Grandfather of graphomania

Benchmark Israeli artist Arie Aroch never had students, but his legacy is now influencing its fourth generation of painters.

Arie Aroch painting 88 248 (photo credit: Courtesy, The Israel Museum)
Arie Aroch painting 88 248
(photo credit: Courtesy, The Israel Museum)
After the slew of large, bold, and hi-tech works circulating the contemporary art world, there is a certain sense of relief about ducking into the Arie Aroch show at the Artist's House in Jerusalem. The 40 or so small and visually tactile works give the viewer a sense of how the artists liked to draw and paint in the "old-school" way - hunched over an easel, sleeves rolled up, feeling the materials. But the works are not old-school at all, as they are not attempting to capture an image or convey a story. Aroch's canvases are a lyrical excavation of marks, textures, materials, forms, and ideas. The setting in the old Bezalel building is appropriate for the late Jerusalem painter's show, with both the institution and the artist having played critical roles in the history of art in the city and in Israel, says the curator, Timna Seligman. "Aroch was one of the artists seen as the father of local art. Yet he was very much aware of what was going on internationally; he was well read in art, history, literature, philosophy," she says. Born in Ukraine, Aroch came to Palestine in the 1920s and studied at Bezalel and later in Paris and Amsterdam. At age 40, some 24 years after immigrating and launching his career as an artist, he became a diplomat in the Foreign Service, shortly after the founding of the state. Over the years until his retirement, he traveled widely and lived abroad several times, including in Sweden, Brazil, and Moscow, though Israel remained his base, physically and emotionally. When he returned to his family home after a day's work for the state, he went to his easel and painted until the late hours, every day and every weekend. Aroch was also credited with bringing home and translating many of the international art movement's literature into Hebrew. Seligman got the idea for a retrospective when she heard from Aroch's son that the centenary of the artist's birth was coming up. "The idea came from a long connection between the Israel Museum and Arie Aroch," she said. "He was one of the first artists to be awarded our Sandberg Prize for Israeli art and he was one of the first to have a solo exhibition. We continued to build a collection and we now have a large holding from all periods." With the museum still undergoing its intensive redesign, Seligman turned to the Artist's House, as part of the series of off-site exhibitions the institution has launched as an alternative space solution. It has also exhibited works from its holdings at the Mani House in Tel Aviv and organized an ongoing exhibition at the Janco Dada Museum in Ein Hod. Though the Artist's House has a very small number of galleries on three floors, Seligman decided to use only one hall. "I wanted an intimate show; to build connections between the works to read as a collection, like turning the pages of a book," she said. The gallery itself, with its old, high-vaulted ceilings filtering in the powerful Jerusalem sunlight onto sandstone and whitewashed walls, also recalls the richness of a bygone era when design was in the details. The textural expressiveness of Aroch's works, together with his use of layering, geometry and assemblage, also references periods in art when international artists as far back as Duchamp and Kurt Schwitters, and later Joseph Cornell, Robert Rauschenberg, Willem De Kooning and Jasper Johns, were making their indelible mark on the art world. Like many of these and other international artists who inspired him, Aroch was interested in recreating meanings for old or found objects and images, and especially in automatic drawing. He often filled his works with layers of scratches, scribbles and doodles. When the venerable Yona Fischer curated Aroch's first solo exhibition for the Israel Museum in 1968 (Aroch previously had solo exhibitions at the Bezalel National Museum and at the Tel Aviv Museum) Aroch distinctively incorporated his doodles directly onto the posters. "He always told me that children are naturally good artists and that most children lose their talent because of teachers who say 'do like this and do like that,'" says the artist's son, Yonatan Aroch. "He said, 'People who can hold onto that remain good artists.'" Even so, Yonatan describes his father's work as extremely controlled. "His works kept changing and evolving, but slowly. He was always researching, painting over and over, and he would sometimes inadvertently destroy paintings. He thought a lot and his process was very slow. He could have the same painting on an easel for months even though he worked on it every day and never took a vacation. "He was very fortunate that he was recognized by young artists in Israel in the 1960s. Young painters suddenly found his work and realized its importance. He was an 'artist's artist.' The artist community knew him more than the public. He didn't have students but he 'had students.' The young artists were trying to learn from him. It is the same thing today. They are his fourth-generation students." IN THE adjoining hall beside the Aroch exhibition, the works of Meni Salama, curated by Moshe Kron, bear an uncanny resemblance, and include a work that personally pays tribute to Arie Aroch. The Salama paintings, full of graphic undulations, scratches, and a similar vocabulary of texture, light, color and even some shapes, are contemporary. "We are the grandchildren or great-great-grandchildren of Aroch, if you are talking about the genealogy of his influence," says painter Ido Bar-El, who heads the Bezalel Academy Fine Arts Department. "His influence spread between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, the two art centers. You can see his influence in the works of Moshe Gershuni, the later works of Aviva Uri, and even in the teachers. Nahum Tevet is now the head of the Masters of Fine Arts at Bezalel and Rafi Lavie was his teacher. The late Rafi Lavie's works were influenced by Aroch." According to Seligman, Lavie used to speak of his parents being Arie Aroch and Aviva Uri. "His influence on Israeli art is in the scribble," she says. "He gave validation to the free hand, to found objects, and even you can say a 'graphomania.' " Although Aroch's works are abstractions, there are figurative references to the artist's own past: a cobbler's sign from the old Ukrainian village where he grew up, doodles of the number 2 from an inherited reproduction of the Sarajevo Haggada he had on the wall, or the infinity figure in an old drawing book. When Yonatan Aroch was child of eight or nine, he watched his father working on a shape one day and asked, "What is it?" His father answered automatically, "tzakpar." It was a word he invented on the spot, but one that he would continue to use to describe a shape that he invented based on the boot he had seen on the cobbler's sign hung so many decades ago in his village. His son says, "You can see it in about five of his works." But despite references to personal memory, the works are not telling stories and are rather exploring forms, he says. "Every millimeter was thought out. He was reaching into his first memories and playing around with these forms, but that is already an intellectual [not sentimental] pursuit. He was very emotional as a person but as an artist he was very controlled," he adds. Long before the state was founded, Jewish artists in Palestine were debating what is local art and what are the references, themes and forms that local artists should be using. In Jerusalem there was the influence of Eastern European artists, who wanted to look to Jewish and local history and geography to create a new language of local Jewish art forms. In Tel Aviv, a parallel school of thought developed, more open to considering international and contemporary trends toward interpreting the local environment, without promoting any religious or national identity. "Arie Aroch asked where we should put ourselves [on that spectrum]; he was an intriguing a person as his paintings are," said Bar-El. "In the conflict between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv [artists], he's way beyond the dispute. That's why his legacy is so important." Arie Aroch's works at the Artist's House, through December 13. A gallery talk with contemporary artists will explore Aroch's legacy, in Hebrew, December 9 at 6 p.m.