Moshe Givati had a reputation on Israel’s art scene for being difficult to work with. But no critic or curator could dismiss his raw talent and self-taught skill. After being largely absent from the Israeli art world since the 1990s, the 78-year-old artist was thrilled to return with a show of his work from 2006- 2010. But it was not meant to be. Givati succumbed to a heart condition on April 13 in Tel Aviv on the eve of the opening of his much-anticipated exhibition in New York City this week.

Deena Lusky, the curator of Givati’s new show “Equus Ambiguity – Emergence of Maturity,” at Jadite Galleries, acknowledges that he was a complex person, but adds that the greatest of artists usually are.

“He was very rough on the outside,” she says in a phone interview from New York with The Jerusalem Post. “He didn’t give a care, but on the other hand he had this person inside him that was so striving for acceptance.”

It was this insecurity, Lusky says, that caused Givati, who took part in the major contemporary art groups in Israel like the 10+ Group (1965-1966), Tazpit (1964) and Rehabilitation of the Nesher Quarry Project (1970- 1971) and showed in galleries in Israel and New York, to turn down opportunities for success over the years.

Despite being a part of those movements, he never felt that he truly belonged.

“From the beginning with Givati it was very hard to put him in a defined place,” Lusky says. Still, he longed to be acknowledged as the genius that he was.

Known for his large-scale abstract paintings using bright colors and expressive figurative elements, the new Equus series is based on Givati’s experience seeing the play Equus in 1975 while living in New York from 1974-1982 just after the Yom Kippur War. In the ‘70s, he worked on the series inspired by the play about a psychiatrist trying to understand why a young psychotic boy chose to blind six horses.

The show deals with the questions raised for Givati by the play, as well as his own maturation and the question of what it means to be a mature man.

“It has nothing to do with age,” Lusky says.

“It’s trying to live with the finding of who he is in his own eyes.”

His paintings struggle with social and political issues as well, including one particularly poignant one of a frightened figure behind bars, which he stayed up all night working on during the night of captive soldier Gilad Schalit’s release.

“He took to heart so deeply the pains of what was going on in Israel,” Lusky says. “He was a Jew and an Israeli at heart.”

Born Moshe Hacohen Wexler in 1934 in Hadera to a mother with manic-depressive disorder, from which he also suffered, Givati’s parents, Yehudit and Moshe (for whom he was named), immigrated from Khotin, Bessarabia in 1933. His father died at 21, before he was born. Givati returned to Khotin when he was two years old to live with his grandmother, but his mother brought him back to Israel just before World War II broke out.

In Israel, he struggled to keep up in school as he had dyslexia, and soon stopped attending classes before getting kicked out of the Beit Hinuch Workers’ Children School.

Givati became active in the Zionist Hashomer Hatzair youth movement and began work on Kibbutz Shamir in the Upper Galilee. In the ‘70s, he lived in the artists’ colony Ein Hod and later moved to Haifa – it was during this time that he studied with Marcel Janco, the Romanian-Israeli artist best known as a leading figure in Dadaism.

Givati shared one memory from his schooling. At around age 11 or 12, his art teacher Aaron Priver drew a horse on the blackboard and asked the class to copy it, threatening to slap their hands with a ruler if they didn’t.

Lusky postulates that his early artistic encounter with horses contributed to his later interest in Equus.

While living in New York, Givati did not paint very much, but rather focused on printmaking and textiles. When he returned to Israel, Lusky says he reached a low point personally, drinking excessively and using drugs, though he continued to garner praise from art critics for his four-panel abstract landscapes and formulation.

“My head must always be in a slightly blurry state; this is the only way I can go through life,” he had said.

While he continued to paint in the ‘90s, including a series of landscapes from Jerusalem of Arab villages over the 1967 lines, opening “Studio Givati” in a large loft in Tel Aviv and selling works to collectors who visited him, he intentionally disconnected himself from the mainstream art scene as he struggled financially and with his health, suffering his first heart attack in 1993.

Unable to meet mounting debts, Lusky says Givati found himself homeless and working as a dishwasher and juice squeezer at Tel Aviv’s old Central Bus Station. After a year, hotel owner and art collector Haim Shiff, who had purchased Givati’s paintings in the past, offered him a room at the Marina Hotel in Tel Aviv. Haim’s son Dov (Dubi) Shiff became Givati’s benefactor after his father passed away.

Always open about his mental disorder, Givati said, “Painting is my mania, and as a mentally-ill person I cannot demand anything from the authorities. Being an artist is my privilege, God’s gift, and just as a religious man reports every morning to pray to his Creator – fearlessly – thus the artist wakes up every morning for his art prayer, and must not expect anything in return.”

His last show was a retrospective of his work in 2006 at the Tel Aviv Museum, but Lusky says the exhibition did not show much of his later work.

After being told by curators and art consultants that Givati was considered a “has been,” also because he designed works for his benefactor’s hotel interiors, Lusky says she became determined to reintroduce the artist to the world when Dubi Schiff approached her about working on an exhibition.

Refusing to ever title his paintings or really verbalize what they were about, Givati insisted that it was up to the viewer to understand whatever he wanted from his deeply personal work.

“I am not a philosopher or an intellectual,” he said. “I paint beautiful paintings. On the other hand, if art lovers find ideas in the paintings, they are experiencing their own discovery. My touch on the canvas is my story.”

The exhibition in New York will run until June 30 before traveling to Los Angeles, and then Europe before possibly showing in Israel, Lusky says.

For a man for whom the canvas was his confidante, he looked forward to sharing his inner world with the public again.

“For him it was like a dream come true,” she says of the exhibition.

“He said to me, ‘in viewing my art there will be people who will look at it and continue on. But the ones who feel a connection to something that I’m expressing in my painting won’t ever want to leave it. They’ll want it in front of their face continuously.”

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