When art curator Yaniv Shapira enrolled in museology studies at Tel Aviv University, he never expected to become the real-life curator of a fictitious museum. But this is precisely what happened when, in 2002, Shapira decided to investigate a group of boxes that were cursorily known as the “Meir Agassi Museum.”
“Agassi had many friends in the cultural sphere,” explains Shapira, “and many had heard of the notion [of the Meir Agassi Museum]. But no one knew or could say what it actually was.”
After Agassi’s death, his entire library was donated to the Ein Harod Museum of Art, which had built a special new wing to absorb the thousands of volumes. Shapira, who worked at the museum, was the first to take the time and carefully inspect the boxes. He had no idea that what he would find inside would actually be Agassi’s nearly unknown artistic estate.
“It was like opening Pandora’s box,” he says. “There was no way back. I uncovered worlds upon worlds.”
The result, in 2003, was the first exhibition of the Meir Agassi Museum: A Mental, Metaphorical, Real Space. The exhibit opened at the Tel Aviv University Gallery and then moved to the Museum of Art in Ein Harod. Since then, it has been exhibited again both here and abroad, each time with an accent on a different portion of the massive variety of activity that Agassi incorporated into his “museum.” Its most recent incarnation has been as part of a museum-wide focus on collecting at the Haifa Museum of Art.
“The exhibit shocked the Israeli art world,” Shapira remembers. “At once they were introduced to Agassi’s body of work which was no less impressive than his writing.”
It showed that his artwork was not only important but relevant to a large variety of artistic concerns – art history, drawing, photos, collage, outsider art, memory, reality/fantasy, archiving, collection, textuality, museology. Shapira says that, looking back, his job as a curator was simply to show the scope of the museum – to delineate its breadth, where it started and where it ended, what he calls the conceptual “blueprint” of the museum.
At the time of his death – in a 1998 car accident that also killed his second wife and their son – Meir Agassi (b. 1947) was known primarily as a writer. His early publications – which included a story (1968) and a book of poetry (1969) – along with his years coediting the weekly magazine Monitin
with Adam Baruch (1978-1980), solidified his position as a figure in the cultural-literary realm.
Agassi had been living in England for nearly 20 years, from where he wrote dozens of articles on art for a variety of Israeli newspapers and magazines, including regular contributions to the influential art journal Studio
. In 1987, he also published an autobiographic novel called The Black Hills of Dakota
focusing on his time as the “artistic youth” at Kibbutz Ramat Hakovesh. He maintained an interest in European art and also wrote on Israeli artists like Zadok Ben-David and Michal Heiman. And just before his death, he wrote a short monograph called “Meir Agassi: Yehiel Shami’s Papers” about the famed sculptor’s little-known works on paper.
And yet the force that drove Agassi from one place to the next was less his writing than his own art production. As early as 1963, at 16, he was singled out by the kibbutz as an “artistic personality” and sent to Tel Aviv to study art at the Avni Institute. Starting in 1970, he held five solo shows and another five group shows across the country, until in 1980 he was awarded a scholarship to study art in England. Two years later he settled permanently in Bristol. There he was considered an Israeli artist, while in Israel he was known as a writer on art.
This bifurcation was found not only in the way Agassi was perceived from outside but also in the way he perceived himself. He truly did not know how to be a single “artist” without negating one or another aspect of his practice. He was a painter, a poet, a collector, an editor, an organizer – he was all these things without being one of them. He was interested in both the physical and conceptual act of art. This conflict developed in him until he found a solution: to turn himself into a museum.
THE MEIR AGASSI MUSEUM is made up of several departments: library, archive, artworks, store and collection. Agassi was the museum’s founder, its curator, its publicity person. In 1995, he even published a mission statement called “Some Notes Toward the Meir Agassi Museum.”
“All this I learned from the museum itself,” says Shapira. “What one can see from all the materials [Agassi] prepared is that he took the museum very seriously.”
Agassi, adds Shapira, saw himself as an artist. But the conflict between art and writing remained and the two mediums were never mutually exclusive. His art was full of texts, and his writing was all about art. His solution was not only to institute a museum, but also to invent a series of artistic personalities which the museum would exhibit. Each one would be given its own biography, intellectual preoccupations and artistic style. Agassi would fabricate not only their lives but also their works. He would write catalogue essays explaining their work to the public. And alongside them he would exhibit the real artist Meir Agassi.
And though the artist is no longer with us, says Shapira, the museum is a kind of genius solution to remaining fresh. “The museum continues to function. It is its own voice – the artist doesn’t need to say anything else.”
Agassi succeeded in this personal freshness partly by endowing his fictional characters with traits from his own life, while combining them with elements taken from history. He made use of four artistic characters – Susan Lipski, Mo Kramer, David Strauss and Meir Agassi – each of which reflected some aspect of his own biography. On the one hand it was a kind of game that he played, but on the other it allowed him finally to infuse his real varying interests into whole fictional personalities.
Susan Lipski, for example, was born in 1947, the same year Agassi was born. She, like Agassi, collected old cameras, photos and albums that she bought at flea markets. In 1988, Lipski met Agassi at the Venice Biennale, and after that they started a written correspondence in which they would discuss their mutual interests. Lipski would write to Agassi about the nature of her collecting, and Agassi would respond with his own collector’s “credo.” Among the fruits of their correspondence is an English-language poem – “The Mind Is a Beautiful Museum” – which Agassi wrote and dedicated to Susan Lipski.
“The whole thing is a philosophical construction,” says Shapira. “Agassi is not just writing about a collector, it’s a reflective act about why he collects and what it means in terms of memory, art and culture.”
Mo Kramer, another of Agassi’s characters, was born in 1920 in Hanover – the birthplace of the real German painter Kurt Schwitters, who had a strong influence on Agassi. In 1938, Kramer moved from Germany to a kibbutz, as Agassi’s parents had probably done around the same period. But he later moved to Tel Aviv and by 1954 emigrated to New York. There he taught himself to draw in a style visibly influenced by the art-historically significant artistic styles being developed in New York in the middle of the last century.
Upon Kramer’s death in 1993 – a year after the Meir Agassi Museum was established – Agassi was contacted by Mary Levine, a fictional mediator, who offered Kramer’s never-exhibited artistic estate to the museum. Agassi was more than happy to accept the work, which eventually arrived in Bristol from New York in a stamped box. The work was then organized by Meir Agassi into what he called “The Case of the Lost Life and Work of Mo Kramer (1920-1993).”
As with Lipski, similarities between Kramer’s personality and Agassi’s artistic concerns abound. Agassi was greatly interested in the visual techniques of surrealist, minimalist, abstract expressionist and conceptual art – particularly by artists such as Paul Klee, Jean Dubuffet, Jackson Pollock, Joseph Beuys and Cy Twombly – and was able to directly reflect these different influences in Kramer’s work. Agassi’s interest in autodidactic and outsider art was itself a part of Kramer’s personality. There is also a biographical parallel between Agassi and Kramer: Both moved from a kibbutz to Tel Aviv and eventually emigrated abroad.
“The story of Meir Agassi turned out to be exactly the story of Mo Kramer,” points out Shapira. “He saw himself as an artist. His life’s work” – the Meir Agassi Museum – “had never been properly exhibited. His work arrived in boxes that then had to be unpacked and organized. What’s strange is that [Agassi] didn’t plan that his situation would be so similar to the story he created around Mo Kramer.”
One of the museum’s personalities, David Strauss, was not so much invented as adapted by Agassi. Strauss was a real member of Kibbutz Ramat Hakovesh, to which he had moved from Europe in 1935. By the mid-1950s, Strauss’s exceedingly “strange behavior” caused him to be moved to a remote part of the kibbutz where he was left in solitude. In 1962, he was sent to a mental institution and in his room the kibbutz’s administrators found the walls covered with drawings and collages that Strauss had left behind. No one knew what to make of them so they called in the only artist person on the kibbutz, the teenage Meir Agassi, who not only didn’t know what to tell the administration but was considerably frightened by his first meeting with insanity. Strauss died in 1984 at the Kfar Ganim institution for the mentally ill.
THE OLDER AGASSI, unlike the young one, became curious about the case of David Strauss. His interest in outsider art, he realized, was supplemented by his personal experience of just such a person. But when he went looking for Strauss’ collages in the kibbutz archives, he found that they had not been kept. So he decided to recreate them as best he could from memory – particularly the motifs he remembered, which included book pages, old European maps, musical notes, phallic shapes, women’s figures – and introduced them into the museum’s holdings.
“Through David Strauss, [Agassi] was able to make himself into an as-if outsider artist,” explains Shapira. “He could never really be an ‘outsider’ because he studied art and knew the art world and wrote about art.”
But just as important was the issue of memory and fragmented personal biography. “[Agassi] was dealing with this ‘lost person’ who left no trace. By recreating his artwork for him, he also left a trace of this person.”
And then, of course, there was the painter Meir Agassi. Before 1992, Agassi created hundreds of self-portraits in media including drawing, watercolor, oil, collage and photography. Every self-portrait had a title: Self-Portrait with Anger
or Self-Portrait with Fear
or Self-Portrait, Behind
. Another was called Self-Portrait of a Self-Portrait
“What can we learn from a person who deals with self-portraiture to such a degree?” asks Shapira. “It’s someone who’s looking for an identity as a person and as an artist. Someone who keeps asking himself: Who am I?”
One of Agassi’s earlier pieces was called Self-Portrait with Grandfather
, and featured a cutout picture of the French artist Marcel Duchamp – one of the most influential artists of the 20th century who widened the understanding of the very term “art.” One of Duchamp’s works from the mid-1930s was The Green Box
, which Shapira describes as a kind of portable museum of prints and facsimiles through which Duchamp could show and explain some of the thinking behind his works relating to the now-famous The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even
(also known as The Large Glass
). The notion of a moving exhibit as well as editions that explain the work already contains traces of Agassi’s museum project – a connection which existed even before the Meir Agassi Museum was established.
At some point in the late 1980s, Agassi asked himself in writing:
“Maybe, instead of seeing myself ‘officially’ as one artist, I should
declare myself as many artists, with many names... Why not?” He did
this not just by creating fictional artists, but by creating a mental
museum – a public institution that could encompass his library of
books, an archive of his artworks, a studio for fictional and real
artists and his collections of objects that included porcelain rabbits
and old cameras. Agassi even created a spiral stamp that designated
each stamped object as “Work from the studio, archive, collections,
library and museum of Meir Agassi.”
“One thing that’s important to remember,” says Shapira, “is that along
with all these invented stories, what holds the whole thing together is
the quality of the artworks. The drawings of Mo Kramer are actually
made by the artist Meir Agassi.”
They are influenced by other artists, he adds, but this is not
something for which Agassi apologized. He made the influence part of
the work itself.
The ideas behind the the Meir Agassi Museum involve memory and
fragmented biographies. And the museum was populated by these ideas no
less than by artworks that deal with these ideas. Agassi needed this
construction to bring together all his activities. His last
self-portrait, created the year of the museum’s establishment, was
called Self-Portrait with a Very Very Long Nose
“The fictional artists,” explains Shapira, “became a different form of
self-portraiture.” And Agassi, it seems, simply turned himself into a
museum.The Meir Agassi Museum is on show at the Haifa Museum of Art
until July 17. For more information, see www.hma.org.il.