The Seven-year Itch

One of the most influential people in the world of Israeli art, curator Sarah Breitberg-Semel breaks her self-imposed retirement with a retrospective of Moshe Gershuni's work and a monumental book about him. She explains why she has kept quiet, how stupidity can be beautiful and what good art is

If there is a list of Israeli artists who constitute a local canon, there is also a list of the country's most influential curators - and Sarah Breitberg-Semel is no doubt at the top of it. The name of this veteran critic and curator stands out among those who have attained particularly high stature in this realm, as does her penetrating research. Among Breitberg-Semel's accomplishments is one of the most celebrated exhibitions of local art, "The Want of Matter: A Quality in Israeli Art," in 1986, whose impact remains etched in local memory.

Uri Gershuni

After leaving her post in 2003 as editor of the now-defunct journal Studio, Breitberg-Semel disappeared from the public art world, to "try to be attentive to creative processes and to understand art in its own terms." This period of silence has drawn to an end with her involvement in launching a retrospective of the work of Moshe Gershuni, whom she describes the as "the leading figure in Israeli modern art."

On November 9, hundreds of people packed into the Tel Aviv Museum of Art for the opening of the Gershuni exhibition, an eventful occasion of many levels. Apart from the encounter with works that embody the pinnacle of Israeli art - as the curator puts it - the fact that the artist was regaled with a retrospective while he is still alive, which is an occurance that cannot be taken for granted, stirred considerable excitement. In addition, a decade had elapsed following the last exhibition curated by Breitberg-Semel (devoted to photographer Dalia Amotz, who only posthumously received the attention she deserved ).

Both the Tel Aviv Museum and Gershuni are connected to Breitberg-Semel's own biography, and this triangle of connections is symbolized in the show. No less important is the accompanying catalog, simply called "Gershuni" - like the show itself. The book is the result of Breitberg-Semel's work over the past decade; it is 450 pages long, was designed punctiliously by Michal Sahar and provides a detailed survey of Gershuni's diverse, rich oeuvre.

Moshe Gershuni

"Passages in my text are written from different standpoints, and levels of involvement," explains Breitberg-Semel. "Research, historical narrative, conversation - the perspective changes repeatedly, and that creates vitality."

During the 10-year period, she visited Gershuni in his studio, and then later at home. Gershuni, 74, contracted Parkinson's Disease a few years ago, but continued to work until recently. A number of his more recent works, including a series of sculptures, are being displayed for the first time in this exhibition.

Homage to idiots

For two weeks prior to the opening, Breitberg-Semel turned the museum into her home. She spent long, tense days with exhibition designer Dborah Warschawski; their most important task was to allay Gershuni's anxieties. Breitberg-Semel explains that he had reservations about a museum exhibition, and she was compelled to downplay the spectacular, lavish setting. "We did our best," she says. "I think this exhibition strongly preserves the human dimension. It follows you and speaks to you."

The retrospective is arranged in chronological order, starting with the 1970s and concluding with works from last year. Some have been shown in the past at the Givon Art Gallery, Ein Harod's House of Art and elsewhere. The design here is quite unique: Instead of being open and inviting, the entryway features a bare plaster wall that almost reaches the ceiling. The decision not to paint the wall is a nod to Gershuni's minimalist work from the 1970s, some of which is on display. The entrance and other design elements scattered throughout the exhibition dictate a certain viewing pace to visitors.

For her part, Breitberg-Semel thinks that organizing a retrospective with the artist's involvement affords a clear advantage. "There was a point when I realized that I could not just talk about him," she says. "I needed him, I needed him to accompany the book, and to be there.

"Gershuni's insight translates into very simple terms," explains Breitberg-Semel. "It is wonderful to be smart and express yourself on the 'ground level' - that is a very rare talent."

The catalog and the exhibition, which both feature comments by Gershuni from discussions with the curator, constitute a kind of tribute to stupidity - a form of comic relief, reflecting a type of thinking that diverges from the typical, ponderous reflections of the art world.

"The feeling is that inanity is a much more just and correct experience than wisdom," declares Gershuni. "Stupidity echoes in many layers of consciousness; I feel that it is connected to me. Idiocy in every respect, from sexuality to victimization to the experience involved in thinking. You could say that all that I do is the work of idiocy ... I get along very well with non-intellectual people. In sex as well. I can turn into an idiot in a split second. I've always held nincompoops in awe. There is a kind of fundamental stupidity that intellectualism can never fathom, an idiocy that comprehends."

Another motif that guided Breitberg-Semel is the idea of the accessibility of art to an audience. This was a focal point of criticism leveled at the prose style of Studio, which Breitberg-Semel edited from 1993-2003. For example, one artist-critic, Yoav Shmueli, who also once wrote for the journal, told Haaretz in 2003: "This periodical is elitist and detached; the contributors' prose is too long, academic and uninteresting."

Breitberg-Semel is conscious of this issue, and even describes people who write about art as being part of a "cult"; they write in a secret esoteric language, she observes, and turn their backs on the wider public.

"We have an obligation to try to communicate," she says. "Certainly in a book which is not an internal, university-type expression of research. When I was writing, I saw before me educated people who want to understand, but who have lost a connection with us, with art and with writing about art."

Revolutionary moment

Sarah Breitberg-Semel has followed Gershuni's work virtually from its start. She lived through his transitions in style and his rebirth as an artist; as editor of Studio, she supported him during periods of controversy, such as an incident stemming from being awarded the Israel Prize: In 2003, Gershuni refused to attend the award ceremony because he did not want to shake hands with Ariel Sharon; Minister Limor Livnat then revoked the prize. Breitberg-Semel devoted an entire edition of her journal to this affair (No. 143 ).

Breitberg-Semel speaks a lot about the difficulty of writing about Gershuni. At the start of her catalog, she insists that "Gershuni is larger than life. You can't tame him by fitting him in a book, or a museum pavilion." Hence, in this first comprehensive study of Gershuni's work, she announces that it is impossible to write about him - and then proceeds to do precisely that. Her rhetoric is part of a process of canonization.

Breitberg-Semel first wrote about Gershuni when she worked on the editorial board of the newspaper Lamerhav. This was the early 1970s, the heyday of conceptual art. In 1972, three artists - Gershuni, Micha Ullman and Avital Geva - met with Histadrut labor federation secretary-general Yitzhak Ben-Aharon on Kibbutz Givat Haim. Their meeting was part of a series of cultural activities (the most famous being "Metzer-Messer," a joint project involving a kibbutz and a neighboring Arab village ). The meeting was chronicled in photographs taken jointly by Geva and Gershuni.

"I remember that I showed one such photograph, a kind of pictorial documentation of the meeting, to my editor, and he did not know what to do with me," recalls Breitberg-Semel. "There was an atmosphere of incredulity about what was happening to art [at the time]. Art was thought to have gone crazy twice. The first time involved abstract art, but that could be tolerated, because it was on canvas. The second time was in the 1960s and '70s. I explained that the documentary photograph was really art by insisting that it had composition; I offered a formalistic art analysis of the photograph. This was a sort of 'fabricated' explanation, but it allowed me to publish the works, even though their message embodied the rejection of conceptual thinking in art.

"There was at the time a huge sense of confusion about the new language, the neo-avant-garde," she explains. "This new language represented one of the strangest moments in the history of art - art that rose up to destroy itself. It reflected the spirit of the era, the 1960s and '70s, and rebellion against parental authority. The goal was to start from scratch. I have vivid memories of that completely unique, one-time feeling, that everything was possible."

Even today, this same photo is one of her favorite, cherished works and, of course, it appears in the catalog and the exhibition. "The photograph works as an effective surrealistic image, a bizarre melange of contrasts ... the Histadrut secretary general and artists. It expressed the artists' desire to think of themselves as blue-collar workers, as a revolutionary force. It was a beautiful moment," she concludes, smiling.

Art and society

Born in 1947, Sarah Breitberg-Semel grew up in Holon to parents who were Holocaust survivors. She combined her bachelor's degree in art history at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem with political science, and enrolled in a Masters program, but never completed her graduate studies. At 22, she started to write for Lamerhav, and later wrote for the Davar and Yedioth Aharonoth dailies. Her first interview was with artist Arieh Aroch, and it proved to be her "entry pass" to the museum world. Curator Yona Fischer subsequently invited her to serve as his assistant in a major exhibition at the Israel Museum.

In 1977, she became curator for Israeli art at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art. She was appointed by museum director-general Marc Sheps, who in 1989 fired Breitberg-Semel, along with other staff, as part of the institution's "recovery plan." In her post as Israeli art curator, she met her late husband, Adi Semel, who was at that time the museum's director of cultural events. Semel, who was also a close friend of Moshe Gershuni's, passed away three years ago. The couple had two daughters, who are today in their 20s.

During her early years at the museum, Breitberg-Semel was a symbol of quality and taste. Her first exhibition as a curator was devoted to artist Aviva Uri. Then came about 20 shows devoted to individual artists, including Aroch, Raffi Lavie, Yehudit Levin and Michal Neeman, along with smaller scale exhibitions. In 1978, Breitberg-Semel was curator for the "Artist, Society, Artist" exhibition, in which she attempted for the first time to characterize the connection between art and Israeli society. As part of the show, Gershuni put speakers on the museum roof and played the song "Yad Anuga" (Delicate Hand ), and also set up a billboard featuring a newspaper report of the beating of a Palestinian from Hebron at the hands of Jewish settlers. Each day at sunset, the song would issue from the museum rooftop, Breitberg-Semel recalls. "It was like the call of a muezzin mixed with a Hasidic melody."

The museum's walls hold memories of her work as curator of Israeli Art (also, for a short time, as curator of American Art ). The pavilion which now features the "Gershuni" exhibition also hosted "The Want of Matter" - an exhibition considered to be a sort of Tel Aviv artistic "manifesto," associated with a creative school led by Raffi Lavie.

"The subject of local culture, of Israeli-ness, was in the air; it was not mine alone," she recalls. "During the course of my work, looking at things from the ground, and particularly as Lavie viewed things, I came to feel that universalism is not enough. The idea was that there are nuances that are characteristic of our own culture. When it comes to local Israeli culture, it is a very complicated point and involves religion, nationality, locale and more."

Though Gershuni's work was displayed in this exhibition, it had, Breitberg-Semel explains, an exceptional character, and deviated from the main motifs of "The Want of Matter." The exhibition became one of the most intensely studied events in the history of local art, and marked a turning point in the careers of several artists, though not all involved felt comfortable with its impact.

Michal Neeman, an artist who was encouraged by Breitberg-Semel - and whose work was displayed in a solo exhibition when it was unusual to organize one for a young female artist, told Haaretz in 1999: "I was not ready to accept a structure in which Raffi Lavie was thought of as the personification of everything, and as the founder of an artistic dynasty. I thought at the time that Breitberg-Semel lost me when she described me in this fashion [i.e., as one of Lavie's followers], and wondered why she did not see our existence, as women, as something different. Why wouldn't a woman want to break up this structure?"

Artist Haim Luski, whose work was featured by Breitberg-Semel in the 1981 "Different Spirit" exhibition - and for years contributed to Studio - says that while he has great respect for her, he views "The Want of Matter" as an "outright catastrophe. This exhibition presented Sarah's thesis, and she took all of the young artists, who were truly talented, and wrapped them in one box and suffocated them. As far as I'm concerned, art ended with 'The Want of Matter.'"

Breitberg-Semel recalls that the exhibition was not successful at the outset: "The responses were not good, but I was very satisfied by it. Just like the current one with Gershuni, I say: Let them respond as they see fit. I feel as though I've done this the right way. I felt as though something had become murky in the way he is perceived, since he produces a lot of work ... I had to work with a towel and windshield wiper - a clear field of vision - and show that a special, great artist lives here among us, someone who fully lives the era, and presents the changing face of modernism in all its dimensions. I would like the exhibition to be well received and have already received a lot of compliments, which is nice."

Regarding "The Want of Matter," she says: "It has turned out that there is one exhibition associated with my name and all that I've done, but that's not the whole picture. You never know what will be remembered."

Asked whether that bothers her, Breitberg-Semel answers: "I managed to coin a phrase in Hebrew, to characterize a group of artists from a certain generation, and be remembered as a curator. What do I have to complain about? That I am the only curator who has something that is well known associated with her name?"

'A bomb'

One sharply worded, some would say violent, critique of that exhibition came from the late researcher Sarah Hinski, in 1993, in the Hebrew Theory and Criticism journal, under the title "Silencing the Fish." Among other things, Hinski wrote: "It is no wonder that this text [i.e., 'The Want of Matter'] has gained many supporters - it is a text whose obsequious, ethnocentric and historically fabricated character ... have reached heights heretofore unknown in discourse."

Breitberg-Semel: "Sarah Hinski's criticism was a bomb I wasn't ready for. It was well received, as though some major message had been delivered, but she accused me, more or less, of Zionism, of not deviating from the Zionist narrative. That was strange. She had phenomenal writing ability, but there was something strange in this fulminating attack, because I had never made another sort of claim about my work: I live within the broad concept of Zionism. I care deeply about this place. The phrase 'national home' says something to me. [It means] a sanctuary with a great desire to minimize damages caused to our neighbors ... So this criticism's explosion was unnecessary, and strange to me."

After she left the museum, Breitberg-Semel moved with her husband to Jerusalem. She intended to write two books, about Aviva Uri and Arieh Aroch, but her plans did not materialize. Later she returned to the art scene and became editor of Studio. Under her guidance, it became an extremely influential journal. Many claim that Breitberg-Semel was much more open and forthcoming as an editor than she was as a curator, and she herself is inclined to agree.

In 1987, Itamar Levy wrote in Haaretz: "It is not difficult to characterize the choice of favored artists reached by Breitberg-Semel, and more generally what she views as good and important in Israeli art. Almost all the artists she has exhibited emerged out of a minimalist conceptual art milieu, that is from a rather stringent aesthetic, one which can be intellectual and is self conscious and restrained, even when it adopts values of improvisation and spontaneity."

In contrast, critic Uzi Agassi wrote in 1995 that Studio was like "a miniature museum, which presented exhibitions from its 'rooms' along with accompanying catalogs. Breitberg-Semel is the museum director and chief curator."

Curator and critic Galia Yahav, who began her career at Studio under Breitberg-Semel, says her former boss created a revolution "in terms of professionalism, high quality, linguistic consistency, interest in art theory and links with literature and philosophy."

Luski recalls that she would tell him "the security guard who checks bags is unable to understand texts written by Haim Luski." "The editing involved a number of struggles and wars," he says, "and perhaps rightly so. She forced me to write in a more lucid fashion."

One reason affecting Breitberg-Semel's decision to abandon a central role in the art world was a desire to get out of the eye of the storm.

"Exposure to the public is not simple, for me," she says. "The main thing propelling me right now is a promise I made to Gershuni, and I am fulfilling it. There was a time when I wondered whether I could go through with this: I doubted whether I could find the right language, the right way of expressing things. When I started to bring it to Gershuni, he told me 'I want a book like Dalia Amotz's.' Today he is very happy with the catalog."

Beyond the declaration that she wanted to put together a book about Gershuni, Breitberg-Semel did not at the time give a detailed account of why she left Studio. Today she says: "Perhaps I spent too many years in the center of the arena, trumpeting about art, and I thought to myself, 'Wouldn't it be fun to shut my mouth? To not have a strong opinion about all things, all the time.' But there were other things, some of them forgotten. One was connected to ArtFocus, and the agreement that artists were asked to sign and that killed me. [The 2003 ArtFocus exhibition was staged at the Museum of Underground Prisoners in Jerusalem, operated by the Defense Ministry, which asked artists to agree that their exhibits would not harm "the spirit of the facility" - E.A.A.].

"I read the agreement and was enraged; I was prepared to wage an all-out war, but I didn't know against whom. It turned out that artists I really admire signed the agreement. I came to the realization that I am nobody's emissary. This was a very strange moment. I remember that something told me: enough. It was difficult. I suddenly understood that I was not strongly rooted, that things had changed, that a kind of conformism had been planted here, and I did not want any part of this. Also, I felt that my public image had started to pull away from me - to the point where I was finding it hard to identify myself in that image; and that disturbed my work. I was accustomed to warmth and respect, and I couldn't get used to the tough, forceful image I was branded with, perhaps naturally, as a result of years of playing central roles."

Breitberg-Semel was replaced at the journal by Yael Bergstein. Then, and today, it seemed like a peculiar choice, in view of the arsenal of talented, diverse writers, young and old, who worked with Breitberg-Semel for years. Studio closed shop five years later and no worthy alternative has arisen. Under Breitberg-Semel it was one of the most important tools available for understanding and researching Israeli art.

While differences of opinion persist regarding her work, Breitberg-Semel's presence in the art world has been missed by many. Luski contends that any cultural sphere needs a figure like her, and says: "Her sharp eye, her emotion and love for art are all absolutes. And though she was an establishment figure, it was possible to rebel against her or oppose her. That is significant and edifying."

Still-flourishing field (Smadar Sheffi)

For a decade, 1993-2003, under Sarah Breitberg-Semels guidance, the journal Studio played a pivotal role in Israels art and curatorial community. For better or worse, it was the target of much discussion; debates raged on its pages. As years passed, increasing numbers of people declared that they did not read the journal in protest against what they saw as its transformation into a mouthpiece of a small elite, which used the journal to perpetuate control of the local art world.

Nevertheless, Studio was a cultural flagship. The attitude held by many in the art world toward it resembled the Jewish joke about the Jew stranded on a desert island, who builds two synagogues, one to pray in, and the second as a synagogue he would never step foot in. The rise and fall of Studio can be seen as a symbolic Israeli story. The journal started as a kibbutz initiative, became a Tel Aviv staple, and tried, on its last legs, to gain international luster. Founded in 1989 at the initiative of the Givat Haviva Art Center, its first editor was Haim Maor (then a member of Kibbutz Givat Haim Meuhad). Originally it was published as a supplement to the Al Hamishmar newspaper, and later became an independent journal.

After four years and 40 editions, Maor left his post, leaving to Breitberg-Semel a well-respected journal. Studio was Israels first journal devoted to visual art that managed to circulate over a long term. Breitberg-Semel brought to Studio what it lacked when Maor held the reins: charisma, and wide-ranging connections to major streams in Israeli art. The journal was pared down to slimmer editions, and provided a platform for a sustained, sympathetic discussion about post-Modernism. At its height, the journal had some 1,500 paid subscribers.

Breitberg-Semels departure in 2003 was regarded as a dramatic step; in retrospect, it seems that the journal might have been better served had it closed shop at that moment. Her replacement, Yael Bergstein, brought relatively little experience to her position. She announced an intention to turn Studio into a journal with an international perspective and managed to put it on the table in a few international art events. However, subscriptions dropped; some estimated that it had no more than 300 paid subscribers at that time. Bergstein quit in 2008, and the journal folded shortly thereafter, without really creating a stir in the art world.

Over the past decade, writing about local art has expanded considerably in a number of online magazines of varying quality. Complementing this have been some printed journals. Terminal, for instance, is a relatively long-standing publication, which has been published three times a year since 1996, in English-Hebrew editions. Recently, a new journal, Panim Rabot, has started to appear, under the auspices of the Nahum Goldmann Museum of the Jewish Diaspora. Another journal, Ms. Use, first came out a year ago and deals with art, culture and sexuality. Others include Picnic, established in 2007, and the English-language Programma, which made its debut last year.