When the Gordon Gallery held its first auction in November 1977, it was deemed a roaring success, with the nation's glitterati in full attendance to snap up the 150 works on sale.
This week, after 24 years and 49 auctions, gallery director Yeshayahu Yariv declares that he's putting an end to the biannual event. His official explanation is fatigue. "In the first years, I really enjoyed it," he says. "The auctions were innovative, and they captured attention. But in recent years I've lost interest in [the auctions]. I've lost patience when it comes to dealing with the people. At each auction there are some 100 people who supply works, and about 140 purchasers. It's nice to meet and work with some of them, and to appraise their works.
"But in some cases, it's not so pleasant. Some serious people come, furnish works and sign papers without even reading the sales documents; but then sometimes an elderly woman will come with a lithograph done by a fourth rate artist, as well as a lawyer to review the [transaction] papers meticulously."
Many Gordon Gallery aficionados urge Yariv to hold one last auction, and round the total number up to 50. He rejects the idea. Perhaps he isn't prepared emotionally to deal with yet another auction - but then again, his refusal may be motivated by practical, not emotional, considerations.
Practically speaking, it is a good moment to pull out of the art sales market, because sales are in a slump, and the future is uncertain. "Paintings are the last thing a person needs," Yariv admits. "It's the height of luxury. I heard that 30 out of the 100 galleries in Brussels have shut down in recent months."
Yariv's plan is to restore Gordon Gallery operations to what they were in the days before the auctions, when twelve exhibitions were sponsored each year. Yariv's son Amnon, a photographer, will serve as curator for most of these exhibitions. He has already earned his stripes at Gordon, having worked as curator for a number of photography exhibitions put on at the gallery during the past two years.
Every work has its price
One enters the Gordon Gallery, on Tel Aviv's bustling Ben Yehuda Street, with a sense of near awe. The spacious hall, and the impressive works (at present, the gallery is exhibiting paintings by Aharon Messeg), foster an imposing, almost intimidating, ambience. The veteran secretary (who has worked at the gallery for 20 years) sits at the entrance; small surveillance cameras keep watch on the different levels where works are exhibited.
Yariv's office is located to the left on the ground floor. Like the gallery itself, Yariv is a captivating, and imposing, figure. He doesn't indulge in casual conversation, and he appears reluctant to display any kind of affection. This is a direct, professional gallery manager and businessman.
Though he appears driven and hard-edged, Yariv has not made enemies in an art world notorious for its passion and bitter rivalry. For somebody who has worked in art sales for close to 35 years, this dearth of enemies is an impressive accomplishment.
When the Gordon Gallery opened in 1967, there were just three other major galleries in Tel Aviv. Yariv, then 33, started by exhibiting avant-garde works by young artists.
"It was a very bad time in terms of the economy, and yet I put on a lot of exhibitions which no other gallery was prepared to do," Yariv recalls. "In most cases, it was clear to me that I wouldn't sell a single work during an exhibition. Though I came from a well-to-do home, investing in the gallery involved some risk and daring. Today I would never take such a chance."
Have you lost enthusiasm?
"Like any other aging person, my focus has become blurred. I love art, just as I loved it then [when I was starting out], but my hesitation about it now is much greater than it used to be. For instance, at the end of the 1960s and in the 1970s, I put on exhibitions which I would never dream of doing today. Whenever I came across talent, I proposed doing an exhibition, and I purchased works. It was a huge commitment. I gambled on some artists - I wouldn't take chances on them today."
"Because I failed too many times. I also had a lot of successes; yet the feeling of failure exceeds that of success. The number of artists in whom I believed and who turned out after two decades to be successes is very small compared to those who failed. It turned out that [the failures] had little to say, that their artistic output didn't amount to anything."
How do you explain your confidence in these artists who never panned out?
"Mostly in terms of my age. When you're younger, you're more optimistic, more prepared to take chances, more willing to give the benefit of the doubt. I don't have it in me today."
Since the 1960s were a time of glitter and hype in the art world, perhaps it was natural to over-do it and make mistakes?
"But I had a part in it. I took part in it as a gallery owner. I might not have exhibited works by hundreds of artists. But I exhibited paintings by several dozens of artists. Today when I look at some of the things I exhibited, I'm embarrassed that I had a part in it. Today I have no interest in gambling on contemporary works. I'll do all that I can - my son can take care of the rest."
What if you feel that he's about to fall into the same trap, and make the same mistakes?
"I won't say a word."
Over the years, the Gordon Gallery made its mark as a premier force in the local art scene. Israel's foremost artists got started thanks to exhibitions at the gallery. Gordon put a fresh face on Israel's art world by sponsoring works done by young, avant-garde artists in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s. It created a market for art sales in the country, largely due to its biannual auctions.
Despite these accomplishments, Yariv shuns accolades. He stubbornly refuses to be regarded as a king-maker in Israel's art world. He explains that his motives weren't exactly altruistic; he did what suited him, and what was in his interest. He purchased a number of works by artists such as Rafi Lavi, Aviva Ori and Yair Garbuz, and helped them continue with their careers. And he made a profit by selling their works, particularly those by Rafi Lavi.
"The profit derives from the fact that I purchased their works cheap," Yariv explains. "Why did I buy them so cheap? Because that's the way the market was at the time. It was a period of stagnation, and Lavi and other young artists badly wanted gallery owners to purchase their works. Such sales are the most important thing that can happen to a young artist."
Auctions sponsored by Yariv were influential, sometimes decisive, events in the local art market. Before the auctions began in 1977, the art market was dominated by a scant number of galleries, and works were sold via newspaper advertisements.
Though the auctions were a reflection of genuine market forces, many artists weren't thrilled about them at the start. "In fact, they almost caused a riot," he says.
"Today, I think that everyone understands that they caused a revolution in the art market. Today, every artist wants to fetch market prices for his works. That is the most important economic transformation which has occurred here. I can't create artists; the most I can do is create a situation in which artists are paid what their works are worth," Yariv says.
The cake grew
For years, Yariv had a virtual monopoly in the art market. Then competitors started to "nibble at the cake." Amazingly, there was more than enough cake to go around. Yariv says the cake simply grew, so when competitors started to take away slices, his own portion was not affected. "The cake grew; and in this respect, Sotheby's Christie's had a tremendous impact. Suddenly collectors in Israel felt that if large outfits like these two were coming here, then there had to be something substantive about Israeli art."
Yet not even a visionary like Yariv anticipated the giant leaps the local art scene has undergone over the past 30 years. "You can measure the growth in terms of sales volume," he says. "Gordon's annual sales turnover was $50,000 [in the late 1960s and 1970s]. Today, the annual turnover is $2 million to $3 million. The annual figure for all the galleries in Tel Aviv at the end of the 1960s was $400,000. Today all of the galleries in Israel have, I estimate, a total figure of $30 million. These figures attest to a growth rate unmatched anywhere in the world."
For young Israeli artists, the market has become increasingly inviting. In recent years, Yariv notes, less established local artists like David Raviv, Ofer Lalush and Yair Garbuz have fared well in auctions and sales.
The only thing that hasn't changed, Yariv says, is the difficulty entailed in measuring the talent and worth of a young artist. "It's clear what the gallery wants, and what the artist wants, but what the market is willing to pay for his work is never preordained," Yariv explains. "The feasibility of price figures set by gallery owners and artists is hard to gage. Prices cannot be set on the basis of one or two sales, since an isolated work can be affected by all sorts of manipulations. In order to set a price for works done by an artist, I need some time to take stock, and consider the possibilities."
Artists' emotional attachment to their works, and prestige games which arise whenever their art is sold, complicate the work of a gallery owner. Yariv has a policy of taking works from collectors or other galleries, and not from the artists themselves.
"When an artist disagrees with your appraisal of his work, there's a conflict," Yariv notes. "For them, the price is important, and it's also important that their works not be sold at a price lower than that obtained by another artist. A collector or non-artist who comes to sell simply wants to get the highest price. In contrast, an artist wants not just the maximum price. He's also looking out for his future, and I can't sell his future. I also don't accept works offered by widows and orphans [of artists]. Widows are worse than the artists themselves."
Asked whether his own artistic tastes have grown conservative over time, Yariv replies: "For better or worse, I have to work on the basis of my judgment, my limitations and my age. That's it. You need a lot of energy to understand a new language, and I don't have it. Sometimes I go to exhibitions I don't understand. I can't grasp their language. The works might be fantastic; it might just be a matter of time before their worth is discovered. But I have enough experience to justify my skepticism. I have enough experience to distinguish between daring and brazen chutzpah.
"I think that the 1970s were enlivened by artistic daring, yet I'm not sure that it was a time distinguished by mature, sophisticated work. Praise of the Gordon Gallery during the 1970s don't mean much. Statistically speaking, if three or four artists [from the period] are remembered as being important in terms of the development of Israeli art, that would be great."