The Architecture Of Memory


Two Israeli artists reflect on architecture, memory, place and identity in an exhibition on a stretch of the Lower East Side where buildings are imprinted with Jewish memory and identity.

In “Placing Memory,” Gal Cohen presents large paintings exploring the architectural treasures in her hometown of Hadera that are disappearing due to gentrification. Zac Hacmon’s sculptural work is about fabricated objects or places, using the language of architecture to create a non-place. Both artists graduated from Bezalel Academy of Art and Design in Jerusalem but met in New York; their shared interest in architecture from different angles led to this collaboration.

The gallery is in The Clemente, a 19th-century neo-gothic building on Suffolk and Rivington erected as P.S. 160, attended by waves of immigrant children over more than 70 years. Along Suffolk Street, the tenements and synagogues where their families lived and worshipped have been replaced by sleek apartments and hotels, around the corner from the iconic (and long gone) Heshie’s Toy Store. Now, the Clemente Soto Velez Cultural and Educational Center promotes the cultural diversity of the Lower East Side.

Cohen’s paintings recall lost worlds and the mysteries of collective memory — historical buildings deep with meaning that are no longer, and in one work, a noted but largely forgotten person who was connected to a home that has been conserved.

“Nobody tells these stories,” she tells The Jewish Week, noting interest in the work of New York urbanist and activist Jane Jacobs. “Without knowing the history of a specific place, one cannot be fully present in it.”

Cohen uses painterly strokes of color, layering and richly detailed imagery to beautiful effect, mixing realism and illusion. She worked from archival photos of houses built in Eclectic and International (Bauhaus) styles, like Goldenberg House, which was destroyed to become Hadera’s first shopping mall.

A Study of a Memory” is more abstracted than the others, suggesting demolition, with brightly colored patterns that might be debris. Another piece layers one canvas onto another, depicting a building in the brutalist style that was demolished, with a solitary palm tree.

A pair of long rectangular canvases, each with a row of four panels, represents the historical Hadera home of the Feinbergs, early Zionists who built their house in 1896 (a year earlier than the building housing The Clemente). Avshalom Feinberg, a founding member of the underground resistance movement NILI, was killed at age 28. Cohen celebrates Feinberg’s younger sister, Tzila, whom she regards as “the first Queer woman in Israel.” Tzila, who preferred dressing like a man (and was the first girl in Herziliya High School who dared to wear pants for gym, circa 1910), is seen leaning on her elbow, head in hand, staring out at the viewer, in one canvas. At the far end of the other are her pants-covered legs.

“She fought for seven decades for women’s rights,” Cohen says, adding that as a lesbian she has found inspiration in Tzila’s life. 

Unlike the other Hadera buildings represented, Beit Feinberg still stands, now a museum and café. Tzila’s daughter Tamar Eshel, 98, is a former Israeli politician and diplomat.

Although Cohen’s works are specific, she notes that “they speak to a way broader content of collective memory and history that is relevant to everyone.”

We try to create a dialogue or global phenomenon that relates to the preservation of history.

While Cohen draws on memory, Hacmon manipulates it, generating “a new collective memory through the creation of new architecture.” He explores the idea of places without history or identity, using clean, smooth surfaces — the white square ceramic tiles used in institutional architecture — and stainless-steel bars.

All of Hacmon’s striking sculptures were made in relation to Clemente’s historical space. His “Fruitful Anxiety” is a multi-level concave structure, leaning at an angle, that looks both familiar and unplaceable. He explains, “There is contradiction and conflict coming out through its color, form and function.”

“I’m trying to explore the present and the super modernity,” he says. About the “conversation” between his work and Cohen’s, he says, “There is time relation in our work, between past and present, such as that which no longer exists to something that invades and occupies. We try to create a dialogue or global phenomenon that relates to the preservation of history.”

Placing Memory” is at The Clemente, 107 Suffolk St., through July 28.