Lynda Caspe – Biblical Reliefs and Cityscapes

Lynda Caspe – Biblical Reliefs and Cityscapes
On view September 22, 2013–January 5, 2014

Lynda Caspe and Susan Chevlowe, Director, Derfner Judaica Museum
A Conversation

Susan Chevlowe: What inspired you to begin the biblical scenes? And why in relief sculpture?

Lynda Caspe: I was asked to curate an exhibition for the Synagogue for the Arts in Lower Manhattan. The theme was supposed to be scenes from the Bible. I told the Synagogue I would love to organize the show on the condition that I could participate as well. They agreed. At first I wanted to do a three-dimensional sculpture, but they told me that they couldn’t have sculpture in their gallery. It was then that I thought of creating relief sculpture. The idea intrigued me because I both paint and sculpt and I saw it as a way to combine the two in various ways.

SC: It was the first time you had taken on biblical subject matter. How did you approach this challenge?

LC: The idea of working from the Bible was thrust upon me, but as I began to figure out what I wanted to do with the stories, I realized that I didn’t understand them. I went to the Rabbi of the synagogue and told him my problem. He gave me a book of commentaries, which made all the difference. I fell in love with the stories and their interpretations. For instance, I just finished the relief, The Story of Adam and Eve. I had always thought that the sin the first man and the first woman committed was that they disobeyed God when they ate the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of good and evil. But after reading the commentary, I realized that eating the apple also describes something essential in the character of human beings that has been there almost from the beginning. By consuming the apple, Adam and Eve internalized both good and evil. The story describes the most important and the most basic struggle of our human nature, a struggle between good and evil that continues in every human being today.

SC: Elsewhere, you’ve mentioned that Will Barnet once commented to you that your landscape paintings are devoid of people, and in your biblical reliefs there is a surfeit of figures. Were you surprised by his remark and what insight did it give you into your own work?

LC: Yes, Will Barnet did mention that my landscapes and cityscapes were devoid of people and that my sculptures, both the three-dimensional work and the reliefs, were all about people. I was surprised by his remark, but I realized immediately that it was true. Some of this has to do with the demands of the two mediums. In painting, the space that is created is illusionary and flattened because it has to relate to the flat canvas. One can indicate three-dimensional space, but at the same time the painter has to reaffirm the flat canvas. An important thing that painting has that sculpture doesn’t is color. Even if the artist paints his sculpture, color on a three-dimensional surface is not the same as color on a flat surface. Color on a flat surface can create the illusion of space, can excite other colors on the canvas, can create mood and can capture and hold the viewer in a way that color on a three-dimensional surface cannot. The human body does not immediately bring color to mind, but it does make me think of touch and form and how different three-dimensional forms relate to each other in space.

Cain and Abel
Cain and Abel, bronze, 2007, 11½  x 9¼  inches

SC: In some of the first reliefs that you worked on, you cut away from the wax to model the scenes. In these, there is almost a more subtle and classical progression of space, and then in others you worked in an additive process (for example, in Cain and Abel), sometimes modeling the figures in the round and casting them separately. How did the different strategies evolve?

LC: The very first relief I did was The Binding of Isaac. From the very beginning, I wanted to show the whole scene: Abraham, the trees, Isaac bound, the donkey, and the angel who stopped Abraham. I was interested in having parts of the figures reaching out into the three-dimensional world that we all inhabit. The head and shoulders of Abraham are almost completely conceived in the round, but the other figures are not. The trees are the smallest and least developed. I was interested in translating what could have been a composition in painting into a composition in sculpture, where I didn’t have to relate the three-dimensional aspects of the composition to the flat picture plane. I also created the figures for the relief of Cain and Abel separately. I took them off the base and held them in my hands while I carved them.

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The Binding of Isaac, 2007, bronze, 12 x 19 inches

SC: Do you feel the two different strategies contribute in different ways to how you interpreted each story—a bas-relief versus something that approaches sculpture in the round?

LC: If the story specifically involves just the figures and less of the scene around the figures, the chances are that I would tend to make the figures more three-dimensional. In The Story of Adam and Eve relief, for example, the snake became very important to me and became more three-dimensional as a result. Jonah is portrayed more three-dimensionally than anything else in The Story of Jonah for a similar reason.

Franklin Street in Winter
Franklin Street Roof in Winter, 2008, oil on linen,
17 x 21 inches

SC: Let’s talk about the cityscapes—how did you come to paint them? How do they express your relationship to the city?

LC: I love using color in painting. The fact that so many buildings are painted different colors is a wonderful opportunity to observe the way the sun affects the color of the buildings in full sun and also in shade. The sky and clouds and the trees that line the streets allow me to deal with the way light affects nature at the same time. I paint out of windows and the relationship of the color and shapes outside to what happens inside the room I am painting in also intrigues me.

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Buildings by the Park, 2009, oil on linen, 54 x 45 inches

SC: You’ve also spoken in the past about your interest in action, which is evident in the reliefs. The action of the sculpture contrasts with the stillness and emptiness of your cityscapes. Can you elaborate on this?

LC: The action of the sculpture has to do with the energy of the humans or animals I portray. That is why I like drawing or sculpting men fighting or a horse rearing up. I am interested in the energy they exude.


SC: The Story of Cain and Abel has a particularly complex composition. Can you explain the story and why figures are repeated? How does it reflect the influence of Lorenzo Ghiberti, for example? Also, the composition is unique for the series—with one figure literally balanced on the top edge outside the frame. How did that come about?

LC: In the famous early Renaissance reliefs of Ghiberti in Florence, he repeats the figures over and over in the same piece in order to tell the story. Being able to do that freed me. For The Story of Cain and Abel relief, I drew a simple sketch to clarify my ideas of how to organize it. It was all about the relationship of the brothers and I carved them almost all separately or together away from the relief base. Then I placed them on the base in different positions. In the end I had a figure left over. Among other things, this story is about jealousy and what a deadly emotion it is. It occurred to me that having Cain crawl across the top of the frame to attack his brother was an interesting idea. When I placed the figure on the top, it seemed to work, and I was happy with the way it looked so I left it there.

Joseph in the Pit
Joseph in the Pit, 2012, bronze, 19 x 14 inches

SC: Though they are very different mediums, color plays important roles in both series (the cityscapes and biblical scenes). In the reliefs, the nuanced tonalities of the bronze and varying patinas have a role in how space is perceived and in shaping other expressive effects, like the radiating gold background in Joseph in the Pit; and in the canvases the pulsing colors play a similar role both constructing space and conveying a mood. How do you see color in your work and what is your relationship to it?

LC: My paintings and my sculpture are really about different things, although since I am so sensitive to color that interest comes out in both. There is no way that I can really express my love of color in sculpture, which is why I have to do both.

About the Artist

Lynda Caspe began the biblical reliefs based on familiar episodes from the Bible in 2007. She has been influenced by interpretations of these stories by the medieval commentator Rashi and other classic and contemporary Rabbinic commentators. Inspired by early Italian Renaissance cast bronze reliefs, Caspe’s modernist practice is evident in the roughness of fish and her emphasis on process. The exhibition in the Derfner Judaica Museum is comprised of 12 reliefs, related drawings and one of her wax maquettes.

A concurrent exhibition of 14 cityscapes is on view in the Gilbert Pavilion Gallery. Most of the paintings offer rooftop views painted from a window. The buildings appear packed tightly together in a shallow space. Unlike the grandeur of more typical skyline views, in these compositions, Caspe offers humble, yet familiar, scenes in colors that reflect the city’s changing light and atmosphere.

A painter, sculptor and published poet, Lynda Caspe was born and raised in New York City, and has lived in Tribeca in Lower Manhattan since 1974. She graduated from the University of Chicago in 1961 and earned an M.F.A. in painting at the University of Iowa in 1964. In the 1960s, she studied printmaking with Stanley William Hayter at Atelier 17 in Paris, and painting and sculpture at the New York Studio School with Esteban Vicente and George Spaventa. In 1969 she was a co-founder of the Bowery Gallery and was its director from 2001 to 2010.

Her work has been exhibited in one-person exhibitions at Sovereign/Santander Bank; Bowery Gallery; Gallery of Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer, and other New York City galleries. She has also been included in group exhibitions at Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum; The Philadelphia Museum of Jewish Art; Sideshow Gallery; Hudson Guild; SOHO20 Gallery; A.I.R. Gallery; Salomon Arts Gallery; Phyllis Harriman Mason Gallery of the Art Students League of New York; Westbeth Gallery, and the Tribeca Synagogue for the Arts, among other venues. Her work has been shown internationally at Institute of Contemporary Art, London, and the Museum of Contemporary Art, Oslo. Caspe was on the faculty of Borough of Manhattan Community College from 1978-2013, and has taught at Parsons School of Design, the University of Alberta and the University of Chicago.

Caspe is a member of the Federation of Modern Painters and Sculptors and was its co-president in 2005 and 2006. She has been the recipient of grants from the Memorial Foundation for Jewish Culture and the Professional Staff Congress, Union of the City University. She also received a New York State Creative Artist Public Service (CAPS) grant and a Yaddo Fellowship.

Header: The Judgment of Solomon, 2011, bronze, 19 x 24 inches; Rooftops, Summer, 2008, oil on linen, 16 x 20 inches

This text is originally appeared in the brochure produced in conjunction with the exhibitions Lynda Caspe–Biblical Reliefs and Cityscapes on view in the Derfner Judaica Museum and the Elma and Milton A. Gilbert Pavilion Gallery, September 22, 2013–January 5, 2014.

About the Hebrew Home at Riverdale

As a member of the American Alliance of Museums, the Hebrew Home at Riverdale by RiverSpring Health is committed to publicly exhibiting its art collection throughout its 32-acre campus, including the Derfner Judaica Museum and a sculpture garden overlooking the Hudson River and Palisades. The Derfner Judaica Museum + The Art Collection provides educational and cultural programming for residents of the Hebrew Home, their families and the general public from throughout New York City, its surrounding suburbs and visitors from elsewhere.  RiverSpring Health is a nonprofit, non-sectarian geriatric organization serving more than 18,000 older adults in greater New York through its resources and community service programs. Museum hours: Sunday–Thursday, 10:30 a.m.–4:30 p.m. Art Collection and grounds open daily, 10:30 a.m.–4:30 p.m.

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Hebrew Home at Riverdale
5901 Palisade Avenue
Riverdale, New York 10471
Tel. 718.581.1596

dclaLogo_color_2This exhibition is supported, in part, by public funds from the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs in partnership with the City Council.