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(photo credit: Courtesy)
When Michael Adler, a professor of economics at Columbia University, offered his collection of Israeli conceptual and post-minimalist art to the Herzliya Museum of Contemporary Art in 2006, Dalia Levin, the museum's director, had genuine reservations about accepting. After all, artworks from the 1970s and 1980s were not on the cutting edge of her digital philosophy and certainly did not fit the museum's theoretical agenda. Nevertheless, one doesn't look a gift horse in the mouth, as that old adage teaches us. So Levin put her idealistic baggage behind her and agreed to absorb into the museum's growing collection Adler's cabinet of paintings, sculptures and works on paper.
Levin's next step was to find a way to exhibit the collection and somehow expand its boundaries so that it would meld into the museum's character, one that she has developed and nurtured, without being diverted, for more than a decade. Engaged to meet the challenge was Adi Englman, a young curator trained in Israel and London, who assembled D.I.Y.*, The Michael Adler Collection and Israeli Post-Minimalism in the Seventies and in Contemporary Art. Englman's initiative was to display works by veterans of the 1970s side-by-side with those by six contemporary artists whose videos, photographs, action and object art were somehow made to fit into the larger scheme of post-minimalist theory.
The idea of Israeli post-minimalist trends, coupled with a conceptual twist early on, tracked between 1968 and 1980, are inexorably wound up with curators that include Bertha Urdang, Yona Fischer, Yigal Zalmona, Robert Pincus-Witten and Sara Breitberg-Semel, who not only endorsed but applauded the artistic directions advanced by, among others, Benni Efrat, Joshua Neustein, Michael Gitlin, Buky Schwartz, Nahum Tevet and Pinchas Cohen Gan. Together, promoters and creators forged an alliance that gave birth to one of Israel's most inventive, stimulating and inspirational artistic decades.
Unlike traditional painting and sculpture whose forms are committed to an illusionist or an expressionist assessment of nature on a flat surface or in a given space, either in a realist or abstract format, minimalism, as espoused by the Americans Ad Reinhardt and Frank Stella is a rejection of everything sensuous in art where nuance, texture and color were not an issue. The objective was to create a work of art that was an object rather than an impression. Minimalism was polemical and dogmatic wrapped and labeled process art whereby the idea, the procedure and the final document are compressed into an act of a transitory creation that rejects artificial and traditional conventions. To quote Stella: "What you see is what you see."
Englman has divided the Adler collection in two, displaying works and objects of the current generation between them. Entering the first hall was a dÃ©jÃ vu experience. Confronting familiar sculptures by Gitlin, descriptive photographs of Neustein in action and delicate pencil drawings by Efrat set me back almost 30 years. In addition, the collection includes paintings by Arie Aroch, Michael Gross, Joseph Zaritsky, Avigdor Stematsky, Larry Abramson and Rafi Lavie and sculptures by Buky Schwartz, Menashe Kadishman and Shlomo Koren.
Despite a concentration of works by Efrat and Neustein, it is obvious that Adler was somewhat of an eclectic collector fundamentally directed and influenced by the holdings of Bertha Urdang in her New York gallery. Not only do the works show a marked difference in their attitudes and visual mannerisms but also the quality of the overall collection is rather average. And because it was housed in Adler's Upper West Side apartment, size played a major factor in his selection - all medium to small formats; no large or monumental pieces were ever purchased.
Of the items chosen to be included in the museum show Arie Aroch's untitled mixed-media on canvas is a regrettable compendium of uncontrolled scrawled and compressed edged to edge in the rectangle. From the Alaska Series and A Night in Sinai, two works on paper from the mid 1970s, Cohen Gan shows his excellent exploratory manner and inventive mind. Oblivious of the final product's appearance, his work has an immediacy that investigates the manner in which his mind and hand cooperate rather than what they are able to produce. Shelter, a large relief constructed from a flanged cornucopia of painted blue geometric chunks of wood by Gitlin, was created in 1987 then reconstructed in 1996, far from the heydays of post-minimalism and his truly undemanding floor and wall pieces from the mid-1970s. With one or two flat planes or rectangular bars, painted black to reduce their associative value, these early non-objective minimal works were truly involved in the rudiments of sculpture; an analysis of proportion, scale, negative-positive elements and the limitations of space.
But for Adler it was Neustein and Efrat who actually laid the groundwork for post-minimalist art in Israel and therefore occupies the lion's share of his collection. Of the several pieces by each artist, Neustein's tour de force entitled Tectonic (1973), a remarkable work for its time made from acrylic paint on torn paper, is representative of an era and stands apart. In addition, his video clip Erasures (1971-73) and a renewal of The Loaded Brush of Gustave Courbet, a curious art historical reference piece that launched his solo exhibition at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art in 1977, are all-embracing reminders of those penetrating days.
Efrat, whose manifesto rejects art as a symbol, image or an illusion, is represented by several pieces from Information, a 1967-painted stainless steel sculpture, several white and black ink drawings on graph paper such as Adding to Subtract (1969-1975) and Scopes, a series of six silkscreen prints each composed from a trio of colored, ragged-edged bands. Efrat's transformation from conceptual art to post-minimalism is implied in Matter on the Move (1969), an ingenious installation in which he has positioned a one-ton steel plate directly on top of a solid foam rubber bed measuring 2.50 x 2 x 0.70 meters. As the plate recedes into the solid belly of the foam it is transposed into a kinetically deformed chunk of matter unrelated to its environment and devoid of any personal, social or political attributes.
Unavoidable, but on view nevertheless, are several minor canvases by Michael Gross, a paper-and-gauze textured panel by Zigi Ben-Haim and a pair of severe mixed-media black drawings by Nahum Tevet from 1978. Although Buky Schwartz shows two standing sculptures in wood, metal and mirrors his six-part Videoconstructions from 1978, in which viewers are exposed to the deconstruction of illusions from freestanding equilateral triangles to rectangular solids are most memorable.
A note related to D.I.Y.* - Do It Yourself. Because minimalist art is related to process, production and source material, Englman has appended several works in the exhibition with precise instructions and tips for viewers to read and act if they choose to reproduce the work as displayed.
Among the works being shown by the younger generation, Ohad Matalon's series of darkroom-altered black-and-white photographs, Action's (Duration) Echo, are hardly minimalist for they project a visualized diary of persona and place. Two items of a Duchampian objet trouvÃ© character by Lea Avital include a mound of folded A4 sheaves of paper wrapped in a rubber band, and Adjustment, a wooden branch enveloped by a metal spring. They exist little more can be said. Angela Klein's untitled installation with photographic self-portraits and Hila Laviv's cut paper hanging flags are both limited works of art. Orchard is a brooding time-delay video by Shahar Yahalom that searches the spirit of nature with minimal light at varying hours of the day and is somewhat closely related to Shibetz Cohen's 5 x 1.50 meter graphite frottage, a haunting replica of the museum's exterior concrete wall.
As an added bonus to D.I.Y.*, Nahum Tevet has installed Several Things, a quasi replay of his recent Israel Museum exhibition in which a plethora of wooden frames, boxes, stools and chairs were arranged, market style, in a large gallery space.
(Herzliya Museum of Contemporary Art, 4 Habanim, Herzliya). Until March 29.