This blog post was written by Hester Milford.
I recently ventured to the Lower East Side neighborhood I grew up in to see the Milton Resnick and Pat Passlof Foundation at 87 Eldridge Street. I was there to check out the exhibition True Fictions, curated by art dealer Eric Brown. I was intrigued by both the artwork, which included works by Thomas Nozkowski and Jane Freilicher, and the history of the building itself. Once a traditional tenement, it was converted into a synagogue, then artist studio, and since 2018 it has been home to the Milton Resnick and Pat Passloff Foundation. The beautifully preserved building reflects a century worth of changes in the neighborhood and, though updated, still holds testament to its original use and character.
Even before entering, I noticed striking remnants of the synagogue that the Foundation’s architects Ryall Sheridan had left untouched. I craned my neck to look up at the original window frames that I imagined once held a beautiful array of colored glass and saw the star of David adorning the building’s smooth white brick exterior. Even more telling was the Hebrew lettering inscribed on a square plaque housed in between the two windows which revealed the name of the synagogue’s congregation: B’nai Tifereth Yerushalayim, or Sons of the Glory of Jerusalem.
However, once inside the building and past the elegant facade, vestiges of the synagogue were hard to find. Instead, white walls, spotless floors, and LED track lights illuminated a collection of 16 paintings by Thomas Nozkowski and Jane Freilcher.
After climbing the stairs to the second floor, it became clear that along with creating a functional new gallery space, the preservation of historic details was also important to the architects of the Foundation. The building was not just a tenement and then synagogue but had been a home and studio for artist Milton Resnick. Here the open, airy gallery space was the setting for several of Resnick’s pieces. These dark, heavy canvases with thick, accumulated layers of brown and gray paint and the occasional speckling of subtle dabs of color made quite the impression. His work was reminiscent of fellow heavy-hitting Abstract Expressionist artists like Jackson Pollock, who painted on monumentally scaled canvases. According to its website, the Foundation is “dedicated to the exhibition, publication, and preservation of works by painters Milton Resnick (1917-2004) and Pat Passlof (1928-2011), as well as other painters working in the Abstract Expressionist tradition.”
Despite the differences in each artist’s style and genre – Frelicher is known for her landscapes and object realism while conversely Nozkowski for his abstraction – they interacted well with one another and shared some aesthetically pleasing commonalities. I was drawn immediately to one of Nozkowski’s untitled paintings, a hazy blue cloud surrounded by squares of light yellow and orange paint. Directly next to it was Frelicher’s rectangular flower pot, which was a similar shade of dark blue, emboldened by a faintly yellow and orange cityscape. Nozkowski acknowledged this similarity himself, and is quoted saying in an interview with the New York Times that his recent work “reminded him, after the fact, of Jane Freilicher’s paintings of objects on window sills.”
But, there’s more than just Resnick’s art to marvel at on this floor. Look closely at the second-floor gallery, and you will see hints of the skeleton of the synagogue. The large horseshoe-shaped windows with rosette forms that let the sun in were typical of synagogues of the late nineteenth and early-twentieth century. They reminded me of some of the windows at the Museum at Eldridge Street, though on a less grand scale. An exposed brick wall and wooden beams along the ceiling hint at the former ezras nashim, the balcony space where women once worshipped.
Ascending to the third floor, there was a selection of paintings by Pat Passloff. Her paintings deviate from Milton’s in that they depict recognizable landscapes and have more expressions of color. Yet, these woodland works still have an unsettling way about them and similarly evoke the gestures of the painter.
As in any adaptation project, The Foundation has had to meld their preservation philosophy with modern necessity. To ensure the space was accessible for gallery-goers and employees, improvements were made to the building’s infrastructure, including the installation of an elevator and a sophisticated climate-control system. Back in the early 1900s, there would have been no modern-day air conditioning, making the building hard to inhabit. Artist Pat Passloff’s parents called the place a “rat’s hole” when they moved in. This was during the 1960s, when the neighborhood was rougher and didn’t have the trendy galleries and art scene of today. These HVAC upgrades are akin to those made during the restoration of the Museum at Eldridge Street, making a historic landmark comfortable and accessible to all. For a building that displays works of art, climate control is even more essential.
The third floor with Passlof’s paintings also held a further key to connecting the past with the present: the preservation of Milton Resnick’s ‘Small Studio,’ a closet-sized space that was left entirely untouched following Resnick’s death in 2004. In Resnick’s later years of life, crippling arthritis left him unable to paint on large-scale canvases that he is so well-known for, and he moved to this tiny studio. The room is remarkable. It showcases many of his unfinished works, little sculptures, paint splatters across the wall, cans and jars. Unnervingly, there is even a pair of slippers he has left behind.
I was reminded of one of my favorites elements of the Eldridge Street Synagogue: the indentations in its wooden floor boards that have been warped from over a century of use. Rather than repairing or replacing the wood, the Museum at Eldridge Street chose to preserve this worn element — a ghostly reminder of the synagogue’s earliest worshippers. Both the Museum at Eldridge Street and the Milton Resnick and Pat Passloff Foundation are just two wonderful examples of how the Lower East Side and the City is home to a rich and diverse history that we’re lucky we can still walk in and out of in our daily lives.
People before us make their imprint on the world and on our buildings. These are worthy of preservation. Some day, we too may leave evidence of the lives we have led behind.
Writer Hester Milford is a recent Arizona State University graduate living in Brooklyn.