Primarily Colored

Israel Prize laureate Dan Reisinger's unique use of the palette is readily apparent at the current exhibition of his works at the Ashdod Museum of Art.

Yuval Saar
Yuval Saar
Yuval Saar
Yuval Saar

"I was born with the smell of paint. Paint to me is like music to other people. When you want to relax, you listen to music or lie down. I work with color. For me it is always the main thing. I don't see a green elephant, black shoes or a purple hat. I see green and purple." Thus declares 76-year-old designer Dan Reisinger, an Israel Prize laureate.

Reisinger was born in Kanjiza (then in Yugoslavia, now Serbia), to a family of artisans who made their living decorating public buildings in the Balkans: His grandfather was a ceiling painter; his father an amateur artist. Reisinger's unique use of color, which is readily apparent in the exhibition of his works now on at the Ashdod Museum of Art, is one of the reasons the judges awarded him the Israel Prize for design in 1998.

He explains his ongoing attachment to the three primary colors in terms of his life story: "I perceive the period during the Holocaust - when as a child I lived in hiding - in gray, brown and dark tones; undefined colors. My biography is a story in three colors: the yellow of the Jewish star I was forced to wear in my childhood; the red of the liberating Red Army; and the blue of the skies over the free State of Israel."

Reisinger says that ever since he was young, he has thought in colors. For example, he identifies each day of the week with a different one - a neurological phenomenon known as synesthesia, which involves mixing and strongly associating one of the five senses with another one, for example, "tasting" colors or "hearing" flavors.

Reisinger: "I remember when I was a very small boy, 3 or 4, I associated every day of the week with a different color. To this day I remember them. And for me, numbers too are immediately connected to colors. More than once when I've needed more room, I've said to my assistants that I need more white, or more time."

"I am completely intuitive," he continues. "I don't think in words but in a sequence of images, like a movie. When I think of the word 'color,' I don't see the letters, c-o-l-o-r, but a group of images like the sign on my father's store. My late father and two brothers had a paint and painting business in Belgrade, called Kolorit. In the winter they didn't work because of the weather, and I remember my father bringing colored pencils home and drawing, and I would sit and watch. To this day I remember the smell of paint and paper."

Reisinger says that academically, he excelled at geometry and physics as a student, which is not surprising, considering the geometric elements that characterize Reisinger's work.

"I was born in the home of artists, filled with color, but math, geometry and logic were always a part of my work. When I was a boy, I never thought about becoming a designer. Before I came to Israel we received letters from acquaintances who were already here, who told us that construction work was available. And so I learned house painting, so I would be able to work. I painted a lot of pictures during that same period."

Reisinger arrived in Israel in 1949 with his mother and step-father; his father had perished in the Holocaust. One of his uncles taught him how to mix paints, and so on his arrival at age 15, he was already working as a painter and helping to support his family.

"I remember that the landscape made a big impression on me - the Sidna Ali Mosque [in Herzliya], and Jaffa - the oriental architecture and the palm trees, and I started to paint the landscape."

One day a delegation, which he thinks came from the Jewish Agency, arrived at his home: "They saw my paintings, which were drying, and asked my mother who had done them. She told them it was me, and that I was 15. They told her about a school called Bezalel in Jerusalem and suggested she send me there. That's how it started. I came to Bezalel with my paintings; I hardly knew Hebrew. I was accepted at 16, the youngest student."

Reisinger studied painting, sculpture and poster design at Bezalel from 1950 to 1954 with Mordecai Ardon, Zeev Ben Zvi, Yaakov Steinhardt and Rudy Dayan; he was an outstanding student. Afterward he enlisted in the air force, and after his discharge spent several periods in Europe. In Brussels he won first place in the international contest for the poster for Expo '58, where his works were also exhibited in his first solo show. Reisinger went on to study painting and design in London, creating posters for the British postal service and other government institutions.

In 1967 Reisinger opened his own studio in Tel Aviv. Together with Yosef (Tommy) Lapid, he founded the women's magazine "At" (You), the country's first color weekly, and he was one of the first local designers to stress the necessity of associating companies and public institutions with a single visual image. Among the prominent logos he designed are those that still serve El Al, the Habima Theater, Iscar, Tambour, the Tel Aviv Museum and the National Insurance Institute. He designed hundreds of symbols, stamps, army badges and medals, calendars, wall reliefs and posters for cultural and political events. In addition, he designed three-dimensional installations, and has done various architectural and environmental projects.

'Quality matters'

Sitting in his studio on Yarkon Street in Tel Aviv, surrounded by posters and commercial work, as well as other art, Reisinger asserts today that he does not repeat himself in his new creations.

"The particular technique [an artist uses] is not important," he says. "Quality matters. What interests me is to create, to do. As a rule, there is no such thing as repeating yourself ... Standards change, materials change and the context does, too. I don't always use color. There is no color in the work I did for Yad Vashem; it isn't always appropriate. But when it is, I go all the way. Color for me is like perfect pitch; it has to be exact. There are no obsolete colors, only obsolete thinking."

In recent years, most exhibitions of his work have been abroad: at the National Museum of Applied Art in Budapest, the cultural center in his birthplace, Kanjiza, and at the Taipei National Museum of Art. Recently, his calendars were featured at a small, modest exhibit at the art gallery of the Shenkar School of Engineering and Design Gallery, which was curated by Yarom Vardimon, dean of Shenkar's design faculty. In his explanatory wall text for the exhibit, Vardimon recalled the 1960s, a period considered the golden age of graphic design in the Western world, when international design "stars" such as Alan Fletcher, Colin Forbes and Milton Glaser led the way. Vardimon's local point of reference in this realm is Reisinger, who he says created a new graphic language that powerfully expressed freedom of creativity, turning its back on traditional typography, and the images and symbols that once prevailed in the world of graphics here.

In May, the Afula Cultural Center will exhibit a selection of Reisinger's poster art. "In Ashdod," he explains, "I looked forward. But in Afula, I'm looking back. I am a point where the past encounters the future - I'm young," he jokes.

When asked to display older examples of his work, he brings out sketchbooks and two books that survey his work, one in Chinese and the other in Russian. The fact that no book on Reisinger has yet been published in Hebrew apparently reflects the state of art and culture in Israel, although this doesn't seem to bother Reisinger.

Four days after our first meeting, Reisinger is walking around the exhibition in Ashdod - curated by Yona Fischer and Roni Cohen-Benjamin - with his son Ilan, who collaborated in the planning of the show. Fischer, a veteran curator who has worked at most of the country's major museums, recalls that he first met Reisinger in the beginning of the 1960s, when they both took part in a logo-design competition. Although he was not a designer, Fischer won - and Reisinger asked to meet him. After they met, Reisinger said to him, "It's easy to see you're not a graphic artist, but you are an intelligent young man."

Fifty years later, the two have joined forces for the first time. The works, hung on both the museum's walls and on six supporting columns, offer a visual-emotional experience that straddles the boundary between an exhibition and an installation - between two-dimensional canvas and a three-dimensional hall - and are characterized by bold colors and minimalistic shapes.

"About a year ago," Reisinger explains, "I began to feel uncomfortable about the country's economic and political situation, and I started to play with color to make myself feel better. I started to amuse myself by composing with a colored palette. I produced 18 independent pieces, each one a work in its own right. One day I met Yona and asked him to look at what I had done. We talked and he said to me later: 'Come to the museum, we have a space with columns that disturb me. Let's take a look. Maybe you can do something with the columns.'"

I examined the space there, returned to the studio and thought about his suggestion. The columns are there; they can't be moved, so I began to think about the interplay between them and the rest of the background at the museum. I thought it would be interesting to make the columns part of the background, and the background part of the columns. I toyed with movement and depth - the space demanded it."

Reisinger agrees that it wouldn't hurt if the pieces had more white space around them, and says he envisions them hanging in a five- or six-story building, with a different piece on each level.

"When you enter a building, especially one with offices, you feel the work and know where you are. The sense of spatial orientation is basic and primary," he stresses. "It is established before language. And it comes from nature. A human being in a forest or a wilderness - his first objective is to orient himself in a way in which he feels secure. It's not enough to have a GPS device or a map. One has to feel."

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