(c) Connecticut Explored Inc. Winter 2018-2019
As a boy growing up in the North End of Hartford during World War II, Elbert Weinberg dreamed of becoming an artist—more specifically, a sculptor. His mother, Rose, helped him gain admission to night classes at the Hartford Art School when he was just 14. There he studied with Henry Kreis, who had emigrated from Germany during the 1930s to escape persecution by the Nazis.
After graduating from Weaver High School in 1945, Weinberg went on to earn his B.A. at the Rhode Island School of Design, where his mentor was Waldemar Raemisch, another refugee from Nazi Germany. These teachers provided Weinberg with a solid grounding in the European figurative tradition, with its emphasis on life drawing and a solid knowledge of human anatomy. Weinberg also studied art history and wrote papers about Roman and medieval sculpture, which he knew from books and from visits to Hartford’s Wadsworth Atheneum and other museums. In 1951 he won the prestigious Rome Prize from the American Academy in Rome, which enabled him to spend two years at the academy and to continue his studies surrounded by great works of art from antiquity through the Renaissance. Italy had a strong tradition of public art—particularly fountains and monuments—reaching back to Roman times. Weinberg’s years in Rome confirmed his admiration for the art of the past and his belief that art should be an integral part of the human experience.
Weinberg returned from Rome to pursue a master’s degree at the Yale School of Design under Joseph Albers. (See story, page 26.) Like Kreis and Raemisch, Albers had fled Nazi Germany. Unlike them, he was a fervent proponent of modernism and abstraction. He taught and worked at the Bauhaus until the Nazis closed it down, and he was instrumental in bringing the Bauhaus style to the United States. Albers was known as an inspiring teacher, but as Weinberg soon discovered and later explained in an oral history interview in the Jewish Historical Society of Greater Hartford, he could be difficult and demanding. He didn’t want his students to produce mere imitations of his own work, but he did expect them to approach their work intellectually, without recourse to intuition or inspiration.
Under Albers the Yale School of Design became a hotbed of modernism, and Weinberg simply didn’t fit in. Weinberg explained in the oral history that he felt that his teachers and fellow students were trying to convert him, and he struggled to come to terms with this new direction in art. In the end, he simply couldn’t do it. Working alone in his New Haven studio, he began producing monumental figures holding religious objects relating to the Jewish liturgy: Torah scrolls, Bibles, and shofars, the ceremonial rams’ horns used on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.
Henry Kreis, Weinberg’s first teacher, brought these works to the attention of Alfred Barr, director of the Museum of Modern Art in New York. The museum purchased Weinberg’s Ritual Figure No. 1 in 1957. That same year, the plaster model for Procession No. 1, a group of four ritual figures measuring almost 10 feet tall, was exhibited at the Whitney Museum of American Art. The group was purchased by the Jewish Museum, cast in bronze, and in 1959 installed in the museum’s sculpture garden in a prominent location visible from Fifth Avenue. It was, in effect, Weinberg’s first large-scale public sculpture. Barr, who spoke at the dedication of the sculpture, told how a woman passing by on the sidewalk stopped to tell him how much she liked the sculpture and that she was going to enjoy walking past it every day. This was exactly what Weinberg wanted. In his 1955 Yale master’s thesis he had written that public sculpture should be a part of people’s daily lives, like the fountains of Renaissance Rome and the monuments of ancient Athens.
The 1960s were a heady period for American architecture and urban design. Many cities, including Hartford, tried to reinvent themselves, razing landmark districts and erecting blocks of modern buildings and vast empty plazas. Weinberg, still in his 30s, was at the height of his popularity and critical acclaim. Working with Joseph Amisano, a young architect he had met at the American Academy in Rome who was working in Atlanta, Georgia, and John Portman, another Atlanta architect, Weinberg designed sculptures for Lenox Square and the Peachtree Center, two of Atlanta’s first shopping malls. He sought to introduce a human scale into these modern cityscapes. In his Yale master’s thesis, Weinberg had stated his belief that the human sensibility does not seek to be overwhelmed by forces and sizes beyond intellectual comprehension and physical comfort. Human dignity and warmth is found precisely in the comprehensible and the vital. Vitality itself is inherent in growing, non-static architectural complexes in organically conceived arrangements…. [public sculpture]may provide the transition between corporate building enterprise on a vast scale and the subtle qualities of beauty which lend perspective to individual existence and aspiration.
Many but not all of Weinberg’s public sculptures were intimate in scale. When Amisano was hired to renovate the Federal Reserve Bank in Atlanta, he engaged Weinberg to design a monumental bronze eagle for the building’s façade. Weinberg had returned to Rome on a Guggenheim fellowship, and the 3,300-pound eagle with its 16-foot wingspan was cast in an Italian foundry and shipped to Atlanta. It soon became a beloved public icon. When the Federal Reserve Bank moved to new quarters in 2001, Weinberg’s Eagle moved with it, and it remains a monumental presence on Peachtree Street.
Weinberg collaborated with John Portman throughout his career, contributing sculptures to two of Portman’s major projects in San Francisco in the 1980s. Mistral was installed in Portman’s Embarcadero Center in San Francisco in 1982. A seemingly abstract composition, it is an attempt to give concrete form to the cold strong wind of the Mediterranean. The original Mistral was one of three sculptures depicting winds that Weinberg created in his Roman studio in the 1960s. Its swirling forms recall the water studies of Leonardo da Vinci. For the Embarcadero Center, Weinberg enlarged the original composition to 13 feet and had it cast in bronze.
In 1986 Weinberg created a second bronze sculpture, Joie de Danse, for the Portman Hotel, now the J.B. Marriott Union Square San Francisco, where the seven-foot-tall dancing women continue to serve as the centerpiece of a fountain in the lobby. Similar women are featured in Rites of Spring, designed for Suntrust Plaza, another Portman project in Atlanta, completed in 1991, the year of Weinberg’s death.
Weinberg’s earliest success had been with sculptures of Jewish ritual figures, and he continued to explore Jewish subject matter throughout his career. Two of his largest sculptures, a pair of monumental nine-foot shofar blowers, were commissioned in 1969 for the grounds of Rockdale Temple in Cincinnati, Ohio. Smaller sculptures of Jewish subjects were sold through dealers and purchased by other temples and private collectors. In 1979 the Jewish Federation of Delaware commissioned a Holocaust memorial for Freedom Plaza in downtown Wilmington. Surrounded by modern office buildings, Freedom Plaza is a product of urban renewal, the kind of empty urban space that Weinberg sought to humanize.
Unlike the other mostly abstract sculpture in the plaza, the Holocaust Memorial is immediately arresting. Three life-sized bronze human figures are trapped between towering concrete blocks inscribed with the names of concentration camps. While one figure, a mother holding a child, symbolizes hope for the future, two male figures representing a Warsaw Ghetto resistance fighter and a concentration camp victim are shown in postures of extreme anguish. The concrete blocks may suggest overwhelming forces, but the three figures, though suffering, refuse to be overwhelmed and invite the viewer to identify with them. Their intimate human scale and the fact that the viewer can walk right up to them and even beneath them add to their devastating impact. Freedom Plaza continues to serve as a venue for rallies and protests, and the Holocaust Memorial provides a setting for annual services commemorating the more than six million Jews who perished under the German Nazis.
Even while he was in Italy, Weinberg retained close connections with his native Hartford, with his family, and with the local Jewish community, which largely left the center city for the suburbs in the 1960s. In 1975 Jack Schulman and the brothers Arnold and Leonard Greenberg commissioned a group of ritual figures, including a rabbi holding Torah scrolls and other figures holding a Bible and blowing shofars, for Temple Beth El in West Hartford. Procession No. 2 is prominently situated in front of the temple on Albany Avenue, clearly visible to motorists as they drive by. The simple and monumental forms can be easily comprehended from a distance and from a moving vehicle. Weinberg felt that these figures were more dynamic than those in the earlier procession, suitable to their dramatic and somewhat unconventional setting. The group was meant to be seen from different angles and is effective both from a distance when seen by passing motorists, or close-up, by walking past them or walking around them. Despite their imposing presence when viewed from a distance, the figures are more detailed and have more realistic and expressive features than their counterparts in Procession No. 1. They repay close study, though many people see them only from a distance.
By the late 1970s Weinberg was back living and working in Hartford. In a manuscript “Capsule Biography,” now in the Hartford History Center, he claimed that “Hartford is where the work is done.” The city was still undergoing urban renewal and was a very different place from the community where Weinberg had grown up. It now had its share of vast empty plazas that Weinberg saw as potential settings for works of art. His sketchbooks are full of ideas for fountains and sculptures, and he proposed several art projects for the city, including a pair of monumental heads to be placed on the plaza outside the Aetna Insurance Company. None of these designs for downtown Hartford were ever executed, but in 1981 Weinberg received an important commission for a monumental public sculpture from the Jewish Community Center in West Hartford.
The Holocaust Memorial in front of the Jewish Community Center in West Hartford is very different from the memorial on Freedom Plaza in Wilmington, Delaware. The committee responsible for Weinberg’s commission wanted a monument that would be inspiring, not depressing, and the sculpture Weinberg created is a potent symbol of the triumphant rebirth of the Jewish people in the aftermath of the Holocaust. A pair of giant steel arms measuring 18 feet high appears to be emerging from the earth, holding aloft a gigantic shofar. Each arm bears the number of a local concentration camp inmate, one of them representing a victim and one a survivor. The overall form of the sculpture resembles the Hebrew wordforlife; the arched form also suggests the triumphal arches of ancient Rome, which Weinberg knew from his years in Italy. Although very different in conception from the memorial in Wilmington, like that memorial, the West Hartford Holocaust Memorialalso serves as a focus for its community, a place where people come together to remember those who died under the Nazis and to celebrate the enduring presence of the Jewish faith.
In 1988, toward the end of Weinberg’s life, one of his proposals received an award in Art for All, a contest sponsored by The Hartford Courant, and was purchased for the City of Hartford with funds donated by TheCourant. Although more abstract than Weinberg’s earlier works, the sculpture’s shining steel forms still evoke forms drawn from nature. An early model for the sculpture was calledTropicale, and while the final work was officially untitled, it was—and is—commonly known as Pickles and Palm Trees.
Weinberg hoped to see the sculpture installed in one of Hartford’s parks and made drawings showing it beside the pond in Elizabeth Park, with people walking beneath it. However, the city could not decide on a location for the piece, and it remained in storage at the time of the sculptor’s death. In 1992 it was finally installed in Minuteman Park, at the intersection of Capitol Avenue and Broad Street, which it shares with the Connecticut State Veterans Memorial. At an impromptu gathering at its installation, The Hartford Courant’s publisher, Raymond A. Janson, rejoiced “that a project that was started a number of years ago has finally been completed, so that the people in Hartford can enjoy not only the sculpture, but also the knowledge that it is a creation of a Hartford artist of world renown.” The park lies between the Connecticut State Armory and the Legislative Office Building and serves as a meeting point for parades and demonstrations. Weinberg’s sculpture is clearly visible to motorists driving by on Capitol Avenue or stopped at the stoplight.
In 2013 the Weinberg Trust donated the sculptor’s personal and business papers, a large group of his prints and drawings, and a comprehensive series of photographs documenting his sculpture to the Hartford History Center at the Hartford Public Library. The donation also included several pieces of sculpture, which are now on public view in the library. This seems especially appropriate since one of Weinberg’s earliest works, created while he was still an art student, was a relief panel for the Albany Avenue branch of the Hartford Public Library, which had just opened in Hartford’s North End.
The Elbert Weinberg Collection is now fully catalogued, and a detailed finding aid is available on the Hartford History Center’s website: hhc.hplct.org/. More than 1,000 images of sculptures, prints, drawings, and photographs have been digitized and added to the Hartford History Center’s Digital Repository. Some of these trace the evolution of Weinberg’s ideas for specific sculptures, while others show the sculptor’s work in progress, the building of models and armatures, and the casting, finishing, and installation of the works themselves. A series of color slides documents the installation of the Holocaust Memorialat the Jewish Community Center in West Hartford.
The Elbert Weinberg Collection at the Hartford Public Library provided the basis for In the Grand Tradition: The Enduring Art of Elbert Weinberg, a celebration of Weinberg’s life and work published by the library in conjunction with Wesleyan University Press in 2018. The book, which includes two interpretative essays, a brief biography of the artist, and numerous illustrations, was made possible by generous donations from the Weinberg Trust and many others, including Arnold Greenberg and the members of Weinberg’s 1945 Weaver High School class.
As a young man, Elbert Weinberg dreamed of creating modern Renaissance cities, where public sculpture would be part of the daily experience of ordinary Americans. But modern America is not Renaissance Rome or ancient Athens, and modern American cities are not, by and large, friendly places for pedestrians. To experience Weinberg’s monumental presence in the greater Hartford area, it is best to get in a car and drive down Bloomfield Avenue to the Jewish Community Center, continue west on Albany Avenue to Temple Beth El, and return to Hartford on Capitol Avenue, passing by Pickles and Palm Trees on the corner of Broad Street. To see additional works by Weinberg visit the Hartford Public Library or the New Britain Museum of American Art, where other sculptures are on view.
Nancy Finlay is the author of In the Grand Tradition: The Enduring Art of Elbert Weinberg. She is an independent curator and researcher and works part time in the Hartford History Center. She last wrote “Richard Welling: Hartford’s Artist Historian,” Fall 2014.