Fields of Abstraction open to the heavens at the Israel Museum

In its first exhibition under director Denis Weil, the Israel Museum presents 24 new-to-Israel 20th century paintings.

 HANS HOFMANN’S ‘Blue Rhapsody II’ 1963. (photo credit: ISRAEL MUSEUM)
HANS HOFMANN’S ‘Blue Rhapsody II’ 1963.
(photo credit: ISRAEL MUSEUM)

“We have a very rich collection that we want to share with the public,” new Israel Museum director Denis Weil told the assembled crowd on Thursday at the grand opening of Fields of Abstraction. A comprehensive exhibition, curated by Dr. Adina Kamien, of abstract painting’s high points. From Mark Rothko to Gilad Efrat and from 1920’s Japanese calligraphy to Adolph Gottlieb.

Sharply dressed in a black suit with a reversed puff pocket square, Weil joked, “It’s my first day; you got to be nice to me,” and offered that the impressive size of many of the works on display is in contrast with the tiny mobile phone and laptop screens many are accustomed to.

Looking regal in a copper sequins dress, Kamien suggests to the audience abstract painting “distills the essence of things” and pointed to how, out of the 43 paintings selected for this show, 24 are presented to viewers for the first time.

A conversation between the respective canvases permeates the large gallery space thanks to the careful choices made by Kamien and assistant curator Sarah Benshushan.

Right from the start we are met by the oppositional mounting of two masters. A 1991 abstract painting by Gerhard Richter and the 1955 Untitled work by Mark Rothko. The dialog between the German artist and the Jewish one, between Richter’s red and Rothko’s blue, is part of a much larger conversation taking place since the Holocaust.

An Israeli art lover instantly remembers Tamar Getter’s 1974 A Letter to J. Beuys, where she asked the former Luftwaffe pilot to make her warm felt clothes or David Ginton’s Adoration of Beuys from the previous year. In the black and white photograph, Ginton kneels on the doorstep of the important artist as if in a pilgrimage. Such an Israeli fascination with Germany extends to the 1995 series Live and Die as Eva Braun by Roee Rosen. Yet, unlike Ginton’s failed attempt to meet Beuys, Getter’s unsent letter or Rosen’s dark mixed media Israeli works of the imagination, here the German presence is real, not absent. Richter is shown twice. His second work, another abstract painting from 1997, is mounted next to the 1991 Turf Ring installation by Richard Long.

Abstract painting walks a knife’s edge between being deeply moving and being inscrutable, and so risks aggravating viewers.

In his 1973 novel Breakfast of Champions, Kurt Vonnegut introduces the fictional painter Rabo Karabekian to the reader. In a heated altercation between the fictional artist and an angry crowd demanding to know why on earth such simply-made paintings are worth so much money, Karabekian explains that when he puts a Day-Glo orange strip of tape on a canvas it is no longer tape. It is a representation of the human soul extending from the ground beneath our feet to the heavens above.

Vonnegut later wrote another novel focusing on Karabekian titled Bluebeard, in which it was revealed the elderly painter is faced with a problem: Most of his best paintings fall apart due to the tapes loosening over time. While this situation is fictional, the problem is not. Seeing as 20th century painters, among them Kenneth Noland, opted to replace traditional oil paints with acrylic emulsion ones like Magna – it remains to be seen how their works can be best preserved for the future.

“Noland lived around the corner from me in Vermont in the 1970’s,” composer Stephen Horenstein told The Jerusalem Post, while facing a massive Chevron style painting by Noland in orange, red and blue stripes of paint.

“My teacher, Bill Dixon, respected him,” Horenstein added, “that was enough for me.”

In the audio tour of the exhibition, Black Woman and the 1982 composition Chiasmus, both by Horenstein, are used in relation to the works on display in an attempt to bridge the gap between viewer and image.

“I’ve been working for six decades,” Horenstein noted, “and I respect people who take a stand.”

Like the fictional Karabekian, the very real painter Tsibi Geva also uses duct tape to produce his works.

CLAD ENTIRELY in black, Geva faced the opening-night crowd to elucidate. He pointed to how the Hebrew word balata (tile) is used to describe a dunce (Rosh Balata) and is also the largest Palestinian refugee camp in the West Bank situated north of Nablus. This last one is a false cousin, the first two usages are indeed from the Arabic word for flat rock, the dwelling is derived from a famous sycamore tree (Platanus), which used to stand there in the Greek speaking Byzantine times.

The educated viewer is meant to face the black color fragments skillfully painted by Geva and be uplifted to a personal meditation. This is also the requirement when standing in front of the 1978 Untitled painting by Moshe Kuperman. A purple field of color with human-made scratches on it, which seems to mark the passage of days in prison or a soldier marking his confirmed kills.

Yet, such a requirement is not always easy to fulfil. When Franz Kline painted Bethlehem in 1953 he did not paint the actual West Bank city but a distilled idea. Perhaps, a similar one to that expressed in The Second Coming by Yeats (what rough beast, its hour come round at last, Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?). We are asked to trust the artist is a true seeker and not a charlatan. To put faith in what we see.

Those angered by abstract art and by extension, the heavy lifting required of the viewer entering the hall of the muses hoping to be introduced to contemporary art, point to the moments when such erudition implodes and the call to awaken a new sensibility becomes an empty demand to be woke.

If Israeli art is solely meant to alert the viewer to the presence of Palestinians, why prefer a Jewish painter (Geva) to an Arab video-artist like Fahed Halabi? At least in Halabi’s 2009 Working Day video the audience will get to see actual Palestinian construction workers toil as they build a synagogue in Ashdod.

A collection of informative reels capturing important artists, such as Jules Olitski and Agnes Martin, in work and conversation are wisely placed at the large space to allow those interested to learn more about the works presented and those who made them. A special website devoted to the exhibition is now up and running.

Wearing a colorful print dress, Jerusalem Deputy Mayor for Foreign Relations, Economic Development and Tourism Fleur Hassan-Nahoum told The Jerusalem Post, “Jerusalem is the epicenter of arts and culture in Israel” and expressed her commitment to empower artists residing in the capital.

Every painting in this exhibition, like the 1963 Blue Rhapsody II by Hans Hofmann, is worth the visit. Over two-scores of important works are a celebration.

A final high-point in this impressive exhibition is the excellent decision to place a 12-screens long Japanese calligraphy work from the 1920’s titled Tiger and Dragon by an unknown artist, facing the 1960 Tangent painting by Adolph Gottlieb.

I recommend the visitor stands there for a few moments and allow her or his eyes to open to the possibility of a stain transformed to ideas made corporal.

Fields of Abstraction at the Israel Museum, Jerusalem, will be shown until October 15. For more information, contact: