety.

 

 


Shalev (1993) granite & bronze monumental sculpture by Tobi Kahn
Courtesy New Harmony Inn, New Harmony, Indiana

 


      Why?  Why do many of Tobi Kahn’s works evoke this response?  Kahn, an observant Jew who has exhibited, taught and created these kinds of works of art for his entire professional career, believes in the redemptive power of art.   He sees the making, viewing and teaching about art as an act of prayer, an appeal to G-d that, if we approach 
these artworks with the proper intention and concentration, can actually alter our consciousness.  For Kahn, art is a primary step in tikkun olam.

 

 


Shalev (1993) Flood Season; granite and bronze monumental sculpture by Tobi Kahn
Courtesy New Harmony Inn, New Harmony, Indiana

 


      Thresholds, an exhibition of Kahn’s work at the Library of the Jewish Theological Seminary, presents additional examples of the redemptive possibilities of visual art.  Surprisingly the works that evoke this sense of protection are diminutive in scale, quite the opposite of the New Harmony monument.  Nonetheless they radiate a comfort and 
reassurance well beyond their modest proportions.


      In one of the display cases we find three ceremonial boxes, each colorfully painted and uniquely shaped.  Two are titled “Zedek” and function as tzedakah boxes with thin rectangular openings ready to receive charity donations.  But there the similarity ends.  One turquoise box resembles a small altar with a gently curved roof meeting curved sides that enclose the sacred treasury.  The other box, cobalt blue with front and back painted panel inserts, is more business-like, a confident little monument to our expected generosity to those in need.  Both of these exhibit, by their carefully considered forms, surfaces and colors, the seriousness of the mitzvah of charity.   Their monumentality, small in size but with large intent, express a determination to repair the world in a most concrete manner.

 

 


Zedek, Hadahr, Zedek (2006 – 2007) Tzedakah and Esrog containers by Tobi Kahn
Courtesy The Library of the Jewish Theological Seminary, New York

 


      Perhaps to balance the act of giving, the third box is titled  “Hadahr,” literally meaning beautiful and fulfilling its function as an esrog box.  In its way it is more decorative than its neighbors, exhibiting an illustrative panel showing the esrog tree with its fruit, hanging ready for the picking.  Its gold cover communicates that this fruit is indeed the object of one very special mitzvah.


      All three of these objects provide a safe enclosure, a kind of sanctuary, each provoking a positive act that affects the world either by literally making it better; helping another human being; or by affirming G-d’s sovereignty in obeying his commandments.


      The simple and yet monumental character of these works is similarly reflected in other objects in the exhibition.  “Lahav,” a rather impressive memorial light, again plays upon the altar motif that reflects the traditional Jewish respect in honoring and remembering our dead.  Kahn seems to be saying that we do much more than recall our loved ones; we must hold them up and honor them as a blazing flame that will enlighten our lives as we attempt to move forward without them.  In Kahn’s hands a yarzheit becomes a celebration that allows us to live yet another year emulating our departed.


      Shifting from the personal to the familial, the Seder plate, “Erhu II,” proclaims its grand message in the simplest sculptural form.  Atop deep blue square shelves for the three ceremonial matzoth, six cups frame the six small plates necessary for the ritual objects central to the Seder itself.  Additionally these six cups reflect the mandatory four cups of wine plus a possibility of both a cup for Eliyahu and Miriam, a thoroughly modern and progressive gesture consistent with Kahn’s belief in a wide-ranging tikkun olam.

 

 


Erhu II (2007) Seder plate by Tobi Kahn
Courtesy The Library of the Jewish Theological Seminary, New York

 


      There are many other objects and paintings to be seen at Kahn’s JTS exhibition that is part of the 2009 Artist-in-Residence Program directed by Vivian B. Mann, a number of which I have previously reviewed.  One major new work, “Ashkaf,” is a site-specific installation of 8 abandoned card catalogs, each housing 72 drawers that once contained literally thousands upon thousands of library cards, now totally rendered obsolete by their digital replacement.  Kahn has, at seemingly random intervals, opened the drawers and allowed us to see small abstract objects placed therein.  Unfortunately the aesthetic effect is fractured and puzzling, at best creating a sense of loss and the opposite of the works I have been discussing.

 

 


Lahav (2006) Memorial Lamp by Tobi Kahn
Courtesy The Library of the Jewish Theological Seminary, New York

 


      Tobi Kahn’s work presents us with a subtle paradox.  From “Shalev” to ”Zedek,” a yarzheit lamp to a Seder plate, the more monumental the forms he uses the more intimate and comforting his aesthetic operates.  It is perhaps because in each work he provides us with a way in, a visual passage that symbolically provides us with shelter and protection either literally or metaphorically.  That passage is an essential fundamental premise of his work; art must be a prayer to provoke an action to do good in the world. New Harmony has just become a bit closer to becoming a reality.

Richard McBee is a painter and writer on Jewish Art. Contact him at rmcbee@nyc.rr.com.

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About the Author: Richard McBee is a painter and writer on Jewish Art. Contact him at rmcbee@nyc.rr.com


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