Trailblazing Curator Yona Fischer Dies at 89

Fischer brought top-tier international artists to Israel – and helped discover and nurture local talent. Right up to his death, he worked to expand Israel’s artistic horizons

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Yona Fischer in his Tel Aviv home, in 2009.
Yona Fischer in his Tel Aviv home, in 2009.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum
Naama Riba
Naama Riba
Naama Riba
Naama Riba

Curator Yona Fischer, one of the most important Israeli curators and a 1977 Israel Prize laureate, passed away at his home on Thursday at the age of 89. Fischer was working until the last week of his life.

Among his recent initiatives were the choice and purchase of a Moshe Kupferman painting by the Pompidou Center in Paris in 2020 and curating a Pesach Slabosky exhibition at the Herzliya Museum in 2021. That year, he initiated the installation of a sculpture and dedication of a square in Ashdod named after the artist Absalon, or Meir Eshel, a native of the city who died of AIDS at the age of 28. The dedication ceremony took place last Wednesday. Fischer was slated to speak, but was no longer capable of doing so. A week before his death, he finished selecting works for an Avigdor Arikha exhibition at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem.

Fischer was the first curator to be awarded the Israel Prize, and only one other – Sarah Breitberg Semel – received it after him. Because they had difficulty defining the category, he received the prize for the Art of Design.

He was exposed to art in his youth, when he attended lectures at the Louvre in Paris, where his father was serving as the political secretary of the Jewish Agency. He also developed an interest in Gothic architecture.

In 1951, he returned to Israel and was recruited into the Israel Defense Forces, and in 1954 he was hired by the Bezalel Museum, where he first worked at its reproductions archive. At the same time, he began to write artistic reviews in the LaMerhav newspaper and for Haaretz. He was later invited to write the chapter about Israeli painting for the book “Art in Israel” (1961), edited by Benjamin Tammuz. He also wrote entries on art in the Hebrew Encyclopedia. In 1959, Fischer traveled to Europe to study curation, and from 1964 to 1970 he edited Kav – Periodical for Art and Literature.

Pesach Slabosky's "This is the third dream that I remember."Credit: Courtesy of the Givon Art Gallery

Fischer was born in 1932 in Tel Aviv to Dina (nee Riskin) and Maurice Fischer, who was an intelligence officer in the French army and an Israeli diplomat. He was named after his grandfather, Yona (Jean) Fischer. In 1933, the family moved to Ramat Gan. During World War II, Yona Fischer and his brother joined their father, who was living in Sidon and later in Beirut, where he studied in an Alliance Israelite Universelle school.

For his grandfather’s travel journal, which was translated into Hebrew in 2018, Fischer wrote the introduction, in which he told the story of his family. His father was a friend and rival of Chaim Weizmann and lived in several European cities, but in 1907 he embarked on a journey to the Land of Israel, after which he wrote the journal in which he expressed a desire to live in the country.

His grandfather, a Zionist, purchased land in Rehovot, and in 1925 visited Mandate Palestine again for the dedication of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. He died in 1929, and a year later, Fischer’s father made aliyah together with his Uncle Oscar. They established the central town of Kfar Yona, which is named after Fischer’s grandfather.

In the same introduction, Yona Fischer also noted that his Uncle Oscar was an art collector, and brought valuable paintings with him to Palestine, which were displayed in 1938 as the first private collection exhibition, at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art. His father was also a man of culture, and played the piano. “I was born into a world in which culture, painting, architecture and music were an integral part of life, and for that I owe a great debt to my family,” he wrote.

Inventing the conceptual

At the age of 32, having already made a name for himself in the local art world, Fischer was appointed curator of Israeli and modern art when the Israel Museum opened in Jerusalem in 1965. The appointment was encouraged by Willem Sandberg, director of the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam, who was an advisor to the Israel Museum, and with whom Fischer had studied several years earlier. At the Israel Museum, Fischer arranged solo exhibitions for influential Israeli artists such as Arie Aroch, and for some who gained fame after he introduced them, such as Igael Tumarkin, Moshe Kupferman, Raffi Lavie, Lea Nikel and Pinchas Cohen-Gan.

Yona Fischer, in the Ashdod Art Museum in 2009.Credit: Ilan Assayag

He was also the first to bring significant international artists to Israel, such as Christian Boltanski, who died a few months ago. In the early 1970s, he also brought in the artist Niki de Saint Phalle, who created the monster-shaped playground sculpture in Jerusalem’s Rabinovich Garden.

In 1971 Fischer put together an unprecedented exhibition: “Concept + Information,” featuring young Israeli artists like Yitzhak Danziger, Moshe Gershuni, Avital Geva and Joshua Neustein. It was displayed in the Spertus Gallery, at the time the museum’s main one. In the exhibition catalogue he wrote: “One the one hand, art tries to give validity to life, to emphasize life at the expense of art itself and to find its inner logic in contexts outside its bounds. And on the other hand, art expresses itself by means of its forms, in other words, unrelated to realistic content and shapes.”

“I invented the Hebrew word ‘musagi’ (conceptual),” said Fischer, referring to that exhibition, in a 2015 interview on the Israeli Art Home website (in Hebrew). “There were two reasons why I was able to be the leading curator in shaping and nurturing contemporary art: The first was the conservatism of the Tel Aviv Museum of Art and artists’ protests against it,” which led artists to form groups. “The second was fact that my superior turned a blind eye and was indifferent to what I did.”

He continued to work in the Israel Museum until 1990. Parallel to his pioneering curation work, Fischer edited books about artists such as Avigdor Stematsky and Pesach Slabosky, as well as a book about the Israel Discount Bank art collection; he advised the Phoenix insurance company on their acquisitions as well. His home in central Tel Aviv housed several huge libraries, and its walls displayed paintings by local artists such as Aviva Uri, Ra’anan Harlap, Pesach Slabovsky, David Reeb, David Tartakover, Arie Aroch and Raffi Lavie, some of them accompanied by personal dedications. Fischer lived with his partner Nechama. They never married, and he had no children.

‘A guide and a friend’

Over two decades after Fischer voiced his criticism of the Tel Aviv Museum’s conservatism at the time he became the museum’s curator, in the early 1990s, and worked there for about two years. About a decade later he devoted himself to one of his lifetime projects – helping to establish the Ashdod Museum of Art and curating exhibitions there.

His journey to Ashdod reflects the restlessness and curiosity that characterized Fischer until the last months of his life. In an interview with art critic Yonatan Amir published in the Ha’ir Tel Aviv weekly, he said: “It’s dangerous for curators to retain the same position for years. Take note that even in modern art itself there is no concept of eternity. I’ve always known that in order to meet young artists I had to mingle with other young artists. Artists have very acute instincts. They know with whom they’re dealing, when an artist is good and when they aren’t.”

In 2008 Fischer curated the exhibition “The Birth of Now – Art in Israel in the 1960s” in the Ashdod Museum, and five years later the same museum held an exhibition about Fischer himself: “Curator: Yona Fischer – Beginnings of a Collection.” In the same interview with Teichmann, Fischer spoke about creating the museum’s character: “I decided not to get into an argument as to the nature of a museum in the periphery. The museums in Petah Tikva and Herzliya were already active. I’ll do what I liked doing in the Israel Museum: cross-section exhibitions, topical exhibitions and exhibitions of local artists, in order to bring the city’s population closer to the museum.” In the city of Ashdod, a bridge was named after Fischer.

In recent years, the Yona Fischer Program for Contemporary Curatorial and Museum Studies was established in the Institute for Israeli Art. Idit Amichai, the director of the institute, says that it will not be a commemoration project, “but rather active partnership with the greatest Israeli curator. Yona Fischer belongs to a group of international curators who reshaped the concept of the exhibition as an independent medium. His open approach and his daring as a curator provided support to many artists and enabled them to execute pioneering projects. Yona Fischer’s eye for art was unique. He had a rare ability to touch on the early activity of young artists who were able to blossom later and to reach the center stage of art. The ties he developed with artists were those of a guide and a friend throughout their careers.”

Designer Michael Gordon, who designed many of the catalogues and books published by Fischer, says that he was a free spirit. “He loved artists and artists loved him. He always avoided any position of power which could have undermined this intimacy, which was wrapped in humor and wit, and in so many fields of knowledge. His alertness, curiosity and enthusiasm didn’t dim until the end. I’ve lost not only a friend but also my oldest and most loyal partner.”

Noemi Givon, owner of the Givon Art Gallery in Tel Aviv, which represents many artists who were discovered and promoted by Fischer, says: “My generation that grew up in the 1970s learned, was influenced and developed in light of Fischer’s exhibitions. People like… myself and professionals who began their art careers at the time – we wouldn’t have gotten where we are without Yona Fischer… His presence, the meticulous discussions we conducted with him, his writing and the many exhibitions he curated are a solid foundation of the Israeli art scene.”

The Israel Museum said that “Fischer curated breakthrough exhibitions, exposed Israeli art lovers to top-tier international artists. He discovered, displayed and encouraged young artists who became the pillars of Israeli culture.”

The Tel Aviv Museum of Art said: “Yona Fischer wrote, defined, thought and breathed the field of curation in Israel and worldwide beginning in the 1960s and until his final days. His activity in the field of independent and museum-based curation was responsible for dozens of formative exhibitions, involvement in editing and designing art catalogues and periodicals, the flourishing of cultural institutions and important mentoring for the country’s finest artists.”

Fischer is survived by his partner Nechama and his sister Dafna Shafir.

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