Jewish artist Tobi Kahn mounts a site-specific retrospective at the Museum at Eldridge Street


(New York Jewish Week) – Throughout his multi-decade career, the sculptor and painter Tobi Kahn has found inspiration for his art everywhere. His work reflects responses to major news events — like a cracked bronze vessel that represents the destruction of the Twin Towers on 9/11 — to pieces that honor loved ones’ wishes, like a wooden havdalah spice box that Kahn carved in the shape of a rocket ship at the request of his young son. 

And now, with a new exhibition, “Memory and Inheritance: Paintings and Ceremonial Objects by Tobi Kahn,” currently on view at the Museum at Eldridge Street, Kahn is reflecting on the breadth and depth of the last several decades of his career. Featuring some 50 works and objects, the show is also an overview of what has inspired him throughout his life, from his own personal memories to those collectively inherited by the Jewish people.

Kahn’s work notably tackles questions of faith, relationships with God and the Torah, the diversity of the Jewish experience. But, at the same time, he homes in on very personal memories: a ray of sunlight he observed beaming down on pebbles atop his mother’s grave; the rainforest during family trip to Costa Rica; the flowers he saw while visiting Woods Hole, Massachusetts.

“It’s so exciting to see not one year of my work, but many years of my work — and we picked all the art to relate to this space,” Kahn, 72, told the New York Jewish Week of the exhibition at the museum’s home, the historic Eldridge Street Synagogue. “I’m very excited to work in a Jewish institution that I’m really interested in and I’m thrilled that a place that looks this beautiful would do a show of my work.”

“Memory and Inheritance” is Kahn’s first solo exhibition in his New York City hometown in more than a decade. Kahn — whose work has been shown in more than 70 solo exhibitions around the world — said showcasing his work at a synagogue was “very important to him.”  

“I love Eldridge Street. If I was going to do something in an institution that is a synagogue, this is the only one I’d ever do,” said Kahn, who is also a lecturer at New York’s School of Visual Arts. “It’s an amazing place. Eldridge Street, to me, is it’s history — I love that this is a history of becoming American Jews and includes all different types of Jews.”

The art in the exhibit is in conversation with the space itself. Mezuzahs created by Kahn are posted on the doorframes of the restored building, which dates to 1887, while a seder plate painted in “t’chelet,” a light blue color that can signify healing, is prominently displayed at the entrance to the museum. It  matches the blue in the sanctuary’s extraordinary stained glass windows by the artist Kiki Smith and architect Deborah Gans.

Bonnie Dimun, The Museum at Eldridge Street’s executive director, said in a press release that Kahn’s exhibit “embodies one of the Museum’s primary goals — to inspire reflection and cultural exchange among people of all faiths. The interplay between Tobi Kahn’s distinctly modern odes to memory and our historic synagogue building is truly special.” 

Left: Kahn’s “Sky and Water” paintings, painted in 2020. Right: AH-PAHL, painted in 2014. (Courtesy of the Museum at Eldridge Street)

The exhibit includes half a dozen never-before-seen items, like a lopsided Magen David meant to represent diversity and feelings of isolation within the Jewish community, and a sleek mahogany baby-naming chair, inspired by those he made for his children. It also includes some of Kahn’s most well-known pieces, like his wooden Omer counters — which track the 49-day period between the second Passover seder and the start of Shavuot — and his “Sky and Water” paintings, which are two-toned paintings of different shades of blue meant to depict the water meeting the sky — and heaven meeting earth.  

Despite his own interpretations of the world and personal memories deeply informing his art, “I don’t believe the work of art is complete until the viewer has a conversation with it,” Kahn said.

“I would like viewers to see what they see — I’m really not interested in dogma, and I’m more interested in the viewer’s experience than my own” he added. “I only want to create a space where viewers feel better about themselves and the world after they leave.”

“Memory and Inheritance: Paintings and Ceremonial Objects by Tobi Kahn” is on view at the Museum at Eldridge Street (12 Eldridge St.) through Nov. 10.