Rediscovering the woman who took a leap of faith

The forgotten story of gallerist Bertha Urdang, who catapulted Israeli artists to fame in the US and cultivated a generation of creators, is finally told in the exhibition ‘A Gallery of Her Own’.

THE PAINTING ‘Bird’ by Raffi Lavie. (photo credit: ELI POSNER/THE ISRAEL MUSEUM)
THE PAINTING ‘Bird’ by Raffi Lavie.
(photo credit: ELI POSNER/THE ISRAEL MUSEUM)
Miri Laufer, a recently retired, long-term employee of the Israel Museum, stands in front of a bleak drawing in black and white by the late Israeli artist Aviva Uri. She beseeches me to take a closer look at the work, created in 1958 with graphite and charcoal and bearing the familiar visual language of the esteemed but controversial painter. Drawn in thin lines that gradually take on an ecstatic and disorderly quality, In the Circus depicts a barely recognizable female trapeze artist in midair as she spreads her limbs to the sides, bracing for her descent from a tightrope into the ground. 
“It’s a great work,” Laufer finally remarks after a long moment of silence in which she gazes at the drawing in awe. “My mother donated it to the museum in 1969.”
Laufer’s mother, the late gallerist Bertha Urdang, is the woman behind many such important additions to the Israeli art collection of one of the world’s most important encyclopedic museums. She is also the facilitator of countless other acquisitions the museum made over the years, and the mediator of many other sales of Israeli artworks to museums, artistic institutions and private collections worldwide.
Bertha Urdang (Courtesy of the Urdang-Laufer Family)

Alongside Uri’s drawing, hung on a wall in the design wing tucked at the back of the museum, are various oeuvres by artists Urdang helped discover and whose careers she promoted. Most of them were anonymous young graduates of art schools or barely heard of when they first encountered the British emigrant who changed their lives. Today, their work is considered an integral part of the canon of Israeli art, taught in art schools and celebrated locally as well as internationally. But while the likes of Micha Ullman, Joshua Neustein, Pinchas Cohen Gan, Nahum Tevet and Moshe Kupferman have already entered history books and gained their due fame, their gallerist and dealer – a petite-looking but fierce business owner – has remained mostly unknown to the wider public.
With a new exhibition at the Israel Museum, her former place of employment and her mother’s second home for decades, Urdang’s youngest daughter aims to change that. Ten years after her mother passed away at 88, Laufer teamed with curator Ronit Shorek to put together an exhibition composed of artworks by artists her mother worked with. The installations, drawings and paintings by some of the most important names in the chronicles of Israeli conceptual and abstract art are not just rare artistic feats worth beholding. Together, they tell the story of a mover and shaker who worked tirelessly to provide a platform for innovative art and expose it overseas.

Nahum Tevet's Installation for "Two Rooms" from 1979, first presented at Urdang's New York Gallery (Credit: Elie Posner, The Israel Museum)
Pushing for a new direction

Born in 1912 in London to a family of modest means, anecdotes shared by her daughter and artists indicate that Urdang was an ambitious woman from the very start. Educated at the elitist North London Collegiate School, Urdang went on to study art history and journalism (first at the University of London, and later at Paris’ prestigious Sorbonne). 
“But at the same time she was very Zionist and deeply embroiled in many Zionist groups, so eventually she decided to act on her agenda and move to Israel in 1934,” Laufer tells The Jerusalem Post during a tour of the show. In the Jewish state she met Tuvia Urdang, an agronomist. The pair wed two years later, relocated from Haifa to Jerusalem and had three daughters. In 1948, Urdang’s husband died in the War of Independence. The young widow decided to move back to London with her three daughters, where she took up the position of director of the information office of the Zionist Organization.
Urdang did not stay far from Israel for too long. She returned to the country in 1955, making her first bold step in the art world: The opening of a small art space dedicated to contemporary Israeli art. Named “Rina Gallery,” it was run by Urdang and relied on her collaboration with curator Yona Fischer and artist Efraim (Fima) Roeytenberg. Laufer remembers that the latter was a very close friend of her mother’s, to the extent that she considered him a household member.
A 1958 drawing by Aviva Uri, "In the Circus" Like Uri's trapeze artist, Urdang was known for taking numerous leaps of faith in her professional life. (Credit: Elie Posner, The Israel Museum)

In a video created for the exhibition and displayed along the works, Fischer – a senior curator and a significant figure in the Israeli artistic landscape – shares his impressions of those early days. 
“While searching for galleries in Jerusalem, the number of which you could count on one hand at the time, I found Bertha’s gallery. Quite quickly I was drawn to her charisma and ambition. She was bold, which I had never been.”
In that gallery, Urdang insisted on showing artworks that defied the popular standards that were dictated by the leading movements that operated at the time, such as the New Horizons group. While she didn’t turn her back on prominent artists, she shied away from figurative art and opted to highlight abstract and more minimalist creations.
Five years later, Urdang opened another venue, this time in central Jerusalem. On the first floor of the gallery at Shlomtzion Hamalka Street she showed works by prominent artists such as Joseph Zartisky and Avigdor Stematsky. She dedicated the second floor of her space to experimentations, presenting new styles and artistic ingenues. One of them was the iconic Raffi Lavie, whose work was a cross between graffiti and abstract expressionism; he has been compared to internationally revered artists like US painter Cy Twombly, both in style and influence. 
“Lavie had his first solo exhibition at my mother’s gallery,” Laufer shares. “He had just graduated from art school. He came to the gallery often because he felt that it was a space liberated from the regulations usually imposed by official institutions. He felt that with my mother, he could fly. At the time the museum wasn’t keen on purchasing his works, because he was still a young artist who hadn’t proved himself.”
One of Lavie’s works on view at the gallery, a painting from 1960 titled Bird, caught the attention of Fischer, who became enamored by his work. The cream-colored canvas, punctured in its midst, was acquired by the Bezalel Museum for which Fischer worked (and which turned later into the Israel Museum collection). Presently on display in Bertha Urdang: A Gallery of Her Own, it is one of numerous sought-after works that Urdang helped lift from obscurity into the heart of the art market.

A keen eye

Urdang’s third artistic venture came in 1969, when she left the gallery on Shlomtzion Hamalka Street and moved into the Beit HaKerem neighborhood. There, she opened a gallery within her house and started a series of exhibitions called Collector’s Choice. With that project, says curator Shorek, “she managed to shift the center of Israeli art from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.”
A 1972 drawing by Moshe Kupferman, an artist with whom Urdang had a close relationship. (Credit: Elie Posner, The Israel Museum)
While Laufer says her mother was not overtly feminist and even once notoriously stated that she “doesn’t look an artwork under its skirt,” her work ought to be singled out due to the fact that she was one of the only women in a position of power in an art world then dominated by men. Her close ties to the artists she represented and her ability to kick start their careers bring to mind professionals such as Peggy Guggenheim, the American art collector often dubbed “the godmother of the New York gestural abstraction movement” who operated in Urdang’s lifetime.
Fischer explains that Urdang formed “very close relations with the artists, which is something that didn’t exist prior to that point. There were artists about whom you could say, ‘These are Bertha’s artists,’ and they would call themselves that as well. I don’t think there was a single gallery in those years that had this kind of status.”
One of those artists was Micha Ullman. The sculptor, who is considered the father of Israeli land art, nostalgically comments in the video that he was “shaking a little, wondering what she would say” when he presented her with new artworks. “Her most important trait was the ability to see things clearly. That, I think, is the gallerist’s most important tool. She had it absolutely, it enabled her to recognize young artists who didn’t have guarantees, and I was among them.”
Laufer reiterates Ullman’s assertion that Urdang’s taste was her true force as a gallerist. Passing by a drawing of Moshe Kupferman marked by his telltale brushstrokes that bore signs of erasures, she says, “My mother could go to his studio, see 20 works and select only three. And those three would turn out to be his best ones.”
In 1972, Urdang took her sharp senses to New York. In the epicenter of Manhattan, she set up a gallery for Israeli art on East 74th Street. There, too, Urdang used the exhibition space as her living quarters, and Ullman recalls seeing her close an exhibition one night only to plop down on a folding bed and fall asleep. 
“It was such total commitment, and I don’t know if I saw anything else like that... it was her whole life.”

God is abstract

Even prior to opening her gallery there, Urdang had already organized shows such as Leap of Faith, an exhibition of Israeli art held in 1969. 
“Like the trapeze artist [in Uri’s painting], she was a woman on her own, brave, soaring. She always leapt into the unknown, putting herself at risk,” curator Shorek reflects in the video.
In her active years in New York, Urdang helped connect between her artists and important venues, leading to sales of their works to such institutions as the Museum of Modern Art and the Guggenheim. She organized dozens of exhibitions, familiarizing international art world players with the work of the artists she nurtured. 
“My mother saw her work as a Zionist factory,” Laufer stresses. “What she wanted is for people to see a different kind of Israel, not the Israel they had heard of as a desert filled with camels. She took pride in the fact that her biggest collectors were not Jews but rather museums and private individuals in the US who learned to appreciate Israeli art.”
 An untitled collage by Joshua Neustein from 1970. Urdang was his dealer for decades, throughout which they had a tumultuous relationship. (Credit: Elie Posner, The Israel Museum)

As we circle the gallery once more, I point out the humorously painful works of Joshua Neustein, several of which decorate the space and catch my eye. A contemporary American-Israeli artist known for his conceptual art and deconstructed canvas works, Neustein figures as an important character in Urdang’s story and worked with her as his dealer for decades. As Laufer and I stand in front of one of his works, a collage dating to 1970 and made from layered and torn paper, a televised interview with Urdang can be heard from the screen showing the video. 
“What leads me in everything I do is that we are the only people in the world whose God has no figure. Our God is completely abstract.”
Works like his, abstract and yet touching on achingly corporeal themes, represent in Laufer’s opinion “the issue of wandering, of moving from place to place,” just like her mother did. “So much of their [generation of artists who worked with Urdang] work speaks of taking something from one place and moving it elsewhere.”
As we part ways, Laufer expresses hope that her mother’s work will not be forgotten. Weeks after our encounter, I read a eulogy penned by Neustein after Urdang’s death in 2001 and published by Studio Magazine. After he had heard of Urdang’s death, he wrote, snow immediately fell on the New York streets he could see from his studio. 
“The world went minimal, just the way Bertha liked her art... in the thirty years that she dealt with my art and was my friend, I wanted to kill her at least 20 times. In the years of my dialogue, arguments and reconciliation with her, ideas were always more important than credibility... she was the mad hatter that brought Israeli art to the world forum, who made a pact with her vocation.”
His words paint a portrait of a complex figure: a woman who labored to promote her artists and advanced a new stream of art, but who was also highly demanding and challenging to work with; a Jewish wanderer who loved Israel even when she way far away from it; a feminist professional unparalleled in her time whose work took precedence over her personal life. One can only hope that art historians will do Urdang’s factory justice and record it even after this exhibition closes.

Bertha Urdang: A Gallery of Her Own is on view at the Israel Museum until May 22.