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Kiki Does Windows.
January 26, 2010 5:23 AM   Subscribe

American artist Kiki Smith, a life long Catholic, has taken on an unlikely project: a stained glass window for the Eldridge Street Synagogue Museum on New York City's Lower East Side.
posted by grapefruitmoon (49 comments total) 3 users marked this as a favorite

 
Wow. I read about this in the New Yorker but the only pictures they had were crude pen-and-ink drawings of animals put in human settings and saying WASPish things.
posted by The White Hat at 5:30 AM on January 26, 2010 [3 favorites]


Christian artisans doing work for synagogues is nothing new. I visited a synagogue in Venice and even the tour guide there referred to the ornate wood carvings 'goyish' with a dismissive hand wave.
posted by PenDevil at 5:34 AM on January 26, 2010


What does being Catholic have to do with it? Why does it make this project an unlikely choice for her? Is there a risk that she'll design the window so that the Virgin Mary appears when the sun hits it on certain days?
posted by three blind mice at 5:38 AM on January 26, 2010 [6 favorites]


Funny, when I think of 2D tessellations, I think Islamic. I thought Catholics were all into 3D stuff.
posted by Rat Spatula at 5:40 AM on January 26, 2010 [1 favorite]


Or is that the project itself is unlikely? If so, why?
posted by IndigoJones at 5:44 AM on January 26, 2010


is there a risk that she'll design the window so that the Virgin Mary appears when the sun hits it on certain days?

Sort of. If you plant the papal scepter +1 of angst in just the right location, it will call your mother.
posted by kid ichorous at 5:45 AM on January 26, 2010


I, too, am perplexed by the angle of this post, and second what three blind mice has asked.
posted by CitrusFreak12 at 5:47 AM on January 26, 2010


Weird editorializing aside, if this window looks half as fantastic in real life as it does in the rendering, it'll be amazing. Can't wait for the next Egg Cream and Egg Roll festival.
posted by saladin at 5:50 AM on January 26, 2010 [1 favorite]


Huh, a night-themed stained glass window is kind of unlikely in itself. (Except for Nativity scenes.) You can only really see it during the day which is an odd tension.
posted by DU at 5:51 AM on January 26, 2010


This is fairly cool (I like Kiki Smith, but not sure how much I like that stained glass window). As PenDevil pointed out, this cross-religious collaboration isn't particularly new, though it is fascinating.

This church is a particularly cool example. The Sinagoga de Santa Maria was a synagogue created by Moorish architects, and later (forcefully) converted into a church. So it actually has incorporated elements of Islamic, Judaic and Christian design into its structure.

It's good to see that such collaboration in the 21st century isn't taking place on the wrong end of a pitch fork.
posted by HabeasCorpus at 5:55 AM on January 26, 2010 [1 favorite]


Funny, when I think of 2D tessellations, I think Islamic.

Which might also hint at the Moorish style of the synagogue itself. The Moors loved tesselations and rotational symmetries.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 5:55 AM on January 26, 2010


Frank LLoyd Wright built an entire synagogue almost 60 years ago. Interesting window, but not an unlikely project.
posted by applemeat at 5:58 AM on January 26, 2010


Yeah, I know it's hip to be all down on religion because of how people get all hatey about people of other faiths, but jeez, not all religious people are that way.

It looks like it will be a lovely window - very classic and stately, which is nice. My mental image before seeing the pictures was more like the stained glass found in your typical ugly post-modern church.
posted by usonian at 6:06 AM on January 26, 2010


Kiki Smith has been a part of that community (Lower East Side Manhattan) for a very long time. It makes sense in that should get involved. Looks like a beautiful thing.

Who's Deborah Gans?
posted by From Bklyn at 6:12 AM on January 26, 2010


Artist takes commission--the shocking story on the eleven o'clock news.
posted by oddman at 6:15 AM on January 26, 2010


I would guess that the "weird editorializing" is really just an attempt to flesh out what might have been a single link otherwise.

The window looks beautiful, and I look forward to seeing it.

I skimmed the article, but did anyone notice whether any substantial modifications to the building would be made, or just only allowing light through the existing windows?
posted by jefficator at 6:29 AM on January 26, 2010


Thanks for the post - I love stained glass. My folks now live not far from Fairford - St. Mary's, the church there, has a set of 15th century windows that are some of the best preserved medieval stained glass in England and I've visited several times. I didn't realise it was an art-form used in Jewish religious architecture too.
posted by Abiezer at 6:29 AM on January 26, 2010


People ostensibly shocked by rampant editorializing cannot stop themselves from ignoring the content of the post to editorialize in their comments. Film at eleven.

Jeez, let the misstep go and look at the art.
posted by OmieWise at 6:35 AM on January 26, 2010


I skimmed the article, but did anyone notice whether any substantial modifications to the building would be made, or just only allowing light through the existing windows?

The New Yorker article mentions that the original window was a stained-glass rose window, but that it had been destroyed through years of neglect and was replaced with a crude glass-block rendering of the stone tablets. So the modifications would be substantial, but they would also bring the building closer to what it looked like originally.
posted by The White Hat at 6:44 AM on January 26, 2010


I didn't realise it was an art-form used in Jewish religious architecture too.

Abiezer, it's extremely common for both Ashkenazic and Sephardic Synagogues to have stained glass windows. Typically, they're either abstract or depict scenes from the Torah.
posted by zarq at 6:45 AM on January 26, 2010


Scenes and concepts, that is. :)
posted by zarq at 6:45 AM on January 26, 2010


She lives across the street from me and when I'd say hello, she wouldn't respond. Once, I was biking past Union Square and saw her on her bike and nodded and she nodded back instinctually, then looked as if she regretted it. I hold it against her.
posted by Obscure Reference at 6:48 AM on January 26, 2010 [2 favorites]


Also, Marc Chagall designed stained glass windows for the Fraum√ľnster Church in Zurich, St. Stephens in Mainz, Germany and the Cathedral at Reims -- where French coronations used to take place, among others.
posted by zarq at 6:53 AM on January 26, 2010


Who's Deborah Gans?

Deborah Gans
posted by zarq at 7:00 AM on January 26, 2010


Also...

Kiki Smith is primarily a sculptor. I'm a little confused as to why the synagogue didn't choose to work with an artist who has extensive experience creating stained glass windows? Am I missing something?
posted by zarq at 7:06 AM on January 26, 2010


I'm a little confused as to why the synagogue didn't choose to work with an artist who has extensive experience creating stained glass windows?

They couldn't find a Catholic one. Obviously.
posted by three blind mice at 7:19 AM on January 26, 2010


Abiezer, it's extremely common for both Ashkenazic and Sephardic Synagogues to have stained glass windows.
Thanks zarq; I live and learn. Are/were there any sects who don't like it? As I'm sure you know, a lot of stained glass in England and elsewhere was destroyed in the iconoclastic movements associated with the Christian reformation and in the English case especially during the upheavals of our Civil War - one parliamentarian soldier William Dowsing kept a journal describing his wrecking exploits and earned the name 'Smasher Dowsing' and the opprobrium of later medieval art lovers.
posted by Abiezer at 7:22 AM on January 26, 2010


FWIW, I thought it was an unusual project for Kiki Smith because she doesn't typically do stained-glass windows.
posted by shakespeherian at 7:28 AM on January 26, 2010


Fr. Methodius, a Trappist monk in Georgia does some beautiful stained glass work, some of which was ordered by non-Catholic folks. Sadly, a fire at the monastery destroyed his archives.
posted by jquinby at 7:35 AM on January 26, 2010


You're very welcome.

Here are examples of stained glass windows at a congregation in Virginia.

Are/were there any sects who don't like it?

I'm honestly not sure. This fascinating article provides a historical perspective on the adoption of stained glass windows in synagogues, and one of the things it mentions is that the Second Commandment (the prohibition against improper worship) was interpreted in the middle ages as an injunction against including human figures in artworks, such as stained glass windows. It's perfectly possible that there are Jewish sects that still follow that tradition. (The article seems to imply there are.) However, I've attended services in synagogues and temples representing all the different modern sects of Jews, and haven't ever heard of an objection against the windows themselves, with or without human depictions.

I've never heard of William Dowsing before. Thank you for telling me about him. Horrifying.
posted by zarq at 7:40 AM on January 26, 2010 [1 favorite]


Hi! Stained glass craftsman here. I generally don't do design, so won't comment on that. But a couple of cautionary points.

1. Windows designed by "artists" who've never done stained glass can be very . . . problematic. Like all media, stained glass is subject to constraints, and design must work around those constraints. Hence:

2. I don't know how big this window is, but it looks to be at least 8' diameter. There's no way anybody would make a window that big/cumbersome as a single piece. Typically we'll design and build such a window in sections, and integrate the sections upon installation. I don't see any way for this design to be divided.

This doesn't mean the window can't be done. It just shouldn't be done with fully traditional leaded glass techniques.

I hope the artists for this project are consulting with experienced stained glass craftsmen.
posted by yesster at 7:46 AM on January 26, 2010 [1 favorite]


Not to hate, but gah, that window. It looks like she thought she was designing the cover art for "The Complete Idiot's Guide To Kabbalic Astral Projection" or something. The tabletty windows they had before look nice to me.
posted by threeants at 7:58 AM on January 26, 2010


Kiki Smith is primarily a sculptor. I'm a little confused as to why the synagogue didn't choose to work with an artist who has extensive experience creating stained glass windows? Am I missing something?

Michaelangelo, also a sculptor working outside his medium. I guess it's some kind of bizarro religious tradition: "Hey! I need to decorate this space! I know! A SCULPTOR!"

There really wasn't supposed to be an "angle" to the post and I apologize if it looked like I was editorializing - not only is Smith Catholic, but she has done work primarily focusing on Catholic imagery, so the point (if there was one) was intended to be "Artist well known for her work centered on her own Catholicism is an interesting choice for redecorating a synagogue." No "angle" intended, I was merely trying to be succinct, which I'm finding is sometimes the same as being unintentionally misleading.

I'm also apparently tone-deaf as to what is going to totally derail a post. So, now that I've apologized for unintentionally "editorializing," let's just get on with talking about windows.
posted by grapefruitmoon at 7:58 AM on January 26, 2010 [4 favorites]


I don't see any way for this design to be divided.

What about along the overlapping arcs that lead from the edge to the center star?
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 8:23 AM on January 26, 2010


Love Kiki Smith. I also love the fabulous tale of her background. Her mother was an opera singer, and her father Tony Smith was a minimalist sculptor. At their wedding Tennessee Williams was the best man. Her mom and Tony were totes homedogs with Clyfford Still, Jackson Pollock. and Rothko, which makes him less of a totally douchy minimalist (like Judd, uggh). So, can you imagine little Kiki growing up, getting noogies from Rothko and Tennessee Williams? She's got a circle of Abstract Expressionist uncle-types, a Minimalist dad, and Kiki has enough of her own light to go out there and rock post-minimalism* hardcore. Her dad was extruding cubes through space (or more accurately, drawing cubes and having someone else build them). But over here, Kiki's sculpting with her own hands figures of women, figures of her sister dead from AIDS. Folding and sewing books, putting paint on canvas, comparing printmaking to saying the rosary. Her work is feminine, and feminist, but comes from a different place, (IMHO a more developed/mature place) than works by Judy Chicago (and her droves of unpaid/unknown assistants) and other feminist artists of the time.

So, anyways, to sum up my ramblings; you know how Data on Star Trek would play poker on the holodeck with Hawking, Newton and Einstein? My fantasy poker group** would totally include Eva Hesse and Kiki Smith. Still figuring out the 4th. (Meret Oppenheim?)

*some people would probably argue with the term post-minimalism, as she is creating an art object, ostensibly to be purchased. I'm also not sure if I agree with the term feminine artist. Yes her subject is often bodies, and her own body, but the same could be said of her contemporary Bruce Nauman and no one calls him a masculine artist.

**no vagina-centric place settings would be involved.

posted by fontophilic at 8:36 AM on January 26, 2010


What about along the overlapping arcs that lead from the edge to the center star?

Now that I've had my coffee. Well, yes, that can be done. The resulting lines would be a bit bigger than depicted though. Which is fine. To make this design work, I'd build an iron t-bar frame with 6 arc spokes. Thus, the window would consist of 7 panels - the center star and 6 curved wedges. Halation would diminish the appearance of the support structure to some extent.

It would be a fun project in some respects.
posted by yesster at 8:37 AM on January 26, 2010


Michaelangelo, also a sculptor working outside his medium.

That's right. I'd forgotten.

I guess it's some kind of bizarro religious tradition: "Hey! I need to decorate this space! I know! A SCULPTOR!"

:)
posted by zarq at 8:53 AM on January 26, 2010


Actually, Michaelangelo was first apprenticed to a painter.

His Torment of St. Anthony, billed as his "first painting" and dated to around the time he was 13-years-old was recently displayed at the Met. Seeing it reminded me of the Tom Lehrer quip: "It is a sobering thought that when Mozart was my age, he had been dead for two years."
posted by Jahaza at 9:52 AM on January 26, 2010 [2 favorites]


The resulting lines would be a bit bigger than depicted though.

I figured that would be the case. But then any designer will always show an idealized version of the end product.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 9:59 AM on January 26, 2010


The second link mentions that she was brought up Catholic. Somehow I doubt that Kiki Smith is a practicing Catholic nowadays anyway, but I didn't see anything here to indicate that she is.

Interesting content, but the framing of the post, even if it weren't deliberately misleading, has a strange tone, presumptive of some kind of divisiveness.
posted by cmoj at 10:04 AM on January 26, 2010


Thanks for the post. It looks beautiful and would love to see it when complete.
posted by saucysault at 10:09 AM on January 26, 2010


I'm also apparently tone-deaf as to what is going to totally derail a post.

You shouldn't apologize. If anything, the fact that threadshitting comments still remain just highlights the hypocrisy about what members of this site call threadshitting. So you don't need to apologize, at all, as it's a fine post about an interesting subject matter.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 10:15 AM on January 26, 2010


cmoj: I posted a link that concerns a body of work that Smith created and displayed having to do with Catholic imagery, so yes, I would assume that the descriptions of her in several biographies as "life long Catholic" (a description also highlighted in the recent New Yorker article also mentioned) are accurate.

If you want to believe that there's some kind of divisiveness in my tone, that's your prerogative, but I've already explained that it wasn't meant that way.
posted by grapefruitmoon at 10:19 AM on January 26, 2010


There's a lot of cross-over between Judaism and Catholicism anyway. They're both famous for guilt-inducing mothers, they're both steeped in tradition and symbolism, and they're both often seen as being an ethnicity almost as much as a belief system (they're both extra hated by the KKK, too). Makes perfect sense to me.
posted by infinitywaltz at 2:49 PM on January 26, 2010


Hmm, I'm related to her, some degree of cousin I guess. Even met her once in childhood at the family dude ranch in Montana. Didn't keep in touch...
posted by sammyo at 8:49 PM on January 26, 2010


Are/were there any sects who don't like it?

... no. Yes. Sort of.

My understanding is that Jews in Moslem countries were stricter about this sort of thing because of their neighbours influence, but I only really know about Ashkenazi European practice.

The standard decoration for the covers of arks and Torah scrolls is a lion. I have no idea why, unless it's a long pun that I'm too sleepy to explain. Since it's a picture and not a 3d representation it is not forbidden. So you see lions and sometimes other creatures used as decorative elements. You never see depictions of people on the arks, though, because they might be thought to be representations of actual people. Like you-know-whom.

None the less, I happen to know that some rabbis complained about this sort of thing because the picture of the lion would be front-and-center of the synagogue, so everyone faces it during prayers. And it's not especially common to have representations of people elsewhere, either because Jews suck at stained glass or because it's too close to the practices of a certain other faith. So there's definitely a current of "it's tacky", but most places don't feel that way. I wouldn't say that it runs in sects, more that it depends on the opinion of the current rabbi.
posted by Joe in Australia at 5:34 AM on January 27, 2010


... no. Yes. Sort of.
:D The answer you should expect when asking a theological question. Thanks, Joe.
I'm sort of sympathetic to the early modern Christian iconoclasts (despite being brought up Catholic myself). Reading some of the tracts at the time they had some sound arguments about the dangers and distractions of idolatry. You'd have hoped they could have stood for those without destroying some great art, but then religion was nine tenths of politics at the time.
posted by Abiezer at 7:17 AM on January 27, 2010


they had some sound arguments about the dangers and distractions of idolatry. You'd have hoped they could have stood for those without destroying some great art ...

I partially agree with you, but I'm sympathetic to this argument: theological art isn't there to look pretty. It is an argument conveyed via art and it is rebutted via iconoclasm. A statue of Mary with people adoring her says "I think Mary is worthy of veneration, and enough people agree with me that can pour our resources into this expensive statue and put it out in public without anyone destroying it." And when Oliver Twist Cromwell comes and smashes it he's saying "My theology is so powerful that your coreligionists are unwilling or incapable of defending their heretical views."

So the statues with their heads chopped off and the carvings with their noses chipped away are actually a very, very slow argument in stone. If theological art wasn't at risk of this then it wouldn't be theological art.
posted by Joe in Australia at 3:55 PM on January 27, 2010


I think my sympathy comes from the motivations of some of the common soldiery who were maybe the worst offenders - they'd had the established church as the ideological apparatus of the hierarchy and felt the art was reinforcing the role of the church institution as mediator between God and Man which they radically opposed. Takes on a different colour when it becomes the policy of the new Cromwellian state (though admit not sure in detail how far it did) where as you say it's a different sort of assertion of power.
As it happens was re-watching a Jon Romer documentary on the Byzantines in the light of the recent thread here on the topic and he's just covered their traumatic bout of iconoclasm. Seems that too was imposed from the top by an emperor who perhaps had been swayed by his wars with the emerging Arab powers and thought their Spartan religious practice might bring him better favour from God. The whole programme (second of four) has Romer giving a thought-provoking look at the origins, changes and uses of religious art.
posted by Abiezer at 4:09 PM on January 27, 2010


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