The Curators Go to War Over Interpretation

The art world seethes with a debate arising from retrospectives of Aviva Uri, Rafi Lavie and Arie Aroch

Last month, the readers' letters column of the (Hebrew-language) Haaretz literary supplement roiled with a quarrel between Sara Breitberg-Semel, the editor of Studio, a monthly art journal, and Galia Bar-Or, the director of the Ein Harod Museum of Art.

The argument stemmed from a book review by Dalia Manor on the catalog-cum-book that had been published with the retrospective exhibition by Aviva Uri, which was curated by Bar-Or at Ein Harod.

"Although by now I am supposed to be used to it, still it's bizarre that the issues I went through nearly 20 years ago are being referred to in the book as revolutionary revelations," wrote Breitberg-Semel.

It was obvious to those well-versed in the power struggles of Israel's smallish art world that this exchange of views related to the recent tensions between Breitberg-Semel and Bar-Or, Sarit Shapira and Mordechai Omer. The latter three curators recently mounted major retrospectives of artists about whom Breitberg-Semel has written in the past, and in so doing criticized her interpretations and the "want of matter" thesis, a major concept in the study of Israeli art that Breitberg-Semel formulated in 1986, when she curated the exhibition "Want of Matter" at the Tel Aviv Museum.


The exhibition "Rafi Lavie: Works from 1950 to 2002," which was curated by Shapira and is now at the Israel Museum, is largely an attempt to prove the validity of a new reading of Lavie's work, one which is at odds with the Breitberg-Semel interpretation.

Breitberg-Semel turned Lavie and his students in the "Want of Matter" exhibition into the representatives of a local Tel Aviv school of intentional destitution. She depicted their use of plywood and other simple materials as an attempt to fashion a unique Israeli voice. Shapira now presents a completely different Lavie, and emphasizes content over form and the richness in his works.

Lavie, who for years did not express any public objections to the "Want of Matter" thesis, is now supporting Shapira's new interpretation.

Mordechai Omer, who curated the Arie Aroch retrospective now being staged at the Tel Aviv Museum, came out against assigning Aroch to the "want of matter" approach. "The richness of the contexts and the variety of languages used by Aroch place him as the antithesis of everything that had been interpreted in the past as `want of matter,'" he hastened to note on a page accompanying the opening of the exhibition.

In the Aviva Uri exhibition curated by Bar-Or, she criticized Breitberg-Semel and others for what she charged as the unprofessional manner in which Uri's history was written. Bar-Or accused them of fabricating the artist's biography in order to make her into a myth, at the expense of other curators who accompanied her when she was taking her first steps in the art world.

Perhaps Sara Breitberg-Semel shouldn't take the criticism to heart. After all, it is not so hard to understand that a curator who is now writing about an artist that Breitberg-Semel has already "treated" in the past, with her characteristically sharp and insightful manner, has to first come out against her.

But Breitberg-Semel has chose not to accept the barbs of criticism without responding in kind. Thus, with three important exhibitions of three major artists being mounted concurrently, the debate has taken the form of finger-pointing and mutual insults.

Despite the promising declarations voiced at the openings of the Uri and Aroch retrospectives, and the impressive body of research invested in them, it is hard to find in them a unifying theory such as is suggested by the Lavie retrospective. Bar-Or and Omer, each in his or her own way, reveal new works that have not been previously shown, track the evolution of images from the beginning of the artist's work to its completion, expand the realm of international contexts, and occasionally propose interesting linkages between the art and the biography of the artist.

Bar-Or's major revelation is the disclosure of Uri's erroneous bio, in which many figures from the local art scene participated, including the artist herself. For instance, Bar-Or found that Uri has been described as being younger than her actual age, an error that made it possible to group her with a younger generation of artists. What's more, this served the myth of her sudden discovery, which included Breitberg-Semel.

Bar-Or also makes the connection between different paintings and political and biographical events and reaches the conclusion that Aviva Uri was also influenced by surrealist states of mind. Bar-Or calls her "Requiem for a Bird" series from 1973 a response to the Yom Kippur War. She sees the artist's later, tumultuous paintings as a response to the death of her husband, David Hendler. Bar-Or notes that this sort of linkage would not have been possible until fairly recently, and attributes it to the mood of the times.

"In the past, it was obvious to all that artists like Uri or like Moshe Kupferman were not dealing with concrete things," says Bar-Or. "Now we allow ourselves to link between the detached art and reality." In the same spirit, she stresses the influences of World War II on Uri's creative output. "It was important to me to show that Israeli art was not alienated from everything going on in the world around it. I wanted to show the biographical point of origin that is common to the generation that grew up during World War II, and relate Uri's sketching to the international sketching of the same period. That is also why I brought in an outside curator."

In a wide-ranging exhibition that is accompanied by a thick 650-page book (expected to be published this week), Omer presents early sketches by Aroch, including classic sketches of models that have not been previously exhibited. "These are works from the `30s and `40s about which Aroch was very ambivalent," says Omer. "They were greatly influenced by the School of Paris, while Aroch preferred to present himself within the context of American art."

Omer exhibits two sketches, one alongside the other, of Aroch's two wives, which one assumes he wouldn't have dared to do a few years ago. The link between the private life of the artist and his work, which was taboo until not long ago, is very much present in this exhibit: Aroch's attitude toward his father, toward family, toward the crisis in his marriage - all of this exists in his paintings and is told by Omer. "The point of origin isn't gossip. It is the formation of a thesis that is based on a sense of belonging," he says.

In the exhibition, Omer emphasizes the importance of text in Aroch's art. Not only the familiar, obvious sentences that are easy to see as part of the work, but also the small, bizarre dedications that appear from his earliest work onward, which create a connection of time and place. "Aroch constantly relates to narrative," says Omer, "and tries to get across a story, alongside the painting."

One of the innovations in the exhibition, he says, is the showing of several variations of the same work, which at times seem like copies. "Until now, the conception of his painting was automatist and spontaneous," says Omer, "and it was important to me to dwell on Aroch's serialism, which proves how wrong that is. There are numerous versions of every work, and no one final version. The point is that the process is not over. There is no one canonical work, but rather an incomplete process that is not wholly resolved. Aroch didn't talk about that."

Omer refers to the substantial contribution made by Breitberg-Semel in reading Aroch's art. But at the same time, he says: "She put him into the `Want of Matter' exhibition, something for which I can't forgive her. Both in terms of the form and the narrative, and in terms of the art, there is no want in Aroch, but rather a rare richness."

New history

A similar claim of artistic richness is present in the exhibition by Shapira, the only curator who professes to present a new and inclusive theory. As opposed to Breitberg-Semel's Lavie - which dismissed any possibility of granting interpretation to painting - Shapira offers a romantic, story-telling and symbolic, almost bourgeois Lavie. As opposed to Breitberg-Semel, who puts emphasis on form and material, Shapira emphasizes contents associated with European culture, Judaism and the Holocaust, with society and politics.

Shapira analyzes Lavie through the prism (some would say too much and too fashionably so) of Freud, Nietzsche, Hegel, Derrida and Lacan. Shapira systematically followed the lexicon of images that developed in his work, and to a great extent, from his biography, interpreted them and cross-referenced them by the periods of his work. She did to Lavie something that until not long ago would not have been done: she linked the life story with the story in the painting, the private home of Rafi and Ilana with the "Rafi and Ilana" text that appears in the paintings.

"Want of Matter was not a thesis," says Shapira. "Art criticism matured and developed more complex ways of coping. Part of the development of the new theories has to do with the recognition of Israeli art as an arena of action, as a more sophisticated and complex language that takes much more winding and veiled paths than the ways in which the criticism used to read them."

The current trend can be seen as another step in breaking down the central story of the history of art in Israel - a process that began in the 1990s in numerous exhibitions and articles. The current exhibitions, aside from the attempt to reinterpret the canonical artists, impose a different sort of looking at the center of the discourse. This reading emphasizes the connection between biography and art, the international influences on the local creative front and the narrative dimension that is still conceived as less respectable or worthy.

The timing of these retrospectives also seems to be related to the fact that Israeli art is now marking 100 years since its foundation, since the establishment of the first school of art, Bezalel. The need to summarize and to epitomize has become a significant part of art writing and exhibiting in Israel.

It seems as if the current exhibitions are built around an ambition to show not only the point of view of the artist, but also that of the curator. The artist is the curator's device for weaving his story into a sea of stories, thereby making his mark on a history that is constantly being rewritten. This creates several parallel plots: Lavie who represents the peeling and flaking Tel Aviv vista of "want of matter," the symbolist Lavie that is presented by David Ginnaton in 1993 at an exhibition at the Tel Aviv Museum, and Shapira's romantic Lavie storyteller.

Breitberg-Semel, Shapira, Omer and Bar-Or, like the artists themselves, may be considered both qualified researchers and storytellers who broaden the point of view and the imagination.

"Arie Aroch was essentially a teller of stories," said Omer in an article by Dalia Karpel in Haaretz Magazine. "He built them through a process of doodling, and from the automatic doodling arises a deeply ingrained image that is deeply embedded in the subconscious. Aroch was the father of all doodling painting in Israel, and the people who followed in his footsteps were Aviva Uri and Rafi Lavie. In those terms, Aroch was ahead of his time." Perhaps these words belie the major impulse of the new exhibitions - they too are trying to return to a story, to relate works of art to life stories and maybe to thus reconnect the viewers to the works of art.