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At Syracuse University, Undulating Walls Commemorate Vanishing Barriers

In Syracuse, N.Y., artist Sol LeWitt has been building walls, while Nancy Cantor, the new chancellor of Syracuse University, has been breaking them down (figuratively speaking).

Cantor, who was inaugurated last month as the 11th chancellor and president of the university, is the first woman and the first Jew to hold the position. Since her arrival in Syracuse three months ago, she has been reaching out to the university communities energetically and aggressively to break through long-standing barriers between various schools and departments and, more importantly, she has been reaching out to the central New York community as part of a dialogue about the “soul of Syracuse,” which might usher in a new era of town-gown relations. For Cantor, an assertive arts program is one way to spark that dialogue. At a university whose identifying symbol is the Carrier Dome, home to the Orange sports teams, this represents a cultural shift.

As part of the yearlong inaugural celebrations — a whole range of art and academic events, including exhibits, concerts and symposia —S.U. alumnus LeWitt donated the design for a permanent sculptural installation on campus, called “Six Curved Walls (Syracuse),” a prominent grouping of six 12-foot high walls built of concrete block. As with all his work, LeWitt is more concerned with the idea of the work and its design than with its execution, which he usually turns over to others. In this case, the university building and grounds staff that will maintain the work in Syracuse’s rough weather have been artistically empowered as co-creators.

The undulating walls, between which is created a series of unexpected openings and passageways, span 140 feet of hillside below Crouse College, the ornate red-sandstone castle built in 1889, and one of the university’s signature buildings. This is a big and visible work. Even during its construction it generated, in Cantor’s words ,“dialogues of place and function; in its becoming, it provided a powerful context for change.” Usually LeWitt does not burden his works with social meaning, but the university patrons of the project are encouraging others to do so.

The related curves of the walls are generated by persistent deviation of pattern and line that LeWitt has explored in his two-dimensional work. The walls’ curves, and the gridlike articulation of the walls created by the slightly projecting ends of the concrete block, combine to create a seemingly endless combination of simple related, but divergent, forms. As in so much of LeWitt’s art, there is complexity developed out of minimalism. Like binary computer language leading to virtual reality, nothing is as simple as it seems.

The unpredictability of these walls appeals to Cantor. Quoting Isaiah Berlin in her inaugural address, she said, “To force people into neat uniforms demanded by dogmatically believed-in schemes is almost always the road to inhumanity.” Berlin (and Cantor) then added (paraphrasing the Pirkei Avot, “The Sayings of the Fathers”) ,“We can only do what we can: but that we must do, against difficulties.” While a superficial consideration of the work might suggest that this is yet a new restrictive barrier between gown and town, like the concrete garages that already separate campus from city, “Six Curved Walls” is clearly more than that. The walls might appear harsh and forbidding until one actually walks up to them, and through them. Cantor said in her inaugural address that the walls “are meant for boundary crossing.” But even more, in fact, they are lots of fun.

There is also a Jewish way to look at “Six Curved Walls” and its precursors — installations at the Paula Cooper Gallery in 2000, and one at Colby College (2001). In the earlier works, the walls are straight, and though they intersect at interesting angles, the spaces between walls remain impassably narrow. In the Syracuse work, we can see how these walls are evolving, or dissolving, into something more open.

For Jews — and Syracuse University is an institution that welcomed Jews as faculty and students much earlier than did many American schools — the symbolism of walls is very strong, and more specific. The theme of the wall resonates in Jewish imagination perhaps more than does any other form. Understanding this, LeWitt has used walls to express Jewish identity, or its loss, in several recent projects.

From the solid spiritual reassurance that Jews find in the massive stones of the Jerusalem Wailing Wall (the Western Wall of the platform upon which Herod’s Temple was built), to the protective and then restrictive walls of European Jewish quarters and ghettos, the wall has dominated Jewish experience through much of the Diaspora. Since the 19th century, the literal breaking down of walls has marked high points in Jewish experience. As the shackles of slavery are powerful symbols to black Americans, the memory of ghetto walls is never out of Jewish consciousness, even in a free society. It’s tragically ironic, that Israel today has erected its security fence on the West Bank — a dividing wall to protect itself, but also to help preserve its Jewish identity. In a certain sense, “Six Curved Walls” is an American Jew’s antidote to that defensive Judaism.

LeWitt was born in Hartford, Conn., in 1928, the son of Russian Jewish immigrants. Though his work has been shown at the Jewish Museum in New York, notably in a one-man show in 1966, his art is not usually regarded as Jewish per se, but there is much in the seeming simplicity of his minimalism that strikes a Jewish chord. His preference for the straight line, or the simple cube, can suggest the oneness of God. His avoidance of any imagery, or even overt subject matter, is in keeping with a strict interpretation of the Second Commandment, while his mathematically precise designs recall Jewish numerology and related studies.

In 1989, LeWitt’s “Black Form: Dedicated to the Missing Jews,” was installed at the Platz der Republik in front of the Town Hall in Altona, Germany. In this memorial, LeWitt developed the cube — a form that has driven his art throughout his career — into a large, solid mass that is, in fact, a wall. “Six Curved Walls” is formally related to this work, but it adopts a language that is more ambiguous, but essentially optimistic. Light in color, varied in form, with thousands of individual units as opposed to the single dark cube, “Six Curved Walls” is solid but open, massive but varied.

At Congregation Beth Shalom Rodfe Zedek in Chester, Conn., the synagogue to which LeWitt belongs and that he helped design with architect Stephen Lloyd, he also created walls as repositories of Jewish memory and as a conveyor of Jewish identity. Here, the Jewish star became the generating geometry of the entire sanctuary, completed in 2001. In the 1980s, LeWitt already used the six-pointed star as a simple, decorative device in ceramic designs, but in Chester the star is much more than a logo for Judaism. Its lines are expressed as exposed roof beams evoking nostalgia for the destroyed wooden synagogues of Poland. As in a few other contemporary synagogues, the traditions of New England barn construction and Polish wooden synagogues are merged. Like many contemporary artists and architects (Frank Stella, Louis Kahn), LeWitt was influenced by the photos and drawings of these buildings, published in the late 1950s (and still widely disseminated today) — just at the time he was developing a style of his own. In Chester, the star is also given a more contemporary treatment in the multicolor labyrinthine design that embellished the ark. This work resembles in color and technique, though not in shape, many of LeWitt’s recent wall-painting projects, including “Five-pointed Star With Bands of Color” (1991).

Not everyone is going to like “Six Walls,” but Nancy Cantor doesn’t consider likability to be a primary requirement of art. Speaking last month at a symposium, Cantor said, “I like to think of the arts as a conversation… built on the notion of getting … in the head of someone else’s perspective or experience and using that in a way that reflects back on one’s self….” “Six Curved Walls” does give us other perspectives. If we want, we also can reflect back upon ourselves, and a much longer collective history.

Samuel Gruber is the author of “Synagogues” (MetroBooks, 1999) and “American Synagogues: A Century of Architecture and Jewish Community” (Rizzoli, 2003). He is director of the Jewish Heritage Research Center in Syracuse, N.Y., and Rothman family visiting lecturer in Judaic studies, Syracuse University.

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