Group Portrait, No Frame

The new bands of artists have no clear-cut artistic ideology. Their purpose is for members to cope together.

One of the most distinctive characteristics of the Israeli art scene in recent years has been the emergence of groups of young artists who work in unison. Some of the groups, such as Fluorescent and Placebo Dormiendo 63, work in shared spaces and hold communal exhibitions; while others, like Tzevet Tzilum (Camera Crew) and Avantage, banded together only temporarily, to create positions of strength, independent from the caprices of gallery owners or curators.

None of these groups has a clearly-defined artistic manifesto or ideology; none has declared intentions of implementing a revolution in the Israeli art scene. The banding together has evolved despite the efforts of the art schools to educate toward individualism. It stems from a need for dialogue after leaving the study framework, from a desire to exhibit and be in control of the nature of the exhibition, and from the strength and security that the group offers to each of its members - as he or she takes the first steps in the field, at least.

The members of Placebo Dormiendo 63 - Michal Mor-Haim, Dafi Maron, Mihal Peleg, Avi Tzarfati, Lior Katz and Ari Kahane - see the group functioning primarily as a critical tool for their works. For Avantage - established by Talia Keinan, Yoav Hirsch, Yuval Orly, Tomer Reshef, Gilit Fisher and Shadi Habiba - the objective is independence and free will.

An old horizon

There is, in fact, not much difference between the groups of artists that worked in Israel in past decades - from Hadashim (New Horizons) and through to Ten Plus - and those sprouting up today. Contrary to the prevailing myth, a large portion of the former groups lacked an artistic ideology and their principal purpose was to garner strength and attract attention. Their dominant members emerged empowered, while the others continued to fulfill a secondary role in the Israeli art world or simply disappeared.

Today, the new groups are attracting attention and interest, but are hardly making a great impression.

Ofakim Hadashim was founded in 1948, under the leadership of Yosef Zaritsky. Many others emerged at the same time, and thereafter, either in opposition to the original, or as a continuation thereof - for example, The Ten, which later became The Nine and had Eliyahu Gat among its leaders; Tatzpit (Vantage Point), which was formed in 1964 by artists such as Yehezkel Streichman and Yechiel Shemi and served somewhat as an offshoot of Ofakim Hadashim. Another group that kept its distance from a uniform artistic line or any ideology was Ten Plus, established in 1965 by Rafi Lavie, Buky Schwartz, Mati Bassis and others. Its objective was to shock the art world, to bring art closer to day-to-day life and to allow young artists to exhibit.

The wars and political situation in Israel have also played a part in the artistic groupings. Aklim (Climate), for example, was established by Eliyahu Gat and Rachel Shavit toward the end of the Yom Kippur War. The group was formed "as a response to the mood among the Israeli public and also to point out the world's alienation toward the existence of the state," as appeared on a leaflet at the group's exhibition at the Haifa Museum in 1975.

"The anger about the Lebanon War and the desire to create an optimistic tool that would allow us to live were the beginnings of Rega [Moment]," says David Wakstein, one of the founders of the group in the mid-1980s.

The abundance of groups that have emerged over the past two years could be put down to a number of reasons. One could be the influence of immigrant artists from the former Soviet Union who frequently work in such a manner. Another could be the influence of groups of artists working in Europe and the United States, suggests Yaakov Mishori, the founder of Fluorescent.

Rafi Lavie claims to have had an impact on the formation of groups of artists. "During the 1970s and early 1980s, there was no need for groups, because I let every artist exhibit, and this neutralized the frustration," he says. "Every young generation wants to exhibit and the establishment - the galleries and museums - make selections. Those who are left out become restless, form a group and gain strength. But the moment they are invited to exhibit in galleries, the group breaks up."

Lavie does not see much difference between the groups that were formed then and those of today, especially not on the ideological level. "None of the groups in Israeli art were established out of artistic ideology," he declares.

Gathering strength

The idea of forming Ten Plus began at Lavie's home in Ramat Gan. "I sat with Ika Brown, who was killed the next week in a road accident, and we planned to form a group in order to get back at all the lowlifes who then controlled the exhibition spaces," he says. At the beginning of 1965, Lavie gathered five friends: Tuvia Beri, Bukie Schwartz, Mati Bassis, Pinhas Ashet and Uri Lifshitz. They were joined by Ziona Shemshi, Yossi Gutnav, Benny Efrat and Malka Rosen. It was decided that the group would exhibit together and invite other artists to participate in their exhibitions.

They also formulated a charter. The first section of the charter defined the group's aims and principles: "To exhibit together, and conduct educational activities that take artists and the public away from their usual routine."

Lavie notes that the artistic endeavors of the members of the group were entirely pluralistic; no one was interested in deciding on an ideology. On the contrary, "The group was formed as a type of agency and I was the agent," he says. Lavie notes that "Ofakim Hadashim was also not ideological, despite what people think.

The members of Ten Plus only showed their works together in four exhibitions before going their separate ways. Lavie continued to use the name Ten Plus and produced exhibitions up until 1970. "The policy was that anyone who wanted to can participate in the exhibition," he says. "Even artists I considered lousy. All in all, there were ten exhibitions of Ten Plus, in which 85 artists exhibited - nearly all of the artists of the 1960s. We made quite an uproar. At the first exhibition, for example, we held a fashion show with the top models of the day. Jerry Melitz designed the dresses and we painted on them. At another event, we held an evening of poetry readings, we played music and did a painting together. All of the newspapers reacted. The art critics hated it."

The biggest achievement of Ten Plus, besides the media sensation it created, was its rapid takeover of the fall salon in the Tel Aviv home of Helena Rubinstein - the most prestigious exhibition of the time. "Ten Plus became a power, a status symbol. The declared aim of the artists in the group - to gain recognition - was achieved and there was already no reason to continue. Its last exhibition was held in 1970 at the Dugit gallery in Tel Aviv."

In an article published in "Musag" magazine, the curator Yigal Tzalmona summed up part of the group's achievements: "The group succeeded in reaching positions of power and enabled artists to express themselves and exhibit. The technical challenges, the subjects and the lively revolutionary atmosphere led the artists to break through accepted modes of artistic thinking and encouraged them to go outside the professional and aesthetic consensus."

After the war

What the artists of Ten Plus planned but never carried out - starting an independent gallery managed by the artists themselves to escape market forces and the establishment - was realized by the Rega group in 1985. Lavie contends that the establishment of a gallery by artists was one of Rega's important contributions to Israeli art. In his view, it was also the reason for the break-up of the group. "After two or three exhibitions, they had no alternative. They began to exhibit young students, took money from them and stopped showing art."

Rega was formed in Tel Aviv by David Wakstein, Avishai Eyal, Asad Azi, David Riv, Yoram Kupermintz and Reuven Zahavi. Zahavi was the first to leave the group and Riv also left after a year. Rega operated on two levels: administrative and artistic. The artists in the group ran a gallery on Emek Yizrael Street in south Tel Aviv, where they exhibited their own works and those of others. At the same time, they acted as a group with a common ideological base, and debated artistic questions (what should or should not be painted), as well as political and social issues (Jewish-Arab relations and so on). "Nonetheless, each one tried to maintained his individuality within the group," Wakstein emphasizes.

Wakstein says that group work and exhibition space aided cooperative learning and research. "The group enabled us to make artistic achievements without being mainstream. We wanted to touch upon questions of Israeli art and of painting, of East and West, and of local and national issues. We wanted more political content, more concrete and figurative painting, to move toward American and British painting, while also dealing with tradition and Eastern (mizrahi) culture. Above all, we wanted to be our own masters. During the period of the war in Lebanon, we learned what a drifting leaf we are when we're alone."

Only one year after it was started, Rega already held an exhibition at the Israel Museum. Tzalmona, the curator of the exhibition, wrote at the time: "The members of the group offered richly colorful painting, non-sensual and devoid of artificial beautification, with Eastern (mizrahi) characteristics, occasionally politically motivated and charged with a feeling of threat ."

Tzalmona notes the group's commitment to the surroundings, the dialogue it conducts with various aspects of contemporary culture in the West and its authentic and sober link to the East. "There is a moral (and political) element that is very important to the principles guiding the group's activity: a perception of "groupness" as a value, opposition to cultural elitism and a tendency toward operating at the margins," he wrote.

Rega also succeeded in rapidly penetrating the heart of the establishment. "Galleries courted us," Wakstein says. "We exhibited at the Israel Museum. For three years, all of the artists came to every exhibition we presented. Rafi Lavie climbed the stairs and cursed."

But they also experienced the power struggles and jealously of a group. For example, the departure of Riv was due to his refusal to exhibit exclusively with the group, according to Wakstein. Rega broke up after three years. Wakstein says its role was to serve as a launching point and it was not intended to last over time.

The move that Rega initiated is now being repeated in its own fashion by Fluorescent, which was formed 18 months ago by the artist Yaakov Mishori, together with several current and former students from Bezalel. Their studio in Tel Aviv also serves as a gallery for exhibitions. The members of the group have agreed not to exhibit separately. They work together in a big open space, without dividers, and influence each other's work. "There are different, radical qualities in the works of the group," Mishori said when Fluorescent was formed. "When they stand together, a common line will be discernible as a result of the mutual input.I hope that in the future we'll supply the galleries and museums with new blood."