Sculptor Izhar Patkin, who conquered N.Y., returns to his ghosts in Israel
Leaving Netanya 30 years ago, with just a recommendation letter in hand, Patkin latest show focuses on the crisis of the painted image in the age of video art.
Smiling, Izhar Patkin moved through the 12 gallery spaces of the Meyerhoff Pavilion in the Tel Aviv Museum of Art. It was a week before the opening, in mid-June, of “The Wandering Veil,” an exhibition of more than 100 of his works chosen by senior curator Ellen Ginton together with the artist. It’s not a retrospective − not yet, the 57-year-old Patkin says. It’s an interim survey, organized thematically, of an artistic career spanning 30 years. The emphasis is on projects of the past decade, alongside groundbreaking earlier works.
Patkin arrived in Israel about a month before the opening of the exhibition and didn’t rest for a minute, sleeping four hours a night at most. He made several trips to the Open Museum at Tefen Industrial Park in the Galilee, where an additional part of the exhibit opened two days later, curated by Ruthi Ofek. (Next year, the exhibition will travel to MASS MoCA, the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art.) The Tel Aviv exhibition will run until December 1, 2012.
In the meantime, in the Tel Aviv venue, Patkin got his first good view of his work, created using translucent curtains, on which he worked for a decade. These works, which are at the center of the new exhibition, are the product of a collaboration between Patkin and Agha Shahid Ali, an American-Kashmiri poet, who died of cancer in 2001. The professional ties between them evolved into friendship. Its inception was a project in which they decided that the encounter between the Muslim and the Jew would focus on the concept of the veil. The overall project is titled “Veiled Threats,” and its highlight is “The Veil Suite.”
“I have never seen them hung in a clean, open, properly lit space,” Patkin says now. “Seeing them in the museum, I am very excited by the singularity of the exhibition.”
The show is accompanied by a comprehensive catalog. There are articles by the curators Ginton and Ofek, as well as by the psychoanalyst and art critic Itamar Levy and by the poet and novelist Shimon Adaf. There is also an interview with Patkin by David Ross, a former director of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and the Whitney Museum of American Art, who is now with the School of Visual Arts in New York.
Patkin moved from one space to the next, showing and explaining his works. He likened his excitement to that of a chef: “When I finish ‘cooking’ it, I give the painting to the guests. It’s out of my hands and I no longer have an interest in it. All in all, this is the most exciting exhibition in my life, because it’s here in Tel Aviv and it wasn’t easy to bring about.”
How many years ago did you start talking to the Tel Aviv Museum about an exhibition?
Patkin: “We started talking about it 16 years ago. At that time, the idea was to bring my main works from the major collectors and from the Guggenheim and MoMA in New York. Four years ago, when the exhibition came to fruition, I told Moti Omer [Prof. Mordechai Omer, the late chief curator and director of the Tel Aviv Museum] and Ellen Ginton that I was already in a different place.”
The joy of mounting the exhibition is thus compensation for the protracted wait and for 10 lonely years in the studio. Patkin, though, possesses a healthy dose of self-irony and knows that celebrations are as fleeting as a cool breeze in July and August.
“Do you know the song ‘Is That All There Is?’ After you have sex the first time, you wonder, ‘Is that all there is?’ and so on, and in the meantime life passes. This the first time that something like a retrospective of my work is being held. I will stand at the entrance to the museum and see who comes in, and will ask myself, ‘Is that all there is?’ ... Maybe I should have been a farmer living in harmony with nature. The best moments are when you are not afraid to die. To know how to die well is a gift.”
Would you also like to direct your death?
“Absolutely. Before her death, Holly Solomon, my art dealer, who was an important figure in my life and full of brilliant ideas, wanted me to donate her body to MoMA in New York. ‘Why would they want it?’ I asked her, and she said, ‘Put the body in a television set and tell them it’s video art, and at long last I will be in MoMA ...’
“You only die once. Moti Omer once asked me to do a sculpture for the museum’s sculpture garden. I suggested that he give me a burial plot on which there would be a bench with my name on it and the dates of my birth and death, and I would be inside. Omer told me to come up with something else, and then I suggested that we make a headstone for the Jewish sages of antiquity. Well, we didn’t get far with that.”
Amid the painted pleats
My meeting with Patkin at the museum took place at night. We brought two plastic chairs into one of the spaces, made do with mint chewing gum for refreshments, and the next time we checked, four hours had slipped by. We were surrounded by his 2006 work, “Violins,” pure tulle curtains, from top to bottom, like movie screens. Embedded in the transparent fabric are images, stories and memories. Amid the painted pleats a kind of game is played, in which the viewers are meant to hunt for the images. Like in an old-time movie, or in a dream, the tulle veils transport us into another world.
The drama that Patkin unfolds is apparent from one’s first glance at “Violins.” On the wall is a painting spanning four walls, featuring Pablo Casals. The Catalan cellist and composer is seen bowing at the end of the concert he gave in 1961 in the East Room of the White House in the presence of President and Mrs. John F. Kennedy and their guests. The first question that leaps to mind is: Why is Casals standing with his back to the president, the First Lady and the audience? Then you notice that Patkin has painted pigeons on the floor. They are an allusion to “Song of the Birds,” a Catalan folksong that Casals performed as an encore, in protest against the dictatorship of General Franco. By having Casals turn his back to the audience, President Kennedy and his retinue are in this work forced to face a “theater of war” and confront scenes of armies, destruction, death and fleeing refugees.
“Casals famously declared ‘My cello is my weapon,’” Patkin says. “My painting is the act of an artist who does not need to go beyond his art in order to express far more than what he has painted.
“The images connect to our story, the Israelis and the Palestinians,” he continues. “We are caught in a kind of hallucination of culture and its offshoots. Kennedy and his guests are looking at a garden that looks like the Tuileries in Paris, or these might be the trees next to my grandfather’s home in Netanya where, rumor has it, the Irgun [pre-1948 Jewish underground organization] hanged the British sergeants in retaliation for the hanging of three of their people by the British. A wagon carrying refugees is visible there, along with ghostly army battalions, burnt trees and more. All of it comes back to enter the White House.”
“Violins” is one of the early works in Patkin’s “Veils” project. It is based on a poem by the late Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish, which was rendered into English by Agha Shahid Ali, at the request of the late Prof. Edward Said. Patkin transformed Shahid Ali’s poems of wandering into the language of painted images: All the veil rooms in the exhibition are works based on the poems.
“The word ‘violins’ recurs so many times in Shahid Ali’s English-language version of Darwish’s poem that its sound morphs into ‘violence.’ When I set out to render the poem into a visual painting I had to invent images that are not in the poem,” Patkin says.
What does that mean in terms of the work process?
“At my advanced age I already have a lexicon of my own and also ‘actors’ who star in my painting ensemble, through which I tell stories. If necessary, I introduce new images, and that’s almost like a dictionary. The figurative images and the materials appear in my paintings as equal players. Take, for example, the empty chair, a ghost chair, which appeared in an early painting from my last year at the Corcoran College of Art and Design, in Washington, D.C.
“Its title is ‘Ghost Chair, 1978,’ and it is in the exhibition. I am photographed in it dressed in black, sitting on a white chair. I drew the chair over my body with a white pencil, turning both the chair and me into ghosts. In ‘Violins’ the empty chair is that of Casals, and there is another work in which the empty chair belongs to God.”
What made you paint on tulle?
“The tulle is my canvas. It is an open, breathing canvas, and it contains all the myths that are connected both to my origins in Judaism and to my disappointments and illusions. Once, when there were movie theaters, the curtain would begin to rise and the film would be screened simultaneously. That moment for me, as a child, was marvelous, because the picture was already present and the screen was still in motion. The image, which lacked physical weight and lacked body, was engraved powerfully in my memory. It is a kind of weightless object/non-object, which is very much related to a Jewish essence: people whose God is an idea without a body.
“Maybe we can stop saying ‘Jewish’ and talk about the difference between iconoclastic and iconic, which is a key problem in painting. The cinema and Marcel Duchamp changed everything. After Duchamp, the essence of painting became the central issue of art, one that every serious artist has to struggle with, because he cannot go on smearing oil on canvas.”
What about video art?
“The solution of [creating] video art without any reference to painting is problematic. I am not telling anyone what to do, but if you are a painter, engage in painting, and if you are a philosopher, focus on philosophy. The works we see today in the art world are anecdotal and far removed from the question of why painting exists altogether. I could not forgo painting, and the paintings on tulle and on screens, like a cinema experience without a projector, became my solution to those questions.”
Izhar Patkin’s journey of veils and curtains began with a snapshot he found in 1982 on a Manhattan street, of a black woman wearing a bridal gown. He says he saw the black Snow White as a “mad metaphor.” He hung a white tulle curtain in his studio and sprayed-painted on it using a stencil. The ensuing work was titled “The Meta Bride.” This motif became the central theme of his first exhibition, a year later, in a professional gallery in New York. A copy is also on view in the Tel Aviv show.
Nowadays, Patkin works somewhat differently. He uploads an image onto a computer and develops it into a series of images via a process that resembles an act of painting. A machine then prints the images on the pleated tulle. In his view, the flimsy curtains are paintings in every respect, by virtue of the fact that his aims as an artist are imprinted on them alongside the themes and narratives that preoccupy him. He uses digital printing just as artists like Jasper Johns and Andy Warhol used the stencil and the silkscreen.
Patkin: “The processes of creating the veil paintings resemble that of directing a film. They started with a script, or with the writings of Agha Shahid Ali. For example, the colonial paintings of Reuven Rubin are the narrative foundation of the panoramic pleated tulle curtain on show at the Open Museum in Tefen. From this point of view, my work is a documentary painting. In the second stage, I ‘cast’ the images and the actors, some of them already appeared in earlier works. After that I invent a place, a stage and a context that deepens the narrative.
“The intensive work of compiling images, searching and creating nuances to fill the huge curtains takes months. In contrast to the cinema, I do not have to invent a beginning, middle and end, because these are paintings and they are also rooms, which tell a story on the four surrounding walls without a beginning or an end. They are in a constant process of becoming and fleeing away. I am the stage director of the dreams.”
Why did that oblige you to closet yourself in the studio for 10 years?
“In 2002 I had an awful year that threw my life into chaos. Six people who were dear to me died, among them my art dealer, Holly Solomon, to whom I owe the start of my career in New York. My father also died, and my loss was overwhelming. Shosh Kormush and her husband, Meir Franco” − a photographer and painter, respectively − “died, and Agha Shahid Ali did too. It was as though a serial killer arrived in the city and liquidated all of them. I just could no longer take the world of art, the petty conversations and the openings.
“I kept working and it went on for 10 years, during which I did the veil paintings and the ‘Madonna and Child’ – a sculpture created at the famous Sevres porcelain factory. It is on view in the [Tel Aviv] exhibition for the first time. It shows the Virgin Mary cradling an empty canvas, as she sits on ‘Love Threatening,’ the well-known sculpture by Etienne Maurice Falconet from the 18th century, also made from porcelain at Sevres. I also made a glass sculpture, ‘The Messiah’s glAss,’ and the paintings in the series ‘Gardens for the Global City.’ Fortunately, collectors and museums continued to follow my work and I did not go hungry. But I put a stop to the dialogue with the art world.”
“I did not look at an art journal for 10 years. The only exhibitions that interested me were ones of a historical nature, such as in the Metropolitan in New York and the Louvre. That doesn’t mean that no amazing things happened in the art world, but I cut myself off. When this exhibition started to move ahead, I had to get off my high horse and return to a certain level of communication. I discovered that everything had stayed exactly as it was, except that everyone was a lot older.”
‘Aesthetics of death’
The first painting Patkin saw as a child was a posthumous portrait of his uncle, Izhar “Zorik” Patkin, who was killed in 1952 in an army training accident at the age of 18. Patkin, who was born in 1955, is named after him. He had to cope both with the family’s agony and with the difficulty the members of the grief-stricken family had in uttering his name. “I was effectively nameless until the age of 3 or 4,” he recalls.
“My father was the first child born in the city of Netanya, and his brother was one of the first killed in the city. My grandmother commissioned a portrait of my uncle. Imagine a typical Israeli home, in which there is one painting on the wall and the name of the painting is the same as my name. That was actually the first ghost in my life. The first wound. You are born and you carry with you a narrative of death. My family and I got over it, but think how many generations of Israelis and Palestinians are carrying a similar oppressive burden. For years, young people on both sides are killed here, and their families will bear those wounds for generations.
“The death of my uncle became a fixation in the family and, as I said, when I was a boy they found it hard to say my name. The transition from Memorial Day for the fallen of the Israel Defense Forces to Independence Day was too sharp. One moment there is a siren and the silence of mourning, and the next there is the noise of the fireworks going off. That is what goes on in my works: transitions between interior and exterior, between tragedy and comedy, between reality and illusion. When there are fireworks in the United States, I watch on television without sound. I find it a kind of madness to turn the aesthetics of death into the aesthetics of celebrations.”
Your exhibition in Tel Aviv opens with a portrait you painted of your uncle. Is that an act of laying the ghosts to rest?
“If the empty canvas is the virginal canvas, the portrait of my uncle, ‘Izhar Patkin (1934-1952),’ is the first painting. That is where I start the exhibition. It took me 30 years to work up the courage to paint it. I did it this year on an aluminum-mesh screen based on a photograph of the family painting. I think that after doing the work about my father, which was emotionally very difficult to execute, I was able to paint my uncle.”
“Arik Patkin WTC” (2006) is one of the boldest paintings in the Tel Aviv Museum show. The artist’s father, Aryeh Patkin, born in 1930, was in fact the first child of Netanya. He died in 2002, from lung cancer. His parents, Izhar’s grandfather and grandmother, came to Palestine from Belarus and were among the 10 founding families of Netanya. Patkin’s father was an engineering student in the Technion − Israel Institute of Technology, in Haifa, and married Devora Eisenman, a lab technician from Jerusalem.
In an interview to Haaretz in 2003, Patkin related that in high school his teachers complained that he was talented but not making an effort. He remembered that his father thereupon told his homeroom teacher that the secret of genius lay in laziness. He cited Einstein, who looked for a simple, unadorned answer to avoid getting embroiled in “tedious stuff.” According to Patkin, his father believed in him strongly, and that helped him become an unconflicted person.
A few days before two planes slammed into the Twin Towers at the World Trade Center on 9/11, Patkin’s parents visited New York. His mother took a picture of his father sitting in front of the WTC, looking into the camera.
“‘Arik Patkin WTC’ was not planned,” the artist says. “When the curtain was hanging on a wall in the studio, the printer started to work and line after line began to create his drawing. He suddenly appeared in the space like a ghost. I left the studio immediately. It took me a lot of time to look at that work, because my father was sitting there.
“I remember having a conversation about this painting with the film director Pedro Almodovar. He said that the role of the artist is to suspend the images. ‘Suspend’ also means ‘to hang.’ In that year, 2006, Almodovar wrote and directed ‘Volver,’ which is about a woman who is thought to be dead and her daughter encounters her ghost. What is a ghost if not an unresolved emotion? When it is resolved, the ghost will leave. The role of the narrator, be he artist or filmmaker, is to suspend these ghosts. That is the job description. When you look at the paintings of my father you feel the image, even if you do not know the family connection. I removed the legs of the bench on which my father is sitting, and he is floating. The only thing that holds him is his shadow. In the painting by Titian, Mary ascends to heaven and there is the cloud, God and the 12 disciples, and only Mary has a shadow.”
In 1977, the then 22-year-old novice artist Izhar Patkin left for New York, with a letter of recommendation from the iconic sculptor Itzhak Danziger in his pocket. Within a short time he became a star in the American art world and sold works to the world’s major museums. He had taken an interest in art as a boy in Haifa, but had a hard time finding museums or galleries in the city. He made do with hanging out in the library of the Beit Rothschild community center, feasting his eyes on reproductions in books.
Patkin became friends with Nurit Danziger (today Reches), the daughter of Itzhak and Sonia Danziger. “We used to go the Technion, where [the sculptor] Danziger sat on the balcony and watched us moving Styrofoam cubes. One day he called me in for a talk and asked whether I was interested in attending Bezalel [art school]. He told me not to worry about a thing and registered me as an external student. I chose to study lithography under Dedi Ben Shaul, because I thought that would be a profession. I was always practical − it comes from my father.
“I was doing a kind of civilian service at the time, as I had been found unfit for the army. I spent three years on Kibbutz Gezer with the freaks and traveled to Bezalel in the afternoon. After my discharge, Danziger told me, ‘Go forth from here, from Tel Aviv and from [artist] Raffi Lavie, before they get their hands on you and don’t let you be what you are. Skip Europe; it is no longer the place. Go to New York, and pay attention to pop art and conceptual art. Look at works by Warhol, Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns.’ And so it was.”
In New York, Patkin discovered he was too late to register at Cooper Union, where he had intended to study. He went instead to the Corcoran College of Art in Washington, where he entered straight into the third year on a full scholarship. Soon after, Patkin was very successful in Manhattan. Together with an American designer he made a fine living from selling clothing, making the rounds of department stores.
Within four months, he had enough money to rent a studio and start working. His first exhibition, consisting of reproductions of Van Gogh, was hung in a small hall in The Kitchen, a local arts institution. It was spotted by chance by Holly Solomon, who was on her way to a reception in an adjacent hall. Solomon was the owner of a gallery that was one of the 10 most important art spaces in New York.
“Holly was the one who took the American art world out of minimalism and into storytelling, figurative art, internationalism, feminism, you name it,” Patkin says. His first show in the Holly Solomon Gallery was “The Meta Bride,” now part of the Whitney collection.
In 1983, Patkin started to study the meaning of metaphors. Rap culture was in its infancy in New York, and Patkin, who knew people who were involved in that culture and in the renaissance of black poetry in the city concluded the show at the Solomon gallery, with a performance, a bizarre fusion of black rap and white Broadway musical, in which he posed a question: After the whites stole jazz and R&B, will they now also nationalize rap?
The result involved 12 violinists seated in front of the white tulle curtain of “The Meta Bride,” accompanying a white singer performing rapper Grandmaster Flash’s “The Message” like a Broadway musical. The reviewers loved it. Patkin was on the map in the New York art world. The exhibition sold out.
Together with partners he bought an old school building in the East Village and renovated the ground floor. He still works in this huge space. In 1997, the studio featured in The New York Times Magazine and was later used as the backdrop for various fashion spreads. It has starred in many movies, and three episodes of “Sex and the City” were shot there.
Are you still connected to Israel? Where is your true home?
“My home is my painting and my work. I am connected to Israel willy-nilly. I grew up here and have remained attached to the landscape. I live in New York, but every morning I read the Haaretz website before getting into The New York Times. I am a citizen of New York City but I am not an exile and not a refugee. The time has come for people to understand that Jews are not the only ones with a monopoly on diaspora.
“What’s great about America is that it’s multicultural and has the ability, as a host culture, to allow everyone to flourish. We Jews always heard stories about how the Jews throve under this enlightened king and that enlightened emperor. What other culture is flourishing here in Israel these days? It’s hard for me to read about how this place has deteriorated. I am angry at the foolish rhetoric.
“People here have adopted the distress of despair as a fait accompli, instead of toppling this government. During what was known as Operation Cast Lead, I read that the dissenting voice in Israel amounted to seven or eight percent of the public. We know that at least five percent of them are stoners, so we are left with three percent. You feel the severe distress on the streets and in the corridors of the museum, too. There are said to be huge quantities of talent here, and some fantasize that Jewish genius is genetic. But I think that it is the distress that demands a rescue device and creates the talent.”
And in New York?
“Life is expensive but I am settled. I have a house and I have enough money to live. I don’t have savings or investments. I don’t have time for that. My money goes back into art. I don’t get up for anyone in the morning, except now, ahead of an exhibition. I don’t have a calendar or a schedule. I live completely freely.”
“I don’t hate myself. I work without a clock and tirelessly, but something is always lacking. As an artist, you are a person who creates desire, because that is lacking. I live well with myself, but that does not mean that everything I thought would happen actually did. You are promised so many things when you are young, but it’s not terrible that they didn’t happen. Kids who grew up on magazines and video clips will never be as beautiful as the figures they admire.”
What threatens you?
“That this is it. Sometimes I think, ‘Am I going to live out my life in New York and never have a sea view?’ Did I already ask you whether you know the song ‘Is that All There Is’? Today the electrician said, ‘Hey, I don’t understand much about art, but your stuff is what we call “twisted.”’ He was really saying that it blows your mind, and that made my day.”
The Madonna is one of Izhar Patkin’s heroines. She appears in a number of his paintings and as a porcelain sculpture. In 1998, he had a show at the Holly Solomon Gallery in New York titled “Judenporzellan” (“Jewish porcelain,” evoking an anti-Semitic term from the 18th century). The works are part of the exhibition at the Open Museum at Tefen. They consist of images of the Jewish-German Mendelssohn family from the 18th century, and collages that resemble paper decorations used during Sukkot, together with “Judenporzellan” porcelain objects. Holly Solomon, herself Jewish, was not amused by the exhibition.
Patkin: “She called me and asked, ‘To who am I supposed to sell works called “Judenporzellan”?’ She believed that the importance of art should be measured by the resistance it generates. It is the artist’s right to fail, she said.
“It was hard to sell the works from ‘Judenporzellan.’ The major museums that collected my works piously said, ‘Thank you, call the Jewish Museum.’ A few months later, Solomon called again: ‘If you are into Jews, why not paint portraits of Jewish women? We will certainly be able to sell them to a few elderly ladies on the Upper East Side. Don’t ask me what or how; you are the artist.’
“I started to research the subject, and then I chanced on a documentary film, ‘Almonds and Raisins,’ about the history of the Yiddish theater in New York. I discovered that a recurring figure in the Yiddish films was the character of the wretched Jewish mother who is forced by poverty to relinquish her son. She stands at the window clutching some sort of fabric (his blanket or diaper), whining, ‘My son.’ It came to me that this is the story of the Madonna as the ideal icon, before she gave birth to Jesus, and that was why I decided to paint her holding the cloth.”
The porcelain sculpture was fashioned in the likeness of the literary critic Shlomzion Kenan, who also wrote an article for the exhibition catalog. “She is a friend, an accomplished yogi, and is capable of sitting motionless for a long stretch so that a live body mold can be made. When you do a porcelain sculpture it shrinks by 20 percent, and Kenan’s measurements after shrinkage are those of an adolescent girl. Thus I received the gentleness of the Madonna, which is worth life itself.”