Cities of wood

Veteran Israeli artist Nahum Tevet is having the biggest solo show ever seen at the Israel Museum.

dongen art 88 298 (photo credit: )
dongen art 88 298
(photo credit: )
Veteran Israeli artist Nahum Tevet is having the biggest solo show ever seen at the Israel Museum. His huge compositions of the last decade, based on assemblies of hundreds of minimalist wooden forms, each have their own gallery and they take up the entire top floor of the Cummings Pavilion. While they are all made up of similarly conceived pieces of simple carpentry, each work has its own character. Several decades have passed since Tevet first introduced his sculptural assemblages of odd-shaped pieces of carpentry and bits of furniture. These sat on the floor but also arose from it and were assembled in compositions that seem to fall in with a new tradition of sculpture, that of making a work from many smaller pieces of allied materials: found scraps of metals or deliberately modeled pieces of ceramic. I wasn't much moved by these early efforts, one of which is recreated here as the first of the series of galleries. These early compositions seemed too freewheeling and arbitrary. The idea aside, they looked too "easy." The more recent works, huge in scale and numbers of components, are, however, quite masterly in the way they immediately establish a feeling of organic order. This is because they are arranged on a grid and appear to be organized as "streets." Most of them give you the impression that you are looking at a city like Manhattan, despite the fact that all the disparate bits of wood and board employed do not resemble buildings. They are merely ciphers for architecture. Many of these components are just primitive forms of carpentry, thin bits of wood nailed together as frames, sideless boxes or doll chairs with very long legs. Like an observer of an impressionist painting of Paris, one finds oneself trying to make sense of the blobs and brushstrokes, while simultaneously taking in the canvas as a whole. The sweep of this huge cityscape, as seen from a neighboring high-rise or low-flying aircraft, is uncannily convincing. To further distance it all from any hint of realism, Tevet occasionally leans a board sited in the middle of a "street," but these are unnecessary. Tevet writes that he never sets out with a particular idea in mind, but lets the work grow under his hand. More recently he has explored painting the components to conform to a pastel-like harmony, or to arranging slabs horizontally, in a grid that recalls that of the other type of city, the cemetery. Tevet's works are a continuation of a fairly recent tradition in art, that of creating works, conceptual or otherwise, that can only be seen in a large museum space. Unlike the small canvases of earlier times, these works will rarely be seen more than once by anyone other than the curators and guards. Their ability to provide comprehension must be immediate. Happily, in this, Tevet has succeeded. IT IS axiomatic that conceptual art is also a form largely confined to a single viewing in a large gallery space. In the Israel Museum's Billy Rose Pavilion are a number of conceptual installations by Hadas Ophrat, who features himself in the main production, a circular pool-like video of gardens and seeds, projected from above, the ornamental edging to the pool surmounted by fiberglass representations of the classical conceptual image, the funerary urn. Elsewhere, a huge burned spice-tower provides a symbol. A catalog replete with lengthy explanations provides a guide to the perplexed. Curator Tali Tamir defines it all as "reconciliations between extremes and processes of birth and death," while terming the myriad of elements as "multidisciplinary." Attention is even drawn to the use of myrtle leaves, hadas in Hebrew. Gee. DOWN IN the Worms and Hillman galleries of classical art is a half-baked flop of a show entitled Age of Innocence: Portraying Children in the European Tradition allegedly showing how children have been perceived over the last half millennium. It does nothing of the sort. This mishmash of mostly third-rate oils, 20th-century prints and a few interesting photographs cannot even begin to recall, much less describe, the horrors of being a child in anything but a well-off family. Even then, just surviving boarding schools was a trial, though this was doubtless preferable to being consigned to virtual slave labor. Several of the religious oils are simply too poor to merit an outing, but there are a few gems like Jacques Emile Brandon's little depiction of children in a heder. It isn't anything like the traditional image however, but a depiction of a break in religious instruction in a French Jewish school or institution, as the children in school robes wander in a large room while the bored melamed sits with his back to the wall. The details in this atmospheric miniature are marvelously brought off. Painted in 1870, it reminds me a bit of a Sargent. The Brandon is one of three exhibits that make the show worth a visit. Take a look at the superb fauvist portrait of a girl by Kees van Dongen, circa 1906, poorly displayed in a corner of the little graphics section. And then there are two innocent photographs of a young girl by that fervent admirer of very young ladies, the Rev. Charles Dodgson, aka Lewis Carroll, author of Alice in Wonderland. SEVERAL NEW shows are opening at the Israel Museum this week and next month, probably the last before most of the the art and Judaica galleries close in July, when the museum will begin several years of renovation and reconstruction. The biggest new show, Surrealism and Beyond, has been mounted in the Weisbord Entrance Pavilion, the only art exhibition space that will remain open during the renovations. Apart from a special installation commissioned from Mark Dion, the exhibits are all drawn from the museum's extensive surrealist holdings. Next month the museum will present a review of the early works of the late Israeli painter and muralist Avraham Ofek; a large show devoted to a rather overworked theme: the 19th-century fascination with the Near East; and fascinating photographs of Jewish life in North Africa from the collection of Gerard Levy. The Youth Wing, also scheduled to remain open during the renovations, will mount a show devoted to the theme of water in art and life.