The austere artist

Legendary curator Yona Fischer on 40 years with Moshe Kupferman.

Yona Fischer 88 248 (photo credit: Courtesy, Assaf Ivri)
Yona Fischer 88 248
(photo credit: Courtesy, Assaf Ivri)
For nearly 40 years, legendary art curator Yona Fischer has been exhibiting the work of Moshe Kupferman here and abroad. Since Kupferman's death in 2003, Fischer has been curating a revolving exhibition at the artist's exhibition hall in Kibbutz Lohamei Hagetaot. A recent exhibit, Side A + Side B: Works on Paper, is currently on show at the Bezalel MFA Gallery in Tel Aviv. Fischer was in his mid-30s when the Israel Museum was founded in 1965. Having curated shows at the Bezalel National Museum, he was made responsible for modern, contemporary and Israeli art - a one-man department he filled without an assistant for two years. The department's policy was to promote young artists, and Fischer traveled weekly throughout the country to find them. By the time Fischer met Moshe Kupferman around 1967, Kupferman had lived here for almost 20 years. He and his sister had lost the rest of their family in the Holocaust, during which they had moved through labor camps as far as the Urals and Kazakhstan. After the war, his sister returned to Poland, while he joined the Dror Zionist movement and went to live in a displaced persons camp near Munich. In 1949, he made aliya with other members of Dror, and became a founder, builder and member of Kibbutz Lohamei Hagetaot. "He didn't consider himself a survivor," explains Fischer, who worked closely and often with Kupferman. "He considered himself a man reborn." Kupferman had a second aim in addition to being a fully contributing kibbutz member: to be a painter. "If the kibbutz considered itself an ideal society," says Fischer about Kupferman's intent, "then it needed an artist." During Kupferman's stay at the DP camp, he had visited the Alte Pinakothek in Munich, a museum where he saw paintings by the old masters. In the mid-'50s, he attended several summer art seminars taught by Yosef Zaritsky and Avigdor Stematsky on Kibbutz Na'an, where, as Kupferman told Fischer, people discussed art more than they learned to paint. He painted on Saturdays, and in the early '60s showed in several gallery exhibitions in Tel Aviv, Ein Harod and elsewhere. The two aims - that of a member of a collective and that of an individual artist - would seem to be in conflict, especially as Kupferman's aesthetics were close to abstraction and not socialist realism. But Kupferman sought the support of the kibbutz in his endeavor. As Fischer puts it, "[Kupferman] wanted the community to recognize his right to develop himself as a painter." By the time of their meeting, Kupferman was officially working part-time as an artist, with four days for kibbutz work and three for painting. In 1969, Kupferman's first major solo exhibition, curated by Fischer, opened at the Israel Museum. "His promise as an artist was recognized by the critics," says Fischer. "They were already asking essential questions about covering/uncovering and revealing/erasing. They made an effort to underline his work." The success was important to Kupferman not just personally, but in his relation to the kibbutz. He knew most kibbutz members didn't necessarily understand what he was doing, but as a contributing member of the collective, he had to sell his paintings and contribute to the kibbutz's economic well-being. He also wanted to prove his professionalism: a museum exhibition, a catalog, critiques in the newspapers. It was important for him not to feel or be considered a parasite. As Fischer says, "Work was his main value. He was in his studio working seven days a week, morning till evening. This made him a respectable member." It also made him an intense painter. Fischer recounts that when they first met, Kupferman showed him hundreds of sketches in albums - small, free, tense, sometimes several on a single page, each one with its own signature - all of them paving the way from landscape to abstraction. "For [Kupferman], abstraction was not purely formal," explains Fischer. He goes on to quote Kupferman as saying that there is no subject in his work - only memory, only time - "time" as a person who lives now, "time" as it is perceived today, with all of today's anxieties and worries. "There was something behind it, and this became important for people trying to relate to his work. He admitted that each person can have a personal interpretation, but that his work was made by someone who had survived the Holocaust. This memory is the most important one of his life." The works at the Bezalel MFA Gallery, made mostly between 1989 and 1999, are abstract but not without suggestions and associations. The main motif repeated in both the small and large works is one of vertical bars alternating between dark and light shades. The emerging "image" leads to paradoxical natures: One is reminded of piano keys, but also of a car grille. The same work can simultaneously elicit a soft sense of music with the heat of an engine, the fragility of ivory with the toughness of chrome, the uplift of art and the repeated work of the machine. Yet in these works, repetition becomes a sign of reflection. Embedded behind, into, around and on top of these recurring bar motifs are layers of grids, matrices, sketches, blueprints, hatch marks and freehand drawings. Behind thin layers of paint we see that old newspapers make up the background of some of the works; upon even closer inspection we also see that in all of them the Hebrew writing is reversed. Several of the works include a grid of tiny Hebrew letters as if typed over the surface of the entire paper. Though the shapes are abstracted, the whole has the quality of a pattern. The graphite of the pencil suggests the ashes of coal. Beyond the dominant hues - dark gray, off-white and muted mauve - there sometimes appears a pale green shading. "[Kupferman] didn't like to work directly on a white piece of paper," explains Fischer. "He liked to first transform the paper from the back side. It was like working a virgin field before planting." According to Fischer, the back side of the work is mechanical preparation not intended to be an accomplished artwork. The two sides relate to each other in that the back makes the front possible. We know which one is the "front" or main side because that's where we find a signature and date. An important part of the show is Fischer's decision to expose both sides of each work. To do this, he had to devise two main technical methods. The larger works are suspended by cords from the ceilings in double-sided plexiglas frames, allowing us to walk around the work and see Side A + Side B. The smaller works are placed in plastic frames which extend forward from the wall at an angle, suspending the drawing in midair. Under each of these is a parallel mirror. Standing back a few feet from the wall, the viewer can see the real Side A and the mirror image of Side B simultaneously. "There's something voyeuristic about it," admits Fischer, "like looking at the back of a tie to see who the designer is. But it also relates to today's interest in the 'other side' - in the preparatory stages that lead up to a finished work." Fischer describes Kupferman as a real, professional Polish gentleman. He liked to meet young artists and visit their studios, and reveled in real discussions about art - which critic or artist was or wasn't serious, was or wasn't interested in what others were doing. He took the bus from the kibbutz to every art opening. And he used to invite people to his studio, where Fischer went every couple of months without any purpose but to see his latest works and have a discussion that could last a few hours. "He was authoritative and honest," reflects Fischer, "open-minded but full of doubts." Though most of his works were untitled, Kupferman had several series that related to historical events: "Painting in a Time of Stress" after the Six Day War, "With Beirut - After Beirut - With Beirut" after Sabra and Shatilla, "Painted in Memory" after Yitzhak Rabin's assassination. "He reacted to everyday Israel," explains Fisher. "He related to daily stress as belonging to the past, as being an evocation of what had already happened." By the time of his death five years ago, Kupferman opened more than 70 solo exhibitions in Israel, Europe, Japan and North America, including major international shows at the Centre Pompidou in Paris and the North Carolina Museum of Art in Raleigh. The kibbutz expanded his studio in several stages to accommodate both the preservation of his works and a large exhibition space with a revolving exhibit organized by the Kupferman Collection. Fischer remembers a trip in which he took several foreign visitors from the Israel Museum to meet Kupferman in his studio. "They were astonished that he could live in such austere conditions and produce such convincing paintings." Side A + Side B is on show through December 20 at the Bezalel MFA Gallery, Rehov Salame 60 in Tel Aviv. Open Friday-Saturday, 10 a.m.-4 p.m.