Cut from the same cloth

Tel Aviv's Rosenfeld Gallery has been transformed by its current director, Zaki Rosenfeld, from a traditionalist enterprise to a smart contemporary gallery.

soldier art 88 224 (photo credit: Courtesy )
soldier art 88 224
(photo credit: Courtesy )
From a small and inconspicuous framing shop that opened its doors in the early days of the state, the Rosenfeld Gallery, after several transformations and one major upheaval, has grown into a model of its kind. Today, situated on Tel Aviv's Rehov Dizengoff, the gallery is among a handful of establishments that are commendable examples of what a contemporary art gallery should be, or aspire to be, and how the people who run them fully comprehend the needs and desires of the artists they represent as well as feeling the pulse of collectors and curators in the institutional arena. The upheaval came after the death of the gallery's founder, Eliezer Rosenfeld, in 1994. His son Zaki, who had joined his father in the business in 1986, decided then, after expanding the company's print and multiples activities, to alter the gallery concept from a storefront establishment to a modern contemporary exhibition space and assemble a stable of cutting-edge artists he could develop and represent. In a recent conversation with Rosenfeld, he shed light on several issues facing galleries today and on his own personal involvement in continuing what had become an establishment fixture in the Tel Aviv cultural scene. According to Rosenfeld, his father (born in Romania in 1906) escaped the horrors of World War II by joining the Romanian army and eventually falling into the hands of the Red Army. Upon his release and arrival in Palestine in 1947, he began working as a glazier, a trade he had learned in the old country. Soon after, with the help of his wife Sarah, a survivor of Auschwitz, he opened a small framing shop where the gallery stands today. "My mother saw my father hanging between heaven and earth from a fourth-story window and implored him to stop taking chances, to come down and open a shop together. My mother was always involved," he added, "both as a catalyst for advancing the business and for reining my father in when times were tough. And they quite often were." What was the gallery scene like in the late 1950s? "Basically there were three galleries on the street - Mikrah Studio on Ben-Yehuda, the Katz Gallery and Rosenfeld. Selling and buying art then was not the most important thing the growing population was interested in. Nevertheless, Tel Aviv was a cultural pressure cooker where survivors mingled with the established Yishuv residents to create a populace that was interested in cultural affairs and talking about art whenever the chance arose. "In the 1950s and 1960s this burgeoning environment brought artists like Marcel Janco, a charter member of the Dada movement in Zurich and founder of the Ein Hod artists' village, to the gallery. My parents befriended him. He and his family were constant visitors to the house, as were painters like Yehiel Krieze and Zvi Shor, Moshe Mokady and Naftali Bezem. Even Stematsky from New Horizons group exhibited there, as did Leah Nikel. And the list goes on. For one reason or another artists were drawn to my parents with a goal to exhibiting in his rather limited enterprise. "When conceptual and installation art started to sprout in the 1970s the Rosenfeld Gallery remained loyal to its stable of Israeli 'old master' painters and sculptors. In the 1980s, the poet Natan Zach and the historian of Tel Aviv-Jaffa Shlomo Shva became closely associated with Eliezer Rosenfeld. They would sit in the shop, gab and try to steer him in what they thought was the right direction viv-a-vis whom to show and whom to resist." What was your father like that artists tended to seek him out? "My father had an eye for excellence, a personal quality he called upon constantly to purchase works from artists who came to the gallery. This was part of his vision; not only be own a gallery but to collect and support. "The best way to describe my father is to quote Gideon Ofrat [art historian and curator at large]. When he was asked to write a book on the Rosenfeld Gallery, he of course interviewed my father. After their talk Ofrat said, 'Mr. Rosenfeld, he's a mensch.' What else can one say about a person who truly cared about others, especially those he worked with? But there were times when we seemed to be second in line after an artist or two who father thought needed help. "But there were disappointments as well. In 1993, while working in the gallery my parents' apartment was broken into and 22 valuable paintings by Reuven Rubin, Jankel Adler, Castel, Mane Katz, Nahum Gutman and others were stolen. To this day only one has been recovered. "Because my father was what he was and was respected and genuinely liked by most people he touched, I decided, when I assumed control, that I would not change the gallery name. Zaki Rosenfeld Art or Rosenfeld Contemporary was bandied around but I chose not to adopt another title. This was in deference to my father and the spirit he has left behind." How did you get involved in the gallery? "For as long as I can remember the gallery was a part of our lives. Sitting on the steps that led to an upstairs office, I would look through the banister to witness the comings and goings while listening to chatter about this artist and that picture. I even sat at the feet of Ya'acov Eisenscher, the Polish émigré, who taught me, at a tender age, woodcut techniques. The memories are endless." Rosenfeld's dream was to enroll in medical school after army service but he was rejected on several occasions. Instead, he gathered his wits and, to prove to himself and others that he could achieve, he sought out the most difficult course one could imagine. The search directed him to electrical and electronic engineering where he completed a bachelor's degree and then went on to a master's in biomedical engineering, the closest he ever got to a degree in medicine. Fifteen years ago at 35 Rosenfeld discovered he was dyslexic. But his marks in physics and mathematics were 10s and nines. In the humanities they were six and seven. In the family circle he was thought of as the science person, one that didn't have to read. It was Talma Ofek, the widow of the late painter and sculptor Avraham Ofek, who sent him to Dr. Noya Spector, a specialist in the condition, and he confirmed the diagnosis. He also said that to live a normal life Rosenfeld should get other people to read and condense articles for him and to write his correspondence. Essentially, he was saying that he should release himself from unnecessary energy. "It was during this period in my life that I knew I had to join my father in the gallery business. I didn't know then what I know today or what turns my life would take at the time. It was the early 1990s that I officially joined Rosenfeld Gallery and produced my first one-person exhibition for Edwin Solomon. I even edited the catalog, a task that took me three times longer than the normal editor because of my handicap. But I came from a family that would not dodge responsibility or challenges. And so it was done." What has transpired since those fateful days? "After my father died in 1994 I underwent cardiac bypass surgery at 38, another milestone in my life. The year before, in 1995, my father sent me to Art Expo in New York, an art fair dedicated pretty much to decorative painting and sculpture and limited edition prints and multiples. The same year I convinced him to send me to Art Basel. It was then I realized that the Rosenfeld Gallery had to reinvent itself in order to survive. In my heart I felt that my place would be with the high end of the plastic arts and not with decorative painters, or as we called them salon artists, who painted clowns and flowers and comprised 90 percent of the world art market. Producing print editions was merely a stopgap, a means to make some needed cash, but in the back of my mind I knew I had to seek alternative directions." The art world was changing rapidly. Although the Rosenfeld Gallery was a mythic place and still an established art emporium, a transformation had to come and decisions had to be made. To change the gallery's modus operandi, Rosenfeld, coming from a science-based background and dyslexic as well, sought support from an art historian, someone who had an academic background coupled with a feeling for contemporary art. He found Diana Dallal. They have been together for 11 years. What were the results? "We totally remade the gallery both physically and mentally. It became an architectural delight - simple, functional with modern facilities. My father, because of his conservative and traditional background, could not have created such an environment, but I am sure that wherever he is, looking down on Tel Aviv, he would agree with what has been achieved at 147 Dizengoff. "When Diana suggested we begin with minor artists and move up slowly, it was a notion I rejected outright. I asked her what young and promising artist she would suggest that could become the jewel in our crown. Roee Rosen was her answer. A first meeting with Roee at the old gallery was all right but there wasn't a second one. I was extremely serious with the redirection the gallery was taking and I bought several works from him. He then realized we meant business and he decided to a chance with us. Soon after Zoya Cherkassky and Eli Gur Arie joined; then Tal Shochat, Shai Ignatz, Amon Yariv, Boaz Arad and others. "When I first saw Eli Gur Arie's work, I was shocked. I had to ask myself then how do you know if an artist has the tools to go far? The answer is when you view a work of an excellent artist, you can sense the excellence immediately. It was that way with Gur Arie. Sara Breitberg-Semel [former curator of Israeli Art at the TAMA and editor of Studio magazine] described his first exhibition, 'Such Stuff Credit Cards Are Made Of,' with the following statement: '...with Gur Arie Rosenfeld and Dallal are not looking for easy solutions but are building their own center.'" Has your attitude changed at all? "The only change has been for the better. The gallery has adopted a viewpoint that it must not only promote its stable, but it must provide its artists with basic needs. And so today we provide several artists rent free studio space, materials, a sounding board, periodic exhibitions and the purchase of their works. Actually I have come full circle. It was my father's way - of providing welfare and consultation to any of his artists - and I seem to have adopted the same attitude. "We have built a house that is involved with its inhabitants. It requires a great deal to maintain an ongoing dialogue with a dozen artists, but we try our best. Businesswise I see the gallery as an incubator and myself as a venture capitalist and each artist as a startup. The only difference between us and hi-tech is that we are not looking for exits. We take them on, mold them, assist them, market them and hope we can sell their wares. In today's world it's called success."