Israel's Best Forgotten Artist

Why didn't the steps of Ezra Orion, the sculptor behind Jerusalem's iconic 'Jacob's Ladder', take him to higher places?

Ellie Armon Azoulay
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Ellie Armon Azoulay

Ezra Orion - sculptor, philosopher, writer and amateur geologist - is certainly one of the most ambitious artists to have ever worked in Israel. His pieces are created on an especially large and impressive scale, and his unique method of sculpting has transcended the boundaries of the medium and the materials, and has taken the art form to new realms. And yet, Orion’s name is known mainly among his contemporaries. Furthermore, it seems that with the passing years, his ideas and his works, located in the desert and other places around the country, are being steadily forgotten.

Orion, who is 78 and in poor health, zealously guards his privacy and has never spoken about himself publicly. He lets his art speak for him. Fittingly, he has always been fond of quoting Hamlet’s final words, “The rest is silence.”

“I think he wanted to quietly exit the stage and leave behind silence. A thin silence that echoes very powerfully,” says Dafna Horev, Orion’s partner of 15 years. At one time he was a symbol of vitality and strength. As a person and as an artist, he was both closely connected to the land and to wide-open spaces ? both the vistas outside his home, in the Negev, and places that were beyond his reach, elsewhere in the galaxy.

“I placed stone upon stone and my life passed by,” Orion once wrote in a poem. Over the years he created outdoor sculptures and landscape art, models, poetry and catalogs. For many years he also edited the multidisciplinary journal Svivot. Some of his ideas were partially realized; some never were. But the latter, even if they fell into the category of wishful thinking or fantasy – or were totally abstract – still opened a window onto a new realm of possibilities in contemporary art.

Even before Israeli artist Dani Karavan built a memorial (the Andarta) to the Negev Brigade in the 1960s, Orion came up with the idea of what he called a “sculpture avenue.” An avowed atheist, he envisioned what he called a kind of spiritual work that relied on structure and movement ? but this project was never realized. Orion also came up with new forms of sculpture, such as “tectonic sculpture” – inspired by the great forces that shape the planet.

This led to his biggest innovation: sculpting in the solar system. He also drew up plans and models for what he called a “sculptural act” ? a work on Mars, an “intergalactic sculpture” ? in an extraordinary collaboration with NASA in the late 1980s.

Orion has installed numerous sculptures, mostly in Israel but in other countries too. Some are hidden in the desert landscape and have yet to be discovered, while others have a strong presence that cannot be ignored. Individual hikers, youth group members and local residents are surely familiar with his 1978 work “Desert Moon,” composed of railway cars standing erect atop a hill overlooking Hod Akev in the Sde Boker area. And “Stone Line” – a path of stone sculptures stretching from Sde Zin to Hod Akev and Ramat Ovdat. The sculpture garden on the rim of the Ramon Crater, created in 1962, was expanded and developed by Orion, who in 1986 invited a group of sculptors to work there using local materials.

“He always makes us see that art can also exist beyond the borders familiar to us,” critic Ziona Shimshi wrote about Orion’s work ‏(Haaretz, 1991‏). Among his other sculptures, many of which rise to great heights, are an upside-down flight of stairs on Herzog Boulevard in Jerusalem called “Staircase” ‏(1980‏); and “Tilted Power Field” (1991), situated in Ramat Aviv Gimmel ? a horseshoe-shaped sculpture which opens in a northerly direction. Many even more spectacular works are situated in the periphery, chiefly “Twin Columns: Identity Sculpture of Yeruham” ‏(1990‏), which can be seen from the main highway, its two parts each rising 20 meters high; and “The Situation of Man” (1991), which overlooks the Dead Sea, is 25 meters high and built out of 236 train cars from the Ottoman era that originally came from Haifa’s old railway station.

“Ever since I started sculpting, I felt certain that the dimensions of the sculpture are what determine the sort of effect it has on a person,” said Orion in a 1968 interview in the art journal Kav.

From Ramat Yohanan to London

Ezra Orion was born on Kibbutz Beit Alfa in 1934; at age five he and his family moved to Kibbutz Ramat Yohanan. His upbringing there undoubtedly contributed to his conception of the relationship between artist and country. He became a fighter in the army as well as an artist, a sculptor and a builder of monuments.

“His parents came to Israel to create the new man and he was the new man,” says his eldest son, designer Alon Orion. “He saw himself as Israeli. He identified very deeply with Zionism, characterized by a very forceful atheism. He presented himself as an ordinary guy, but there was also a concealed ‘salt of the earth’ snobbism,” adds his son, without sounding judgmental.

“Ezra is a mythological type, he has that Ramat Yohanan kind of behavior: People who came from there were famous for their slow and thoughtful manner of speech,” says artist and sculptor Micha Ullman, who has known Orion since the early 1960s. Ullman, also someone known for his carefully considered manner of speaking, adds that, compared to Orion, he himself is a demagogue.

Says Ullman: “His every word is etched in stone. His words were always so precise, and clearly every work he created was backed up by some action or personal experience.”

“He would speak so slowly it was great to listen to him since you could catch a little nap between one word and the next,” jokes photographer Avraham Hai, who, since the early 1980s, has been photographing and documenting Orion’s work.

Prof. Micha Levin, of the Shenkar School of Engineering and Design, has known Orion for many years and also worked with him on two public sculptures, in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv: “He’s not someone who makes small talk,” Levin says. “We had many conversations that were mostly substantive. I see him as someone who has something to say, who doesn’t want to waste his time on trivial things. I found this to be an impressive and unusual quality, and I’ve met a lot of artists in my life.”

His son Alon adds, sadly: “The most striking thing that’s missing now is the language. He doesn’t really have language now.”

Careful in his speech, Orion was also careful when charting his academic course. He began studying art in Ramat Yohanan with painter Ozer Shabbat. In 1952 he enrolled in the Bezalel Academy of Art & Design in Jerusalem. There he was taught drawing by Isidor Aschheim and sculpting by Yaacov Lev. After a year there, he felt he should move on and enlisting in the Israel Defense Forces, where he ended up in a special unit and attending an officers’ course. Upon finishing his service, he returned to Beit Alfa and began sculpting in the new Land of Israel spirit that was then emerging. In 1962 he took part in a sculpture symposium at Mitzpeh Ramon and, a year later, had a one-man show at the Ein Hod Art Museum and Haifa Art Museum.

Among the influences he cites from this period was an early one-man show by Igael Tumarkin at the Helena Rubinstein Pavilion in Tel Aviv, and a meeting with sculptor Yehiel Shemi, whom Orion greatly admired. Following his own initial, rapid success, Orion was awarded a grant by the America-Israel Fund and went to London in 1964 to study at St. Martins School of Art and the Royal College of Art. That was the first time Orion, who went to England with his wife and two children, really lived anywhere outside the kibbutz.

“[My parents] were two kibbutzniks. They worked as counselors in the Hashomer Hatzair camps and my mother cleaned apartments,” recalls Alon Orion. “They collected all their furniture off the street and divided a one-room apartment in two so we kids would have a room.”

In London, Orion became acquainted with what is called land art, as well as with monumental sculpture, and met such leading artists as Anthony Caro, Phillip King, Michael Bolus and later Henry Moore. During this period he had a one-man show at the Mercury Gallery and participated in a group exhibition at the Grosvenor Gallery, both in London. He also took part in the important Israeli Art exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. In addition, one of his works was installed in the Israel Museum’s Billy Rose Sculpture Garden in 1966.

It seemed that Orion was destined to become a major star in the art world. But he consciously chose to turn his back on it ? perhaps in the somewhat naive belief that he could still maintain his standing outside that realm. He returned to Israel and settled down in remote Sde Boker, far from the center of the art scene.

To the desert

The move to Sde Boker was significant for Orion as a person, an artist and a teacher. He went to teach art at Midreshet Sde Boker at the invitation of then director Michael Gal, and four years later replaced him. During his term as director, Orion greatly expanded the hiking trails in the area. For example, with the help of a Paratroops Brigade unit and 50 kilograms of explosives, he opened up the ascent from Nahal Zin to Hod Akev, two areas that would serve as fertile ground for his work. Later, along with instructors from the local field school, he created a trail leading to the top of Mount Ardon, where Orion also left his mark on the landscape.

“For me, returning to Israel and going out to the desert was a return to the beginning. First of all, it came from a need to free myself of the crowds, of all the human interrelationships, of the atmosphere of ‘gallery art,’ of exhibitions and collectors and critics,” Orion said in that Kav interview. “After having lived at a consumerist pace, I felt I had to look for something new. [Creating] a work of art especially for an exhibition, a work that is designed to fit you into a certain artistic situation that the environment has imposed upon you, and the crazy pursuit of ‘freshness’ that was all the rage in British sculpture ? all that became a burden to me. The desert I discovered in Sde Boker naturally answered a need that was within me.”

The “Sculpture Field” project that was presented as a model in Orion’s one-man show, curated by Yona Fischer at Jerusalem’s Israel Museum in 1974, was first conceived in the early 1960s. Already during that decade Orion was speaking in terms of the end of sculpture as we know it.

“Sculpture is mainly the sculpture of the big metropolises ? New York, London, Paris. Sculpture doesn’t shape the metropolises, the metropolises are what shape it,” he said in Kav. “Galleries constitute the existential islands of such sculpture; they shape it. It is set on pedestals or on the ground, illuminated in neon. Sometimes it is a bit larger in size than people, sometimes it is smaller. This is temporary sculpture that must leave the galleries just as it came into them. Miniatures do not give rise to spiritual experiences that have anything more than mediocre power. People should be moved to have very powerful spiritual experiences. For sculpture to do this, it must be different. Large.”

The model for the museum piece was composed of a number of sculptural elements, the main one rising 32 meters high. Orion wanted to create a field of sculptures that would encompass the viewer, that would dictate his movement, that would embody the relationship between inside and outside and emit beams of light.

“The sculpture field, the creation of sculptor Ezra Orion, will be an inspiring contribution to this institution. It will express man’s struggle with the desert, his existence and his God ... It will convey a unique synthesis of spiritual creativity and deep sensitivity for the primordial landscape of this area,” Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion wrote in 1969.

According to Orion, his regular and reserve military service enriched him as an artist and influenced the close ties he felt with the land and the landscape.

“In the sayeret ‏(special unit‏) there was a strong emphasis on navigation, on topography, on broad swaths of territory,” he said in a Haaretz interview in 2002. “My military service played a part in my perception of the land, during which I achieved quite a detailed understanding of topography, something that later contributed to my geological work. The background in the unit involving studying and reading maps also contributed to my attraction to mountain peaks.”

Not long after Orion’s return to Israel from England, the Six-Day War broke out and he fought in it. Two weeks after the cease-fire, at the end of June 1967, he led a military force that ascended to the top of Jabal al-Sheikh (Mount Hermon), at an elevation of 2,814 meters. Later, throughout his artistic career, he strove to recreate this experience.

One of his most prominent works in this context is “Sculpture in the Annapurna Valley” in the Himalayas, Nepal. “I think the peak of tectonic sculpture was this sculpture in the Himalayas,” says his son Alon, who joined his father for the month-long trip to Nepal.

In 1981, the first 12-person delegation of Israelis and Nepalese set out for Annapurna. They trekked for a week, hauling provisions on their backs and sleeping in tents, until they reached their destination at an elevation of 4,100 meters. The goal was to build a 32-meter-high staircase pointing toward a peak way off in the landscape.

A year later, a second expedition set out to shore up and document the sculpture, part of which had collapsed as a result of heavy snowfall. Everyone who was a part of the delegations led by Orion ? including his son Alon, photographer Avraham Hai (who took magnificent shots of the trip), and Hai’s nephew, the actor Menashe Noy ? described the trip as thrilling, albeit often filled with uncertainty due to the extreme weather and the complexity of the task at hand.

“There was an incredible atmosphere, an atmosphere of creativity. We gazed at the scenery as we trekked through the landscape, and we all came together around Ezra,” says Hai now. “The idea that you go up so many steps on a narrow path and at the end come to a point from which you cannot continue either forward or to the side, so the only choice you have left is to gaze at the view ? this created the high point of a dialogue between you and the landscape.”

Unlike most British and American land artists, Orion did not go into nature as a sign of protest, or as part of a one-time foray to make his mark and then return from whence he came: He chose to live in it. When asked about the relationship between sculpture and landscape, he replied: “You can only develop the relationship to the landscape and its dimensions when you live in it, when you know the sunrise and the sunset, the heat of the sun and the sandstorms. When you feel the variations between different surfaces and the hardness of the rock. Only then do you understand that there are points in the landscape where sculptures mustn’t be built, since their power alone is sufficient. At the rim of a crater, for instance.”

In the Hebrew booklet “Hamasekhet 5, Events in Desert Art,” published by the Center for Visual Art in Be’er Sheva, Orion wrote: “My approach to environmental-desert sculpture is not a monumental approach that seeks to take over the landscape, nor is it an assimilatory approach that seeks to blend in with it, but an approach of dialogue that seeks a synthesis between the two. This approach requires a prolonged, in-depth acquaintance with the desert space.”

Veteran curator Yigal Zalmona maintains that the main principle in Orion’s sculpture has always been “the aspiration to struggle against the force of gravity, an awareness of the most tragic expression of gravity, of the finality of the universe: death. This struggle lends Orion’s work a heroic dimension – the kind of dimension that characterizes all good art and human achievement.”

Captivated by Mars

It is perhaps not surprising, then, that one of the biggest influences on Orion’s work was his visit to a Constantin Br?ncusi retrospective in Paris. He saw a photograph there of the endless column created by the sculptor in 1937; indeed, many of Orion’s own works, soaring skyward, off into infinity, were of a similar nature.

The most intriguing expression of this phenomenon could be seen in the energetic intergalactic sculpture created by Orion. In 1981, he went to San Francisco to represent Israel at an international conference on sculpture. While in California, he made his first visit to the NASA facility, then located in Pasadena, where he saw images that had been photographed on Mars. He was utterly captivated. A year later he proposed a project to NASA involving the creation of a sculpture on Mars. In 1988, at a meeting at NASA headquarters in Washington, he proposed erecting a line of stones there as he had done in the desert around Nahal Zin ? but using a space vehicle. Describing the project, he wrote: “Since the erosion process on Mars is slow as astronomical time, these geometric stone outlines will not be erased for billions of years.”

The intergalactic “romance” lasted 15 years and included several milestones.In 1987, a vertical laser beam was launched into the Milky Way from Tel-Hai College in the Upper Galilee. Two years later, a second such laser beam was sent into space from Mitzpeh Bar Giora, near Jerusalem. The launch effort, which was backed by the Israel Museum and the Israeli Space Agency, lasted 55 minutes and 33 seconds.

In April 1992, various events were held in honor of International Space Year, including the launch of a huge-scale laser sculpture by Orion, called “Super Cathedral I,” in the direction of the Milky Way. Some 50 art lovers were present at the launch, which also took place at Bar Giora. It was held on the first anniversary of the death of Ruti Orion, the sculptor’s wife. The massive beams that were launched, Orion said at the time, would follow a path several light years away “to the infinity of the universe. Throughout its history, sculpture has been grounded. The time has come to break out of the earth’s field of gravity, into the space of the solar system and beyond, to intergalactic space.”

Although in the ensuing years Orion’s works were shown in a few exhibitions and he continued to sculpt, he remained far from the local hegemonic art scene and from art discourse. Aside from Zalmona, he had hardly any contact with the art establishment. Artists who were his contemporaries, as well as some younger artists, held him in great esteem, but from afar. Today, Orion’s workshop at Midreshet Sde Boker, known as “the Museum of Desert Sculpture,” is locked. The dozens of models, books, manuscripts and work tools crowded on the shelves and floor there are gathering dust and falling to ruin.

One reason Orion has remained on the fringes of the canon of art has been his distance from it ? not only physical, but geographical, ideological and financial. “People were too lazy to travel to the Negev to see his work,” says photographer Hai. In 2002, Noga Raved organized an exhibition of Orion’s work at the Negev Museum of Art in Be’er Sheva.

“History is full of such stories, of artists who somehow don’t get the widespread public exposure they deserve,” says Raved. “Still, with Ezra I can’t say he’s an unknown artist. Because he was respected professionally by everyone in the art world in Israel. The biggest and most important artists of his time voiced boundless admiration for him.

“And yet,” she adds, “there is certainly still a big gap between that respect and the official recognition he deserves. Artists who live in the periphery and make that the center of their lives are hurt by the geographical issue. It’s not enough to have people speak highly of you in certain circles.”

Hai, who works with the cream of the crop of the local art world, insists that, “An artist is 60 percent public relations.” He cites Dani Karavan and Menashe Kadishman as prime examples of this, contrasting them with the late Buky Schwartz who, like Orion, was not skilled at “playing the game.” Says Horev, Orion’s partner: “He’s very much a loner. One of a kind. The desert really suited him, this quiet and isolation, this spirit.”

Levin notes that, “Although Orion had artist friends and worked on projects with other artists, he was a very individualistic type. A loner who stayed focused on what he was doing and what he wanted to do.

“He’s a very impressive and special person, but not charismatic like [Itzhak] Danziger, who was always surrounded by people eager to hear whatever he had to say,” Levin adds. “Ezra didn’t do anything from a social standpoint in order promote himself.”

Ullman recalls that, many years ago, Orion was preparing to show works at an exhibition in the Helena Rubinstein Pavilion of the Tel Aviv Museum of Art, but it didn’t work out. When Orion’s work wasn’t accepted, he told Ullman that he had two choices: “One was to surround the Helena Rubinstein Pavilion with burning tires, and the other was to carry on living with a smile. And he chose the second option.”

Horev: “His work continues to have an influence – even the most abstract things that cannot be seen, that can only be talked about and imagined, like the intergalactic art. I think that this art and his future plans he was unable to accomplish were at the forefront of his work. It constituted a revolution in thinking. This is what fascinated him: understanding things without the need to physically feel them. All of Ezra’s works are very laconic and terse, and this is the source of their power. This is how he reached the peak.”

“In terms of sculpture,” Ullman says, “I think Orion is of tremendous significance, no matter what. I believe his work and activity have made an impact that is hard to measure.”

For her part, Horev concurs, adding sadly: “I think that the cathedral of light, as he called it, is somehow forging its way through space at the speed of light and continuing to exist. He had a need to remain, even though he was very conscious of the finality of life. He will remain forever through this work, which is huge by any standard.”

And, indeed, it is to be hoped that someday Orion’s legacy will be passed on to new generations with the help of a comprehensive exhibition, presented in the center of the country.

Ezra Orion. Credit: Avraham Hai
'Dust Hill' (1984), at the Sde Ramon air base in the Negev. Shaped by a bulldozer.Credit: Avraham Hai
'Twin Columns: Identity Sculpture of Yeruham' (1990).Credit: Avraham Hai
'Staircase' (1980) in Jerusalem. Also known as 'Jacob’s Ladder.'Credit: Avraham Hai

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