Special Online Project
90 works, 90 weeks, 90 years
In 2022, the Tel Aviv Museum of Art will turn 90.
The Square marks this milestone with a serial tribute to the Museum’s collection — both its familiar, iconic works and the ones that are usually unseen.
Every week, over ninety weeks, one work from the collection will be displayed on the Square page for each of the Museum’s ninety years, in ascending chronological order from 1932, the year the Museum opened, through 2022.
Over time, the pages of the Square will form a kind of an episodic exhibition of ninety installments. The story that will gradually unfold is one of a museum as seen through the history of its collection, which indirectly is also that of art from the early twentieth century to the present day.
The Live Square
There is also a Live Square, its boundaries outlined on the marble floor of the entrance hall to the Museum’s Main Building, measuring 8.40×8.40 meters. It is surrounded by a wide, open, high, and mostly square space, intersected by three diagonals, that has long since been referred to as iconic. Within this square outline, surrounded by a sound box of Brutalist architecture, various performances, presentations, meetings, and conversations will be held.
Sometimes one needs nothing more than a Square — preferably in a good location.
Announcements about the Live Square activities will be posted here.
The year is 1932. A new museum is being opened in Tel Aviv, in Paris they are celebrating what Hemingway would later call “A Moveable Feast.” There are two people sitting in the wagon on Blvd. Saint-Jacques: a fortune teller, perhaps a gypsy, and in front of her an elegant woman, her hat worn slightly at an angle, in the rakish fashion of the time. The walls of the wagon are adorned with Japanese paintings, and from the particular angle at which Brassaï photographed this intimate moment — of a woman seeking to know what the future holds in store for her — a painted Japanese warrior appears to be emerging from the woman’s hat; it seems like a second, prosthetic head, exotic but also foreboding. On the tablecloth, next to various Far Eastern paraphernalia, is a deck of cards, for the fortune teller’s use when forecasting the future for her customers. In the meantime, she holds the woman’s palm, and is examining it with a magnifying glass. What does she see? Love? Money? Happiness? Does she see war on the horizon? Occupation? Does she see even a hint of everything we already know about the future of 1932? Brassaï’s Paris is still far from all of that. It is reveling in the freedom proclaimed by Surrealism, drawn to mysticism and exoticism, and celebrating being the center of the art world. In the frozen moment of this photograph, the Japanese warriors painted on the walls of the wagon are the only harbingers of what is about to happen — which we recognize only in hindsight. The future of the twentieth century is imminent, and the journey to the Square is also beginning, with a fortune teller reading a woman’s palm.
Nothing in the casual title — Woman in an Armchair — or in the formal exploration that spurred its creation reveals the dramatic circumstances of the work’s arrival at the Tel Aviv Museum. Circumstances that are already emphatically present here, which Brassaï’s gypsy fortune teller did not probably see in the cards (see “The Square” 1932). On January 30, 1933, Hitler was appointed German Chancellor, in March that year the first concentration camp was established in Dachau, followed immediately by harsh legislation against the Jews — and in November 1933, some five hundred works of art were dispatched, furtively, from Berlin to Tel Aviv, like refugees. Among them were thirty sculptures, reliefs, paintings, and drawings by Alexander Archipenko, a Ukrainian artist who had lived in Paris between 1908 and 1923, where he developed his artistic style: Cubist, colorful, on the cusp between figurative and abstract. Erich Goeritz, a Jewish art collector and textile manufacturer from Berlin, was the owner of the hundreds of works that arrived here in late 1933. He was one of the first collectors to respond to the call of Dr. Karl Schwartz, who arrived in Tel Aviv in June and was appointed director of the Tel Aviv Museum. Schwartz’s arrival marked the beginning of the Berlin–Tel Aviv route on which the Museum’s collection was based: he recommended to Jewish collectors to send their art collections for safekeeping at the Museum to save them from what might happen — and ultimately did. Fortunately — for the Museum, for Goeritz, and for Archipenko — the works arrived in Tel Aviv in time, and safely. Goeritz himself moved with his family to London, where he died in 1955. Archipenko had already left Europe for the United States in 1923, leaving behind most of his works. The corpus of his work that Goeritz had purchased and became part of the Museum’s collection is a rare encapsulation of his early, groundbreaking work, whose history is part of the tragic events of the first half of the twentieth century.
Meanwhile, in Paris. Still Paris. In the summer of 1934, the motif of “The Mysterious Baths” first appeared in Giorgio De Chirico’s work, in ten lithographs that he published in Paris for a collection of Jean Cocteau’s poems titled Mythologie. The Museum’s collection contains three prints of this series — which is mythical, magical, and shrouded in mystery. Even when de Chirico’s images seem to be readily recognizable — people bathing in the sea, for example — there is something enigmatic about them. The image of the baths originated in de Chirico’s childhood memories from his hometown of Volos in Greece, on the Aegean coast, where huts on wooden stilts were ranged along the seaside, serving as changing stalls for bathers, accessed by wooden ladders. But that’s just a literal description. In years to come, de Chirico described the wonder that he felt at the sight of these changing huts planted in the water, into which smartly dressed people entered, fully attired, and completely other people emerged, with bare and vulnerable bodies. As they entered the water, they seemed to him to assume the dimensions of mythological figures — semi-gods, semi-aquatic creatures. The water itself is drawn with zig-zag lines, like a parquet floor. Subsequently this baths motif appeared repeatedly in his drawings and paintings. In 1973, five years before his death, it also featured in an outdoor sculpture, titled The Mysterious Baths Fountain, in a park in Milan. Within the fountain (which lay neglected for years, until it was recently renovated) one can see the images that first appeared in de Chirico’s lithographs of 1934: a hut on stilts, bathing men, and water that is a floor, with zig-zag lines. A private mystery, that confronts the observer in the most profound, and not necessarily conscious, places of collective myths.
The bronze sculpture from 1935 brings together two prominent female figures in the cultural life of pre-independence Israel: Hanna Rovina, often referred to as the “First Lady of the Hebrew Theater,” and the sculptor Chana Orloff. Both were born in 1888 — Rovina in Minsk, and Orloff in the Ukraine. Orloff emigrated from Tel Aviv to Paris in 1910, but maintained continuous contact with Palestine. Her Parisian home became a meeting place for Jewish and Israeli artists who made a pilgrimage to Paris in the first decades of the century (even after it lost its status as the preeminent capital of the art world). In 1935, the year in which she sculpted Rovina’s portrait, Orloff held her first exhibition at the Tel Aviv Museum, at its first abode at Dizengoff House. In the following years, she held several more shows at the Museum, including in 1949, when Dr. Haim Gamzu, the Museum’s director at the time, wrote about her: “In the portrait, she penetrates the innermost recesses of the model’s soul, revealing attributes of which we had no inkling, enhancing all that is characteristic of it through accentuation, with a hint of prankish playfulness, domestic affection, and a desire to highlight that which might be blurred by the customary compromises made by portrait artists.”
Gamzu’s writing style, it seems, has dated more than Orloff’s sculptural language. Her Rovina is graceful and alert, the restrained pathos befitting her character, which was well aware of her public persona. In 1958, on the tenth anniversary of Israel’s independence, a reenactment of the state’s founding ceremony took place at the Tel Aviv Museum, and Rovina was the obvious choice for reading the Declaration of Independence. One can easily imagine her on that occasion: erect, calm and collected, conscious of the solemnity of the moment and her own status — exactly as she is depicted in Orloff’s sculpted portrait. Rovina lived till the age of 91, and as the old saying goes, stayed on stage almost until her dying day. Orloff died at the age of eighty, on a visit to Israel on the occasion of yet another exhibition of hers at the Tel Aviv Museum. Eighteen of her sculptures are in the Museum’s collections.
The story of this lithograph is an unbelievable example of the convoluted journey that some images take. It began at the instigation of the Tourist Development Association of Palestine, which hired the services of Franz Kraus — a Viennese graphic designer who arrived in Israel in 1934, after fleeing Berlin and waiting two years in Barcelona for an entry visa. The lithograph was meant to be a poster, and it does indeed employ all possible visual devices to entice prospective tourists to visit Palestine. Kraus’s Palestine is revealed through the branches of an olive tree, dipped in golden light, in a seductive encapsulation of the Holy Land: the Old City walls, the Dome of the Rock, the Judean Mountains. It is a holy, idyllic landscape empty of people, belying the reality of 1936 — which, in fact, was fraught with the greatest possible tensions: the great Arab Uprising, which had just broken out; the British Mandatory regime; and the situation in Europe. The tourist slogan “Visit Palestine” (rather than, for example, “Run for your lives!”) lies below the idyllic landscape as if all was peace and harmony.
Nearly fifty years later, in 1981, David Tartakover curated a solo exhibition of Kraus’s works at the Tel Aviv Museum, which cemented his status as one of the pioneers of local graphic design. In 1995, Tartakover reproduced the Visit Palestine poster, in a thousand copies, with the blessing of ninety-year-old Kraus. In the meantime, the depicted landscape had become the heart of the Israeli–Palestinian conflict; in the meantime, the Oslo Accords had been signed, followed by the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin — and in the 2000s copies of the poster began being distributed in East Jerusalem, Gaza, and the West Bank. The original intended recipients of the poster — the Jews of the Diaspora of the 1930s — were now replaced by other recipients, and its title can no longer be read without a full dose of irony, through the bitter screens of history.
Even when she produced a self-portrait, Käthe Kollwitz used her art as a call to action. One of the most political artists of the twentieth century, Kollwitz made deliberate and consistent use of images in order to highlight the suffering and injustices of the world. Women and children, the soft underbelly of humanity, appear repeatedly in her work: mothers mourning with their dead child in their arms, starving children clinging to their desperate mother. Her self-portrait of 1919 was painted five years after the death of her son in World War I, reflecting the power of art that is at once utterly personal and utterly political. A grieving mother — and a universal symbol of bereavement.
Kollwitz repeatedly created her tormented self-portrait, in drawings, sculptures, and various types of print, each re-embodying the personal tragedy she experienced and the general suffering she was aware of. Five of these self-portraits are in the Museum’s collection. The lithograph displayed here conveys not only the despair and suffering of 1919, but also heralds the tragedy of the future World War II, as it was donated to the Museum in 1937 by Berlin collector Max Matheus, along with about sixty other works by various artists, including Max Liebermann, Lovis Corinth, and Oskar Kokoschka. Matheus and his wife perished in the Holocaust, and works from his collection were confiscated by the Nazis. Some of them apparently ended up in the collection of Hildebrand Gurlitt, who traded in Jewish art during the war. Käthe Kollwitz’s tormented profile encapsulates all these injustices.
A canvas painted on both sides holds the promise of some sort of behind-the-scenes information, a duality, question marks. There is the front, official and visible side — and an obverse side, unseen, maybe even concealed. This two-sided painting by Yohanan Simon fulfills the promise of an enigma: its recto is a portrait of Elizabeth Schwarz, wife of Karl Schwarz, the first director of the Tel Aviv Museum; the identity of the nude woman depicted on the verso remains in dispute.
What we do know is this: Dr. Karl Schwarz, a Jewish art historian living in Berlin, married Elizabeth (a nude model for painters, according to one account), and they had two sons. The four of them arrived in Tel Aviv in the course of 1933, following Schwarz’s appointment as the Museum’s director. Yohanan Simon and Karl Schwarz met in Berlin, became friends and held each other in great esteem. At Schwarz’s recommendation, Simon received a training scholarship in Paris, and when he arrived in Palestine in 1936, Schwarz hosted him at his home. Simon painted Mrs. Schwarz’s portrait in 1938. In it, she is gazing directly at the viewer, meticulously elegant and self-assured, possibly accustomed to sitting for a painter. The verso of the canvas, however, tells a different, more intimate, uncertain story: a fragmented nude body, a downcast gaze. Is this also Mrs. Schwarz? When was she painted? Well, it depends whom you ask.
Dr. Doron Lurie, the Museum’s chief conservator for 33 years, recounts that he found the picture with its back side covered in plaster. In 2001 the plaster was removed in preparation for the exhibition Yohanan Simon: Dual Portrait at the Museum, curated by Tali Tamir. In any event, both sides of the painting are a far cry from both the Marxist Socialism of Simon’s kibbutz period and the Abstract Surrealism of the ensuing years. Or, as claimed by Tamir, Mrs. Schwarz’s portrait represents the Post-Impressionist Simon, who sought to carve out a career as a contemporary painter in the capital of modernist art at the time, Paris. When the circumstances of European history forced him to change course and settle in a kibbutz in Israel, he was able, with his accomplished skills, to develop a local socialist style, as befitting the figure of an ideological artist. Presumably, he brought the canvas with the female nude with him from Europe, and used its reverse side as the canvas for Elizabeth Schwarz’s portrait. In this case, it seems that the front side is actually the “other side.”
This is Maurycy Gottlieb’s most famous painting, and one of the major pre-twentieth century works in the Museum’s collection. Gottlieb was only 22 years old when he painted this complex scene, which features some twenty figures. Much has been written about it: the composition that winds its way upwards, the ceremonial nature of the Yom Kippur prayer, the location of the event — the synagogue in Drohobych, Gottlieb’s hometown — and the autobiographical aspect of the painting. Among the identifiable figures are Gottlieb’s parents; his ex-fiancée, Laura; and he himself, in three stages of his life: as a child, as a teenager, and as a young man.
Karl Schwartz, the first director of the Museum, first saw the painting in a gallery in Berlin around 1913. Twenty-five years later, in 1938, he was thrilled to see it again at a private residence in Amsterdam. He was in the midst of a journey across Europe, visiting Jewish collectors in an attempt to persuade them to donate their collections to the Museum, not always successfully, but the case of Jews Praying in the Synagogue on Yom Kippur was one of his great successes. Sidney Lamon, the painting’s owner, a Zionist and a friend of Chaim Weizmann, was persuaded that it would be best for the work to be kept at the new museum in Tel Aviv. Accordingly, in July 1939 the painting arrived in Tel Aviv, and was ceremoniously hung on the first floor of the Museum. In many ways, it symbolizes the first stage in the history of the Museum: an academic painting, by a Jewish painter, about Jewish life in the Diaspora. In the ensuing phase of the Museum’s evolution, which focused on contemporary — particularly Israeli — art, Gottlieb’s painting represented for most local artists what they wanted to repress and get away from. How relevant has the painting been to generations of artists who have seen it on the Museum walls since 1939? Is the Jewish chapter of nineteenth-century art part of the story of art in Israel? Today, with the benefit of hindsight, long after the stormy conflict between Israeli and Jewish art, it behooves us first and foremost to admire the qualities of this monumental painting — and perhaps to consider its retrospective adoption as a venerable ancestor.
Summer in America, 1940. In Europe a war is raging, but on Coney Island Beach, Brooklyn, New York, an enormous Ferris wheel is turning round and crowds of vacationers in swimsuits, their heads turned in unison and their hands shielding their eyes from the scorching sun (the 4 p.m. sun, to be precise, as the title indicates), are gazing. At what, exactly? At whom? Apparently at the photographer, who is standing at the top of a tall structure, drawing their attention, taking pictures and immortalizing with his camera this moment of compressed humanity. For eyes that have lived through COVID-19, this congestion seems utterly inconceivable.
In 1980, Micha Bar-Am curated a solo exhibition of Weegee’s work at the Tel Aviv Museum. In the introduction to the exhibition catalogue, Dr. Michael Levin, the Museum’s director at the time, described the swarm of people crowded on Coney Island as a “human tin of sardines.” Something in that crude expression is indeed fitting for Weegee’s harsh gaze. As a press photographer, who specialized in crime and murder scenes, Coney Island was one of the few non-crime scenes that he returned to repeatedly. But even when he directs his camera at the popular resort, the resulting image is more hellish than pleasing. A beachless beach scene, a mass of people with no access to the sea, and sunlight as fierce as the flashes that characterized his nighttime shots.
This photograph is one of Weegee’s best-known images even though, as previously noted, he is best known as a photographer of nocturnal, dark, unsettling scenes. The iconic nature of the image springs from the fact that it is a fascinating group portrait of a particular generation, of a particular class, at a particular moment, but also because it is a metaphor of the very act of gazing: thousands of people looking at the camera, and the photographer looking back — and presenting them to us, the viewers, as they are held in thrall to the camera, walk-on extras in a scene that is all about gazes. One moment, the gazing people merge into an anonymous mass; the next, this mass dissolves into its constituents (a Chinese guy standing on his friend’s shoulders, teenage girls being carried on the shoulders of teenage boys, children, women in all models of swimwear); and in the next zoom out, it is once again the collective gaze of thousands of people.
The year is 1939. An automobile stops in front of 22 Archimedes Street in Brussels. A couple is hiding in the attic: the German-Jewish painter Felix Nussbaum, and the Polish painter Felka Platek. She manages to escape, but he is captured and sent to the Saint-Cyprien internment camp in the south of France. From there he is sent on a transport to the east, jumps off the train, and manages to return to Brussels and reunite with his beloved.
The year is 1941, once again at 22 Archimedes Street. Nussbaum is painting his self-portrait as an inmate at the Saint-Cyprien camp, alongside another inmate. A barbed wire fence, a key, and an expression of rage are new features in his work, courtesy of Saint-Cyprien. On the flip side of the same piece of plywood he paints a distant memory from Rome, where he stayed in 1932 with Platek at Villa Massimo, the local branch of the Weimar Republic Academy of Arts. Depicting a boat in a river, an open landscape, and an atmosphere of leisure and freedom, the verso of the painting is like an apparition from another era.
The year is 1944. Once again, a limousine stops in front of 22 Archimedes Street in Brussels. This time, no one escapes: Nussbaum and Platek are both taken to the last train that leaves Belgium for Auschwitz, where they are murdered a few months later — Platek on the 2nd of August, Nussbaum a week later.
The year is 1991. The assistant curator in the Department of Modern Art at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art leaves a note to the head of the department, with these words: “A man named Maurice called. He is staying at the Dan Hotel in Tel Aviv. He has a painting by an artist by the name of Felix Nussbaum, that he’s interested in donating. Have you heard of that painter? Interested in meeting him?” The curator meets with him — and the painting is donated to the Museum, with the credit line: “In memory of all the victims of fascism.”
This painting was made in 1942, a year after Marcel Janco arrived in Palestine. His arrival sparked much excitement within the local art community, for he was an internationally renowned artist, whose name preceded him as one of the founders of Dada. Since Chagall’s visit, no artist of such stature had ever set foot in the Holy Land. Moreover, while Chagall had shown up and immediately returned to Paris, Janco had come to stay. “This is a new country,” he declared shortly after his arrival, “and here a new world will be forged — a new society and, of course, new art. Let’s see what I can contribute to creating this new art”! Landscape of Eretz Israel was one of the paintings on display at his solo exhibition at the Tel Aviv Museum that same year, and Janco subsequently donated it to the Museum’s collection.
As is evident from the painting, Janco the new immigrant was captivated by the local scenery and its people, and threw himself into painting it with gusto — much like Delacroix in Morocco and Algeria, Van Gogh in Arles, or Gauguin in Tahiti. Palm trees and an arched gate, colorful houses immersed in greenery, a donkey and its rider, a line of women walking bearing pottery jars on their heads — Janco’s new painterly world was exotic and exciting, and in hindsight highly Orientalist, of course. Although the painting’s official title is the somewhat generic Landscape of Eretz Israel, the reverse side of the canvas bears the inscription “Landscape of Herzliya.” In fact, its rustic portrayal proved to be very similar to Janco’s future paintings — those of Ein Hod, which he produced a decade or more later, and which have since become the ones that he is best known for.
The Ein Hod chapter of Janco’s life was another in which the epithet “founder” became appended to his name. In 1953, he first arrived at the abandoned Arab village of Ein Hawd, at the foot of Mount Carmel, as part of his work at the Planning Department of the Prime Minister’s Office. His job was to identify areas that could be converted into national parks, but he designated Ein Hawd to be an artist colony. His romantic-Orientalist landscape painting of Herzliya — colorful, sensual, and full of enchantment — is a harbinger, already in his second year in the country, of a complexity that would culminate a decade later, with the founding of Ein Hod: The application of a utopian idea from nineteenth-century Europe (an artist colony) within the political reality of Israel; the local landscape and its native people as an artistic source of inspiration; and the beauty of painting as a repression of the political.
In 1943, the Tel Aviv Museum held an exhibition on behalf of Keren Hayesod (United Israel Appeal) — the economic arm of the World Zionist Organization. It was well and truly a propaganda exhibition, as befits the period, one that naturally (also in the spirit of the times) incorporated works of art. Besides tables, diagrams, and statistics that documented the Zionist settlement in the Land of Israel, praised the war effort of the Jewish community, and sang the praises of the agriculture and industry in the country, there were also photographs and sculptures by some artists. The design and construction of the exhibition was entrusted to Studio Machner-Wallish, which specialized in producing conferences and exhibitions of this sort. Otte Wallish was the moving spirit behind the studio, and Dr. Ernst Machner was his business partner at the time.
The drawing shown here is one of ten sketches made for the exhibition Fight and Work: The Face of Land and Nation, which Wallish drew in pencil on paper. These tell us something about the works of art on display at the exhibition (photographs by Zoltan Kluger, sculptures by Jacob Epstein, urban planning drawings by Richard Kauffmann) and their layout (with all due pathos, of course). They also give an idea of the drawing capabilities of Wallish himself, who is best known today as one of the country’s top poster artists at the time and as being responsible for the design and production of Israel’s declaration of independence event in 1948. Most impressive of all is the drawing shown here, which depicts the large photographs of Helmar Lerski, portraying the faces of Jewish soldiers who had volunteered for the Jewish Brigade in the British Army. The installation depicted in the drawing is not from the exhibition at the Tel Aviv Museum but from the Knesset Hall at the Technion Institute of Technology in Haifa, where the exhibition subsequently traveled to. From there, it traveled on to Jerusalem, Johannesburg, and New York, and was even presented at the 22nd Zionist Congress in Basel. The drawing itself was put on display at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art in 2015, as part of a comprehensive exhibition of Otte Wallish’s works curated by Emanuela Calò. After the exhibition, Wallish’s son donated the series of drawings to the Museum.
The small red rectangle in the center of the painting is a bus that is traveling on a road, as well as a form. As a form, it would gradually develop a special status in the history of Israeli painting, for red rectangles in Arie Aroch’s work are landmarks in the mythology of the local art scene. The Red Bus was the first in a series of six paintings of buses in mountains that Aroch produced in the 1940s and 1950s. Over the years, they became so characteristic of his work, that the very notion of “a bus in the mountains” came to embody the hallmarks of Aroch’s oeuvre: conceptual, sophisticated, enigmatic formality.
The most famous in the series are the later buses in the mountains, which are more abstract and scribbled. In them, the red rectangle becomes more distant from the original shape of the bus, to the point that, were it not for the title, it is doubtful we would have identified it as such. Precisely in light of these more radical sequels, it is interesting to examine the first bus that began it all: mountain scenery in the Galilee, rocks and houses, and a red bus with dark windows on the road — right in the middle of the road, and right in the middle of the painting. Attached to the red rectangle of the bus is an extension, with etching-like marks made by the tip of the brush. The painting still adheres to its origin in the real world, its vocabulary bears traces of Cubism and Expressionism, and it is still far from the typical Aroch painting. Nonetheless, some of the elements that would later be associated with him are already discernible: the adjacency of red and blue, the etching-like marks in the paint — and, as previously noted, the red rectangle, which would reappear in various guises in future, in paintings such as How Are Things at Home (1960), The Red Table (1960), A Russian Hat and Boot (1965), and even Agrippas Street (1964).
The Red Bus was first exhibited at the Tel Aviv Museum in 1947, and then again in 1949, as part of an exhibition of the “New Horizons” group of artists. Gabriel Talpir, who wrote about it in the art monthly Gazit, saw it as something futuristic. Years later, art scholar Gideon Ofrat argued that the painting was actually static, and reflected the alienation between people and nature. Either way, The Red Bus was an important starting point in the establishment of a local master.
The role of the artist’s wife is often thankless. She is there by his side as a model and a muse, and usually also as a personal assistant or manager, while he reaps all the glory. History rewards her, however, by immortalizing her. Tzila Streichman is one of the quintessential instances of an artist’s wife in Israeli art: a model and muse to her husband, Yehezkel Streichman, over decades, her image crops up repeatedly in countless paintings, on paper and on canvas. But even though she is the inspiration for so many paintings, there is no knowing what she really looked like — which is not surprising, with a painter like Streichman, who gradually strives for abstraction. In fact, he uses Tzila’s image as the starting point for exploring formal issues and questions of painting; he begins a painting with her — in oil, watercolor, or pencil — and takes it from there. Her presence in the painting is much like that of a landscape or a still-life: he needs an anchor in reality only to depart from it.
Portrait of Tzila was first exhibited in 1945, the year it was painted, at Streichman’s solo exhibition at the Tel Aviv Museum. In 2006, in honor of the centenary of the artist’s birth, an exhibition dedicated to his portraits of Tzila was put on at the Genia Schreiber University Art Gallery in Tel Aviv. From these dozens of paintings, none of which was a realistic portrait, her image — or at least hints of it, certainly the aura that enveloped her — nonetheless emerges: brunette, thin, and collected.
The Family of Man, a photography exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1955, is still considered the most popular photography exhibition ever held, and one that changed the status of photography. A decade after the end of World War II, Edward Steichen, the museum’s curator of photography, sought to show, through hundreds of photographs from around the world, that we are all, still and in spite of everything, one big family. He concluded the exhibition with Eugene Smith’s The Walk to Paradise Garden, taken in 1946: two small children, Smith’s son and daughter, holding hands, walking out of the darkness toward the light. The circumstances of the photograph contributed to its symbolic status and its turning into an iconic image: Eugene Smith, a well-known press photographer, had served as a wartime photographer in the Pacific during World War II, and in 1944 was seriously wounded by a mortar shell. He returned home to the United States, where he underwent a series of surgeries to remove the shrapnel that had penetrated his skull and left hand. Then, one spring day in 1946, still wracked with pain and feeling professionally lost, he spotted his children, Pat and Juanita, hurrying to a clearing at the edge of the family garden. With great difficulty, he managed to load his camera and captured the moment on film, and experienced an epiphany: “I suddenly realized that at this moment, in spite of everything, in spite of all the wars…I wanted to sing a sonnet to life, and to find the courage to go on living it.”
Smith was known as a photographer who did not spare his viewers harsh views, nor tried to soften in his photographs the suffering and injustices he saw around him. The optimistic Walk to Paradise Garden, full of tenderness and faith in life, departs from the general timbre of his photographs and manages — even to this day, decades later — to instill a sense that everything may be alright, after all.
The Museum has more than two hundred of Smith’s photographs in its holdings.
In 1947 Karl Schwarz retired from his position as director of the Tel Aviv Museum after fourteen years. He left behind a museum that had become Tel Aviv’s leading cultural institution. This portrait of him was made in Berlin, in 1920. In a few quick strokes, a Czech Jewish painter produced a portrait of a German Jewish curator of about the same age: Friedrich (Feigl) Bedřich was 36 at the time, Schwarz was 35. Seven years later, in 1927, Schwarz was appointed art curator of the Jewish community in Berlin, and in the following years worked to found the Jewish Museum in the city. When the museum finally opened, on January 24, 1933, it was at an inauspicious moment in history: a week later, Hitler would be appointed Chancellor of Germany. The Jewish Museum in Berlin continued to operate until 1938, when the Nazis shut it down and confiscated its collections. Schwarz was already, fortunately, in Tel Aviv at the time, as the first director of the Tel Aviv Museum.
The Tel Aviv Museum of Art’s collection has seventy works by Bedřich, including six more portraits of Schwarz. Schwarz donated them all to the museum, along with other works from his private collection. The paths of the painter and the curator had crossed on one other occasion, in 1928, in a book published by Schwarz, titled The Jews in Art, where Bedřich is noted as one of a long list of Jewish artists.
Bedřich remained in Europe until 1939, when he managed to escape to London with his wife. From then on, until his death, he lived in London, and regularly exhibited at the Ben-Uri Gallery in the city, which specialized in Jewish art. The portrait of Schwarz — painted at the start of the careers of both men, when they saw their future as an integral part of Berlin — commemorates the man who had no inkling at the time that one day he would become part of the story of a remote city in the Middle East. His departure from the Museum’s management in 1947 marks the end of the first chapter in the Museum’s history.
Lesser Ury painted this pastoral landscape in 1908, in an area in northern Germany that earned its Swiss appellation due to its resemblance to the postcard landscapes of Switzerland: hills, lakes, and forests. Switzerland as a metaphor. The painting arrived at the Tel Aviv Museum in the 1930s, and was one of the pieces in the Museum’s collection on permanent view in its first abode, at Meir Dizengoff House. Ury’s pictorial style is rooted in the German Impressionist tradition, in the quiet and pastoral atmosphere of the turn of the twentieth century. Forty years after its making, Ury’s European landscape painting gained an unexpected moment of glory when, on Friday, May 14, 1948, the Tel Aviv Museum served as the venue for the proclamation of Israel’s independence, and the paintings that hung on the Museum walls bore silent witness to the historic event. Some twenty of these works were from the Museum’s collection, including Tashlikh by Samuel Hirszenberg (1907); After the Pogrom (1905) and Despair (1916) by Maurycy Minkowski; and Jew with a Torah Scroll (1925) by Marc Chagall, which had been donated to the Museum as early as 1931, a year before its inauguration. Almost all the artists whose works were present at the ceremony were Jews — most of them no longer alive — and most of the works that served as a silent backdrop to Israel’s Declaration of Independence depicted gloomy representations of the Jewish diaspora’s rituals. But in the historical black-and-white photographs documenting the event, it is Ury’s landscape that takes pride of place — quintessentially European, with not a hint of Jewish life, nor any signs of trauma that might be read in retrospect. Location, location, location, as they say. Lesser Ury’s painting hung to the right of David Ben-Gurion — and so, in every photograph of the proclamation of the founding of Israel taken a little further back from the stage and capturing the table with a picture of Herzl and the state flags above it, one also sees the Swiss-looking German lake.
Jamus is the Arabic name of this heavy-set animal, which is also known by Hebrew speakers by its English name, water buffalo, and less so by its Hebrew name, te’o-mayim. When Yitzhak Danziger sketched the front half of a jamus in 1949, in fine pencil lines, he was creating a kind of monument for an animal that was on its way to becoming an endangered species. Prior to Israel’s declaration of independence, water buffalo had been part of the local landscape and closely identified with it — in particular, with Lake Hula in the northern Jordan Valley, but also with the Yarkon River north of Tel Aviv, where they left behind traces in neighborhood names, such as Jamusin. When the Lake Hula and surrounding swampland was drained in the 1950s, the water buffalo almost entirely disappeared along with an entire ecosystem.
In Danziger’s repository of images, the jamus stands next to several other local fauna: sheep, deer, snakes, birds, and jackals. The horned animals among these appeared in his works as an extension of representations of sacrifice, with clear associations with the biblical story of the Binding of Isaac and sacrificial altars. Since the jamus also has horns, and is also a farm animal (albeit not a very fertile one), it too joins the depictions of ritual sacrifice, but takes them further: because of its strong association with the Muslim inhabitants of the land, it symbolizes not only human takeover of nature, but also the consequences of the Zionist enterprise for the land and for its indigenous inhabitants — human and otherwise. This one-eyed pitiful jamus from 1949, its head cast down and its body only partly drawn, might be seen as a commemorative drawing.
Looking at this painting by Milton Avery — with its papercut-like forms and flat color surfaces — one can understand why he was called “the American Matisse.” It is easy to see the French aspects of his painting, with its legacy of Fauvism and Cubism, but it is also interesting to see how he incorporates into it the completely different hallmarks of popular American art, namely, papercuts and naïve art. All American artists who worked in the first half of the twentieth century were nourished by European art and took it further, usually in the direction that would ultimately become Abstract Expressionism. Avery’s painting is more low-key — intimate, quiet and delicate, and American in its own way. His professional training consisted of only one semester of charcoal-drawing studies in Hartford, Connecticut — the city where he grew up.
The figure reading the book is Avery’s daughter March, who, like his wife, modeled for many of his paintings. Although she is depicted with no facial features and with minimum detail, he manages nonetheless to convey character, atmosphere, and mood. This painting of March was produced at an artists’ colony in Woodstock, where the family spent the summer of 1950. It is medium in size, and yet there is something monumental about the purplish-light-blue figure, with its long gathered legs, merging with a brown-and-purple background that comes across both as landscape and interior. The oil paints are diluted with turpentine, so that they appear on the canvas as though they were water colors, which adds to the delicacy of the painting. Coupled with its classic and harmonious qualities, Summer Reader becomes, like other Avery paintings, a moving, charming, American version of the French Impressionist leisure paintings of the late nineteenth century.
Jacques Lipchitz’s reputation is based on Cubist sculpture, typically heavy and voluminous, that he developed following his encounter with African sculpture and Picasso’s sculpture. This dancer belongs to a period when his work became more rounded and softer than his earlier, more angular sculptures. The image of a contorted dancer with a hood gave rise to a whole series of sculptures in which Lipchitz sought to express motion: of body organs, of a floating scarf, and of long, braided hair. To gain a full appreciation of the sculpture, viewers are expected to move around it and thereby take part in the motion.
This sculpture entered the museum’s collection in 1951, four years after its creation. It was donated by Alma Morgenthau, a philanthropist and art collector who, like quite a few of her ilk, was a unique woman, with a penchant for the avant-garde culture of her time. Her friends included the likes of Georgia O’Keefe, Alexander Calder, and Isadora Duncan, and she met Lipchitz in New York, after he had fled from France to the United States in 1941. In her youth, she acquired a musical education and spent most of her energy and time promoting American avant-garde music. She supported struggling composers in the early days of their career, such as Aaron Copland, Charles Ives, and others. The pinnacle of her work in the field of modern music was the founding of the Cos Cob Press. In its nine years of operation, it published 34 volumes of sheet music by young American composers, which no other commercial publisher was willing to do.
Apart from the sculpture by Lipchitz, Morgenthau donated 23 other works to the Tel Aviv Museum, all classics of twentieth-century art. As the daughter of an esteemed family in American history, most of whose famous scions were men, she was able to make her mark as a woman with her own tastes and with a passion for and commitment to contemporary art.
In 1952, the museum’s collection was enriched with 36 works by the best artists of the period, donated by Peggy Guggenheim. Among them was Roberto Matta’s Deep Stones, a painting that beautifully conveys the Surrealist spirit: unidentified forms floating around in a fantasy landscape and various entities rising up from below the surface, as though they were a reflection of the movement between the conscious and the subconscious. One could say that Surrealism was Roberto Matta’s vocation: he began his professional career as an architect, but after meeting members of the Surrealist group in Paris in 1937 turned to painting and became a quintessential exponent of that school.
He spent the years of World War II in New York, where he met Peggy Guggenheim, a key figure in the New York art world of those years. In 1942, Guggenheim opened the Art of This Century gallery — a bastion of avant-garde art of the period — and in the opening show she exhibited Deep Stones alongside other Surrealist works. Her gallery played a pivotal role in exposing American artists to the new trends of Abstract art, Cubism, and Surrealism. In time, these artists — including Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, and Arshile Gorky — went on to become leading figures of the New York School.
After the war, Peggy Guggenheim moved to Venice, along with her art collection. There, in 1950, she met Eugene Kolb, the then director of the Tel Aviv Museum and the curator of the Israeli Pavilion at that year’s Biennale. They became friends, and thanks to the warm bond between them, two years later Guggenheim donated to the museum various works by her gallery artists (Pollock, Yves Tanguy, Ben Nicholson, Man Ray, André Masson, and others). This extraordinary collection, including the painting by Matta, was put on display at the Museum in the 1955 exhibition Abstract and Surrealist Paintings, attracting huge crowds.
In 1953, the painter Moïse Kisling, a Polish-born Jew who was part of the Paris School, passed away. Kisling had moved to Paris in 1910, as part of a wave of artists who flocked to the city because they wanted to study art, create art, or immerse themselves in an artistic environment. He was granted French citizenship in 1915, after serving in the Foreign Legion of the French military and fighting in the Battle of the Somme, one of the bitterest battles of World War I. From then on, he lived in France, with the exception of the six years of World War II, which he spent in the United States. In his early years in Paris, he painted the streets of the city, especially those of Montmartre, and subsequently the landscapes of the south of France, but his main painting subjects were women. Girl on Red Background from 1928 is a typical example: a delicate young lady, somewhat melancholic, her big eyes meticulously drawn, and a silk neckerchief tied around her neck. The blush on her cheeks looks like an extension of the blurry red background, and her red mouth appears to have been plucked from one of the red spots on the neckerchief. It is delightful to encounter this delicate female portrait, and not only because of the current renewed relevance of figurative portrait paintings. In the history of the Tel Aviv Museum of Art it has a unique place, as it is the first painting that was actually purchased for the Museum’s collection — rather than donated — directly from the artist, by Meir Dizengoff, in 1931. Thirteen works preceded it in the Museum’s collection that same year (all donated by collectors and artists), which was the year preceding the Museum’s inauguration. The identity of the young woman remains unknown.
In 1954, works by Avraham Walkowitz, an American-Jewish artist who played an important role in bringing the gospel of modern art to the United States in the early twentieth century, were added to the Tel Aviv Museum’s collection. In the first two decades of the twentieth century, when America was still at the periphery of the art world, Walkowitz stood at the major confluences of the avant-garde trends of the period. He was born in Siberia, and moved with his mother and sisters to Brooklyn in the late nineteenth century. After studying art in New York, he traveled to Paris to further his studies, where he witnessed the movements at the forefront of European art. On returning to New York, he began exhibiting at Alfred Stieglitz’s 291, a gallery that was the bastion of cutting-edge art in those days. He was also involved in organizing the 1913 Armory Show exhibition, which provided the American public with its first view of contemporary European art.
Walkowitz was an excellent draftsman, with a nimble hand, and among his many drawings are figures from the Jewish community, workers, beggars, and blind people, in addition to landscapes and abstract drawings. But the image most identified with him is that of Isadora Duncan, the American dancer who was one of the mothers of modern dance. Walkowitz had met her in Paris, in 1906, at Rodin’s studio. He had seen her perform and, like many others who saw her dancing, was captivated — by her presence, by her dance that broke all conventions of classical ballet, and by the new language of movement that she offered. He attended additional performances of hers in Paris, and subsequently in New York, and painted her over and over again. In fact, he left behind over five thousand drawings of the dancing Isadora Duncan, which he continued to produce from memory, even long after her tragic death in 1927. The drawing here is one of them: Duncan in an airy orange garment, with loose movements, barefoot.
The Museum’s collection contains almost two hundred drawings by Walkowitz, encompassing his entire range of images. Through them, one can see how Isadora Duncan’s dancing figure served him as a starting point for the abstraction of the body and for a transition to abstract drawing consisting only of lines.
First there is the title — enigmatic, puzzling, even alarming at first glance, and only then, in parentheses, somewhat soothing: This Terrible Kitchen Contains All Sorts of Things (The Lovers). That is to say, a characteristic Surrealist title: incomprehensible as a matter of principle, poetic, and laid like an additional component alongside the image, without explicating it. If there is no clear logic, one may start from the end: the lovers. Max Ernst illustrated Leonora Carrington's book La Dame Ovale (The Oval Woman) when the two were a couple. He was a well-established Surrealist artist, she was younger, and a fan. They met in London in 1937, moved to Paris together, and collaborated in producing works, as was the custom among the Surrealist group. The book, written by Carrington in 1939, comprises six stories whose plots are as bizarre and convoluted as surrealist texts are expected to be, accompanied by seven collages by Ernst.
Since Ernst was a German citizen, his status in France at the outbreak of World War II was problematic, and he was imprisoned several times. This is where Peggy Guggenheim, who was close to the Surrealist group, came into the picture. Thanks to Guggenheim, Ernst managed to escape to the United States, where the two married (and later separated). A large group of works she donated to the Tel Aviv Museum (see The Square 1952) included two of Ernst’s illustrations to Carrington's book, which entered the museum's collection in 1955.
This Terrible Kitchen looks like a still-life run amok. Identifiable are at least four horned animals, a sort of octopus hanging in the air, a dead bird, skull parts, mice, and a leopard skin in the background. Between animal hybrids and anthropomorphic creatures, between morbid fantasy and black humor, stretches the field in which Ernst and Carrington operated in the heyday of Surrealism, just before the world itself turned into an inhuman, inconceivable reality.
In 1956, this small postcard by Karl Schmidt-Rottluff, featuring red, juicy tomatoes on a blue surface, entered the Tel Aviv Museum collection. It was part of a gift by Dr. Rosa Schapire, an art scholar who specialized in German Expressionism, and who authored the catalogue raisonné of Schmidt-Rottluff’s graphic work until 1923. She spent most of her career as an art scholar in Hamburg, but after the Nazis’ rise to power, when Expressionist art was denounced as “degenerate art,” she was no longer able to do so. In August 1939, at the age of 63, she arrived in England, with ten deutschmarks in her pocket and a large collection of works by Schmidt-Rottluff that she managed to save. In England, at an advanced age and in a foreign language, she still managed to pave her way professionally and continued to promote the art that she believed in.
The postcard with the painting of tomatoes had been mailed to her by Schmidt-Rotluff, and belongs to a rare genre of hand-painted postcards that members of the Die Brücke (The Bridge) group used to send to each other. Between 1909 and 1924, Dr. Schapire was also one of the recipients of such postcards. These were usually sent from resort towns in northern Germany, where the artists used to stay during the summer months. They would paint on one side, and on the other side, next to the address, they would add handwritten inscriptions. In this postcard, for example, Karl Schmidt-Rotluff writes about the tomatoes that the artists had grown and about the design of Schapire’s apartment in Hamburg, which he had been entrusted with.
Dr. Schapire passed away in London in 1954. Shortly before her death she selected forty works from her Expressionist art collection as a donation to the Tel Aviv Museum. Among them are fifteen spectacular, uniformly-sized postcards that provide fascinating documentation of the relationships between artists, gallery owners, collectors, and art patrons. Some of them feature preparatory sketches for large works, and some contain texts that serve as a kind of critique of works among the artists. Today, these postcards might be seen as forerunners of the Mail Art that developed in the 1960s and 1970s as part of the Conceptual Art movement, using mail as a platform that sidesteps conventional exhibition methods.
There are forty-five works by Raffi Lavie in the Tel Aviv Museum of Art's collection. Two small paper works from 1957 are the earliest, and one of them is featured here. Seemingly child-like, with crisscrossed lines in the background, apparently cheerful but in fact quite monstrous, it is a quintessential Raffi Lavie work. Lavie was born in 1937, but in many ways 1957 marks his birth as an artist. At the age of twenty, after several years of taking painting lessons and studying art on his own, he reinvented himself as a child-like artist, leaving behind all conventions of beauty and correctness, and began painting as though for the very first time. This 1957 work in colored crayons depicts a girl, a flower, and a sun — images that were to be staples of Lavie’s repertoire throughout his career. A complementary drawing from that same year in the Museum collection also portrays a girl standing on a low ground line, raising her hands — a small figure with a distant, yellow, many-rayed sun in the sky.
The sun in the drawing on view here has only four rays, which are drawn in similar fashion to the girl’s fingers. Child-like drawing is only one aspect of this work: there is something monumental about it, almost frightening, probably because of the flower depicted at the same height as the girl, the sun that hangs over her head, and the scale that is so out of proportion. In the background are the scribbled lines that would go on to become Lavie's hallmark, and at the bottom right-hand corner of the page is the artist’s signature: Raffi — first name only. And another trademark feature: this early work on paper has no title. Lavie’s works do not even bear the noncommittal title Untitled. They are only dated.
The connection between Lavie and the Tel Aviv Museum went deep. In 1980, he presented a solo exhibition at the Museum — to mixed reception — which rendered him a “red flag” for opponents of contemporary art ("My child can paint like this," "What is this nonsense?," etc.). In contrast, the 1986 exhibition The Want of Matter: A Quality in Israeli Art — also curated by Sarah Breitberg-Semel, then the Museum’s Curator of Israeli Art — established him as a central figure in the local art scene, a key representative of a contemporary aesthetics that is secular, Tel Avivian, and challenging.
“For Sale: Baby Shoes, Never Worn” — With these six words, according to an urban legend of the literary world, Ernest Hemingway is said to have won a bet that had been wagered between writers and playwrights that no tragic narrative unit could be written in less than seven words. With it, a new writing genre was born, dubbed flash fiction.
Here is another such flash story: “Bequest of Wilhelm Weinberg (Amsterdam—Scarsdale, 1958) in memory of his wife and children.”
In 1958, a painting by Renoir entered the Museum’s collection. A year earlier, German-born banker Wilhelm Weinberg had died in New York, leaving one of the most spectacular private collections of Impressionist art in the world. In July that year, the collection was put up for auction at Sotheby’s in London, which is still considered one of the iconic auctions of the twentieth century. A total of 52 works were sold, and two were donated to museums (a Toulouse-Lautrec painting to the Kröller-Müller Museum in Otterlo, the Netherlands, and the Renoir presented here to the Tel Aviv Museum) — both with the identical credit in memory of Weinberg’s wife and three children, who were murdered in Auschwitz in March 1944.
Why did Wilhelm Weinberg choose to donate Renoir’s painting, in particular — an erotic, voyeuristic depiction of female nudity — to the Tel Aviv Museum, with the dedication to his murdered family? After all, his large collection also included Impressionist paintings of landscapes or of domestic scenes of families in drawing rooms, which might be more fitting for commemorating a murdered family. We do not know. For us today, it is a tragic flash story — sparing in words and full of gaps. Perhaps it is precisely the sheer incongruity between the tranquil nature of the nineteenth-century painting and the horrendous circumstances that led to its dedication and donation to the Museum that imbues Renoir’s bathing figure simultaneously with the mythological powers of Eros and Thanatos, and turns her into a latter-day Lot’s wife, frozen forever for us viewers. We will never see her face, which, by virtue of the dedication, shall forever gaze at the catastrophe of destruction.
The year 1959 was a celebratory one for the Tel Aviv Museum: after 27 years in the old building on Rothschild Boulevard, it was finally moved into its own building — one that was purposely designed as a museum. The new pavilion, on Tarsat Boulevard, was named after Helena Rubinstein, whose donation made its construction possible. That same year, she also donated seventeen miniature period rooms from her collection to the Museum. The Old Curiosity Shop is one of them.
Apart from being the founder of a cosmetics empire and a visionary woman in business and marketing, Helena Rubinstein (1870—1965) was also an avid collector. Besides African artworks and works of the greatest Western artists of the twentieth century, she also possessed dozens of miniature rooms, which she first displayed in the living room of her home in Manhattan in 1935.
These miniature rooms, specially commissioned by her, were designed by artists and expert craftsmen, who went to great lengths to satisfy the fondness of “Madame” (as she was commonly known to all) for a surfeit of details, great precision, emphasis on materiality, and the desire to “amaze and amuse” (much like Cabinets of Curiosities of old). Among the miniature rooms that she donated to the Museum were a Victorian dining room, an Austrian kitchen, a Louis XV-style parlor, a studio in Montmartre, and a mid-nineteenth century London curiosity shop — the only set that depicted not a private room, but a shop. Named after Dickens’ book The Old Curiosity Shop (1840), it contains some five-hundred items, including countless tableware, a globe, a birdcage, a statue of a dwarf, paintings, a treasure chest, and one white mouse.
Helena Rubinstein died in 1965, at the age of 94. In all likelihood, she had no idea how central a role the pavilion named after her would eventually hold in the Israeli art world. Over the years, it has become one of the primary exhibition spaces in the country for contemporary art. In 2001, three young artists held an exhibition at the pavilion, titled simply Helena — as the pavilion is commonly referred to in the Israeli art world. The miniature rooms themselves were on display at the pavilion from 1968 to 2006, when they became part of the permanent exhibition at the Museum’s main building on Shaul Hamelech Boulevard, after they had undergone three years of renovation and restoration.
Thursday, 21 July 1960. On a table at the Azimut Gallery in Milan, there are 150 thumb-printed hard-boiled eggs, ready for consumption. Visitors are invited to eat those eggs within 70 minutes, which indeed happens. This takes place under the title “Consumption of Art by the Art-Devouring Public,” an exhibition by Italian artist Piero Manzoni, whose thumb is the one imprinted on the eggshells. A trace of this radical 1960 act is found in TAMA’s collection: a tiny wooden box with a hard-boiled egg bearing the artist’s thumbprint. One can decide what to do with the egg: eat it, or keep it in a box like a holy relic. Each option comprises inter-artistic significance that is not devoid of religious aspect: eating might be reminiscent of the Holy Communion during the Catholic mass, when believers consume a wafer (“Eat my flesh”) and drink wine (“Drink my blood”). Everything that Manzoni did during the few years of his artistic career, accumulated into an ongoing challenge of the artistic object; in hindsight, he can be regarded as the harbinger of relational art, that would break through in the 1990s.
In 1961, Manzoni created Merda d’artista (Artist’s shit), his most famous and provocative work: a series of 90 cans containing (according to Manzoni) 30 grams of his excrement, priced at the market value of 30 grams of gold. The cans were sold among collectors, increasing in value as time went by and becoming sought-after collector items. Their contents remains a mystery: nobody ever opened them. In that same year, Manzoni began signing his name on the bodies of gallery visitors and models, and produced certificates declaring them to be live sculptures (sculture vivendi). He died of a heart attack in his Milan studio, aged 30. His death certificate was signed by the artist Ben (Vautier) who, in the spirit of Manzoni’s art, declared it a work of art.
Nothing about the image of the lonely man crossing the road in the rain, his head under his coat, discloses the fact that he is one of the most prominent artists of the mid-20th century. In 1961, when Cartier-Bresson took this photograph, Giacometti was sixty, a famous Swiss-born artist active in Paris since 1922. French-born Cartier-Bresson was seven years younger than him. They had met in Paris in the 1930s and kept in touch for three decades, until Giacometti’s death in 1966. Over the years, Cartier-Bresson took many shots of Giacometti—in the studio or in exhibitions, next to his sculptures—but his most famous image is this photograph, devoid of artistic characteristics: Giacometti is crossing rue d’Alésia, where his studio was located, walking along the dots marking the pedestrian crossing, holding his eternal cigarette.
Cartier-Bresson shot his photographs without using a tripod, a flash, reflectors or any other assisting tools. He did not crop the frame, nor did he stage his photographed objects, but when you observe Giacometti crossing the road, each detail in the composition is clearly calculated. A thin tree trunk divides the photograph lengthwise, coordinating behind it further lines: the man walking in a straight line, another tree behind, the building’s windows in the background, a street sign. Giacometti’s sculptural needle figures are not present in the photograph, but they enter its subconscious as soon as the viewer becomes aware of the photographed subject’s identity.
This photograph of Giacometti in rue d'Alésia was featured in 1999 in the first solo exhibition of Cartier-Bresson in Israel, at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art. It was the first exhibition curated by the late Nili Goren in her role as Curator of Photography, which she held from 1999 to 2016.
Profiles (Yellow) seems out of place in the oeuvre of Samuel Bak, a painter who has been active over seven decades and is usually identified with figurative-surrealist painting. Bak’s typical work comprises Jewish elements (the tablets, a star of David, a yellow badge), references to the Holocaust or still life with pears against a background of ruins. This painting, from 1962, features neither of them.
Bak, a Holocaust survivor, immigrated to Israel in 1948 and spent the following four decades travelling between Europe, Israel and New York, before finally settling in the USA. In the 1950s and 1960s he lived in Paris and Rome, where he became acquainted with contemporary trends of international Abstract—a challenging encounter for one whose natural tendency was figurative and symbolic painting. Three years after arriving in Rome, he painted Profiles (Yellow), which in hindsight attests to his uncharacteristic experimentation in Abstract: patches of yellow hues with flickers of red and blue dissolving into themselves and disappearing into the background. The title clearly reflects the conflict that motivated Bak during those years, between preferring the explicit image and examining the language of Abstract; it leads the eye in search of profiles within the yellow. Following his series of abstract paintings, Bak discussed the significance of “pictorial contents” without a legible narrative, which he could not take for granted: “contents that is neither illustrative nor episodic, but rather an expression of a mood, of an impression, of an echo that filters distant memories.”
The painting was featured in Bak’s 1963 exhibition at the Tel Aviv Museum and later gifted to the Museum by the artist. In 2016, it was loaned to Yad Vashem, Jerusalem, for a retrospective exhibition of Bak’s work and it is due to be featured again in early 2022 in a display of TAMA’s Israeli art collection, in celebration of the Museum’s 90th anniversary.
The top right-hand corner features a monogram of two Hebrew letters, RL, delineated within two straight lines. Under the print, on the right, the full signature appears in slightly clumsy Hebrew block capitals, in the hand of someone not native to the language: R LEHMAN 63.
Rudi Lehman arrived in Eretz Israel from Berlin in 1933 with his wife Hedwig Grossman. She was Jewish, he was not. Historical circumstances placed the German artist within the narrative of Israeli art, although he always remained other, slightly distant, foreign. He and his wife wandered between Haifa and Jerusalem to Ein Hod and Givatayim, and on the way established a flower-pot factory in kibbutz Yagur. The media he worked with were sculpting with wood and clay, and woodcuts—none of which were central in Israeli art. In 1953, twenty years after his arrival, his first solo exhibition in Israel opened at the Tel Aviv Museum; in 1993, most of his estate was donated to the Museum.
His woodcuts in the Museum collection, dozens of them, reflect Lehman’s obsessive interest in human and animal figures. Among them are images of hens, ducks, cats, a phoenix, a vulture, an owl, a cow, a dog, an insect, storks, monkeys, peacocks, at times alone and at times in pairs or groups. In contrast with Yitzhak Danziger who also painted and sculpted animals, but only indigenous ones (see the Square 1949), Lehman’s animals have no local link. They are more related to myths and parables, fairy tales and a universal rural essence. Alongside his animals and human figures there are also some stunning abstracts, like the one featured here. These geometric abstracts with architectural references demonstrate Lehman’s highly skilled woodcuts and serve as a surprising example of abstract in the midst of the art created here.
A huge, winged, three-eyed creature—a fish perhaps, or a bird—sails or floats in the air. The background behind it is red with blue circles, underneath are trees planted in the water, with boats in between them.
The mythical scene, with its fantastic landscape and the imaginary creature conferred with the name Whale, was influenced by Russian folk art, myths and fairy tales. Michail Grobman painted it in Moscow but first presented it in Tel Aviv—at his solo exhibition that opened in November 1971 at the Tel Aviv Museum, two months after he immigrated to Israel. The exhibition, curated by the Museum director Dr. Haim Gamzu, featured dozens of paintings, prints and drawings that Grobman had brought with him from Moscow: figurative paintings, some with a dreamy atmosphere, some with symbolical and ornamental elements, others with Jewish figures and motifs. None of the socialist realism that ruled Soviet art, and certainly not the painting prevalent in Israel in the 1960s and 1970s.
Four years after arriving in Israel, Grobman founded the Leviathan group in Jerusalem, and in 1976 he published its first manifesto. In hindsight, then, the whale in the painting might be viewed not only as a fantastic creature, but also as an animal that is rooted in Jewish mysticism: in the afterlife, the righteous Jews are said to feast on wild ox and whale (Leviathan). Indeed, the Leviathan group praised symbolism, primitivism, folklore and faith—all of which were divergent values in the mainstream of the period in Israel, certainly within the world of art. Ever since Mordecai Ardon, no artist had adopted the spirit of Jewish mysticism.
Grobman brought his manifestos and militant spirit from Moscow, where he had been actively involved since the late 1950s in what was termed the second wave of Russian avant-garde (the first was in the early 20th century). He belonged to a movement of artists and intellectuals who did not toe the line of artistic style and contents. His stance against the Israeli consensus is evident in the Leviathan group: installations, parades and works of art featuring rites, magic symbolism and an affinity with Jewish sources. Most of the group members were originally from the USSR and among them, not inadvertently, was also Avraham Ofek, an artist with an irregular body of work in the Israeli art scene.
This small suitcase, black vinyl on the outside and red velvet inside, succinctly encompasses the spirit of Fluxus, a movement that some view as a phenomenon and others as a research laboratory. Regarding its radicalism, however, agreement is unanimous. Inside the suitcase there are tiny objects with assembly instructions, texts printed on mimeograph, stamps, tickets, fliers for various events, wooden board games and documents such as the Fluxus Manifesto—a text undermining the status of artists, of works of art and of the aura surrounding them.
The suitcase is pristinely organized, in stark contrast with the rebelliousness that characterized the spirit of Fluxus, which set out to revolutionize the world of art: deconstructing the process of creation and disrupting the relations between artists and viewers and between artists and social and financial institutions.
Fluxus, from the Latin word for “changing flow,” first emerged in the early 1960s in the USA and Europe, when artists such as musician John Cage and the artist and sometimes-gallerist George Maciunas began experimenting with the boundaries of art. One of the movement’s activities was the Fluxfest—festivals with concerts, poetry reading, performances, street performances and more, as well as producing small-size objects such as the Fluxkit in TAMA’s collection. This kit-within-a-suitcase was gifted to the Museum by historian, art critic, gallerist and collector Arturo Schwarz (1924, Alexandria, Egypt–2021, Milan). In 1950s Milan, Schwarz socialized with prominent contemporary artists such as Man Ray, Marcel Duchamp and Andre Breton, and began collecting their work avidly. In 1961, he converted his small bookshop into a gallery that specialized in Dada and Surrealism. Over the years, the gallery’s display window, with its bright-red neon sign Galeria Schwarz, became an icon. Among the 293 works of art that Schwarz gifted to TAMA in 1998, were an Egg by Piero Manzoni with the artist’s thumbprint (see the SQUARE 1960) and the Fluxkit, both of which faithfully represent the avant-garde spirit of the 1960s.
October, 1966. David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s first Prime Minister, celebrates his 80th birthday. To mark the occasion, Micha Bar-Am arrives in Sde Boker to photograph him for a feature story. Three years previously, Ben-Gurion, who had been living in Sde Boker for 13 years (since December 1953), resigned from his role as Prime Minister. Bar-Am chose to accompany him on his regular afternoon walk outside the kibbutz.
He shot Ben-Gurion from behind, walking alone along the road. With his white mop of hair, his thick-set body and the shirt tucked into the khaki trousers, Ben-Gurion’s figure is recognizable even from afar and from his back. He used to walk accompanied by two bodyguards, but Bar-Am, who had photographed him many times before, asked the bodyguards to stay behind. He wanted to photograph Ben-Gurion alone, surrounded by the landscape. Bar-Am’s camera positions Ben-Gurion in the middle of the road, mid-frame, at the heart of the desert landscape, with the horizon disrupted only by utility poles that enhance the event’s perspective, instilling it with drama. The image of the little man walking away from us far into the bare landscape, his black shadow cast diagonally on the road, has prompted various interpretations over the years: the loneliness of the former leader, the state of the country without his leadership, his determined step towards the horizon or his anxious walk towards the unknown.
Bar-Am has been following Israeli public life since the 1950s, and the ability to evoke different readings through a single image is one of his photographic qualities. Two years after he shot this photograph, Bar-Am joined Magnum Photos, becoming the only Israeli member of this international photography cooperative whose members included some of the world’s best photographers. In 1977, he founded the Photography Department of the Tel Aviv Museum; through his Magnum connections he managed to bring to the Museum, among others, exhibitions of such photographers as Weegee, Eugene Smith and Robert Capa, whom he knew personally. Bar-Am served as Curator of Photography until 1992.
In June 1967, while the Six Day War was being fought, a group of artists in Paris held a demonstration in solidarity with Israel. This was followed by the establishment of the Fonds de Solidarité avec Israël, which collected in no time 55 works by French and Israeli artists and donated them to the Tel Aviv Museum. Among the impressive works were paintings by Joan Miró and Serge Poliakofff, an album of etchings by Pierre Alechinsky, sculptures by Ossip Zadkine and César and works by Israeli artists who were living in Paris at the time (Avigdor Arikha, Naftali Bezem, Hanna Ben Dov, Mordecai Moreh, Moshe Castel). Sonia Delaunay’s small drawing competes for the title of the most beautiful of these works.
It was made two years previously and bears the title Rythme Couleur [color rhythm], which accompanies many of Delaunay’s works. As in the case of this piece of paper, the title at times appears alongside a number, similarly to the way in which other abstract artists used the terms “composition” or “improvisation.” The title indeed defines Delaunay’s motivation in approaching the abstract: seeking color and rhythm.
Delaunay was born Sarah Stern in Odessa, to Jewish parents, and studied art in St. Peterburg, Karlsruhe and Paris. Arriving in Paris in 1906, she became involved with the city’s avant-garde circles, where she met her future husband, Robert Delaunay. She painted, designed textiles and clothes (for ballet, for theater and for fashion houses), designed and collaborated with the era’s greatest artists (Sergei Diaghilev, Tristan Tzara) and was in fact a multi-disciplinary artist before this term was even coined. Abstract, colorful, mostly geometrical forms, are her aesthetic language in textile, design or painting. The 1960s saw a growing recognition of her art, and in 1964 she was the first living woman artist to present a retrospective exhibition at the Louvre.
Her Jewish background may have influenced her in joining the Fonds de Solidarité avec Israël. Ironically, this abstract painting which is wholly pure composition, color and shape, contains in its credit line, as if in an identity card, the Israeli 1967 stamp, with its very specific Six Day War context.
“Why Don’t you Love me?” asks Niki de Saint Phalle in a rounded, childish scrawl, “why do you love her?” The drawing looks like a page torn from the diary of a young girl — enamored, tormented, her whole world revolving around a desirable and indifferent man. The one he loves, “her,” is depicted as a large, colorful woman, with green skin and no facial features; an arrow directs at her the sentence: “I don’t find her so beautiful. And the clothes she wears are rather vulgar. I hate those sexy stockings.”
It sounds odd, on the face of it: who is the speaker? Large, colorful women were Niki de Saint Phalle’s trademark. They are her heroines. In the chronicles of modern art, she is identified with monumental Nana sculptures, their legs thrust apart for people to pass under, celebrating their power and colorfulness, offering different body images, far from the classic beauty model. The Nanas were considered harbingers of the new Women’s Time. Yet the big colorful woman depicted here, a Nana duplicate, is the object of envy and derision from the one who is tormented by love, and who is, confusingly, also depicted like one of the Nanas, except that her body parts are presented separately, severed: a pinkish-orange face, a green amputated torso, an orange hand, pink lips and a pink, green and black heart. “I’m not so ugly,” says the text under her head, “and my friends find me very intelligent.”
These texts can only be read as ironic. By adopting all the stereotypes of a woman entrapped in the way a man views her — “Others have liked my body. Why don’t you?” — Niki de Saint Phalle disrupts points of view, fuses perceptions of femininity and presents a woman with all her various elements: childish, needy, confident, ridiculous and desirable.
Claes Oldenburg's self-portrait, sticking his tongue out, wearing an odd green head cover, is one of 134 self-portraits dating from the 16th century to the 1980s, donated to the Tel Aviv Museum by Charles and Evelyn Kramer, New York. A year after the Kramers’ donation was received at the Museum, Edna Moshenson curated the exhibition “Five Centuries of Self-Portrait Prints.” Oldenburg’s self-portrait, with his tongue sticking out, his taunting expression and with stylized tears, spittle and nasal mucus, was featured on the catalog cover.
In 1969, Oldenburg created the self-portrait intended for the cover of Time Magazine—a painting in watercolor, pencil, ink, lacquer and color stencil on grid paper. He used this as the basis for the present print. The grid-paper background with the sketches, numbers and formulae imbues the portrait with a seemingly calculated, analytical look, but then the stuck-out tongue and the sloping head cover give it the appearance of a clown, a kind of Batman’s Joker. The head cover is in fact an ice bag, placed on the head like a beret; indeed, Oldenburg referred to the beret as “an artist’s attribute.” However, the stereotype of an artist as a European bohemian is accompanied by other artists’ faces, as reflected in his own eyes and the eyes of society: scientist, provocateur, magician or wizard. Studies for previous works by Oldenburg, such as the 1963 Good Humor Bar or the 1969 Geometric Mouse encircle the head, like representations of the unconscious, speech bubbles in comics or perhaps astrological signs.
In 1970, Anni Albers had already been an American for over three decades, as well as a key figure of 20th-century art, having played a significant role in two of the century’s legendary art schools: the Bauhaus in Germany and Black Mountain College in the USA, where she arrived with her husband, the artist Josef Albers. Beyond the stamp she left on these schools, each radical in its own way, she is identified with a unique shift in the narrative of modern art: through her work, weaving came to be perceived as a work of art. Textile, she showed, can feature an avant-garde dimension. The fabrics she wove on her hand-loom could have practical uses, but at the same time had the status of a work of art. They were one-off creations but also served as models for mass production, a combination of design and art.
Print was another medium with which Albers frequently worked. Red Meander II, featured here, belongs to a series of meandering labyrinths, which were a common form in her fabrics and prints. This labyrinthine, straight-lined model is familiar from ancient Greek pottery, but Albers also encountered it in Mexican carpets and fabrics during her many trips to Mexico. When she imprints it onto paper, she brings the modernist geometric abstract into contact with the form’s archaic history and its popular sources.
The Museum collection features four prints of the Meander model: in red, orange, yellow and light blue. Bright and hypnotizing, they all narrate a tale of modernism, decorativeness, magic and abstraction. The works were gifted to the Museum via the Josef and Anni Albers Foundation (New Haven, Connecticut), established in 1971 with funds restituted to Albers from her family’s property in East Berlin, in order to conserve the couple’s art and promote the values and aesthetics by which they lived and worked.
The corrugated cardboard lines cut across the rectangular format. The colors are bright and industrial. The forms are geometric and the title suggests Kandinsky-style musical titles, from the early days of Abstract. Undoubtedly, Michael Argov created some of the most unusual works in the landscape of Israeli art at the time.
His life, however, both personal and artistic, did follow the usual milestones of his generation: immigration in 1932 from Berlin, the Kadoorie Agricultural High School, HaMachanot HaOlim Youth Movement, Kibbutz, Palmach. He studied art at the Avni Institute and later at Streichman and Stematsky’s Studia Art School; traveling to Paris in 1947 to complete his studies was also a typical move, wholly in the spirit of the times. However, it was in Paris that the turning point began, which would herald the forthcoming changes: at the École nationale supérieure des Beaux-Arts he studied monumental art, specializing in frescoes. This was not the typical choice of Israeli artists, who tended, then, to focus on oil on canvas.
On returning to Tel Aviv, Argov continued to paint landscapes, but gradually replaced the usual painterly coloring — murky and greenish, typical of the New Horizons generation — with white. Bright white that led him to Abstract, which, although it developed as an abstraction of landscapes, eventually became its own occurrence: color, form, material and composition, a formalist manifestation. Argov’s stylistic breakthrough took place in the 1960s, when he began shattering the classical square format and working with corrugated cardboard, aluminum and Fiberglass panels — all new and unusual materials in Israeli art at the time.
Over the years, Argov changed styles and experimented with various media (photography, collage), but Rhythms in Space 913 reflects the style with which he is most identified — an abstract geometric relief against a white background: formal, exact, prosaic. The work might be regarded as a harbinger of the final chapter of Argov’s oeuvre: large frescoes in public buildings, an expression of his background in monumental art.
“My Name is Maryan S. Maryan. I was born on 1.1.1927 in Nowy Sacz in Poland. [As a child] I was sent to a summer camp with a lot of kids who came from all over Poland... Instead of a summer camp, the year after that, I found myself in Auschwitz.”
These are the opening words of artist Pinchas Bursztyn’s interview, marking his solo exhibition at the Galerie Ariel, Paris, in 1977. He had changed his name to Maryan in 1950, when he moved to Paris after three miserable years in Israel, having studied at the Bezalel Academy of Arts—where he painted the Holocaust while others painted revival. He wrote to a friend, art critic Miriam Tal, that he was “fed up with them and their Palmach ways,” adding in parentheses “I shit on them!” And this is what Maryan’s figures do. They defecate, spit and secrete blood and color in defiance of propriety and in support of impropriety. His figures are a shrine of “archetypes” that seek to say something about human existence in the 20th century.
These “personages” (in Maryan’s term) are partly naked and partly dressed in the clothes of “culture” and authority that are often signified in his paintings through hats, uniforms and other items of clothing.
During the last 8 years of his life, Maryan lost almost completely his ability to speak. The psychiatrist he was seeing in New York—he had immigrated there in 1962—suggested writing a diary. This became diaries which became a film titled Ecce Homo. And here he is, that man: an animalistic and bourgeois 20th-century citizen; the book stuck in his mouth in a cultural cannibalism festival is chewed and crushed into worms. He is wearing a hat, partly boho-chic, partly primordial Tohu waBohu… a white shirt embraces his arms like a straitjacket.
A lesser-known influence on Maryan’s work is the Chelsea Hotel, the “orphanage” where he resided during the last decade of his life: in the room nearby Leonard Cohen loved Janis Joplin for one night; Yoram Kaniuk, a passing visitor, began thinking about his novel Adam Resurrected; and the Sex Pistols’ Sid Vicious would murder his girlfriend Nancy there, later claiming to remember nothing. All accompanied by the “Howl” and “Kaddish” of hotel resident Allen Ginsberg. Human dogs, sex and pistols, howls and a mourner’s prayer; the Beat Generation’s version of Holocaust and revival. In the year of Maryan’s death, the Chelsea Hotel, a Wild West of creativity, was placed on the US National Register of Historic Places.
It was before October. The year 1973 had not yet been engraved in the Israeli calendar. The Tel Aviv Foundation for Literature and Art approached the prominent American-Jewish artist George Segal for a sculpture to be placed at Heichal HaTarbut (Culture Palace) in Tel Aviv. Segal responded with a single title: The Sacrifice of Isaac. His proposal met with reservation. The sacrifice of Isaac? Is this what Israeli art needs now? Is this what the Israeli public needs now? Segal insisted. Suzy Eban, wife of Foreign Minister Abba Eban, intervened and the Foundation gave in. As noted, Segal was at the height of his fame at the time.
When Segal finally arrived in Israel, it was after the Yom Kippur War. Since he worked with live models, he enlisted his friend, the artist Menashe Kadishman, and his son Ben, to serve as models for Abraham and Isaac. He had developed a mode of work, which became identified with him, of wrapping live models with plaster bandages, and then assembling the plaster molds together. Abraham (Kadishman) is holding a kitchen knife in one hand, and his other hand is clenched; his young son is lying on a bare rock cast from the Jerusalem hills.
Against the background of the 1973 War, Segal’s Sacrifice of Isaac was charged with an additional, especially problematic dimension. The sculpture was perceived as defiant, critical and political, and was removed from Heichal HaTarbut. In 1977 it was gifted to the Museum collection and was doomed to life in the storeroom. Its isolation was rarely interrupted, most recently in 2007, for the exhibition “Adi Nes: Biblical Stories” at the Helena Rubinstein Pavilion, when it was placed alongside a photograph by Nes titled Abraham & Isaac.
Five years after creating the Tel Aviv sculpture, Segal made another version of the sacrifice, this time with a USA context, the 1970 murder of four students at Kent University, Ohio by the Ohio National Guard during a peace rally against expanding the Vietnam War into Cambodia. Kent University declined the sculpture and it was eventually exhibited at the Princeton University campus. TAMA’s Sacrifice of Isaac is today stored in three parts and is about to undergo a slow, careful and extensive conservation process that will restore and fortify the delicate plaster for future exhibition.
Pic Adrian’s biography extends over four cities: Bucharest, Tel Aviv, Paris and Barcelona. He was born Pincu Grünberg in Romania and from the age of five lived with his family in Bucharest, where he studied Law and Philosophy and began publishing poetry. He was a self-taught artist, through his personal encounters with artists. In 1951, he immigrated to Israel but could not adjust to life here. He moved to Paris and in 1953 finally settled in Barcelona, where he lived until his death. Over the years, he conducted his double career, as an artist and an art theorist, between Paris and Barcelona.
The Museum collection features ten of Adrian’s print screens from the 1970s, which he gifted to the Museum in 1981, through his connection with its director Marc Scheps. These works maintain the ephemeral existence in Israel of a Jewish artist, an intellectual, refugee and immigrant, a man whose life was affected by the vicissitudes of the 20th century and finally found a home through a serendipitous course of immigration. Together with his books and the books about him, in the Museum Library, these prints complement the portrait of a painter and theorist. “My painterly work is wholly dependent on my theories,” he told art historian Pierre Restany in 1977, “they are symbiotic.”
In the early 1950s, Adrian abandoned figurative painting and devoted himself to the invention of an abstract visual language. His drawings’ components are graphic elements that echo a musical language while simultaneously reflecting a scientific, almost mathematical strictness. Circles, half circles, ellipses and lines hover in his drawings and prints; each of their features — height, width, color, location on the surface — carries a symbolic meaning. This print from 1974 is a typical example of this painterly language: four vertical lines, and the relationship between them. The dark line on the right, quivering and delicate, is typical of an Adrian drawing and comprises everything which he defined as a “sensitive line,” i.e. a line that represents the worlds of poetry and emotion. The three red lines — geometrical, of varying lengths and asymmetrical ratios — represent science and logic. As in many of his works, there is an impressive delicate link between poetry and analytics in this print’s almost-meditative character.
During the 1970s, Motti Mizrachi directed himself in a series of situations and activities commemorated in black-and-white photographs. Some of these images, like King of Jerusalem, are etched into the consciousness of Israeli art and are especially identified with the ethos and aesthetics of the 1970s: physical actions that are forever simultaneously individual and personal, political and poetical.
In 1973, his final year of studies at Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design, Mizrachi photographed himself walking through the Via Dolorosa in the old city of Jerusalem, lying bound and naked in the Judean Desert, and walking against a Jerusalem landscape with a dove’s wing attached to his foot. Jerusalem, the real and the symbolical city, is also the location and background of this photograph. Mizrachi shot its first version in 1973 and originally called it A King on a Hill; in another version, from 1974, it was titled Facing the City, whereas the photograph in the Museum’s collection, dated 1975, bears the title King of Jerusalem. The multitude of versions, titles and dates reflects the era when photography became a common medium among artists who were not professional photographers, but used it as a by-product of performative actions. This breached, unravelled situation is also a reminder of a relatively innocent world of art, before it became more professional through trade and market dictates.
Whatever its titles, the image remains enchanting, inviting various interpretations: a man sits with his back to the camera, wearing a very tall top hat made of white paper. His crutches are spread apart as if they were a ship’s oars, or resting wings. The photograph’s foreground is filled with earth clumps and a Jerusalem landscape, as viewed from the Mount of Olives, is apparent on the horizon; most of the surface is taken up by a grey sky background. A mosque seems to sprout between Mizrachi’s legs; his expression cannot be viewed but from his posture, position and background he can be imagined as a prophet or a shaman, a healer attempting to heal himself or the wounded, tormented landscape ahead.
Michel Haddad swept like a storm through the skies of Israeli art. The few years he spent in Jerusalem—studying in Bezalel, leading a Bohemian life, being diagnosed with a mental disorder before committing suicide in Paris, aged 36—left behind a mythical trail of an artist from another era, from another place. The small, black-covered sketchbook is like a compressed, overflowing capsule of the man he was and the artistic language he created during his short life.
The sketchbook holds 71 pages. The front cover bears stickers with color patches, dates and writings, among them “commenced in London, 1975,” the initials m.h. beside the date 30.11.76, seemingly the date when work on the sketchbook was completed. The pages are numbered, at times dated, and densely packed with words and fragments of sentences in French, tiny images drawn in thin lines, hatches and scribbles, a few glued items here and there (a razor blade, for example, or a feather). Faded color patches, always in red, yellow and blue, appear and reappear, echoing the colors on the front cover which, in hindsight, may be regarded as an exposition: this sketchbook is the story of primary colors, of primary elements, of the materials from which art is made. Leafing through it is a lingering, stirring experience. Each page is a whole scene, an entire play, not necessarily deciphered but always of a similar mood and ambience. Haddad’s world was a trembling, fragile, precarious world, a painfully beautiful world.
Haddad was born in Tunisia and immigrated to Paris with his family as a child. In 1968, he immigrated to Israel and lived for a while in kibbutz Ze’elim; over the next few years he moved between Jerusalem, Paris and London. Jerusalem was the anchor, the city where he developed and flourished as an artist, where he made friends and admirers. The black sketchbook, and two more of Haddad’s drawings in the Museum collection, each a microcosm compressed onto a single sheet of paper, were acquired from the Debel Gallery, which operated in Ein Kerem, Jerusalem, between the 1970s and 1990. Haddad belonged to a group of outstanding artists represented by the Debel Gallery, and his memory is entwined with its memory, like two memorials to the golden era of the Jerusalem art scene.
Between 1974 and 1978, at the beginning of her artistic career, Tamar Getter created a cycle of works that repeatedly featured the Tel Hai courtyard. At times she painted the whole rectangular yard, at times its inner area, at others, as in the work here, the yard is signified only by the building’s elongated row of windows, together with the roof’s edge. In each of its explicit or implied appearances, this is the Tel Hai courtyard etched into the Israeli narrative as a heroic myth, the place where Yosef Trumpeldor and his friends fought and died in 1920.
When Getter conjured it up in the 1970s, the heroic myth had already been fractured. However, the Tel Hai courtyard serves Getter not only within the national-Zionist context or as the harbinger of post-Zionism, but mostly as a representation of locality: the visuality of the location, its aesthetics.
Getter’s Tel Hai cycle is painted against a dark-green background that imbues it with a sense of a classroom board. The Tel Hai courtyard sprouts out of the top part of the work in the Museum collection, and is slashed by the frame, while its bottom part carries a reproduction of a mid-15th-century painting formerly attributed to Piero della Francesca: The Ideal City. Between these two: the ascetic Tel Hai courtyard, sketched in chalk, and therefore doomed to be erased and the Renaissance ideal city—symmetrical, perfect and eternal, executed according to all the rules of perspective—lies an unbridgeable gap, in the guise of a yellow vinyl sheet that takes up most of the work’s surface. A synthetic yellow: glaring and exposed.
It is often fascinating to discover in hindsight—as often happens and always surprises—how an artist’s early work encapsulates the essence of themes that will occupy her later on. Such is Tel Hai Courtyard and the Ideal City from 1977, which contains most of the concepts on which Getter would focus in the coming decades: an ongoing, fundamental interest in architecture, in utopia and its failures, the gap between local reality (Tel Hai) and a distant cultural cannon (the Renaissance’s ideal city), a never-ending autodidacticism and a passion for knowledge (classroom board and chalk). As well as a touch of self-deprecating irony, present here through the yellow vinyl as a substitute for virtuosic sensual painting, an industrial vinyl sheet that yearns to be something else.
This work was acquired from the Sara Gilat Gallery, one of a handful of fine galleries that operated in Jerusalem between the 1970s and the 1990s (Debel Gallery, Bertha Urdang Gallery and later the Gimel Gallery) and which, for a while, extended the private gallery scene that had always centered around Tel Aviv.
It is so simple, yet exhilarating, this encounter between a red square and a blue square: they are not quite equal in height, the blue square is quivering inside, less sharp than the red. Only one centimeter separates them, the blue is slashed at the frame. There is a white, square, empty core in their center, like a picture within a picture. A whole drama through minimum measures.
If anyone could work miracles in color and abstract form, seemingly with sheer simplicity, it was Alima. She belongs to a small dynasty of women artists, headed by Anni Albers (see the Square 1970) who assimilated the geometrical abstract into the medium of print, and to another small dynasty of Israeli artists who, in contrast with the common local trend (lyrical abstract) found their position in the geometrical abstract; among them, for example, Michael Argov (see the Square 1971). In the style of these dynasties, Alima avoided giving her works narrative or descriptive titles, and consistently named them Untitled with a number in parentheses. These avoidant, slender, essentially archival titles are in stark contrast to the colorfulness and sensuality of the works themselves, qualities which are in fact uncommon features in Israeli art.
Alima encountered screen printing in Jerusalem, in 1969, long after she had completed her studies at the Avni Institute and further studies in Paris. Like Argov, her artistic coming of age followed conventional directions until she broke away on a path of her own. Thanks to several artists returning from abroad, Jerusalem of the 1960s and 1970s became the capital of print: Dedi Ben Shaul and Eric Kilemnik opened a print workshop there, Zvi Tolkovsky taught at Bezalel. Through them, Alima became acquainted with the exciting options print can offer and made screen printing her major medium. Later, she taught at the Print Workshop and became a master printer.
Alima printed Untitled (410) at the Burston Graphic Center in Jerusalem, a workshop which produced fine prints by many artists in its fifteen years of existence. She transported the knowledge she had obtained in Jerusalem to the Tel Aviv Artists’ Workshop print workshop as well as to the Midrasha, where she taught for many years. The combination of print, geometric abstract and being a woman artist makes Alima’s body of work an unusual and unique chapter in the story of Israeli art.
In 1979, the Israel-Egypt Peace Treaty was signed on the grounds of the White House in Washington DC. It set new borders between the states and returned the Sinai Peninsula to Egyptian sovereignty. In that year, Ofra Zimbalista scattered sand she had gathered from Wadi Timele in Sinai onto paper spread with glue and created the work Sand 5, which, in hindsight, could be regarded as a memorial plaque for an era.
Wadi Timele, also known as the Colored Canyon, is located not far from Nuweiba and was a tourist attraction for many Israelis prior to the pullout from Sinai. The wadi, or valley, is famous for its primordial beauty and unique surfaces, formed over millennia by the force of wind and water. Zimbalista scattered sand in three hues of red loam onto a paper surface covered with glue, repeating the process three times in order to form even coats of color. The abstract work, reminiscent of a geological stratigraphic section with its layers of colored sand, feels like an abstract desert landscape. The sand that Zimbalista used is similar to the Nubian sand from Petra, which Yitzhak Danziger used to sculpt Nimrod in 1939, and thus her work convenes, for this certain moment in 1979, echoes of Canaanite settings with Rothko-style abstract language.
Zimbalista was born in Tel Aviv in 1939 and worked as a registered nurse in the 1960s. In 1971 she enrolled at the Kalisher Art School, followed by print screen, etching and lithography workshops at the Tel Aviv Artists Studios. Sand 5 is one of her earlier works; it is very different from her later works, from 1987 onwards, with which she is identified: figurative sculptures, usually installed in public places. She based those sculptures on live models, then cast the forms in cement, usually mixed with colored pigments. In hindsight, the coarse texture of these sculptures might be regarded as references to the sand texture of the early work on paper from 1979.
When Philip Guston died in 1980, he left behind a rich and varied body of work that reflected the dramatic vicissitudes his art had undergone since he started painting in the 1930s: from social-political painting to expressive abstract and back to figurative painting in a pink-red palette which conceals complex contexts behind enticing colorfulness. The last decade of his life was the most productive; Wall, from 1973, belongs to a group of works that Guston called “one-shot paintings”—made with no erasing or corrections. This series of fast painting was unusual for Guston’s mode of work, characterized by erasing and repainting, again and again, on the same surface. He regarded erasing as equal to an image or a brush stroke.
Guston’s regular motifs can be found in these one-shot paintings, which have a dimension of a sketch or preparatory work. The brick wall is one of them: it reappears in his paintings alongside various domestic objects (in this painting these are a nail, plates, a slab of meat and spaghetti), thus it is forever both a wall in a room and a barrier, making the painting a still life that is also a landscape.
Wall was donated to the Museum collection by the artist’s daughter, Musa Mayer, and her husband. The daughter’s voice was prominent in the storm that accompanied in 2020 the retrospective Guston exhibition that was planned to be hosted in two USA museums and the Tate Modern in the UK—and was postponed. It was postponed because of fears that a group of paintings featuring hooded KKK figures might be wrongly interpreted and lead to angry reactions. The museum directors were afraid that, against the background of racial tensions at the time, the public would not understand the images. Opponents of this step claimed it was an insult to the intelligence of the public, who could realize when an image is presented as criticism. Musa Mayer found it difficult to understand how racism was being attributed to her father, who had been born Philip Goldstein to Jewish parents who escaped pogroms in the Ukraine to Canada: he knew what hate was, and had fought all his life against racial and religious hatred.
Fragmented and dismantled, assembled from scraps of plywood and discarded furniture, while at the same time painterly, splendid and sensuous, Joie de vivre is one of those works that define a moment, that signify a wind change. It is a work that deserves a chapter heading: the post-modern chapter of Israeli art. After more than a decade of flimsy abstract art that bypassed painting and was based on photography, text and performance, Yudith Levin found a way to re-invent painting, which had never been part of her artistic education. Using scruffy remnants of wood and plywood, united only by the white wall on which they are hanging, she created a beautifully stunning, monumental yet fragile mural. Delicate pastels encounter exposed plywood and rust stains and together they form a surface for figures of naked youths in motion. One seems to be diving into the water. A title that could not be more alien to the routine of Israeli art hovers above all this: the joy of living.
A whole genre of leisure and idyllic painting in nature—Matisse is one of its prominent representatives—is present in Levin’s title as wishful thinking, a yearning and passion for other, distant artistic regions that are forever mediated to us second hand. The work was first presented in 1982 at Levin’s solo exhibition at the Tel Aviv Museum, curated by Sara Breitberg-Semel. The exhibition was titled “Pieta & Joie de vivre,” after its two major works, that indeed seem like inseparable partners, complementing each other: Joie de vivre and Pieta (1982): the joy of living and the mourning of death.
Two years after the exhibition at the Tel Aviv Museum, Levin’s plywood works from the later 1970s and early 1980s were featured in a gallery in Zurich; at that time, she was one of few Israeli artists who succeeded in garnering interest, albeit momentary, overseas. This success led her to New York, but several years later she returned to Israel and since then has been living in Ein Vered, the agricultural village where she was born and raised. Each new hanging of Joie de vivre, as of all of Levin’s plywood works that are comprised of parts, is a resurrection. One moment it is a pile of scraps in the storeroom, and a moment later, like a small miracle, it consolidates to an array of magic and poetry, encompassing a truly Israeli essence.
In 1982, Tel Aviv Museum presented the exhibition “The 1920s in Israeli Art,” jointly curated by Marc Scheps, Sara Breitberg-Semel, Micha Bar-Am and Dr. Michael Levin. The exhibition became a milestone in establishing Israeli art’s self-awareness: the 1920s were celebrated as the birth of Modernism and formed the basis of local genealogy. A modern history was born to Israeli art, one that could be a source of pride and in hindsight, also a source of trade.
Alongside notable artists such as Reuven Rubin, Nachum Gutman, Joseph Zaritsky and others, the exhibition also featured less-known artists, recalled from oblivion, such as Shmuel Ovadyahu, Uri Zivoni and Mosia Bograshov. Among the 36 painters and sculptors exhibited was also Arieh Lubin, who had died two years previously.
Eighteen of his paintings were featured in the exhibition. Abstract, shown here, was one of them and serves as a typical representation of that local 1920s Modernism: a monochromatic composition clearly influenced by the early Cubism of Picasso and Braque.
After the exhibition, the painting was gifted to the Museum collection from the artist’s estate. Several years later, having been established as an abstract painting in the “The 1920s in Israeli Art” catalog, the Museum’s conservator at the time, Dr. Doron J. Lurie, noticed another painting at its verso. Once the canvas was cleaned of the black mold covering it, a portrait appeared, similar in color to the abstract painting, but taking up only part of the canvas, in fact making the abstract portrait format a landscape. By the portrait's head, the protruding jaw and the accentuated shirt collar, this seemed like a preparatory sketch for Lubin’s famous 1924 self-portrait in the collection of the Israel Museum, Jerusalem, which is probably one of the best-known representations of the period: the portrait of a pioneer-artist, the manifestation of the new Hebrew man. Once the portrait was fully revealed, Lurie and the curator of Israeli art at the time, Ellen Ginton, decided to turn the portrait into the painting’s recto and the abstract into its verso.
Black and nude pantyhose, rubber gloves, chicken wire, tiny dolls, plastic leaves and flowers, ribbons, feathers painted white, tubes filled with red color — these are only some of the materials and objects that comprise Angelo, an altarpiece of sorts by Bianca Eshel Gershuni. Divided into two, like a joint burial plot, it has at its center a headstone plaque inscribed with the word Angelo. A small angel doll, painted white, lies on the headstone beside a large white dove.
It is hard today to imagine just how surprising, if not totally confusing, the sculptural works of Eshel Gershuni were when they appeared in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Their aesthetic language was completely foreign to the Israeli artistic taste which leaned (and perhaps still leans) toward the refined, monastic and sophisticated, steering away from anything abundant, excessive or kitsch. Eshel Gershuni’s otherness was manifested also in her unconventional professional path: she studied sculpture and painting at Avni Institute, then ceramics at the Bezalel Academy, and subsequently began making jewelry not seen elsewhere. Her pieces redefined the idea of jewelry and kept getting bigger until they became overflowing sculptural objects. Angelo is one of those objects.
Colorful and baroque, teeming with details, it emerges from a stage and cannot be taken in with a single glance. To see some of what is going on, the viewer must walk around the stage, to be able to look inside, from close and above, into the innards of the macabre theater at the center of the work. A companion piece to Angelo, also from 1983 — Go Bride Towards the Groom — is currently on display at the Museum’s new collection exhibition. Dark and sensual, the two works reflect a personal experience of mourning and grief, one that reiterates a wider common story. Both works incorporate religious motifs, a red and black color scheme, autobiographical references and handwritten text, all familiar features in Eshel Gershuni’s works as well of those by her then husband, Moshe Gershuni. Perhaps the most outstanding quality they share is the double, simultaneous attraction to eros and death, to desire and destruction.
What does Frank Stella, an artist associated since the 1960s with American geometric abstraction, have to do with the traditional Aramaic Passover song Had Gadya? Strange as it might seem, Stella had a persistent interest in Jewish notions and motifs, and here he approached Had Gadya through the Russian avant-garde artist El Lissitzky, a founding figure of early 20th century geometric abstraction.
In 1981, on a visit to the Tel Aviv Museum, Stella came across a series of illustrations by Lissitzky for Had Gadya created in 1918-1919, which had entered the museum collection two years earlier. The series consists of twelve works on paper (each 23×28 cm), painted in gouache and ink that follow a uniform composition: a title of the scene in Yiddish appears inside a painted arc, with a short title in Aramaic at the bottom. The illustrations themselves combine figuration — a goat, cat, dog, rod, ox and butcher — and cubistic abstract and elaborate vibrantly colored depictions of fire or water. Stella’s homage to Lissitzky’s series maintains its form — ten chapters, a frontispiece and an endpiece. Yet instead of gouache and ink Stella uses different types of print (lithography, linoleum block and silkscreen) cut, sliced and pasted. His version of Had Gadya injects early century Russian constructivism with expressionistic power, which in the context of the sequence of horrific deaths related in the song, can even be described as violent.
A careful look reveals traces of Lissitzky’s original in Stella’s work — two ox horns, a cleaver held in the butcher’s hand. However, Stella’s Had Gadya series relies less on the images than on the spirit of the plot – a pileup of catastrophes in which the strong become victims. The violence is activated in the painting through the cutting and slicing, the breaching of both the square format and the picture frame, and the juxtaposition of seemingly discordant colors. Even the final work of the series, illustrating God slaying the angel of death, seems to lack respite. Had Gadya is a story with no comfort, and Stella’s hectic painting does well to convey its basic unresolved tension and tumult.
In 1985 the Helena Rubinstein Pavilion held a retrospective exhibition of works by Henry Shelesnyak. This occasion, five years after Shelesnyak’s death, led his friend, the poet Yair Hurvitz, to write the poem “Henry Was Not at Henry’s Exhibition.” The bell painting that appears here is one of the 125 works on display at the exhibition, which was curated by Ellen Ginton. It was painted in 1976 and a year later acquired for the museum collection. Three years later, aged 42, Shelesnyak died. Way too young, at the height of his artistic powers.
Shelesnyak began his artistic path with photography as well as experimental films before turning to painting in the late 1960s. His body of paintings is merely a decade of work. In this short period Shelesnyak created a special painterly language that challenged the Israeli art scene by introducing new notions of beauty, for example, the bell. The blue bell is impressed on the canvas through a stencil and falls like raindrops in sets of threes. It offers an example of the kind of refined and sophisticated beauty characteristic of Shelesnyak’s paintings.
Beside the blue bells trailing down the canvas are also stain-like drops of maroon. At the heart of the painting is a yellowish square — a painting within a painting — and at its bottom, in Letraset letters, the sentence “stopped reading the daily papers.” Who has stopped? An erased name is legible at the beginning of the sentence: Reuven Berman. Berman was an artist and art critic. His name joins several other names of art critics that appear in Shelesnyak’s works, in the form of quotes or newspaper cuttings pasted onto the canvas.
Along with his typical use of Letraset and stencils, Shelesnyak used lacquer to give his works the kind of finish seen in paintings by old masters, such as Rembrandt. Unlike the classical paintings with their figurative depictions, Shelesnyak’s painting seems to be abstract. It does, however, contain a story, one conveyed by other means, oblique and implied: like the text concealed in the internal painting, like the tinkle of the mute bell — which give the painting sound, ambiance, meaning and content.
Israel Paldi’s 1920s paintings were mostly colorful, pastoral, idyllic (and in hindsight, Orientalist) landscapes. Paldi arrived in Eretz Israel in 1909, travelled to Europe to study art two years later, and returned in 1921. He then became a founding member of modern painting in Eretz Israel, alongside such artists as Reuven Rubin, Nachum Gutman, Siona Tagger and others. In the 1930s, following a sojourn in Paris, his painting style took a turn and focused on a childish-fantastic style, with images of children, animals and birds in particular, using assemblages of various materials.
Dina on her Deathbed belongs to none of the styles associated with Paldi, and deviates from the exuberance that usually permeates his work. A delicate woman’s head is placed on a plumped-up pillow; her neck is a long, white, Modigliani neck, her expression is sombre. Her body is covered with a blanket whose folds are echoed in a background of waves or clouded skies. This melancholy atmosphere is wholly atypical of Paldi, but is entailed by the subject: Dina, the artist’s first wife, on her deathbed. After her death, Paldi folded the canvas thirty times, made it into a small cube and stowed it in a wardrobe. It remained there until Paldi’s second wife and widow, Miriam, found it and brought it to the Museum in 1986, sixty years after it was painted and seven years after Paldi’s death. At the Museum’s Restoration Department, headed at the time by Dr. Doron J. Lurie, the canvas was spread out, cleaned and fixed onto a new canvas. Upon close examination, pale signs of the folded lines can be observed, vestiges of the tragic moment of painting.
In 1987, the Tel Aviv Museum was gifted a unique collection of works, all in the language of geometric abstract and constructivism and in the spirit of conceptual art. It was part of the 1,000-piece Riklis Collection of McCrory Corporation, initiated in 1970 by businessman Meshulam Riklis and his curator, Celia Ascher. A corporate collection focused on such a specific direction was in itself rather notable, all the more so for focusing on art that was formalist with a tendency to rationalism and minimalism and not, for example, figurative, colorful, expressive art that is perhaps easier to digest.
Works from the collection were exhibited in prominent museums worldwide; some were featured at the Tel Aviv Museum already in 1978, in the exhibition “Constructivism in 20th Century Art,” curated by Nehama Goralnik. In 1983, a donation of 249 works from the collection was made to the Museum of Modern Art, New York, and presented in an exhibition in 1985. Two years later, 314 works were donated to the Tel Aviv Museum collection; among those were works by Alexander Rodchenko, Vladimir Tatlin, Jean (Hans) Arp, Sonia Delaunay, Joseph Albers and Victor Vasarely. A small grid-paper by Bridget Riley shines through all these sculptures, paintings and drawings—a stunning example of what can take place on a piece of squared paper with turquoise and red gouache.
Riley burst into international public consciousness in the 1960s, beginning with exclusively black-and-white works. This page from 1967 marks her transition to color. The ten curved, parallel lines, their top marked with pencil and their lower part with color, shift from turquoise to red, creating a wave-like motion that bisects the squares and creates a flickering effect. The title of the work and Riley’s signature are pencilled on the top right-hand corner and become an inalienable part of the events on the paper.
Riley, who is in her 90s, is considered one of the most prominent British artists today. In 1968, she represented the UK at the Venice Biennale and over the years has curated several exhibitions in London (including Piet Mondrian at the Tate Gallery and Paul Klee at the Hayward Gallery) and has written about several other artists.
Aviva Uri’s first solo museum exhibition was held in 1957 at the Tel Aviv Museum, curated by its director, Eugen Kolb. Twenty years later, in 1977, when Uri presented another solo exhibition at the Museum, curated by Sara Breitberg-Semel, she was one of the best loved and revered Israeli artists. Artists such as Arieh Aroch, Raffi Lavie, Igael Tumarkin and Moshe Gershuni admired her and regarded her as a Great Mother and a source of inspiration. Her status in the world of art, however, did not translate into material success and she lived in perpetual poverty. This seemingly marginal biographical detail was part of Uri’s persona, which she herself promoted: over the years, she would alter her date of birth and other biographical details, preferred to conceal the fact she was a mother to a daughter, and used to wear long dresses, heavy jewellery and dark sunglasses. When she took her glasses off, her eyes would appear, heavily underlined with a thick black line, which seemed to emerge from one of her drawings. Her life with David Hendler, who was first her drawing tutor and then her partner, could have been taken out of an early 20th-century Paris melodrama. Her persona was a continuation of her art: each piece of paper was a critical drama, each sketch a capsule of existential truth, or — as she elucidated: “the line is me… and the paper, the paper is the world.”
As is this piece from 1988, painted a year before she died, one of a series of sizeable works which she began working on in the 1980s. Most of it is taken up by an enormous orb, whose margins are beyond the paper, and which joins a series of exploding and deconstructing orbs that reappear in Uri’s work like awe-inspiring, wondrous apocalyptic images. For a time, Uri’s artistic language was interpreted through formalist terms and was historically positioned against and opposite the lyrical abstract. However, as often happens with a complex oeuvre, the reading of Uri’s work underwent a transformation. Today, when one observes this enormous black orb, it seems to be vomiting out lava, blood, water and fire. The numerals written in the margins add a sense of countdown to cosmic devastation and destruction.
When Roy Lichtenstein visited the Tel Aviv Museum in 1989, he was already renowned as a leading figure of American Pop art. His comics-like paintings were an established part of Modern art’s cannon. Lichtenstein’s first visit to the Museum was a preliminary tour, assessing the Foyer for which he was invited to create a mural. Impressed with the building’s architecture and the Museum’s collections, he decided to incorporate some of them in the mural. For his next visit to Tel Aviv, he came ready to work. He was accompanied by three assistants from his New York studio, and over four weeks they labored over the large-scale mural which was in fact a painting on canvas attached to the wall. A high scaffolding structure was erected against the wall. The film that documented the work process shows the 66-year-old Lichtenstein, slim and tall, nimbly climbing up and down the scaffolding, delineating areas with black masking tape and painting them.
The masking tape defined the outlines of the shapes. Painting was executed in two states: first the yellow areas were painted, then the other colors. A 60-centimeter concrete column, dividing the two parts of the wall, dictated the separation of the work into two parts. Its left-hand section, overloaded and figurative, is constructed as a homage to works from the Museum collection and details from works by Chagall and Archipenko can be identified in it. The Picasso-style Cubist figure is a quote from one of Lichtenstein’s own paintings. The right-hand section is an abstract of the left-hand one, with prominent diagonal lines that refer to the Foyer’s ramps facing the wall. Lichtenstein usually signed his name on the painting’s right-hand bottom corner, but in this case, because of the split created by the concrete column, he sought the middle point, to clarify that this was one work of art: his signature appears on the bottom left-hand corner of the painting’s right-hand section, with the date cited as 89. The word ART next to it has since become one of the most recognized images of the Museum’s Foyer, a greeting of sorts to those entering a Museum of Art
Meira Shemesh passed away aged 34, leaving behind a decade-old body of work. She died of a disease that was diagnosed shortly after birth, having lived her short life with a sense of allotted, borrowed time. A sense of urgency permeates most of her oeuvre, hundreds of works on canvas, on paper and objects.
Shemesh studied art in the mid-1980s at Kalisher, an art college that offered at the time an alternative to Bezalel and the Midrasha, and attracted students who sought something different, or who were already different themselves and would not fit in with institutionalized schools. Like Asim Abu-Shakra or Tal Mazliach, to name a couple of typical Kalisher students, Shemesh too arrived with her own inner resources and all that was left for the college was to let her be, direct her, provide supportive conditions.
The inner resources that Shemesh brought along to art was translated into a somewhat childish visual language, amusing at times even when heart-breaking, conducted according to her own standards about the definitions of beauty. The most wonderful of those are the papers painted with watercolors or colored pens. This is where the perfect link is made between the world of childhood, beauty queens, queen bees, family memories and family photos — and a poetic, precise, frugal language or, as Shemesh (whose family was of Iraqi origin) termed it: Iraqi expressionism.
The girl wearing a necklace, her arms crossed, represents Shemesh’s wildest pictorial invention: painting with several colored pens together, creating parallel lines. No line enters the world alone, it always appears in bundles or clusters, a staff of lines creating an endless tremor. And, although the image is clearly of a girl, and although colored pens are associated with a world of school and childhood, there is something simultaneously frightening and gloomy about her, because of the way she is drawn: airy and quivering, like a ghost.
His first documentary film was about Lou Reed and the latest so far about Toni Morrison. American cultural icons stand at the core of Timothy Greenfield-Sanders’ work — film and photography — and his fame draws from studio photographs of artists and celebrities from the 1970s onwards.
Forty-nine portraits shot by Greenfiled-Sanders were donated to the Museum in two phases. The first was made in 2005, following a comprehensive exhibition of his works at the Museum, curated by historian and art critic Arturo Schwarz. The exhibition featured mainly black-and-white portraits of artists and intellectuals, such as Andy Warhol, Willem and Elaine de Kooning, Rem Koolhaas, Richard Serra, Julian Schnabel, Meyer Schapiro, Schwarz himself, and others. The second phase was in 2008, with 22 color polaroid portraits donated by Greenfield’s daughter, Isca Greenfield-Sanders, and her partner, musician and painter Sebastian Blanck.
When one observes the portraits Greenfield-Sanders took over the years, the photography process he puts his subjects through seems to take on a therapeutic encounter: hundreds of portraits that convey a deep psychological dimension. Such is the portrait of American artist, poet and activist David Wojnarowicz (1954–1992), taken about a year before his death from AIDS. Against a red background that accentuates Wojnarowicz’s blue eyes, Greenfield-Sanders shoots him as a martyr, a sacrificial victim whose fate has been determined. A baroque light falls upon his gaunt face, half his head is in the dark, the wrinkles on his cheeks seem like veiled tears. The impending death is palpable.
Greenfield-Sanders’ humanist approach, and his focus on Americana, merge with Wojnarowicz’ diverse opus, which documented a desperate period in American history: the AIDS crisis and the culture wars of the late 1980s and early 1990s. The dark side of American homophobia emerges from each of Wojnarowicz works, in all media — painting, photography, cinema poetry and performance. His tormented portrait by Greenfield-Sanders is a memorial to that era, to that plague, to that sombre mood.
In 1992, Tel Aviv Museum of Art received a donation from Charles S. Weston, am American Jew. The Museum Director at the time, Roni Disenchik, authorized Dr. Doron Lurie, curator of 16th-19th century art, to use it to purchase a work of art. Lurie travelled to London that December, at the height of the pre-Christmas auction season known as the Very Good Old Masters. He deliberated between two Rubens paintings, both executed by the artist without assistants. He chose the portrait of Madame Hippolyte de Vicq — a painting with exquisite painterly qualities, evident especially in the curls, the moist eyes, the cross-shaped ornament and the splendid lace collar.
Madame de Vicq was the wife of Henri de Vicq, Flemish ambassador to Paris and an ardent supporter of Rubens' career. In recognition of his assistance, Rubens painted portraits of de Vicq and his wife during his sojourn in Paris, probably between March and May 1625. Both paintings ended up in the collection of Lady Stuart Richmond in England, and in 1841 were separated for sale. In 1849, the paintings were again placed at auction by Christie's; a page from the auction catalog is still attached to the verso of Madame de Vicq’s portrait. The page states the date of the auction, 12 May 1849, and provides a delightfully detailed description of the painting: “Portrait of the Baroness de Vicq of fair complexion and light hair seen in a front view. The neck is adorned with a broad ruff with a serrated edge. She has on a black silk with slashed sleeved. A rich cross composed of jewels adorns the front of her boson & a chain falls below it. An elegant portrait of great quality and brilliancy of colors.” Henri de Vicq’s portrait is in the collection of the Louvre, Paris.
"This is a glimpse of the video landscape of tomorrow, when you will be able to switch to any TV station on the earth, and TV Guide will be as fat as the Manhattan telephone book."
This sentence, futuristic for 1973 and archeologic for our times, opens the iconic video work of multimedia artist Nam June Paik. Global Groove, which accessed the Museum collection in 1993, is one of the first new-media works ever made. Paik created it in collaboration with composer and musician John Godfrey, planning for it to be broadcast either on a single screen or as a 12-screen video installation. This ground-breaking work comprises a collage of ready-made segments taken from various sources: Japanese commercials, performance pieces by avant-garde artists such as John Cage and Allen Ginsberg, dancers moving to disco music, musical pieces by Charlotte Moorman (who collaborated with Paik on many of his works), distorted faces of politicians, and more. Tinted manually in psychedelic colors, it shifts constantly against a background of pounding 1970s music.
The work seeks to follow rapid zapping between TV channels, in an age when even the USA featured only a few TV channels. The rapid moves between contents from various worlds illustrate one of the foremost phenomena of a post-modern world: blurring the distinction between high and low, between solemnity and entertainment. Global Groove shifts between pop idols and artists and poets, between commercials and political figures, in a way that was stunning and unprecedented in the early 1970s. In fact, Paik began working with multi-channel televisions already in the 1960s, when he realized, prophetically, the significance of television as a medium of the future. Through this frenetic work Paik presents us with a manifesto of a future electronic world, a world in which the sound and the image merge into a confusing, multi-cultural television universe. This restless cacophonic video installation elucidates Paik’s massive influence on generations of video artists (such as Gary Hill and Bill Viola), and presents him as a herald of mash-up art and internet art.
The tailored shirt photographed here, white and ironed, replicated over and over again, is part of a series of photographs shot by Shosh Kormush between 1994 and 1995. Alongside the shirt, the series also featured a white apron and a towel (as in the photograph featured here), a braided plait, loose hair or a comb — all covered under the ironic title, taken from a school report: “Order and Cleanliness: A–.” All the images pertain to the body, touch upon it or are placed on it — but the manner in which they appear in the photograph emphasized, from various directions, the absence of a body. And the title, with its restrained mark (A minus, almost an A, but not quite) presented the body through a set of rules that applies to it, controls and tames it.
Kormush died in 2001, aged 53. She turned to photography relatively late, during her studies at Hamidrasha Faculty of Art, and her photographic body of work spans a decade. She held only four solo exhibitions in her lifetime and returned to painting in her later years. Her photographic career began in parallel to the rise of photography in Israel, but whereas Israeli photographers of the 1990s placed their cameras against the Israeli locale, its landscapes and its people, Kormush remained in the studio. She found her raw materials at home, among her books, on her desk. And while the photographers around her began using digital cameras and computers, Kormush’s work was wholly manual, defiantly so.
She cut out photographs from auction catalogs or art books, at times took photographs herself, replicated the cut-out images and pasted them on paper, and then photographed the collage work. Photoshop was already an option at the time, so the decision to adhere to prolonged manual action carried the significance of a deliberate slowing down. The delay and the sense of timelessness seeped into the photographs, as can be seen in the photograph of the white shirts, devoid of bodies, hovering in an undefined space. In regarding photography’s current place, deep within the digital and computerized manipulation, the slow, multi-phased technique invented by Kormush could be viewed as a conscious insistence in the face of the surrounding process, whose sweeping influence could be sensed at the time only intuitively.
In 1995, the Museum held a comprehensive solo exhibition for Yaacov Dorchin, curated by Prof. Mordechai Omer. In a complex logistic operation, 29 substantial steel wells were ferried to Tel Aviv from the Steel Factories of Kiryat HaPlada in Acre and placed in the Museum garden. In the history of Israeli art, this was a characteristic example of masculine sculptural presence, echoing giant installations of such artists as Richard Serra, where the force of art joins the force of industry.
Blocked Well and Fossilized Lily I, which stands on Shaul Hamelech Boulevard near the Beit Ariela Library, is a remnant from that exhibition, one of 46 wells created by Dorchin in a massive creativity drive between 1993 and 1995. Other wells from this series are placed in locations throughout Israel.
Dorchin’s blocked well is made of industrial waste, an alloy of unused iron. Remainder. In fact, this is the molten iron for which there was no use and was therefore stored in barrels. Dorchin extricated the blocks of material from the “storage wells” and regarded them as ready-mades, to which he made slight additions in the shape of an angel, a house, a bird or — as in the case here — a lily. This is the prominent aspect of his steel works: despite their weight and mass, Dorchin’s iron and steel sculptures convey a dimension of lyricism and poetry; despite their forcefulness, they are delicate. And this is what establishes the experience of viewing the sculptures of this series: the gap between everything we know about wells and ascribe to them (sunk in the ground, the source of water, the source of life) and the heavy, blocked, sealed mass of material facing us. Out of this gap, out of the want of realizing these steel wells as a well, out of the surprising titles placed on them, the meaning of the sculptures is born.
Discussing the series in the exhibition catalog, Prof. Mordechai Omer wrote that Dorchin “excellently bridges the randomness of life and collective consciousness, held captive by elusive reality. Entrenchment in the material is a way out of sorts. The more primordial the material is, the more distant and unrealized, the greater its potential for expression.”
The year is 1996. Two years previously, in 1994, David Reeb presented a comprehensive solo exhibition at the Museum. The Oslo Accord festivities and the hope for a new Middle East hovered in the air, and Reeb’s works in the exhibition, dating from 1982 to 1994, seemed like a summary of an era. Look, a new era is about to begin. Then came Rabin’s murder on 4 November 1995, the political situation turned about and in May 1996, Benjamin Netanyahu was elected Prime Minister. Left and right had never been so polarized, so divided; in the summer of 1996, Reeb painted a large painting titled Left–Right: the Tel Aviv promenade, present in many of his works, is painted twice, in a view from the sea, with the hotels and without people, in dark colors and an apocalyptic atmosphere. Both sides of the painting, the top left-hand and the bottom right-hand corners, feature two red words in Japanese: left, right. The Japanese could be interpreted as an attempt to create a defamiliarization through viewing Israeli reality from the farthest possible point of view, and regarding the “left–right” like prisms through which the Israeli landscape, and reality, are viewed.
The title “left–right,” still in Japanese, is placed on the print series that Reeb created that year at the Harel Print Workshop. It appears, in red Japanese letters, on the opening page of a series of 18 prints, some in black and white, some in color, all in the same format: a television screen with a vase by its side, replicated. This replication of still life extends the image to a horizontal landscape format, so that the external and the internal are merged and cannot be separated, as often happens in Reeb’s works. The television screens feature masked men, or Sumo wrestlers, or soldiers, or Palestinian politician Hanan Ashrawi or — as in this print — PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat and Israeli Chief of Staff Amnon Lipkin-Shahak. Their portraits appear separately yet side by side, representing the way in which Reeb presents the political explosives as they appear in the living room. And in this case, with an added title that juxtaposes, with exaggerated, didactic detail, the political with the esthetic.
They met at the Thelma Yellin High School for the Arts. Then they studied together at Hamidrasha Faculty of Arts and began cooperating under the brand name Ruti & Zoya. It was not unusual. The 1990s were the age of pairs in Israeli art: Gil & Moti, Dana and Boaz Zonshine, Aya & Gal, Noga Alhassid and Halit Mandelblit, Alona Friedberg and Limor Orenstein, Ruti & Zoya. They had all met during their studies and the collaboration enabled them to produce complex projects that might not have been executed alone. Of all the artist pairs of the 1990s, only Gil & Moti are still active together; the others have all parted ways. This is a professional risk one takes when working in pairs: the circumstances of life might overrule the requirements of art.
This is true for Ruti & Zoya, who continue to work as artists, but apart. Ruti Nemet lives and works in Los Angeles, Zoya Cherkassky lives and works in Tel Aviv. When they worked together, they developed a method that combined sculpture, painting and photography: they built sets with a painted background and dolls, usually in their own image, and created an imaginary but real world. At times, as in the series “Eran” from which this photograph is taken, they photographed their models, further defamiliarizing their created world through the act of photography: artificial, evidently made up of parts taken from various sources and welded together. In this work, the doll, based on the figure of a mutual friend, is photographed hovering in the air while the female figure running below in a forest is in fact the image of Zoya. The nature imagery (sky, forest) further accentuates the artificiality of the scene, creating a dreamy, slightly nightmarish atmosphere.
In 2000, Ruti & Zoya were awarded the Kiefer Prize; they were also featured in the exhibition “Joint 4: A Doll's House,” curated by the late Sarit Shapira at the Israel Museum, Jerusalem. Both the prize and Shapira’s series of exhibitions were the era’s markers for discovering young talents and an exhibition platform for the generation of artists that flourished in the 1990s. This photograph is a characteristic expression of that generation and of that era, and a remainder of a pair of artists who were also the product of a certain moment.
He was one of the giants of conceptual art (despite renouncing the concept) and no superlative can exaggerate his status in the art world. From the late 1960s, when he formed his radical proposal for plastic art, that words are the raw materials and language is the medium, Laurence Weiner remained at the forefront of contemporary art. His art was manifested through texts in various typographies on the walls of museums and galleries, as well as in the public sphere, outside traditional art spaces.
Whether the texts were within or without an artistic context, they always featured the possibility of a multi-layered reading, ranging between poetry and philosophy, between a manifesto and a political text. Each renewed encounter with Weiner’s work rekindles the drama of words that do not replace an image: words are the image, the story, the matter and the anti-matter.
In One Place & Another was installed in 2003 on a glass wall at the corner of the Museum’s Main Building; in 2016 it was removed and re-installed on a tall white wall in the new Herta and Paul Amir Building. Black and blue letters attached to a wall, forming sentences in English, Hebrew and Arabic: In One Place & Another. Then Now & Then. Nine words lay out an infinite range of place and time, are open to an array of interpretations and become a wall painting. Wherever Weiner exhibited his works, he insisted the text be written not only in English, the universal language of art, but also in the local languages — so that, as in the case here, the abstract sentence is politically charged by its very appearance in these three specific languages.
Most wondrously, over the years, Weiner’s handwriting, based on standard, generic typography, became exclusively identified with him, personal and individual despite the anonymity of the materials he worked with. Weiner exhibited in all major locations of the art world, was awarded every possible honor, yet succeeded in maintaining the non-material dimension of art in a world that became further focused on objects.
In hindsight, this photograph evidently preserves not only a specific moment of Israel in 1999, but also that glorious moment of 1990s Israeli photography, its peak moment. Sharon Ya’ari is one of that peak’s generators, one of the artists for whom the emergence of digital photography opened a wide range of possibilities. Ya’ari is also a determined and distinctive documenter of the Israeli outdoors — not the official, representative, showcase outdoors but that which is in constant change, on the roadside, in the corner of the eye.
This photograph is part of a series that Ya’ari shot over time on Saturdays throughout Israel. Four people, from three generations, probably members of one family, are standing on a hill surrounded by wildflowers. The men are looking far ahead towards an urban landscape that delineates the horizon. The woman in red turns her gaze towards the man at the center, while the child stares at the ground. The man’s crutches, planted in the ground, the two dogs and something in the way these four are standing turns them into a monument of sorts, although the question immediately arises: a monument to what? For there is nothing heroic in the photographed scene. On the contrary, it seems almost random. Yet something in the act of photography — with its color qualities, its perspective, the minimal and accurate computer processing — imbues this seemingly casual moment with an epic status.
The epic which the photograph creates from this chance piece of reality is the story of the Israeli Sabbath, with its slight and minor rituals, as well as the tragic tale of nature whose fate is in danger, and of a short-lived green whose end is foretold. Israeliness is definitely a prominent characteristic of Ya’ari’s photography, but in this instance it is also the case study of fragile leisure: people at rest, in a spot of nature outside of the city, with an ominous feeling hovering above, and the kernel of a narrative that will be forever obscure.
One might momentarily mistake the word “Tomorrow” printed to the right of the photograph for an obvious title for the year 2000: a photograph for a new decade, a new century, a new millennium. At a second glance it seems that no, this “tomorrow” bears no optimism. It is attached to a photograph of a slightly old residential side street in Tel Aviv, where no drama takes place; but a sense of grief, on the verge of a lament, so typical of Yossi Breger’s photographs, definitely lingers upon it. This almost-lament-grief is comprised of banal everyday objects: two cars parked in the corner, one draped with a fabric cover, both shrouded in red flowers that fell off a poinciana tree, as are the road and pavement around. Two cavities in the house shutters gape, like two eye-caves observing the two cars, the street’s cul-de-sac, and the tree trunk and power pole, positioned like two masts. These pairs — shutters, windows, trunks and cars – emphasize both sides of the diptych, the textual and the visual, which project each other with layers of interpretation. The flowers on the cars and road take on the presence of flowers on a grave, whereas the word “tomorrow” gradually becomes more like the writing on a gravestone. It transforms the tomorrow, and all the tomorrows yet to come, into a writing on a wall. This tomorrow does not bode well.
Yossi Breger belongs to the generation of photographers who began working in Israel during the 1990s and made photography into a significant medium with massive presence and visibility in the local art scene. He also headed the Photography Department at Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design (from 2000 to 2006); nevertheless, despite his definite identification as a photographer, in his first exhibition at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art (in 1997) he presented paintings and later on, alongside his photography, exhibited films and video installations. He photographed in many cities throughout the world (Stockholm, Kassel, Berlin, London, Beijing, Rome), at times in the streets and at times inside houses; in all these cities, and through each of the media he employed, he always transmitted a narrative that is specific and personal yet also simultaneously fundamental, existential and universal. As is the case of the Tel Aviv street here: seemingly a pastoral moment in a quiet street towards the end of a spring day, but in fact an emotional landscape of ongoing grief.
Note the size of this painting — it is tiny: 15 centimeters in height and 30 centimeters wide. A piece of jewellery, a beautiful ornament. Nevertheless, it encompasses a whole world — landscape, interior, a painting within a painting, a geometric abstract, a 17th-century Dutch interior painting. The span of all these styles is compressed into the size of a book page.
The painting was presented in Diti Almog’s solo exhibition at the Museum in 2006, curated by Ellen Ginton, and belongs to a series of very small paintings that all seem like paintings within paintings. The paintings in the series are all parcelled into horizontal and vertical rectangles that create, as in this painting, a sense of rooms or walls, and windows through which a landscape can be viewed, although the landscape might in fact be just a painting on the wall.
Compared with Almog’s earlier works from the late 1980s and early 1990s, her paintings from the early 2000s appear like a process of reduction, concession and emotional withdrawal — but also as a logical continuation of her painterly journey, which began with landscapes, the sea, clothes and jewellery. In the early 1990s, Almog travelled to New York, where she now lives and works. In the series of small landscapes, she holds a clear dialog with a variety of American geometric abstract styles, spanning between Hard Edge painting, Mark Rothko and Barnett Newman. The painting reduces the most basic element of landscape — the horizon — while the interior is represented by the basic element of a window facing a landscape which might also be, as noted, a landscape painting.
The titles of Almog’s paintings place them at a specific moment in time — here it is ten in the morning, but the unexplained acronym accompanying the accurate time makes the small painting into an unresolved riddle. The square within a square seems like an eye looking back at us yet maintaining silence, and the miniature painting retains an elusive status of a piece of candy, a jewellery box, an essay on painting.
On the bottom right-hand corner of the painting, Gabriel Cohen wrote “The sinking Titanic” (le titanic qui coule), followed by his flourished, underlined signature and three dots. The word Titanic, in white, recurs twice on the ship’s bow. The tragic tale of the luxury passenger liner that sank in April 1912 in the Atlantic Ocean is presented here as a fantasy in a children's tale or an illustrated myth. The ship is colorful and ornate, with tiny figures on its deck: dinner guests, musicians, boxers, people drinking and relaxing, unaware of the blazing flames. Decorated lifeboats are operated by musicians in sombreros, some with guitars, alongside singers waving their arms. The ship is surrounded by icebergs bearing weird creatures, perhaps seals. Fish below and birds above complete the crowded scene. In his typical style, Cohen inserted items from his own world into the historical narrative: the flag of his native France and the world Hanukkah written in French alongside a Menorah on the ship’s forward funnel, perhaps conveying a hope for a miracle that never happened.
Gabriel Cohen was one of Israel’s prominent self-taught, outsider, naïve artists. He was born in Paris in 1933 to a family that spent the war years in hiding in France, and then moved to Israel. He worked in a diamond polishing workshop, and began painting during his night shifts, without any formal training. Gallery owner Ruth Debel happened upon him selling his paintings in Jerusalem’s King George Street, and featured him in her Debel Gallery in Ein Karem.
Coehn’s imagery was influenced by the Bible, Jewish tradition, childhood memories and his travels. The Tower of Babel, the Eiffel Tower, the Dome of the Rock, New York skyscrapers and pyramids in Egypt all appear in his paintings alongside historical figures such as Napoleon, Muhammad Ali, Rasputin and Cleopatra, or alongside big, sensuous women. Some of Cohen’s paintings imbue an idyllic atmosphere, others are characterized by stark tension, violence and impending horror. Such is Titanic Sinking, painted at the turn of the millennium, perhaps as a remote attestation to the 9/11 events; an apocalyptic terror lurks under its colorful and seemingly naïve front.
The Museum collection holds seven small items from Deganit Stern Schocken’s series “How Many is One.” Measuring no more than 10 centimeters, cast in silver and painted with industrial paints: red, yellow, blue, pink, they are simultaneously splendid and amusing. With Stern Schocken’s professional training as a jewelry designer, one would naturally regard them as jewelry pieces, although these small items clearly deviate from the traditional definition of a pendant, brooch or hairpin. As evident from the quasi-pendant here, it is a tiny object with decorative, sculptural and ritual qualities, aware of its own beauty yet willing to sabotage its own elegance. In 2003, dozens of such magnificent tiny objects were presented at the Museum in an exhibition of Stern Schocken’s work curated by Meira Yagid-Haimovici; the mode of their exhibition expanded and disrupted, expanded and challenged the traditional definitions of jewelry. The pieces were placed on a large elliptical table that moved slowly, like a conveyor belt in a sushi restaurant; tall chairs were attached to the table, on which viewers were seated, watching the tiny objects rotating before them. On the wall across, photographed images of the objects, widely magnified, were projected onto three video screens. Their seductive dimension was enhanced almost monstrously.
The exhibition was titled, like the series, “How Many is One,” a title that suggests concepts of replication and multiplication, at the core of the world of design, in contrast with the singularity of an artistic object. Those dozens of tiny objects featured at the exhibition, like their seven remnants in the Museum collection, elucidate how these concepts can be reciprocally diluted, just as Stern Schocken’s jewelry language spaces out common definitions and works in the interludes between beauty, functionality, art and design.
In 2004, the Museum presented the exhibition “Rose c'est la vie: On Flowers in Contemporary Art,” curated by Edna Moshenson. It showcased dozens of flowers, in all possible media, by Israeli and international artists — none of which featured simply beautiful flowers. Prominent among all the videos, photographs, paintings and objects was Erez Israeli’s video Untitled with its chilling combination of beauty, pain and death.
The artist’s naked upper torso is at the center of the frame. A stationary camera follows him as he stitches red gerberas into his skin, one by one, and then gradually plucks the petals off. After 38 minutes of self-harm and self-coronation, the artist’s body is covered with red stains, like a tombstone once the wreaths have been removed from it. In the local context, certainly when this is a young man’s body, gerbera wreaths are not only formal mourning wreaths, but clearly military wreaths.
A year earlier, in 2003, shortly after graduating from Hamidrasha, Israeli exhibited at the Herzliya Museum a series of seven wreaths cast in cement, distributed against the wall like wreaths on Roman sarcophagi, with gerberas and chrysanthemums. Heroic death, youth and the pathos of commemoration and beauty recur in another video work, in which the artist rests in his mother’s arms, in a Pietà pose, while she plucks from his body feathers that had been stuck to his skin. A later metamorphosis of those wreaths and of the 2004 video work is on permanent display at the Museum’s Nata’s Garden: a horizontal line of cast wreaths which simultaneously decorate the marble wall and imprint it with the visibility of a memorial wall.
A cube box made of plaster is placed on an old, nondescript wooden chair; five additional plaster boxes, of various sizes, are placed between its legs. For a moment you could imagine those boxes taking refuge among those legs, and for another, the chair seems more like a prisoner, trapped between the boxes, immovable. The title Wait hovering above it enhances the sense of an arrested, immobile interim state, in anticipation of a potential future occurrence; it also seems to imply, by alliteration, the heaviness of weight and the discomfort of waiting.
These boxes were made by casting plaster into the simplest cardboard boxes, the ones used for storing personal items and mostly identified with moving house, leaving a workplace or looking after the belongings of someone who has gone without return. Plaster-cast cardboard boxes were at the center of Rachel Whitread’s 2005 installation Embankment, at the Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall: 14,000 white polyethylene boxes stacked up like a maze throughout the hall. Like all installations in the Turbine Hall, Embankment was also expansive and ambitious, yet its origin was an intimate moment in Whiteread’s life: after her mother’s death, when she unpacked and repacked her belongings from cardboard boxes, she was struck by the emotional qualities concealed within this simple, modest, indistinctive box. The cardboard box joined a list of daily objects, including a water bottle, a mattress, a bath and a wardrobe, whose interior Whiteread cast in plaster, resin, rubber or wax, making them into ghosts of objects, custodians of memory, absence or loss.
Whiteread shot to world fame in 1993 with House. It was a life-size cast of an interior of a three-storey East London Victorian house scheduled for demolition. The work raised intense criticism and a heated public debate about art as critical action and won that year’s prestigious Turner Prize. Twelve years later, in 2005, the ghost of the house disintegrated into tens of thousands of small memory boxes. Wait is one of them.
With her red protruding pigtails, a checkered shirt, striped socks and sliders, Rona Yefman’s Pippi is an enchanting character: feminine-childish, activist-naïve. Portrayed by Danish artist Tanja Schlander, Yefman’s Pippi does her utmost to knock down the Israeli West Bank Barrier in Abu Dis. It is a heroic, unfounded, doomed-to-failure attempt. The towering concrete wall is three times her height, and even the superpowers of the “strongest girl in the world” cannot defeat it.
Pippi’s literary character has captivated the imagination of girls and boys around the world ever since she first appeared, in 1945, in Swedish author Astrid Lindgren’s book Pippi Longstocking: a rebellious child with a deep sense of justice and her own ideas, who refuses to bow down to the authority of grown-ups just because they are grown-ups, and wholly repudiates the expectations to be a polite, quiet and gentle girl. In the wake of the book’s success and Pippi’s popularity, two more books, films and plays followed. Yefman enlists Pippi’s non-conformist character to a game of political imagination, in which a girl who declares herself to be the “strongest girl in the world” refuses to accept a senseless reality of separation, conflict and war.
This photograph is part of a larger project centered on Pippi, which culminated in a video work first presented in 2008. While Pippi tries to move the concrete wall, passers-by in Abu Dis look at her, talk to her, encourage her and some join her on a mission that is clearly hopeless — but nevertheless worth a try.
In 2007, Yael Bartana presented the first chapter of what would later be known as the Polish Trilogy: three short films depicting an imaginary political action calling upon Jews to return to Poland. The first, 11-minute chapter, Mary Koszmary (Nightmares in Polish) takes place in a deserted stadium in Warsaw. Sławomir Sierakowski, a young Polish politician, addresses a group of children in a youth movement uniform with an impassioned speech in which he explains why the return of millions of Jews to Poland would be beneficial to both sides. A slogan written in quicklime on the grass reads “3,300,000 Jews can change the life of 40,000,000 Poles.” The film was accompanied by the actual establishment of a Jewish Renaissance in Poland Movement, leading to the second, 15-minute-long chapter, made in 2009, titled Mur i Wieża (Wall and Tower). It takes place in a park not far from the location of the Jewish Ghetto, where a group of young Israelis and Poles build a small settlement based on the tower-and-blockade model. The film was shot in the style of Leni Riefenstahl’s propaganda films and Zionist newsreels from the days of the British Mandate, creating an absurd reality of a Kibbutz in the center of Warsaw. The third chapter, Zamach (Assassination), was first screened in 2011 in the Polish Pavilion at the Venice Biennale, alongside the first two chapters, together titled …And Europe will be Stunned. The art world was certainly stunned by an Israeli artist featured at the Polish Pavilion, one of the first cases that disrupted the national representation at the core of the Biennale. While the first two chapters focused on the possibility of a relationship between two nations to deviate from the fate outlined by history, operating with reconciliation and growth, Zamach was a long (35 minutes) and pessimistic final chapter: it features the funeral procession of Sławomir Sierakowski, leader of the Jewish Renaissance in Poland Movement, assassinated for his political views.
Announcing “We shall be strong in our weakness,” which reappears on boards and banners throughout the film, Bartana’s Polish Trilogy signs off with the full ceremonial pathos of official state mourning, with a clear reference to the assassination of Rabin and the consequent mourning ceremonies, including the youths of the Candle Generation. The imaginary utopic national initiative came to an end.
After its presentation at the Venice Biennale, the trilogy was screened at the Helena Rubinstein Pavilion, and in 2012 was purchased for the Museum jointly with the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum and Foundation.
In David Adika’s photograph, Rabin Square is unpopulated: apart from one tiny figure walking along the fountain in the distance, there is not one person in the square. The place, identified with mass gatherings and a social-political-general public sphere, is one of the best-known iconic locations not only in Tel Aviv but throughout Israel — as well as one of the most photographed. It is against this cumulative photographed image of the square that Adika’s photograph stands out, so deviant, creating a strange defamiliarization regarding the familiar and mundane.
At the center of the frame, in the forefront of the photograph, is the celebrated Rabin Square olive tree, framed in concrete. Well-maintained, lonely and out of context, it looks more like a flowerpot in a window box than a tree planted in the earth, like an out-of-proportions bonsai tree. The rectangular, horizontal Municipality building behind it blocks the view. In between them, the huge square spreads out, demarcated on the left by towering poles that are here to serve all the rallies, demonstrations, ceremonies and shows, past and future.
The square’s emptiness and the frame’s symmetry draw the eye to the recurring straight lines and quadrangular forms: the concrete enveloping the olive tree, the paving slats, the rectangular cube of the Municipality building with its square windows, and the tall Gan Hair tower right behind it. The place is replete with defamiliarization and alienation. The sign on the poles announcing “Happy Holidays” only accentuates the lack of happiness here. Thirteen years after Rabin’s assassination, the photograph exposes the square as a location suffering from post-trauma.
This is Adika’s specialty: he points his camera at the mundane, the daily, the familiar, and draws qualities that make us view them differently. The photograph of Rabin Square is a brilliant example: seemingly a standard street photograph but in fact a portrait of a location with psychological qualities. Surrounded by all the structured, horizontal and vertical rectangles, the olive tree as a remnant of domesticated nature, uprooted from elsewhere, a gloomy monument to nature and other displacements, witness to the event that gave the square its name, which hovers over the void like a trauma that will never heal.
It is the same olive tree from last week (David Adika’s photograph, the Square 2008), and the same Rabin Square; however, their identity is revealed only towards the end of the film. During its opening minutes you might imagine the scene takes place somewhere in an archetypal Palestinian village: the artist, Rafaat Hattab, draws water in a bucket, sweeps dry leaves around the trunk of an olive tree, waters it and gently harvests olives from its branches. A song in Arabic plays in the background; and then the camera zooms out and you realize that Hattab is drawing the water from the fountain at the foot of the Tel Aviv–Yaffo municipality building, not far from Tumarkin’s Holocaust and Revival memorial. The nostalgic tone transforms immediately, and the pre-conditioned narrative and atmosphere — fond memories of the past, the olive tree as a symbol of Palestinian nationality — disintegrate. Now we must also confront our ability, or inability, to understand the song’s Arabic lyrics.
It is the song Hub (love), by Lebanese singer Ahmad Kaabour: speaking in the second-person plural, it addresses a Palestinian audience, expressing a sense of belonging and solidarity. The Palestinian narrative hovers over this short video work not literally but in an attempt to touch upon and avoid a cliché. Hattab, who was born in Yaffo and studied art at the Midrasha and Bezalel, lives and works in a Jewish society and expresses the dichotomy of his identity between cultures and places. The olive tree planted in Rabin Square, watered by the fountain’s water with a Lebanese song soundtrack, expropriates the Square of its Israeli distinctiveness, with its imprinted memories, and transforms it into a moment in a space that has no national attribution, that enables the existence of different memories, longings and pains all emerging from different directions.
In 2010, American artist Kenneth Noland, a prominent abstract expressionist painter, died. Some 40 years previously, in 1973, Noland visited Tel Aviv for the occasion of installing his sculpture in the city. “Few people know that this celebrated painter has been working for several years on large-scale sculptures. Installing one of these almost ‘secret’ structures in Tel Aviv may raise great interest among intellectuals throughout the many countries where he is acclaimed,” thus the Tel Aviv Literature and Art Foundation (later renamed The Yehoshua Rabinovich Foundation for the Arts, Tel Aviv) announced the installation of Noland’s sculpture Vermont 1971, '72, '73.
The sculpture’s title comprises a location and a date — Vermont in the north-eastern USA, where the artist had lived since 1963, and 1971, ’72 and ’73, the three years during which he created the work and was invited to participate in the Tel Aviv outdoor sculptures project. The project commissioned other sculptures, among them George Segal’s Sacrifice of Isaac, which was placed at Heichal HaTarbut (Culture Palace) and also donated to the Museum (the Square 1973), Menashe Kadishman’s Uprise, at Habima Square and Yitzhak Danziger’s Akalaton (Serpentine) in Hayarkon Park.
As noted in the Foundation’s announcement, Noland was known as a painter — his large-scale colorful striped paintings are a perfect example of Color Field paintings. In 1965, the sculptor David Smith, who was his close friend, died, and Noland decided to make use of the many tools and materials he had left behind. One result of this homage to Smith was a three-dimensional grid made of wood and steel pallets, which eventually found its way to Tel Aviv. The outdoor sculpture project was coordinated by US-born Israeli artist Reuven Berman who was a rare representative of abstract geometric art; he would later recount that Noland was horrified by the massacre of the Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympic Games in 1972 and decided to dedicate the work to their memory. The sculpture was inaugurated in June 1973 at the Four Winds Hill at Hayarkon Park, in the presence of the artist and mayor Yehoshua Rabinovich. In the late 1980s, the sculpture was gifted to the Museum, restored and installed in the piazza at the entrance to the Museum. Today it stands on the grass opposite the Cameri Theater, west of the Herta and Paul Amir Building: airy, minimalist-monumental, it serves as an unexpected greeting from a peak moment of American art.
At first sight, this is a fairly standard monument: a slanted plaque within a wooden frame, placed on a pillar of concrete bricks. And then you read the text: “In memory of hundreds of builders of the country who lost their lives on scaffolding, some thirty annually from the establishment of the state to this day. Arabs, Jews and foreign workers, contract workers and hired laborers, whose names are unknown. In death they bequeathed us the Israeli real estate, rent and acquisition groups.”
This was Shelly Federman’s mindset: sensitive to Israel’s reality and its local aesthetics, with a talent to turn ready-mades (materials, texts) into something else. She passed away in December 2014, aged 39, leaving behind a moderate body of work, ideas for unrealized projects and thoughts about art that deviates from conventional artistic objects. Her work dealt with the public space, urbanity, the water, the sea and aggressive real-estate, manifesting in various forms: installations, video works, outdoor sculptures.
In 2004, Federman presented the installation Sea & Sun at the Venice Biennale of Architecture Israeli Pavilion. It was a kind of capsule of a Tel Aviv beach imported to Venice, complete with sand, plastic seaside chairs and parasols, cabins for peering through towards the sunset and sand molds for making sand hotels. The installation perfectly captured Federman’s characteristics: absurdity, humor, a bemused examination of locality and a unique way of activating the viewer. Monument to the Anonymous Construction Worker, made several years later, is less bemused, more distressing, yet no less absurd.