A life in painting
His legacy to Israeli art is incalculable, but he will also be remembered for his slurs. Reflections on Uri Lifshitz, who died Saturday.
You go to paint, stand in front of the white canvas, and all your lack of knowledge and ability confronts you. Everything is ready: you want man, you have one. You want a flower, you have one. And there's a house. And everything's at your disposal. You're equipped with imagination and you're going to use it. You begin drawing a horse, and think which is the more beautiful, a horse or a drawing? And a horse is more beautiful, and a man is more beautiful, and sun is more beautiful."
The quotation, from the exhibition catalog for "Paintings and Etchings from Spain," at Tel Aviv's Gordon Gallery in the winter of 1972, begins a conversation earlier that year between Uri Lifshitz and the polymath journalist Adam Baruch.
In the absence of an alternative, and with evident difficulty, Baruch associated Lifshitz's complex personality as an artist and as a person with the New Figurative movement. In the introduction Baruch also quoted Gogol, who wrote in his short story "The Portrait" something to the effect that turbulence of spirit is not the emotion of the artist, for even in his spirit's turbulence the artist breathes calm.
Nearly 30 years have gone by since then, years of turmoil and of daily battles between the artist and the canvas or drawing paper, and two days ago both horse and rider succumbed to cancer: Uri Lifshitz passed away at the age of 75. His funeral yesterday was attended by many more people than were at his side over the last two decades of his life. Lifshitz may be remembered as one of the fathers and theorists of the new painting in Israeli art, the liberated painting that left behind old horizons and overcame the lyrical abstract; but he will also be remembered for his controversial remarks about women, Mizrahim, homosexuals and people with disabilities, which contributed to his exclusion from the center of the art world.
"A laborer of painting," his neighbor and old friend, the artist David Tartakover, called him. Lifshitz, who was born on Kibbutz Givat Hashlosha in 1936, had no formal art training. He began painting after his military service, in Ariel Sharon's Unit 101 commando platoon. "I started painting in the 1960s, at the age of 24, on Givat Hashlosha," he once related. "I painted what I saw. I paint thanks to my hands' ability to convey what I see." He left the kibbutz for Tel Aviv, and began hanging out at the legendary Kassit Cafe. He became friends with musician Shmulik Kraus and writer Amos Kenan. By the age of 31 Lifshitz, together with Rafi Lavie, Benny Efrat, Buky Schwartz and other artists, had founded the avant-garde Ten Plus group.
Leaving his mark
In the late 1960s Lifshitz contributed to the reevaluation of painting. "Lifshitz left a mark and proved again that painting is not dead, even though it had been eulogized so many times during the 20th century," Marc Scheps, the previous director of the Tel Aviv Museum of Art (1977-1990 ) and of the Ludwig Museum of Art in Cologne, Germany (1991-2002 ), said yesterday. "During that time, in Israel and in the world, there was a return to the figurative. In this respect he had all the qualities to be a master of this trend: his drawing talent, his volatile, inconsiderate personality. He held a fascinating contradiction; on one hand he stood out in his social milieu, while on the other hand he always kept himself at a distance."
Scheps struggles to find similarities between Lifshitz and any other Israeli artist. He does, however, sees a link between Lifshitz and the British painter Francis Bacon. The combination of the awe that is reserved for those who dictate the canon and their transformation over the years into anachronistic, quixotic figures could indeed fit both artists.
According to Tartakover, "he created unfathomable amounts of prints, drawings, etchings and sculptures over 50 years, during which he got up every morning and went to work. Even during his illness, he was active." A short walk separated his home in Tel Aviv's Neveh Tzedek neighborhood to the studio on the corner of Eilat and Abarbanel streets that shared with his youngest son, Nadav, 24. Lifshitz married three times, and is survived by seven children.
Lifshitz had numerous exhibitions, starting in 1961 at the Aked Gallery in Tel Aviv and continuing for nearly three decades, with solo exhibitions at venues that including Tel Aviv's Bineth and Gordon galleries and the Helena Rubinstein Pavilion for Contemporary Art, as well as at the Sao Paolo Art Biennale and London's Whitechapel Gallery. All of these sealed his reputation as a prominent Israeli artist.
"No other Israeli artist was so central for so many years to artists, critics and the public," Yair Garbuz, former head of Hamidrasha, the art school of Beit Berl College, told Haaretz on Saturday. "But after his success in the 1960s and '70s things happened, whether intentionally or not, that pushed him out of the art world in Israel. There was a time when he gave up the recognition he had earned and belittled it or avoided it and later, when he wanted to return to that central place, perhaps it didn't quite work out."
In 1985 Lifshitz was awarded the Dizengoff Art Prize. The Gordon Gallery mounted a large exhibition, "Etchings & Lithographs 1963-1985," that was accompanied by a comprehensive book by the same name, edited by gallery owner Yeshayahu Yariv.
"In my frequent searches for formulae, I have found myself looking for some kind of category for Lifshitz, or someone comparable, as a person, as an artist. I cannot find one. I cannot understand where he comes from, and cannot see where he is heading," Yariv wrote.
"Finally, you understand that Uri speaks the way he draws. Unpredictably. The same originality, the same force, the same lines drawn with a ruler, the same erasures. The same humour which is seriousness and the same seriousness which is actually humour. The same involvement and the same alienation. Afraid of death but not afraid of life." Yariv stopped working with Lifshitz in 1985. He declined to comment for this article.
Naomi Givon, an owner of the Givon Gallery (that represented Lifshitz in the 1970s ), says she thinks the ebbing of Lifshitz's career had to do with his personality and the nature of the local art scene. "This is the way it is in a small place, when someone is not of interest to someone else," she explains. "There was no separation between his remarks and his work as an artist, something that did him an injustice. Lifshitz was a virtuoso, and you can't take that away from him. He was a revolutionary, worked with paintings on a black background, the opposite of the New Horizons groups, that worked on white. For him, white was a color to paint with, a tool," Givon said.
Many reviews in the ensuing years panned Lifshitz's work. In an unusual move, he stopped exhibiting in established galleries and museums, stayed away from the center but refrained from affiliating with the margins.
"Mannerism" or "Gimmick" was the main term for his few exhibitions over the past 15 years. "They call it a light touch, with expression, and it is possible that it was interpreted as a mannerism. But nevertheless, if you look at his Schizophrenia series, for example, it's not mannerism, it's real," says Givon.
Until his final years, Lifshitz continued to rebel against labels. He did not want to participate in an exhibition curated by Benno Caleb at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art in 2009, "The Ten Plus Group: Myth and Reality."
"Uri said he objected to history, especially Israeli history. In a conversation before the exhibition, he asked me to free him from participating in the exhibition. I respected his wish and did not show his work, even though he came to the opening, much to my surprise," Caleb recalled yesterday.
Despite additional, similar stories about Lifshitz involving arguments over respect or "branding," he was nevertheless among Israel's leading artists. His reputation, stubborn work and vulgarity will become part of the memories he leaves behind.
"In comparison with the great I will always see myself as small and deficient," Lifshitz told Baruch later in the same conversation in 1972.
"I'll occupy myself with sketches because of fear in the face of the necessity to complete a work of excellence in oils. And my only material legacy is - my excrement. And if I bequeath, it is due to the generosity of those who bought my mistakes, and if these are many then they are mistakes. And my good works will remain in cellars, and these are the ones that were made out of endless doubts."