An art life

Amnon Ben-Ami described by judges as artist whose works ‘contain within them a provocative and poetic richness.’

Amnon Ben-Ami (photo credit: Courtesy: Bezalel)
Amnon Ben-Ami
(photo credit: Courtesy: Bezalel)
At any given time there are few truly great artists hiding out of sight. But some artists avoid the public aspect of the art life to focus all the more on the critical questions inherent to art. One such artist is Amnon Ben-Ami – recipient of the newly inaugurated Ilana Elovic Bezalel Prize for Painting, which includes a cash prize of $20,000 as well as an exhibition with catalogue in November at Bezalel’s Jaffa 23 space in Jerusalem’s city center.
Ben-Ami, 56, is a Jerusalem-based painter who has been working within the Israeli art world since the late 1980s but has purposely kept his exposure limited. One of his reasons for keeping such a low profile is so he can focus as much as possible on the art itself. This commitment leads to a host of complications – existential, social, financial – especially when one is raising a family in a city without a single commercial contemporary art gallery. Yet the strength of Ben-Ami’s work comes in part from his power – always present in his work – to turn these very complications into artistic inquiry. And to do this by constantly singling out the visual elements of the most basic objects that surround us.
The contest judge’s announcement was read at a press conference where the prize was officially awarded in the presence of Dr. Eugene Elovic, who launched the prize in memory of his late wife, Ilana, a selftaught artist. The judges observed in their official statement that Ben-Ami’s works “seem absurdist and nihilistic in terms of their reductive simplicity, and yet they also contain within them a provocative and poetic richness out of which jumps a great love of painting, wisdom and creativity, along with theoretical depth.” They also singled out the technical aspects of his work in which “one sees all the classical elements of painting – brushwork, color, platform – in their material, optical and historical implications. All of which make him particularly worthy to be the first-ever winner of this award.”
These views were given by a panel of judges with such stature in the art world that each one could represent a panel on his or her own: Prof. Arnon Zuckerman, president of the Bezalel Academy of Art and Design; Rivka Saker, chair of Sotheby’s Israel; Michal Rovner, internationally acclaimed visual artist; Nahum Tevet, professor of art and a living legend of the Israeli art world; and Yigal Zalmona, chief curator-at-large of the Israel Museum.
The judges received 162 applications and after narrowing the list down, they arranged visits to the studios of the two finalists. Rovner said that Ben-Ami’s studio “was an inspiring place. You could feel the intensity of his presence there – objects, questions, contemplation, writings. I looked out the window and suddenly everything I saw looked like an extension of his studio.”
Rovner also recognized the difficulty of an art life that is both intensely prolific and far from the limelight: “He has the emotional strength to constantly put himself in a place of uncertainty.”
The judges’ announcement described Ben-Ami’s work as “expanding the definition of the field of painting” and “challenging convention.” They continued: “It seems that everything in his nearby vicinity, banal as it may be, transforms a relentless process of constant creation of art.”
Rovner added at the ceremony that Ben- Ami asks “all the basic questions.”
SAGIT MEZAMER, curator and program director of Jaffa 23, is excited that the prize will allow Ben-Ami to exhibit at the space.
“I’m glad we have a chance to have the first painting show at Jaffa 23 – and that it’s Amnon,” she says. “Because his painting is almost like installation. There’s a connection between how he works in the space of his studio and how he brings that into an exhibition space. Jaffa 23 is not a conventional space and I’m sure Amnon will be able to create a fascinating work out of the exhibition itself – with his paintings and also with the space.”
Alongside Ben-Ami’s painting practice is his writing. He fills notebooks in which he expands both conceptually and theoretically on those ideas that lead to some of his paintings. These are not exactly thoughts in the sense of propositions or assertions, but rather word-explorations that stretch the connection between the idea and its expression.
The judges picked up on Ben-Ami’s writing, and spent part of their studio visit listening to him read from his notebooks. At the press release, Rovner asked Ben-Ami to read a portion that she had marked during the previous day’s studio visit, and he invited her to read it to the crowd herself.
He gave her his notebook and she obliged by starting in the middle of a sentence: “ also do something. You put paint beside paint, you pile up paint on top of paint and you also produce a picture, for example of a table. You describe a table.
You describe reality. You express reality.
You put paint next to paint, paint on top of paint. You express reality and in addition there is something called an idea. You express reality and you express the idea of reality. You give expression to something, to reality. To the real. You can’t go wrong.
What can already be so bad? We have to understand: what can already be so bad? Everyone who is immersed here: what can already be so bad? Description: Cézanne positions apples on a white cloth.
Cézanne scatters apples between the folds of a white cloth. Words are also like folds. My mind folds according to the words. The folds of the brain’s flesh and of the words.
The brain: folds, folds. Folded folds. The elasticity of the brain. Its ability to receive every single picture. Every single sentence. To turn into...”
Rovner stopped there, in the middle of the sentence, though one got the sense she could have gone on for pages. It is Ben- Ami’s written material that the judges seemed to have in mind when they wrote in their statement of his “in-depth thought and attempt to clarify concepts and experiences such as ‘vision’ or ‘color,’ and the study of topics in the field of painting.”
Upon receiving the prize, Ben-Ami cited The Confessions of Saint Augustine, and recalled that, though before his conversion to Christianity Augustine had won a poetry contest, afterward he categorized it somewhat negatively as being part of the material world. Ben-Ami said he wanted to stress the other half of that – saying that “there are cases in which such prizes are necessary and maybe even critical.”
BEN-AMI was born in Kibbutz Alumot and grew up in Sde Boker. He studied at Bezalel between 1982 and 1986, where he was singled out by Philip Leider, the legendary art critic and founder of Artforum who, after leaving that magazine, came to teach art in Jerusalem. In 1990, Ben-Ami and several other artists were chosen by Leider to take part in an exhibition he called “Promise: 10 Bezalel Artists of the Last Decade.” Ido Bar-El, today one of the foremost figures in Israeli painting, who until last year was head of Bezalel’s undergraduate art department, also showed at the exhibition. He is one of the few figures in the art world who has always kept an eye on Ben-Ami and his work.
“Amnon is a painter full of rich imagination, sense of humor and amazing virtuosity,” says Bar-El. “He stands out in his quality and originality. He’s one of the leading painters in Israel – though he’s virtually unknown. His presence is quiet and mysterious.
He’s a painter who constantly keeps you curious about his next exhibit. He has an impressive body of work on which he’s worked for many years. His painting is worth more than any trend, commerciality or questions of taste. In any other place, an artist like him would be in the Pantheon of art. On the global level, his paintings hold a respectable place.”
Over the years, judges’ panels in Israel and abroad seem to have agreed. In 1988, Ben-Ami received the inaugural Young Artist Award from the Education and Culture Ministry. In 2001 he received a Pollock- Krasner Foundation Grant and in 2006 was chosen by Frank Stella for a Barnett and Annalee Newman Foundation Award – both highly regarded international prizes associated with the New York School. And in 2008, he received the ministry’s Prize to Encourage Creativity for Mid-Career Artists. The judges’ choice to award Ben-Ami the Ilana Elovic Bezalel Prize bodes well as much for the prize as for its recipient.
At the start of his career in the late 1980s, Ben-Ami exhibited at two commercial galleries in Tel Aviv that are today considered some of the important veterans on the Israeli contemporary art scene: Dvir Gallery and Chelouche Gallery. In 1990, he had his first museum solo exhibition, “Logos,” at the Janco-Dada Museum in Ein Hod. By the late 1990s, though, he withdrew somewhat from the art scene, keeping contact only with those artists and curators with whom he could share the questions of art that he lived daily.
One of those artists is Joshua Borkovsky, a Jerusalem-based painter and longtime teacher at Bezalel who at the end of the year will open an exhibition at the Israel Museum covering his last 25 years of work.
“Amnon’s painting challenges the threshold of the possible,” says Borkovsky.
“When we say about something that it has only the essentials – he pulls it even further toward those essentials than we think is possible. He brings it to a place where its simplicity is also its magic.”
Though he had no solo exhibitions for six years, Ben-Ami continued to show regularly in group shows throughout the next years. In 2002, he had a solo show at the Nahshon Gallery in Kibbutz Nahshon.
In 2005, when the Barbour Gallery was opened by a group of thenrecent Bezalel graduates in Jerusalem’s Nahlaot neighborhood, Ben-Ami was the first artist to present a solo exhibition in the then newly inaugurated collective space.
At that time, he met Avi Sabah – a young painter who in the past year and a half has had his own set of firsts, including a show at the Haifa Museum of Art, a show at Gallery 39 in Tel Aviv and receiving the same Young Artist Award that Ben- Ami was given more than 20 years earlier. Sabah wrote a text for the first Barbour exhibit that expressed the power of Ben-Ami’s work from the point of view of an artist rather than a critic.
Titled “Violent but Good at Heart,” the text discussed some of Ben-Ami’s characteristics as a painter. “One firm action characterizes both the making and the outcome,” wrote Sabah. “It seems that some of the objects also undergo a certain surgical procedure.
The original object retains its materialness and smell, but loses its status and purpose in order to adopt new ones instead.” He continued: “‘Surgery’ is a key Hebrew word – it’s used to describe a physical incision, but also stands for analysis of text or image. Amnon performs both tasks at the same time.”
Sabah also noted: “He has to write even when he paints.”
IN 2010, Sabah curated another of Ben- Ami’s solo exhibitions, this time at the Tel Aviv Artist Studios Gallery. Sabah extended the ideas first broached in the earlier show and titled his second text on Ben-Ami “Surgeon of Emotions.” His understanding of Ben-Am’s work had deepened considerably with their years of association: “Ben-Ami operates on the banal with a signature surgical sensitivity that snatches its heart and leaves it no choice but to become fantastic. Sublime turned to despair.” Being more familiar with the artist’s way of working both in and out of the studio, he was able to point to deeper significances: “Ben-Ami’s choices betray an artist who does not rest. The laundry basket, the shampoo, the digital camera, the black buckets, the philodendron.
These all provide strong evidence that from the first defeated moments of each morning to those of each following morning, Ben-Ami looks for emotional summits and moments of art.”
These “moments of art” take place in the quiet that is far away from the kind of attention that this prize has brought Ben- Ami. They happen at the intersection of existence, life and reality – that fragile state that takes into itself all the circumstances of being. These are the moments that make up the art life. And it is there that Ben-Ami prefers to spend most of his time.