The finest Schatz of all

The Schatz family were a formidable lot. Sculptor Boris Schatz founded the Bezalel School, his wife Olga was an art historian and his children Zohara and Bezalel were both artists and designers.

schatz art 88 298 (photo credit: )
schatz art 88 298
(photo credit: )
The Schatz family were a formidable lot. Sculptor Boris Schatz founded the Bezalel School, his wife Olga was an art historian and his children Zohara and Bezalel (Lilik) were both artists and designers. But the greatest Schatz of all was not really a Schatz; nor was she Jewish. Louise McClure Schatz (1916-97), wife of Lilik, was arguably the finest abstract watercolorist we have seen in Israel, as her current memorial retrospective in Jerusalem at the Artists House attests. Louise McClure was born in Vancouver, but her family moved to Minnesota when she was three. A graduate of the art school of the University of California, she worked in the drafting office of a San Francisco shipyard between 1943-45, as did Jerusalem-born Bezalel "Lilik" Schatz, who had remained in the US after his father's death; they were married in 1948. Louise had exhibited with the noted Californian Group of Seven. She and Lilik were close to author Henry Miller, the lover of Louise's sister. The charismatic Miller came here several times to visit them after the couple settled in Jerusalem in 1951. I am not at all sure that this show, fine as it is, does Louise Schatz sufficient justice; many of her best works are scattered in various collections; most of the ones in this show are from her estate and held by the Schatz Family Foundation. There is little to indicate what she achieved with the Group of Seven in California prior to her aliya, though it is clear that several of her earliest works here were quite abstract. Louise's no-nonsense but nevertheless poetic abstractions, the antithesis of New Horizions lyric semi-abstract romanticism, were an instant hit here. This despite the fact that she had little real discourse with Israelis apart from her husband's circle of creative friends, who were ready to speak in English. Her first solo show in 1957 was received with critical acclamation and a general acceptance among painters that she was the real artist of the family. Yet, to most Israelis, she remained a virtual unknown. Perhaps this current show will serve to introduce her to a younger generation of artists and students, many of whom do not or cannot paint. Curator Gideon Ofrat has done a splendid job in assembling, framing and hanging this show; the well lit galleries and elegant presentation make viewing a pleasure and his catalogue (Hebrew only) is a slim hardcover book in the same format as his catalogue for his preceding show devoted to Bezalel Lilik Schatz. Each work is dated and the show is hung chronologically, except for a room devoted to flower and plant studies spanning four decades. One of the earliest of her wash drawings, signed Louise McClure, is a flower study from 1936, rendered with all the accuracy and delicacy of a professional documentation. Also on view are a row of high-backed dining chairs designed in the '50s by Louise in wrought iron and wicker. They once adorned the Schatz dining table and were agonizing as seating. They were not a hit. The show opens with a few copies and brush drawings made after a Japanese artist in 1939, but despite evidence of her training, they have no relation to her subsequent works. It's obvious, too, that Louise had no Japanese instruction; the knots in a bamboo are not made according to the calligraphic stroke which also appears in Japanese ideographs. I suspect that one of her earliest influences was the American watercolorist John Marin, who flourished in the '30s. Some of her earliest Israeli works contain allusions to Arab architecture, but she was soon to free herself of such near-kitschy touches, except in some of the murals she designed as part of the Schatz family cooperative, producing what one can kindly call applied art. Right after his arrival here, Lilik Schatz, like a number of his Israeli friends, was soon lobbying for - and getting - commissions to decorate Israeli cruise ships and tourist offices. Jerusalem-born and Bezalel-trained, Lilik spoke better Hebrew than many Israeli officials. Louise, however, lived in the convent of the language barrier. Nothing came between her brush and the paper other than watercolor and a little texturing. There was little emotion and no cultural agenda; her medium was the message. Few of the works were the result of a plan. Her main compositional drive was the employment of patterns of seemingly unrelated shapes of various hues, or loosely geometrical spheres which contained within them smaller shapes or glowing colors partly overlapped by neighboring shapes. Her touch was exquisite, as, for the most part, was her taste. She loved the tricks of collage, which she also occasionally employed to save a watercolor that was overworked or out of control, for watercolor is an unforgiving medium. Many of her best compositions are the music of a myriad of seemingly hard-edge shapes that might have first been cut with scissors before being rendered by hand. These pristine shapes do not interlock; they exist as an arrangement of notes, or rather as a notation for a ballet of cutouts. The best of them, that is. For the road to a well brought off watercolor is strewn with failures. There are a number of failures in this show, some dirty through too much overpainting of washes, others over-textured or containing too many meaningless shapes. In general, the few larger watercolors are less successful than the smaller ones. Louise was never slick, but if she often made success look too easy, the failures serve to remind us that making something look easy is very, very difficult. How did Louise, the engineering draftswoman, become such an accomplished poet with a recognizable language of her own? Parts of her work summon up affinities with Paul Klee and Julius Bissier and occasionally even Miro. But she never copied any of them. Louise was not a pioneer, although she looked like one back in Israel's less sophisticated and austere '50s and '60s. She was a child of international modernism who suddenly flourished in Israel. I think she was nourished by artist friends in Jerusalem and Ein Hod - where she also had a home - and who, like her husband, offered her continuous encouragement and support. She had dozens of shows, the first in the original Bezalel Museum in the very same building in which this show takes place. She was soon given a solo show at the Israel Museum. One of her most successful gallery shows was at the Yodfat in Tel Aviv in 1973, from which I purchased a horizontal watercolor that still brings a smile to my face. When Lilik's mother died, Louise and Lilik moved into the Schatz family apartment at the rear of the Bezalel building in which Lilik had lived as a child. When Lilik died in 1978, Louise's world began to crumble and she was taken care of by Lilik's widowed sister, Zohara (who will be the subject of Ofrat's next edition of the Schatz trilogy). But a few years later, she produced some of her airiest and very best works, several of which are on view here. Outwardly quietly charming but often morose, the childless Louise found life in her watercolors that radiate a simple joi de vivre. Ever the new immigrant, her true home was bounded by her drawing board, some Whatman's paper and a couple of sable brushes. IN THE mezzanine gallery of this venue, Rina Haikin shows some abstract stone sculptures that are more like thin shells than the usually hefty carvings. Parts of some are so thin they have been worn into holes. Only the insides are polished, but the shapes lack composition and esthetic meaning. Down in the entrance gallery, the cemetery of so many ambitions, recent Bezalel graduate Jonathan Hirschfeld shows a plethora of small, messily rendered figurative drawings, some of them erotic and drawn from European mythologies like the Rape of Europa; and which lumped together are evidently supposed to broadcast some sort of admonitory message. (Jerusalem Artists House.) All shows till July 8.