'I Have Amazing Sculptures All Over the World – Yet in Israel They Ignore Me'

Although spurned by museums, David Gerstein has made a fortune selling his art abroad

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David Gerstein in his studio. 'I draw on paper – I don’t work with computers. My employees take my drawing and translate it into a computerized image that the laser can read.'
David Gerstein in his studio. 'I draw on paper – I don’t work with computers. My employees take my drawing and translate it into a computerized image that the laser can read.'Credit: Emil Salman
Naama Riba
Naama Riba
Naama Riba
Naama Riba

It’s impossible to know for sure, of course, but it would come as no surprise to learn that David “Dudu” Gerstein’s work is the most commonly-found local art in Israeli homes. He himself views the matter modestly, saying: “I don’t know, maybe it’s actually [Menashe] Kadishman?”

Yet over the past four decades, numerous middle-class homes have been adorned by his colorful metal sculptures – whose design fluctuates between the two- and three-dimensional and whose prices start at less than $100.

It’s not just in homes, either. Many of his sculptures are scattered throughout cities in Israel and abroad – from China to Germany. However, the cost of these installations reaches hundreds of thousands of shekels.

Gerstein's "Peloton wave" sculpture in Hsinchu, Taiwan. 'Just like you can’t change your voice or your handwriting, I can’t change my style.'Credit: David Gerstein

When you google his name, what comes up is not exhibitions but offers of pieces for sale. The great reach of his iridescent works, composed of images of butterflies, flowers, cyclists, birds and hearts, has seen him branded as a leading commercial artist with an inclination toward kitsch.

I work in a space of hundreds of square meters, almost like museums – yet nobody pays attention.

David Gerstein

This doesn’t shift the 77-year-old Gerstein from his artistic line at all. Alongside his creation of sculptures, he is currently exhibiting a series of personal paintings at Tel Aviv’s Loushy gallery.

His work hasn’t been seen in leading Israeli museums for many years, nor bought. It is a source of frustration, he admits. “I think I was never given the right exposure [in Israel]. I have amazing sculptures all over the world, I receive prizes and honors – and yet here they ignore me.”

Gerstein was born in Jerusalem to parents who came from Poland, and is the twin brother of illustrator Yonathan Gerstein. The family moved to Ramat Gan when he was young, but most of his adult life has been spent in Jerusalem.

He studied art and painting in Paris, London and New York, and also at Jerusalem’s Bezalel – Academy of Arts and Design, where he also taught. As a rookie artist, drawn to painting in the late 1970s, he generally felt only contempt for figurative painting. “I’m part of the lost generation. This was the period when Raffi Lavie [part of the Tel Aviv School] set the tone, and anyone painting figuratively was laughed at. It was a court-martial,” he says, echoing other painters of his generation.

“Only after he died did they start painting again; now, painting is more accepted. There are many young artists, like the artists of the New Barbizon Group” – he says, referring to the likes of Zoya Cherkassky and Anna Lukashevsky – “and I feel that I can paint and feel at home. At the same time, I continue to sculpt.”

Paintings from Gerstein's current exhibit “Such and Such.”Credit: Yigal pardo

When he says “sculpt,” he deceptively makes it sound like a simple act. Yet for years Gerstein has maintained a factory space at the Har Tuv Industrial Zone in Beit Shemesh. Before the pandemic he employed around 30 workers, but over the past two years that number has been scaled back to 17. “After I had made dozens of wooden sculptures and was shown in the youth wing of the Israel Museum, in 1995 I discovered the laser and switched to metal,” he recounts.

Gerstein’s sculptures are usually composed of many layers of two-dimensional images, laid densely atop each other to create a three-dimensional appearance. “I plan the cut, and each image is cut in several layers. The cutting is done at the factory, and it comes back to me to paint on the metal. I assemble it. Everything is planned to the last detail and done in Israel,” he explains.

Some of the work is done by his employees. “For instance, I draw on paper – I don’t work with computers. My employees take my drawing and translate it into a computerized image that the laser can read.”

To him, the fact that his work can be found anywhere is an achievement.

“Art should be accessible. That’s why I also make small objects that people can purchase. It’s part of my ideology: that everyone should be able to buy art, even if it’s only a small sculpture.”

You don’t feel that this turns art into a designed product?

“I don’t make art to be liked by some curator; my art is open to all. Some will see it one way and some will see it the other way. If one person says my art is design, another that it’s a game and a third that it’s a sculpture – that’s fine.”

Tel Aviv Museum's head curator says hi

Gerstein has had exhibitions in South Korea, China, Germany and Brazil. Dozens of his sculptures are displayed in municipalities throughout Israel, as well as in Britain, Switzerland, Singapore, Taiwan, Thailand, China and South Korea.

Unlike other artists, he opened his own gallery – which operated for many years on Tel Aviv’s Ben Yehuda Street. “I didn’t have a home gallery to adopt me, so I worked with a lot of galleries around the world,” he says. “I was exposed to large audiences, and it was more convenient financially as well. The gallery on Ben Yehuda Street was like a display space. But at some point I grew tired of it. It took a lot of energy from me. The market in Israel isn’t big enough, and the gallery didn’t justify itself financially.

“When it was open, I also displayed other artists free of charge, out of a sheer desire to help them stand out. People said then that I can’t be both artist and gallerist, and the exhibitions were ignored – so I closed.”

David Gerstein’s studio.Credit: Emil Salman

Maybe you’re criticized because you’re also a businessman?

“I don’t always know what goes through people’s minds. There’s jealousy in the art world when they see someone like me, so there’s always lots of talk. I live in peace and only do what’s right for me, and I get wonderful feedback from all over the world. The decision to show someone at a museum is often connected to all sort of interests – for example, how an artist is connected to certain galleries.”

It is surprising to discover that Gerstein’s niece is Mira Lapidot. She is one of the most powerful figures in the local art scene, formerly head of the art department at the Israel Museum and today head curator at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art. “She was at the [Loushy] exhibition, of course, and she grew up on my art. But clearly I’m not going to get any support from her, because then she’ll be accused of nepotism. So I do my own thing; I’m not running around looking for patrons.”

Gerstein in his studio. 'In Herzliya, I did a boulevard of flower vases. As the years go by the colors fade, but no one will redo the paint.'Credit: Emil Salman

Isn’t that frustrating?

“Sometimes I feel like some novice painter. I write to all sorts of curators, ‘Come visit, I have a studio.’ And I work in a space of hundreds of square meters, almost like museums – yet nobody pays attention. They sometimes reply that they’ll come and it’s frustrating [when they don’t], but I don’t beg anyone. Most of my activity is abroad, and there I’m very respected and shown.”

You have repeating images, especially bicycles and butterflies.

“The bicycle is a childhood memory of my mother who rode bicycles. I also liked to ride bicycles, and they accompanied me throughout life. Today, I don’t really ride anymore. The bicycles connected to the sculpting of iridescence, of repetition.

The bicycle is a childhood memory of my mother who rode bicycles. I also liked to ride bicycles, and they accompanied me throughout life

David Gerstein

“The butterflies are a different story. It’s something that entered my work late in life. I was planning to refer to lips. I said that I wanted to convey the feeling and take butterflies as a metaphor for the sensitivity of lips. The reactions were amazing, and I asked myself why people are drawn to butterflies. It always seemed to me like something girls draw in their notebooks. But I got into this world and discovered a lot of things – some more abstract – and it became a motif.

“Another recurring motif I have is brush strokes influenced by pop artists. I also incorporate more and more pedestrians: I’m intrigued by the urban phenomenon of masses of people walking in sort of a swarm. All these motifs together symbolize to me that we live in an urban reality and dream about nature.”

Why do you maintain the same style?

“When I began to sculpt, I wanted to have a style you could recognize from 100 meters away. When I found my language with laser cutting, it suddenly became something recognizable. I created a sort of genre, and that’s my stamp.”

You never thought to change styles?

“No. I have a certain language in sculpting and a different one in painting. Just like you can’t change your voice or your handwriting, I can’t change my style. I tried working in other materials, but I prefer to work with what works best for me.”

David Gerstein’s studio.Credit: Emil Salman

Love affair with the bank

The current exhibit is called “Such and Such,” and includes paintings in two formats and painted metal cutouts. For the first time, Gerstein chooses an intimate setting in which he looks inward at himself – as opposed to the gaze looking outward at everyday life. In this series of portraits, he stands before the bathroom mirror, performing simple actions such as brushing his teeth or shaving.

Meir Loushy, who curated the exhibit, wrote in the accompanying text that “some of the portraits capture moments in which [Gerstein] is seen drawing into an inner world, but none of them surrenders details of the horizon to which he is looking. The brush strokes, the chosen coloration and the angular characterization of the portraits’ background are used to enhance the sense of intimacy, but not to reveal anything beyond it.”

Loushy notes that alongside the portraits, which were crammed into a small format, there are also works in a far larger format in which Gerstein paints the bathroom space that served as the background to the portraits. “The artist’s absence in these paintings is conspicuous; the void extends from one end of the canvas to the other, and within that void he is reflected by various means, if not physically present, present as an invisible, unseen entity, such or such.”

In the last work in the series, Gerstein hand-painted himself and his twin brother on a metal cutout. The exhibit is presented as a collaboration between the artist and Loushy.

What does “collaboration” mean?

Loushy: “I’m not a classic gallerist. I don’t represent. If I see an artist where a body of work can be produced between us, then I start a dialogue with them.” He has previously worked with the artists Aya Ben Ron, Yehudit Sasportas and Tsibi Geva.

So it’s a sales exhibit?

“It’s a business, but I have a specific niche,” Loushy says. “It’s very common in the world because artists work with different places, and I don’t ask for exclusivity and I give my all. I’ve known Dudu for many years. I have works of his from the ’70s. I told him, ‘Come on an adventure with me.’ He said he would paint himself, and then we talked about him turning the viewpoint around and painting the bathroom. He’s a total pro, and all the paintings exhibited are from the past year.”

Gerstein did the portraits from a photograph. “I take a sort-of selfie and paint from it. Today, I hardly ever paint from observation anymore. I’m not the kind of painter who places a table and objects, or sits someone down, like others do. I paint freehand, and there are many things I do abstractly. I have no desire to achieve hyperrealism.”

There’s a large gap between your painting – which is personal, melancholy – and the colorful, naive, kitsch sculpting.

Paintings from Gerstein's current exhibit “Such and Such.”Credit: Yigal pardo

“It’s true. There is a large gap. When I first began painting, I felt at some point that I was drifting toward depressive painting. My mother was a depressive and I didn’t want to be in that place. I felt it was heavy. Much of Israeli painting is depressive, dark and gloomy. When I started with sculpting, I moved it in a colorful, poppy direction, and it freed me.

“Through sculpting I became a child, a liberated person – as opposed to painting, where I was more connected to myself and to art history. Now when I return to the painting, there’s still some of the melancholy there once was. I have two sides: the dark side, which I hide; and the other side, which is gayer.”

Alongside his solo exhibition, Gerstein is also participating in the Radius Group exhibition curated by Rony Griffit. The group’s story goes back 40 years, when Naftali Golomb joined forces with fellow painters Shimon Avny and John Byle with the aim of bringing together acclaimed artists whom the art establishment looked down upon.

Golomb set his sights on Discount Bank’s Dizengoff Center branch, which stood empty after several attempts to renovate the space had failed.

Griffit told the rest of the tale on Facebook: His father, the painter Joshua Griffit, went with Golomb to banker Leon Recanati, proposing to turn the large space into a gallery to be managed by the artists. “Recanati, who was on good terms with other artists in the group, agreed on the condition that exhibits be shown nonstop for a year. The bank paid the rent. Due to its success, the deal was extended to two years, and after that the group dispersed,” Griffit recounts.

The Radius Group met with criticism in the press and art world due to the commercial nature of its painters, who were even dismissed as a “decorations committee.” Yet between 1982 and 1984, more than 200 artists were displayed at the space. Unlike the uniform stylistic approach of the time, the Radius Group championed multiple stylistic visions and sought only quality from the veterans and young artists seeking to join it.

The group’s logo was designed by Israel Prize laureate Yarom Vardimon. Gerstein joined the group in 1983, after Golomb’s departure, exhibiting his Dead Sea series of paintings. One of these is included in the current group exhibit.

This is the first exhibit commemorating the Radius Group and also includes works by Avny, Joshua Griffit, Jan Rauchwerger, Zvi Tolkovsky and Oded Feingersh, as well as several who have passed: Byle, Golomb, David “Dedi” Ben Shaul, Irena Reichwarger, Tova Berlinski (who died earlier this year at age 107), Chaim Kiewe and Pinchas Eshet.

David Gerstein’s studio.Credit: Emil Salman

Dogs pee too

Gerstein becomes somewhat agitated when discussing sculptures in public spaces. “It’s terribly hard to do sculptures in Israel, because there’s no upkeep,” he says. “For instance, I did a giant sculpture in Rehovot that was commissioned by the municipality and it stood in front of the city hall. A few years ago they changed the plaza and just threw it away, without telling me. I eventually found it dumped in front of the parks department. They wouldn’t pay to restore it, even though they trashed it.

“In Herzliya, I did a boulevard of flower vases. As the years go by the colors fade, but no one will redo the paint. Holon and Ramat Gan also let my sculptures deteriorate. I’m not supposed to maintain them at my expense. The only sculpture I restored is one at Tel Aviv University, because many people see it there and it’s important to me.”

Other than the university, you never had a sculpture in Tel Aviv?

“I did. It disappeared as well. At the time, City Hall asked me to do a sculpture on Dizengoff Street. I paid homage to [the iconic] Café Kassit, and the sculpture was attached to one of the trees. It consisted of a table and glasses, I engraved on a poem by [Natan] Alterman – and there was a dog peeing. It stood like that for a few years, and then someone said it was harming the tree and decided to move it. I said I wasn’t touching the sculpture, and eventually they moved it 200 meters. After two years, it bothered someone again and they moved it again. The dog remained for a while, and in the end it disappeared too. That’s the Tel Aviv Municipality’s attitude. But I just don’t have the energy anymore – not for lawsuits either. I’m not going to start going to court.”

On the other hand, he enjoys seeing children clambering on his sculptures. “I’m glad when someone climbs on a statue or touches it. I have no problem with that at all. I just don’t like when they foist all kinds of regulations on the sculptures. After my exhibition at the Israel Museum, landscape architect Shlomo Aronson commissioned me to do a sculpture for some park he was designing, and I was forced to follow all sorts of safety regulations that ruined the piece. They turned it into a prison cell. To cover their asses, they had to deny the kids all sorts of things.”

It is important to Gerstein, though, to clarify that he is not bitter. “Despite a certain frustration, or disappointment, I have a great life. Many painters throughout history – even very famous ones – just made good or beautiful art. They didn’t necessarily speak of social or political problems. I focus on my life, my environment, and I never had any interest in being political – although if you ask me, I’m on the left side of the map.”

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