Wright Refresh

Frank Lloyd Wright's Beth Sholom synagogue to be activated with new exhibition

Glass ceiling of Frank Lloyd Wright's Beth Shalom Synagogue, where artist David Hartt is staging an exhibition (Jay Reed/Flickr)

Frank Lloyd Wright’s 1959 Beth Sholom synagogue in Elkins Park, Pennsylvania, is poised for an artistic “activation,” as artist David Hartt prepares to debut an exhibition blending sculpture, painting, film, tapestry, plants, and sound to bring a narrative of diaspora to life within the iconic structure. 

Opening on September 11 and running through December 19, David Hartt: The Histories (Le Mancenillier) uses Hartt’s various artistic mediums to comment on the shared connection between the stories of both the Jewish and black diasporas. Wright’s synagogue will remain active throughout the show, however, and a challenge for Hartt is to create artwork that will complement, rather than overwhelm, the space and its essential function. 

Beth Shalom Synagogue Facade

Exterior of the Beth Shalom Synagogue by Frank Lloyd Wright (Joseph Siry)

The parenthesized portion of the exhibition title refers to the Manchineel tree, a highly poisonous tree native to the Mediterranean basin, but also the title of a 19th-century piano composition by Louis Moreau Gottschalk. Gottschalk came from a family of mixed German Jewish and Creole descent, and he became known for his melanges of Afro-Caribbean melodies with the classical European tradition. This discovery became a spark of inspiration for Hartt, inciting a trio of works, currently in production by the artist, with the Wright show coming as the first.

“I was very interested in the idea of the black and Jewish diasporas as being intertwined,” Hartt told the Art Newspaper, “and I was really interested in the space itself simultaneously hosting two different cultural identities.” The infused nature of the narrative is informed both my Hartt’s professional artistic practice, as well as his professorship in the University of Pennsylvania’s fine arts department.

The space will largely be filled with sound, as inspired by the Gottschalk discovery. Acting as an immersive element for viewers of the show, Hartt commissioned new recordings of Gottschalk’s work to accompany the artworks, as well as live performances that feature Jewish, Carribean, and African-American music. 

The connections between these two seemingly disparate histories will continue to reveal themselves through Hartt’s other mediums as well. Large monitors will display video taken by the artist on journeys through New Orleans and Haiti, and planters will be filled with tropical plant species, with growth (and ambiance) aided by fuchsia-tinted grow lamps. 

The curator of the exhibition, Cole Akers, said that the result is a “convivial atmosphere that audiences will be able to linger in and explore.” Akers, the curator and special projects manager for Philip Johnson’s Glass House, is no stranger to designing within big-name architect’s spaces. “To think about the ways that communities come together and sort of hold each other is a really powerful and poetic statement to make.”

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