Three generations and counting

The Engel Gallery's success is from fostering a cultured atmosphere for both artists and collectors.

Bilan painting 88 248 (photo credit: Engel Gallery, Tel Aviv)
Bilan painting 88 248
(photo credit: Engel Gallery, Tel Aviv)
Several local art galleries are directed today by the sons and daughters of their original proprietors. I began covering this rather unusual inclination by reporting on the past and present activities of the Rosenfeld Gallery in Tel Aviv (The Jerusalem Post, July 25). For this edition I have turned my attention to the Engel Gallery with exhibition spaces in Jerusalem, Hutzot Hayotzer and Tel Aviv. A candid conversation with Gavriel Engel, son of the gallery's founder, Shmuel, led to the following responses. Gavriel, the Engel Gallery is just as much an institution in Israel as it is an art gallery. Tell me how it all began. It wasn't planned, that's for sure. My father and mother, both Holocaust survivors whose families perished in Auschwitz, came to Israel in 1949 and eventually found themselves in Jerusalem. Times were not easy and to put bread on the table they opened a Tnuva restaurant on Rehov Shlomzion Hamalka in the center of town. To their surprise, and good luck, they discovered that Bertha Urdang [who in time became an important representative of innovative Israel artists] conducted a weekly cultural evening for poets, writers, artists and musicians in her apartment one floor up from their eating establishment. Although my father was never formally educated in the arts he had an affinity for drawing and painting, and Urdang's European-style salon fascinated him. After attending several gatherings with an entrée into the core of avant-garde Jerusalem, the informality eventually turned into serious conversations with Bertha and the decision was made to close the restaurant and open an art gallery on both floors of the building with an objective to promote Israeli art here and abroad. That was 1955, and the Rina Gallery was born. How did the gallery manage to stay afloat in those early days? Jerusalem was a small city and the major artists in the 1950s who attended Urdang's salon saw this new gallery as an outlet for their work. There were Abel Pann, Pinchas Litvinovsky, Moshe Castel, Ari Aroch, Anna Ticho, Yosef Zaritsky and Uri Lifshitz to name a few. In fact the latter had his first one-person exhibition in Israel at the Rina Gallery. Urdang didn't appreciate my father's painting and because of this rejection cracks began to appear in their relationship. In 1960 they separated and the Rina Gallery was renamed the Engel Gallery. Urdang opened her own exhibition space, a revitalized Rina Gallery, and seriously sponsored contemporary artists for several years before moving her gallery to New York, where she promoted her established stable of painters, minimalist and conceptual artists. But from the very beginning both my father and Bertha Urdang had a vision to market Israeli art locally and internationally, a vision that I maintain today. Although your father never studied art, but nevertheless was dubbed Malachi (angelic) by Yona Fischer at an exhibition of his works, where did his feelings for color, texture, form and the full scope of aesthetic nuance come from? To begin with my father [b. Hungary, 1919] came from a very Orthodox family of mitnagdim [opponents of Hassidic Jewry] and went the course of studying at a heder and yeshiva. Dabbling in the visual arts was not permitted; studying them was out of the question. His father was a wheat merchant and traveled extensively on the canals throughout the capitals of Europe. Although concert halls, museums and opera houses were not part of his upbringing, my grandfather would come home from business trips with records of classical music; and this was his introduction to a cultural life within the restrictions of a religious environment. To this day music is the nucleus of my father's visual art. He likes to remind me of his student days, when his teacher-rebbe would say to him that if his drawing was beautiful he wouldn't use the ruler, but if it wasn't he could expect the full blow without mercy. What brought you to the gallery business? From my earliest days I remember accompanying my father to artists' studios every Friday morning. We visited Levanon, Zaritsky - in Tel Aviv or Tzova - Engelsberg, who didn't like children or women but tolerated me, and Ticho, the venerable Jerusalemite - whose renderings Bertha Urdang did not like - whom my father assisted with all her administrative chores, publications and exhibitions, sort of like her private secretary. After breathing in all these experiences, as a young man I realized that the gallery business would one day be my professional calling. I studied art history at the Hebrew University and then at the Open University. And in 1980 I joined the firm and one year later I opened a gallery at Hutzot Hayotzer, followed by a gallery on Madison Avenue in Manhattan. Has the gallery direction changed from its initial opening to the present? Not really. We began as a commercial gallery and to this day we continue to foster that side of the business on an ongoing basis. We want to maintain the historical elements inherent in Israeli art but simultaneously search for new talent. Our dream has traditionally been based on moving Israeli art outside our borders. The Engel Gallery was the first to appear at Art Expo New York and at Tokyo's Art Expo. This past October we sponsored Art Jerusalem '08 in order to attract international galleries, collectors and dealers to Israel. There was a time when the limited edition print business was extremely popular and very lucrative. Today that side of the business has collapsed. We were the biggest publishers of prints by Ya'acov Agam and Anna Ticho. Currently it is photography and digital art that have filled the vacuum the print business has left. Who will fill your shoes when you decide to retire? My nephew Ofir, my elder sister's son [Leah Hirshfeld Hayerushalmi, who is a naïve painter living on the Golan], is active now in running the Jerusalem gallery. He is the third generation of the Engel family at the helm and at 30 has an understanding and insight into what art is today and what direction it might take in the next decade or two. He also looks forward to the day when he can introduce his young son to the Engel enterprise. My elder brother, Yehuda, after a tragic end to his artistic wall carpet (tufting) business because of the first intifada, left the concern and moved to the States, where he lives today with his family. Would you like to see the Engel Gallery take a turn into new fields? We, both Ofir and I, find the gallery in a good position. The fact that we appreciate both the traditional, classic painters and sculptors of Eretz Yisrael, and the newer breed of artists can only help the business move forward. Look at the gallery now, we have a room of classic works by the likes of Bak, Bergner, Castel, Simon and Janco and in the main gallery an exhibition of photographs by fashion photographer Miri Davidowitz entitled "Beauty and the Beast." We think it is essential to maintain contact with artists working in new media although it is not easy. I think that galleries will become more and more virtual. Computers are replacing auction houses and art is being sold over the Internet. The virtual world is the next revolution in the art market, like the sales of consumer products are today. Since the 1980s the Engel Gallery has been fostering computerized technology for market research, archiving and sales. In 1991 we went on-line, one of the first galleries to do so internationally. It was a year after we launched our Collectors Club, an assembly of people of whom we have compiled a profile as to family ties, tastes and interest. We continue to add, update and contact. But it works both ways, and we try to fill requests as often as we can. What is the gallery's process for choosing contemporary artists? First of all we must understand the artist, know where he or she is coming from. Then we look at their track record - studies, past exhibitions, professional experience - and last, we must consider the commercial value of the work. Artists today are not interested in contracts or gallery support; they want to be free to move around, wheel and deal. So most exhibitions are one-off events, but the gallery still maintains a stable of younger artists including Richard Bilan, Yoav Ben-Dov, David Brauer-Weil, Hagai Argov and Shai Zakai. How do you see the current art market? There seems to be a movement to a more commercial level. Artists know it and collectors are seeking closer ties directly with artists and galleries. The auction houses, for one reason or another, seem to be finding it more difficult to sell art than ever before. The current economic meltdown will not help the situation across the board. That is why I come back to the virtual world. Like mom and pop shops being replaced by computer shopping, galleries will begin to realize that the computer is their next great window of opportunity. Engel Gallery: 26 Rehov Gordon, Tel Aviv, (03) 522-5637 13 Shlomzion Hamalka, Jerusalem, (02) 623-2397 Hutzot Hayotzer, Jerusalem, (02) 628-9802 Malachi at work At 90, Shmuel Engel (a.k.a. Malachi and founder of Jerusalem's Engel Gallery), is being honored with an exhibition of his mixed-media paintings, whose theme is the desert, and black-and-white drawings based on the rhythmic content of music by, among others, Zoltan Kodaly, Igor Stravinsky and Leonard Bernstein at the Galerie Art Montparnasse in Paris. A video presentation of Malachi at work in his studio, demonstrating the process by which he has created drawings for Stravinsky's Firebird, is being screened.