Ivan Schwebel: 1932-2011

An artist from the New York School shipwrecked on a hill near Jerusalem

Ivan Schwebel (photo credit: Esteban Alterman)
Ivan Schwebel
(photo credit: Esteban Alterman)
IVAN SCHWEBEL DEVOTED HIS life to painting: he put everything he thought, felt and lived into his work – including, during the last years, his experience of aging. He entitled this last series of paintings “A Safe Place,” referring to a particular part of the forest near his home in Jerusalem. And when he suddenly died on July 15, while on a walk with his beloved dog, his family knew that was where they would find him.
He must have expected just a brief interruption to his painting as he left behind him half a mug of coffee, an open newspaper, and wet paints. It was a romantic, almost filmic ending for an artist whose work is both romantic and filmic – in style as well as narrative.
Schwebel, which is how he preferred to be addressed, was an indefinable maverick.
Born in America in 1932, he joined the US army during the Korean War, and when the war ended, was sent to Japan by the army with the amorphous title of “information officer.” It was there that he began painting, taught by a Zen master-painter in Kyoto, Kimura Kyoen. The Japanese influence can be seen in his landscape paintings and in his dramatic composition. But when he returned to New York, a meeting with the American painter Philip Guston convinced him not to study further: Guston said it could “waste” him.
After a year travelling in Europe, a love affair with an Israeli brought Schwebel to Israel in 1963: the love affair ended, but he stayed. He found a stone house in the hills of Ein Karem, a village on the fringe of Jerusalem, where he lived for the rest of his life – adding on rooms as his family grew.
His studios were like interconnecting caves with their stone-flagged floors, uneven walls and domed ceilings, lit up – or so it seemed – by the glowing colors of his paintings.
Israel did not embrace Schwebel as an artist. He was committed to his art and produced a huge body of work, which related to Israel, past and present, to Jewish themes and Jewish history. In terms of originality and skill, he was one of the best painters working in the country. But his intrinsically romantic approach to painting was increasingly out of kilter with the rather tough, pragmatic local art scene; his work was different not only because of the lovers and flowers that often appear in the work or the dreamy narratives, but also because of his emotional style of working.
He, in turn, was not in sympathy with nor very interested in Israeli artists and their struggle to discover and create an identity.
He was on his own path. As an artist, he became more and more a hermit and felt like the classic misunderstood loner – or so it seemed to me when I first met him twelve years ago.
“The art establishment and he were mutually rejecting,” his wife Adva tells The Report in an e-mail discussion, “as he hated formalities and politically correct behavior.”
Yet Schwebel did not go unrecognized.
He had major shows over the years – at the Israel Museum and Tefen, and last year at the Ramat Gan Museum; his work had been exhibited at the Tel Aviv Museum and is represented in their collection. And when he was reviewed by the critics – which was not often – it was with respect.
Yet I was surprised to discover that an artist of his caliber was not included in mainstream exhibitions and that, indeed, it was rather difficult for him to find ways to show his art at all. After 48 years in the country he remained an outsider.
Larry Abramson, who is very much in the mainstream of Israeli art, curated an exhibition of Schwebel’s work at the Jerusalem Print Workshop in the early 1980s; in the accompanying text, he described him as “an artist from the New York School ship-wrecked on a hill near Jerusalem.”
“That is how I see him,” Abramson tells The Report. “Out of place, stranded in a foreign context, out of touch with the culture around him, but also with the ‘mother culture’ he left behind. This is, of course, a very romantic condition, hence the romanticism of his every move in art.”
IN SCHWEBEL’S BEST WORK, THE paint speaks for itself: the pools and explosions of rich color, achieved with pigment that he would grind and mix himself, the luminous figures emerging out of dark shadows, the quirky, dramatic compositions.
Although the narrative was important to him, it’s the vitality and inventiveness in his paintings that give them their power. Having to do without an art community to share and bounce off ideas is a disadvantage to all solitary artists and, like most of them, Schwebel’s painting went wildly off course at times. His work could become illustrative, sentimental or confused but never boring or predictable.
In a bigger, less intensely focused country, there might have been more space for Schwebel the artist – I imagine him succeeding in a place like Sweden or Greece, where art can be emotional and without irony.
Schwebel was erudite, with a passion for the bible and Jewish and Israeli history. He delved into all of it for his subject matter, bringing together characters and narratives regardless of time, and setting them in modern- day Tel Aviv or Jerusalem, the Judean hills, or New York City. He liked to play with ideas, and thoroughly mixed his visual metaphors. He showed David and Bat-Sheva next to a Nazi deportation train, and Job despairing over his relationship with the Palestinians. He based his characters on photographs of himself, friends and family, or movie stars.
On his website, he describes a series of paintings about anti-Semitism in which the Holocaust is merged with the Spanish Inquisition: “Abarbanel who tried to negotiate with Ferdinand and Isabella is reincarnated in Rumkovski – the German appointed Head of the Lodz Ghetto. The bridge connecting two parts of the Ghetto is spanned over a present-day Tel Aviv cityscape.
Deportation trains travel up Jerusalem’s center and along Bronx streets. The Spanish Queen and an Inquisition victim wait on the platforms...”
In a series entitled “The Situation,” Schwebel is direct and graphic, depicting some of the horrors of the suicide bombings that hit Jerusalem in the early 2000s, and protesting the deaths of innocent people as well as the brutal interrogations to which Palestinians were subjected. He was a strong supporter of the Parents’ Circle, a grass-roots organization of bereaved Palestinians and Israelis.
His “Tel Aviv” series, in contast, is fun: “Chen Cinema” shows a couple of actors who seem to have stepped out of an old romantic movie to cuddle in the shabby street outside the cinema. In his final “Safe Place” series of paintings, he goes beyond self-conscious narrative to create his own Garden of Eden: a private environment in which a man and a woman – or the artist and his Muse – are able to encounter each other in a more meaningful way. Couples wander through a river, lie in a grassy field, float in a cave. In one painting, the woman appears between the trees to discover the man lying lifelessly on the ground in the clearing that Schwebel referred to as his “Safe Place.” The man is based on a self-portrait and is festooned with flowers like the drowned Ophelia.
Eerily, it is as if in this painting Schwebel was able to foresee the manner of his own death.
He is survived by his wife, Adva, five children and six grandchildren. •