Home Is Where the Art Is

Rafi Lavi is moving out of his famous home in Tel Aviv and transferring a large part of his private collection to the House of Art in Ein Harod. Many are calling for the painter's old apartment to be turned into a museum.

Next month, Ilana and Rafi Lavi will be moving out of their apartment at 42, Jonah the Prophet St. in Tel Aviv to a ground-floor apartment on Oliphant St., a few blocks away. The fact that an artist is moving to a new residence does not always arouse intense interest - even excitement in the artistic community, but Rafi Lavi's address 42, Jonah the Prophet St. - is more than just the location of someone's home; it is a cultural center, a milestone in the history of Israeli art and a work of art in itself.

For 30 years, Rafi and his wife have lived in an apartment on the top floor of their building - "an apartment with many corridors, where it is easy to get lost and which is crammed with works of art," to quote the description given by journalist Neri Livneh. For years, the apartment served as an unofficial branch of the Morasha Seminary, where Rafi Lavi taught. His students were invited to his home to talk about art, browse through magazines and listen to classical music.

Being the person he is, Lavi does not understand what all the fuss is about and is not happy to talk about the move. Quite the contrary, the whole topic is starting to get on his nerves and he brands it just another bit of gossip. "Everything is moving out with me," he says. "All that we are going to leave here will be the four walls." However, Lavi has himself contributed to the mythologization of this place by turning his address into an integral part of his work.

The house, the address and even the surroundings have appeared from time to time in his work and have served as a source of inspiration. In a group of early sketches he made in the 1970s, for example, Lavi presented the various parts of his apartment, especially the living room, precisely noting the names of his visitors and the seating arrangement of the participants in the music appreciation clubs that regularly met there.

Even the apartment's immediate surroundings have been immortalized in his work. For instance, in his video project, "42, Jonah the Prophet St.," produced in 1979, he wildly sweeps the camera eye to capture the facades of the buildings in his apartment's vicinity, creating the image of a city in ruins a city that, unlike Nineveh in the biblical narrative, did not heed the words of "Jonah." In a series of photographs he did in the 1970s and especially in his films, Lavi's subjects are his neighbors down the street, seen at the front entrances of buildings, on balconies or on the path leading to the nearby beach. His address also appears on the paintings he has done on plywood and is represented as a place that blends the general and the personal.

Lavi's apartment, as a central milieu in the history of Israeli art, is referred to on numerous occasions in the texts written about him. Curator Ariella Azoulay has described the apartment in one of her books as the "alternate museum that Rafi Lavi founded in his home on Jonah the Prophet Street in Tel Aviv and where he cultivated a dynasty of artists that dominated the Israeli art world in the 1960s and 1970s."

Extension of the classroom "Rafi Lavi's home on Jonah the Prophet Street," writes curator Galia Bar-Or, "has, for many years, served as a family-social center for the movement of information and feedback at the communal level." In the journal Hamidrasha 2, in a special issue dedicated to Lavi, Yaakov Mishori notes, "Rafi's teaching space embraces both his most intimate environment, his home, and his workplace, the seminary. His apartment, at 42, Jonah the Prophet St., is a kind of external branch of the central institution or a sort of extension of his classroom."

One of the most talked-about items in Lavi's home is the collection of works of art that accumulated on its walls over the years. Visitors to the apartment were invariably impressed by the dozens of works of art on the walls, some of which such as those by Michal Ne'eman and Yehudit Levine have become mythological. The collection comprises works that Lavi received from his students and which he exchanged with friends. Lavi hung on his walls only works he really loved.

Some people considered the collection to be the aggressive statement of an artistic elite that represented a hierarchy in the Israeli art world and which, in effect, broadcast to the world that this elite was a "closed shop." Lavi himself, writes Sarit Shapira in the catalog for the exhibition of his work, "Zeh lo tsabar, zeh geranyum," (It's not a sabra, it's a geranium) which was held two years ago at the Israel Museum, "insisted the pictures he hung on the walls of his apartment reflected his personal taste that was confined solely to his own home."

That statement is backed up by the fact that he has also put up works by artists who do not belong to the seminary's "dynasty," such as Shmuel Bak, Eliahu Gat, Jan Rauchwerger, Uzzias Hofstadter and Uri Stetner." In any event, the collection reflects an artistic community whose members exchanged works with one another, encouraged one another and "grew up together" artistically.

A major portion of the collection, about 100 works, was moved this week to the House of Art in Ein Harod. The collection has been given to the gallery as a long-term loan. "The intention here that this would not be a loan arising simply from the fact that Lavi is moving to a new address," says Bar-Or, the center's director and curator. "Apparently, the move spurred the thought in his mind that works of art should be safeguarded in an artistic and cultural institution."

Expression of Zionism Yaniv Shapira, curator of The Kibbutz Gallery and a curator at Ein Harod's House of Art, was the one who personally removed the art works from the walls of Lavi's apartment and took them to their new location in northern Israel. "I transferred to the House of Art a body of works by major artists that were produced in the 1970s and 1980s," he said. "That body includes works by Dganit Brest, Michal Ne'eman, Tsibi Geva, Yehudit Levine, Efrat Natan, Yair Garbuz, David Ginton and many others.

"Most of the works," he points out, "are on a small scale physically. There are works produced on paper, photographs and sketches for larger works by those artists. For instance, there is a painting by Garbuz that was presented at his first exhibition. There are also works by Eliahu Gat, Shimon Avni and Pinhas Zinovitzsplg, some of whom are veterans in this field who were not the seminary's artists in the 1970s. Lavi has also retained a lot of works that he wants to keep around him. Sentimental items or those for which he has a particular affection."

In that category are the works of his teacher, Aviva Uri. Yaniv Shapira noted that Lavi was not an art collector in the usual sense of the term: "This is a collection that developed because he is a teacher, a friend and an artist. That is why it is a unique collection. It represents a certain period and a certain cross section in Israeli art and its character was determined more by Lavi's friendships than by artistic taste per se.

That is also why many of the works included in the collection are linked to contexts, some of them covert, that existed between Lavi and the particular artists who had given him their works."

Lavi's choice to give the collection to the House of Art in Ein Harod rather than to the Tel Aviv Museum of Art or the Israel Museum was significant. He hated the Israel Museum and boycotted it for years. That attitude ended when Sarit Shapira served as the curator of a retrospective exhibition of his work at the museum two years ago.

Lavi was afraid that, at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art, his collection would simply be swallowed up in the storerooms. It would appear his choice of the House of Art a small museum that knows how to appreciate and maintain the works it receives was ideal for both sides. "Lavi knew," says Yaniv Shapira, "that a collection like this would vastly enrich the collection at the museum, which has few works from that period. Garbuz has defined Lavi's choice of the House of Art as an expression of Zionism."

One big neighborhood "I have heard him say, and he is right," said Dganit Brest, "that he has works that have been hanging on his walls for the past 30 or 40 years and that he no longer really sees them. I remember the biggest compliment he ever gave me was when he asked me to give him a painting I had done when I was still a high-school student. He did not then suggest that we exchange works. It is quite possible that this painting will now be at the House of Art in Ein Harod."

Brest first met Lavi when he was her art teacher in high school and lived in Ramat Gan. "The cordiality, the warmth, the feeling of home were all there even back then in the cabin that was his place of residence at that time," she recalls. "He created that ambience and will continue to create it wherever he lives, even if, from the objective standpoint, his home is the most miserable-looking place on earth."

Brest noted that the myth of Lavi's address was created when he began to use it in his work, but that was not the only reason, she was quick to point out: "The location also dictated his way of life. He resided in the center of town and felt no need for a driver's license or a car.

He would simply go by foot to all those places that were within walking distance. It was as if he regarded the entire city of Tel Aviv as one big neighborhood. Even today, if you look at the first generation of his students, except for me - I was always the rebel - and Nahum Tevet, who learned how to drive a car and bought one at a relatively late age, you will find that none of them has wheels or even a driver's license. They go everywhere by foot."

At his new address as well, Lavi can continue his usual lifestyle and he will find life easier; instead of having to climb three flights of stairs with his heart condition and other medical ailments, he will be living in a ground-floor apartment. He will even have a special place for his studio in his new 140-square-meter home instead of the cramped studio he set up in the utility balcony of his old apartment. His new home will apparently also be able to contain his amazing library and his music collection.

Sarit Shapira: "It is rumored that he has the biggest music collection in Israel." But what will happen to the apartment at 42 Jonah the Prophet St., where Lavi lived for over 30 years as a key-money apartment owner? "Everyone says that it should be turned into a museum," says Shapira. "This is a milestone that is a part of Rafi's iconography. It is a milestone marking a place that was a true school of art. The whole idea of his moving from here is a heart-breaker. However, as Rafi says, his books, his periodicals and his personality are simply moving to another location. I have mixed feelings - I am both happy and sad at the same time."

A question for City Hall Probably, the Tel Aviv-Jaffa municipality will one day affix a sign on the apartment building on Jonah the Prophet Street that will read: "The painter Rafi Lavi lived and created works of art in this building." Naomi Givon of the Givon Gallery, who is one of his favorite gallery owners, has her reservations: "I think this is a significant address from the standpoint of the city of Tel Aviv and from the standpoint of its art world. This address is quite simply a symbol.

It is a historic address that is intertwined with the city's cultural development because this place was a cultural center. "City Hall will have to carefully consider how it must preserve its cultural assets. And that means more than just putting up a sign. However, in the final analysis, Rafi's importance transcends a specific address. People will come to see him no matter where he lives, even if he decides to leave Tel Aviv and move to a kibbutz in northern Israel. After all, Lavi means 'lion' in Hebrew and that is precisely what he is."