(photo credit: Tel Aviv Museum of Art)
Over the past 50 years Menashe Kadishman (b. Tel Aviv 1932) has created a significant body of sculptures, paintings, conceptual pieces and graphic prints. Awarded the Israel Prize in 1995, Kadishman has, most of the time, been an establishment favorite who gained international recognition and played a significant role in advancing the cause of Israeli art. The Tel Aviv Museum of Art is now presenting a long overdue, wide-ranging retrospective of Kadishman's works, assembled chronologically. They date from his earliest student trials to his latest unstretched canvases based on important 19th-century paintings, mostly by Van Gogh and Millet.
Kadishman's impressive career began with a solid foundation in sculpture. After studying with Moshe Sternschuss and Rudi Lehmann, he attended St. Martin's and the Slade in London during the early 1960s, where he was properly introduced to the tools and the aesthetics of the trade as indicated in this show by a group of hand modeled bronze maquettes of distinctive archaic altars and arches. Soon after attending the classes of Anthony Caro, his work took a constructivist, near minimalist, turn.
During his minimalist phase Kadishman investigated the possibility of freeing geometric forms from their apparent weightiness by creating a vision of mass floating in space. One method was to lighten the load of hefty outdoor metallic forms by finishing them into bright industrial colors, especially a brilliant yellow, as in Suspense, 1966, a monumental work bought by Willem Sandberg for the Billy Rose Sculpture Garden of the Israel Museum.
Equally important is Segments, 1969, a definitive work that challenges the perception of gravity and investigates the relationship of reality to illusion. In Segments, Kadishman fashioned an implausible balance between several sheets of plate glass employed to separate a fragmented arch of rectangular aluminum solids. Several fine granite and brass abstract compositions from this period are also featured in the exhibition.
Returning to Israel in 1972, Kadishman also returned to the land. The concept "nature as art - art as nature" occupied his imaginative powers for many years to come. A number of major projects, including the outdoor sculptures on the Tel Aviv Museum's entrance plaza, fall within the scope of this effort. One, entitled Laundry Forest, 1974, contains eight five-meter-high sheets of fabric fluttering in the wind, all decorated with cut-out negatives of trees. Communicating a similar conceptual bent, that of interfering with nature, are several installations (in Jerusalem, Montevideo and New York) in which trees and patches of earth were painted bright yellow.
There are sections of the exhibition that do not connect with anything created by Kadishman before or after all the above. Phonebook Cardiograms from the '70s is a problematic work consisting of randomly marked pages from the telephone directories of London, New York, Tel Aviv and Cologne. Although the written material accompanying the show attempts to explain the directories' relevance to the artist's mental state at the time, this attempt at conceptual art falls appallingly short of something important in his oeuvre.
Kadishman, once a shepherd in the Jezreel Valley, turned the 1978 Israel Pavilion at the Venice Biennale into a sheep pen. The back of each animal was marked with a color. This live happening was his conscious effort to get back into the mainstream of local culture while simultaneously attempting to mine his personal history.
Since then, the greater part of Kadishman's prolific output has been mediocre, as he fell into a pattern of knocking out canvases by the dozen of the image of a sheep's head wildly painted in a range of brassy hues. The more exceptional pieces in this endless cycle have been those that equate the painted images with tinted stones placed before the canvas.
Over the last decade, The Herd, an installation of approximately 400 same-size and pedestrian oils and acrylics of the sheep head motif, all 80 X 60 cm., has been exhibited in locations from Jaffa and Beijing to Bangkok, Aachen and Haarlem. This installation's impact, currently in the museum's Rappaport Sculpture Gallery, is in the sheer quantity of the images but definitely not in their quality. Stylistically, they range from the expressionistic and naturalistic to the abstract, with an abundance of added hand-written messages accumulated over the years. The Herd is the result of a determination to milk a subject to its bitter end.
Except for one-off works like the monumental Three Discs in front of the Mann Auditorium, other subjects that have occupied Kadishman for the past two decades are the Sacrifice of Isaac, Mother and Child and Eretz Yisrael. Predictably all are attached to a collective myth of a past and present cultural identity and all relate, in one form or another, to an ideology based on compliance, fulfillment and realization.
Kadishman's magnum opus, and probably his most significant contributions to Israeli sculpture, are the several variations on the Sacrifice of Isaac. Among them is the epic three-part rusted Cor-Ten steel sculpture erected in 1986 on the TAMA plaza. Having reduced the players to a few major forms and shapes, he created a metaphorical composition that has not lost the passion and mythic resolve of the biblical narrative. The ram, the wailing woman and Isaac, left to their devices in the face of Abraham's absence, are formed into a binding triangular relationship that, despite the mystification, has maintained its visual energy and exceptional power.
Cut from single steel plates are intertwined compositions of Mother and Child and Eretz Yisrael, both reduced to basic symbolic shapes. The former, with its caressing graphic undulations, projects the essence of love and compassion on a human scale, while the latter's definitions of donkeys, palms and furrowed fields explore a lost bucolic communal existence.
A major exhibition of Kadishman's etchings, lithographs and serigraphs is concurrently on view at the Genia Shreiber Art Gallery of Tel Aviv University. Also on view is Kadishman's Draw Me a Sheep, an interactive display for the entire family.
A recap of Shalechet (Fallen Leaves), an installation memorializing the Holocaust as well as all victims of war and violence, comprises more than 10,000 open-mouthed faces coarsely cut from heavy circular iron plates covering the floor of the Memory Void in Berlin's Jewish Museum and has been mounted in the Jeanette Assia Gallery. As one walks on the metal forms they vibrate with a deafening echo that reverberates throughout the space, an experience one does not easily forget.
Through all these major and minor artistic explorations, where, one wonders, did Kadishman make his true mark? For what will he be remembered? What will history tell about this sculptor, painter, printmaker, installation and conceptual artist? Kadishman has scattered his talents in a variety of directions and an accurate assessment of his contribution to Israeli art is difficult to judge, partly because of the superficiality of his more recent work. One feels like asking, will the real Kadishman please stand up? (Tel Aviv Museum of Art, King Saul Blvd.).