Andi Arnovitz’s studio is located on the third floor of one of the most beautiful houses in Jerusalem. She and her husband, David, a hi-tech entrepreneur, built it after they made aliyah from the United States 22 years ago. The studio is crammed with the artist’s creations, some finished, some just sketches or maquettes of projects yet to be done. Paintings, etchings, mobiles, artist’s books, paper manipulations (her coinage) collages sandwiched between plexiglass – all these and more display the enormous variety of media in which she has been working since she began her artistic career some 35-odd years ago.
Right now she is preparing material for a few events that, she assumes will take place during the coming year, viruses notwithstanding:
“At the beginning of March, at the Tel Aviv Artists House, I have an exhibit of my work alongside that of a textile artist, a sculptor and a photographer. Another exhibition, in May, will be at The Hebrew University, curated by Dr. Ido Noy. It’s called ‘Beyond the Elite’ in English. The concept is based on six or eight PhD researchers dealing with medieval Jewry in Germany. Each of them deals with different aspects of Jewish life: birth, death, marriage, ritual, and so forth. The scholars were each assigned a contemporary artist, who needed to create a new artwork connected to their research. I’m dealing with death and burial practices, for which I’m preparing an installation called ‘Reliquary.’
“I was invited to create a small artist’s book for the Quarantine Library. The Quarantine Library is the brainchild of two American artists and is a free down-loadable library of wonderful artists books which can printed at home on any printer.... One sheet of explanation tells you how to fold the paper. I did a book of paper cuts on the theme of how quiet Jerusalem is right now.
“Then there is the upcoming Jerusalem Bienalle 2021, for which I am in the process developing a proposal, working with a wonderful curator and two other artists. Rami Ozeri, the person behind the Bienalle, has been consistent in his goal since day one. He believes that art and Jewish content can be extremely contemporary, relevant and cutting edge. It doesn’t have to be oil paintings of hassidim dancing. Each year is based on some deep, yet flexible Jewish concept. This year’s concept is ‘Four Cubits.’
“There is also the fantastic project ‘Living Under Water’ commissioned by Beit Venezia in Venice – a project connected to climate change – which I curated and with five other artists exhibited at the previous Bienalle. It’s ready to go and can be shipped anywhere, though now is not the time to take it on the road.”
This wide range of projects is a natural development of Arnovitz’s oeuvre, in which she matches up the media to the subject matter at hand: “About ten years ago, I was creating things in the media that I knew. Things that I knew how to do. I remember looking at an exhibition catalog of Kiki Smith and I remember asking myself: How does she know how to cast glass and porcelain, paintings, and drawings? Through research I understood that she comes up with the ideas and then finds the most appropriate media to execute it. That was really a watershed moment for me. That’s when I stopped thinking only in terms of what I knew how to do. It was now the reverse process. The question that I asked myself was what is the best way of presenting a specific idea? When you look at my body of work you’ll see plastic polymer, porcelain, or paper, and where the material enhances the idea.”
Arnovitz initially intended to become a graphic designer: “I went to Washington University in St. Louis, where they had foundational studies in two- and three-dimensional design, anatomy drawing, and so forth. When I graduated I found that I was competing with kids from schools of visual arts who had studied graphic design from day one. My portfolio was weak compared to theirs. Eventually I found myself working as an art director for an advertising agency, and all that classical education stood me really well. It helped me drawing story boards. I also had a very good color sense. So that eventually my university years paid off.
“I think that because of my background in advertising I’m very focused on the idea. I don’t think I’ve ever created a piece of work that is pretty for the sake of prettiness. It has to have some idea or concept behind it. I think that’s why you see so many different materials in my work.”
For someone who has amassed a large amount of prints, in particular etchings, it is surprising that Arnovitz never knew about printmaking until after she left university: “I’d never set foot in a printmaking studio. It was weird because to be a good graphic designer you should have a deep knowledge of all types of printmaking. But it wasn’t required at university. I didn’t even know where the printmaking studio was on the campus. But then I was married and we moved to Atlanta and after I had a baby I took a mono-print course and I just fell in love with the whole process of printmaking. I wanted to study etching but they didn’t offer any course. But there was an artist in Atlanta named Robin Bernat, and I took private lessons with her. I found in etching a love for the line, for black and white, and that there was something very sexy about the process. I think there are three artistic processes – the photography dark room, ceramics and etching – where you really don’t know what you have till you open the kiln, develop the picture, or pull the etching through the press. There’s always this tension. A painting is never more than it is at any given moment, it is what it is. But a print – you just don’t know what it’s going to be like. That is terribly exciting.”
The Arnovitzes arrived in Israel in 1999. “We were supposed to be here for two years. That’s a bit of a family joke – we’re on the 22nd year of our two-year sabbatical! But in Israel I was really floundering. I lost my identity. I was a mom (the Arnovitzes have five children), took care of the house, and would entertain. I grew up in Kansas City and went to a Reform temple: I never had a bat mitzvah. I didn’t know Hebrew. In Israel as a grown woman I couldn’t even write my name or my address. So I was a little lost.
“Then the artist David Moss suggested that I check out the Print Workshop, which I did. Despite my background they said that I had to take their course in order to use their materials. I took a class with the late Sidon Rotenberg. Then I said that I wanted a day to work. So I’ve had at least one day a week for the past 20 years!
“Going to the Jerusalem Print Workshop is my real artistic ‘Israeli’ experience, my way of tapping into the local art scene. If you want to hear what an Israeli thinks, just ask Arik Kilemnik, the director of the Workshop. Etching is a very esoteric medium. People ask – how did you draw that? So you explain to them that it is not a drawing. It’s very hard for people to understand the process that goes into an etching. It is a slow medium. Slow is very important. Like the slow food movement. I’m for the slow art movement. All these things take time. So what?”
A similar story is behind Arnovitz’s work with paper: “I’m not a textile artist really. A lot of people think that I’m a weaver but I’m not. What looks like fabric is actually paper. I used to say that I’m a paper manipulator. I wasn’t a textile major or a fashion major but I would manipulate the paper as if it was fabric. I would mono-print on both sides of the material and then while it was still wet I would mold it into different forms and sew on buttons and play with threads. When someone looks at it they have to ask: Is it lacquer, or ceramic, paper, what is it? It confuses the viewer. They can’t quite understand what they’re looking at. They have to get really close. I like it when that happens. When I was growing up in Kansas City my father, grandmother and uncle owned fabric stores. My whole young life was surrounded with fabrics and women’s clothing. We probably had the most wonderful fabrics in the mid-West. There was Liberty of London cotton, Moygashel linen from Ireland, and Alencon lace from France, beautiful fabrics. From the time I was three years old I knew about sewing. It gave me my aesthetic sense, too.”
Though she has exhibited all over the world, Arnovitz feels the need to make more of an impression on the local art scene. For example, her huge fish frieze, which was installed in the YMCA at the last Jerusalem Beinalle depicts 1,200 handmade and hand-painted porcelain fish flowing in one direction and just one fish swimming against the tide. “I happen to think that the fundamental idea behind that piece is very Jewish.” The wall-size frieze is due to be shown at The Gottesman Family Israel Aquarium in Jerusalem.
She ruminates on the direction that her work has taken, observing that she has a lot of work in plastic boxes. “I thought this year I just have to stop making these installations, these huge pieces that are just sitting in my basement. I should just do small works on paper. It’s a problem for a lot of artists who’s work is seen just once or twice and just sits in storage.
“Interestingly, I find it takes years before curators are interested in what I’m doing. Pieces that I’ve done no one pays any attention to for five or six year and then suddenly its interesting and relevant and someone is curating a show about this, so they want the Coat of Agunot in it or whatever – something that I’ve done a number of years beforehand.
“I started this medical project, for example, for a full year and a half, well before corona hit. I related it to illnesses of people that I loved. At the age of 60 you begin to know a lot of people who are getting sick A friend who lost a wife, or another who had illness in the family. The drum beat gets louder and louder the older you get. I, too, was diagnosed with osteoporosis. It’s not an easy thing. But it started me looking at cancer and other diseases on a cellular level. I was astonished at how beautiful these things were.
“Aesthetically, I got pulled in and the crazy thing was that I was working on my epidemiology project way before anyone had heard of COVID-19. I think that artists are just a little bit ahead of the curve. We tend to address things without knowing how relevant they really are. On a gut level we’re responding to unseen things in a world and I think the work reflects that a lot of the time.
“I started the epidemiology project two summers ago, a series which deals with the beginnings of disease and then Covid hit and the work became even more relevant. I actually think I’m at the end of it. I’m kind of exhausted with it, everything I wanted to explore about it I’ve done. I think these pieces stand on their own. I’m utilizing light-boxes and I think the results are very beautiful. They relate to the technical world of the of MRI, CT or X-rays. These are ways of seeing inside our bodies. The light box, too, allows us to see something that we couldn’t see with the naked eye. They allowed me to work in layers, on paper, with film, or watercolors. Everything is hand-painted and hand-cut and in layers, everything is transparent. With the light on you can see how I’ve painted watercolor on different types of paper and different types of film. These have consumed my last year.
“I’m now working on another piece, which is a hanging. I have made a mobile maquette called Sneeze. It represents how molecules interact in the air and stay with us. It is especially relevant for the beginning of Covid when a sneeze became a hugely dangerous thing.”
Since settling in Israel, Arnovitz feels that she is part of a wider artistic community: “There is an amazing crowd of really good artists who deal with contemporary Jewish themes. Not only in Israel. There is a wonderful network of contemporary Jewish artists world-wide, dealing with hard Jewish themes and we know each other.
“Thirty years ago Israel wanted to be like Europe; they didn’t want to deal with internal things. They wanted to be like everyone else. Then the whole Palestinian issue came to the fore and it became very fashionable to criticize Israel. But just as we started to hear Arab voices in the media, so today it’s Orthodox voices in the world of art and elsewhere. We don’t just want secular artists, we need some religious voices.”
Another project that Arnovitz is exploring relates to feminism and the poetry of Esther Raab, whom she calls a forgotten pioneer. “Esther Raab loved the land and wrote some amazing poetry. I think she died in 1981, without children. The curator of the Hebraic section of the Library of Congress, Ann Brener, told me about Esther Raab. I returned to Israel and went to Steimatzky to buy a book of her poems. But nothing was in print! Then I went to the National Libray and I found a slim volume of a translation of her poetry by Harold Schimmel. I read it and was mesmerised. I went back to Steimatzky’s and a women serving there said she had an old book of Raab’s that she would lend me. Since then, in the past two years, there’s been a rediscovery of Esther Raab’s work. I’ve used four poems in Hebrew and English and illustrated them with etchings and soft ground etchings of native plant life. She loved the flora and fauna of the land, its birds and animals.”
Despite the criticisms she may have about Israel, especially regarding the religious establishment, Arnovitz feels that she has landed in the right place to create her future. If she feels unfulfilled in one area it is that of Hebrew: “I’m terribly handicapped by language. If I have one regret, it would be that I can’t read or speak Hebrew fluently. I’m very articulate in English. I feel that for my entire life I will be an outsider in Israel. That’s just how it is.”