The Art of Architecture: Candida Höfer and Frank Lloyd Wright’s Synagogue

Updated July 2010: We’re pleased to announce that this photograph is a new acquisition to the Museum’s permanent collection.


Good relationships can be hard to find, but a relationship that has continually  proven to be rewarding is that of American synagogues and contemporary artists, architects, and designers.  An example of this successful collaboration is clearly visible in the current exhibition, Modern Art, Sacred Space: Motherwell, Ferber and Gottlieb, which features Abstract Expressionist art commissioned for a modern synagogue in 1951. In conjunction with the exhibition, The Jewish Museum has borrowed a related contemporary piece, a large-scale color photograph of Beth Sholom Synagogue in Elkins Park, Pennsylvania.  Opened in 1959, Beth Sholom was the only synagogue designed by Frank Lloyd Wright and the last project completed before his death. The photograph, on loan from Sonnabend Gallery in New York, is by German artist Candida Höfer.

Candida Höfer has participated in Documenta 11,  represented Germany at the 2003 Venice Biennial, and has had numerous international solo shows. Her work focuses on the interior spaces of public places, places which tend to be the centers of cultural life, such as libraries, museums, theaters, cafés, and universities. Although her images are often devoid of people, they are filled with an ethereal light and the lingering presence of previous human activity.

In 2007 a local collector invited Höfer to visit Philadelphia and replicate a city-wide photography project she had recently completed in Portugal, spotlighting the city through contemporary art. Fortunately this project also occurred during my former life as a photo assistant, giving me the opportunity to work for an artist I had admired for many years. As the project’s manager, I helped organize the shooting schedule, obtain permissions from the varied locations, arrange accommodations and transportation as well as assist the artist and her team on-site. We spent a solid ten days together shooting in many of Philadelphia’s most iconic buildings, including City Hall, The Masonic Temple, and The Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. An entire day had to be devoted to each location as Candida’s process, although very instinctual, was methodical and deliberate; she only uses available light and large format equipment, requiring long exposures and complete stillness.

Of all of the buildings we spent time in, Beth Sholom certainly stood out. It captivated us because it not only exemplifies an aesthetic not typically found in religious architecture, but was the only space that contained no obvious traces of European influence. The building truly represents a unique and original American design. As I look at the image now, hanging on the wall of the Museum, I am transported back to the day that we spent there. The photograph does more than merely capture what the interior looked like, it recreates what it felt like to be in such a special place. The beauty in Candida’s work is that the image reveals the aura of the space in addition to the physical details. It was an honor and a privilege working with Candida Höfer, and it is a pleasure to have her work on view at The Jewish Museum.

Related Links:
the artblog: Candida Höfer in Philly (September 2007)
Modern Art, Sacred Space: Motherwell, Ferber and Gottlieb

Plan Your Visit:
Beth Sholom Synagogue Philadelphia I
and the exhibition Modern Art, Sacred Space: Motherwell, Ferber and Gottlieb are on view at the Museum through Sunday, August 1, 2010.

Christine McMonagle is currently the Marketing Associate at The Jewish Museum.  She is originally from Philadelphia and has a BFA in Photography from Tyler School of Art, Temple University and a Masters in Museum Communications from the University of the Arts. Her previous work experience includes digital photography & retouching for a commercial photography studio in Philadelphia, communications for the Hirshhorn Museum (WDC), The Institute of Contemporary Arts (Philadelphia), and Philagrafika, the recent and first installation of Philadelphia’s International Festival celebrating print in contemporary art.