"All the Way and One More Step," a retrospective of Moshe Kupferman's work from 1962 to 2000, opens today at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem. It is a rare coupling of two cultural patriarchs, curator Yona Fischer and an artist who has gained international recognition for his abstract language. Fischer was a 1977 Israel Prize laureate for his contribution to Israeli art. Kupferman won the prize last year.
In 1969, Fischer curated Kupferman's first exhibit at the Israel Museum. He was then 37 years old, and Kupferman was 43. Since then, he has curated six of Kupferman's shows, including the present one, but the two do not talk much about their long and unusual partnership.
Are they friends?
Fischer says with restraint: "Usually we are, but when we are working on an exhibit, there are periods of tension, because we're both stubborn. In most cases, I gave in to him. This time, after the works were hung, he came and made four or five comments, all of which were correct. He is like an editor."
About two years ago, Fischer underwent a difficult operation. He started working on the present show about half a year later, before he had recovered completely and it was not certain he would do the job. "I tried to convince Moshe to take another curator. I think that every artist should be accompanied by new people, who have fresh things to say about his work - people who speak, think and write in the spirit of their time. The work remains, but there are always new things to say about it. The retrospective should have been done a few years ago, but it got stuck. Two years ago, they came to me and said that I was the only one who could do it, saying `Who knows Kupferman as well as you do?' I think that's really not enough of a reason."
So why did you agree?
"Out of weakness. I agreed before thinking over whether it was the right thing. Like Kupferman, I wanted to put order into a large body of work. I can't change the way I feel, think and write about art. I can't write like those who have studied comparative literature at university, but I know for a fact that there is significance to Kupferman's work as a whole. Nobody will ask today why Kupferman paints abstracts, but what he means to say when he paints abstracts."
Fischer says that he wrestled with many issues in preparing the retrospective. "I had doubts - how to display the corpus of work in a significant and proper manner. I created visual thoughts, but did not point out the connections between them. The American artist Robert Rauschenberg said that classifying things is meant to make the life of people in the art world easier. I tried to avoid classification, and to show that as time passes, relationships between works are created, after the fact. Suddenly a work from one period relates to something from the past."
Wandering through the exhibit is not an easy experience. The 150 works close the spectator in, and demand concentrated observation. The order is associative rather than chronological. Nevertheless, it is marvelously structured: repeating shapes, a certain way of applying color, rhythm, movement - all these tie the various collections together.
Two separate rooms, in which drawings are displayed, do not manage to dissipate the oppressive feeling. Fischer has succeeded in bridging the gap between the past, which has already been summarized in exhibits and in catalogues, and the present, and has turned the show into a lesson in reading culture.
"I am satisfied, this is one of the most beautiful exhibits I have done," he says. "It is organized as semi-closed spaces. There were people in the Israel Museum who thought that I was ruining the space by dividing it. But I remembered a Kupferman exhibit from the 1970s that was displayed in an open space in the Tel Aviv Museum. When one entered the hall, one saw the paintings as a kind of collection of purple rectangles, which were not inviting."
Together with the new exhibit, Kupferman has opened a permanent display area in Kibbutz Lohamei Hagetaot, where he lives. Fischer says that "the things are not directly connected, but there is definitely a feeling of a race against time - a desire to see an exhibit as he wants it, and to organize what will become his heritage."
The Jewish question is very central to Kupferman, especially since the exhibit "The Rift in Time," which was displayed in the Givon Art Gallery in Tel Aviv two years ago.
How does the artist relate to it? "Kupferman," says Fischer, "speaks to an audience that knows what he is talking about, and is aware of the past. While writing the catalogue, I developed the idea that Kupferman's art represents memory. Beyond that, I don't approve of the attempt to find Judaism in Kupferman. Any attempt to define Jewish art has always failed."
Nevertheless, the word "faith" is mentioned several times in the catalogue.
"Kupferman's faith is in his power to say whatever he wants to say, through abstracts. I separate this from ideology. His few teachers, like Zaritsky, believed in abstraction as an ideology, according to which the painting has to be "cleaned" in order to be contemporary.
The color purple
Kupferman never cared how relevant he would be. He received a language, and examined how to say things in it. Some say that every period chooses its artists. Kupferman was born to be an abstract artist - abstraction gave him the tools to say what he wanted."
Fischer says that two important ideas of his were inspired by Kupferman: The significance of the color purple, and the significance of the use of grid patterns. "Kupferman always says that purple is created from a chance mixture of leftover colors. I, on the other hand, claim that it is the Mediterranean light which influenced him. He works in wonderful light, in proper light," says Fischer.
On the subject of the grid patterns that Kupferman often paints, Fischer says that he suddenly understood something while visiting the archeological museum in Stockholm. "On a Viking vase there, I saw a grid pattern that reminded me of Kupferman," he says. "I started to check, and I saw that this pattern appears in various cultures, from the Aborigines in Australia to African cultures. It's related to the most basic urge of the artist who is standing in front of the empty canvas. For years they explained it in terms of fences and the Holocaust, although Kupferman does not define things - he always leaves them open."
At the Givon Gallery exhibit, Kupferman granted legitimacy to a reading of his work in the context of the Holocaust.
"Kupferman does bear the memory, but he creates a painting - he doesn't paint the Holocaust. He rejects the concept of painting as representing the Holocaust. He paints what he can't avoid doing, and in this aspect he is an instinctive artist, just like the aboriginal artists. For Kupferman, memory is expressed mainly in awareness of the present. He gives names to what is happening in the present, because it brings back the past, the sense of foreboding. He tries to live a normal life, to justify his survival. And then suddenly there is Sabra and Chatila [the massacre of Palestinian refugees in Lebanon by Christian Phalangists, which Israel was blamed for not preventing], or the assassination of [Prime Minister] Rabin, and that brings back the sense of foreboding."
In your opinion, what is the place of Kupferman's corpus in Israeli culture?
"Kupferman represents a generation in which the artists started creating abstract art. Abstraction has local importance and aesthetics, but it gave them the extra dimension - the significance, the extra-artistic relationship to what was happening in Israel. Previously, the alternative was either I paint abstracts, and then I am cosmopolitan, or I paint landscapes, and then I am provincial.
"The question of whether he is influential is a complex one. Monet, for example, did his most wonderful things 10 years after Cubism. So how did he influence his period? About 30 years later, art critic Clement Greenberg discovered that the abstract artists owe a great deal to the later Monet. Kupferman is now creating wonderful works that contain his all, without summing up. He is vital enough to be an important artist without immediate influence."
Do you feel an ideological-generational link between you?
"Yes and no. He is six years older than I am. About six or seven years ago I thought that he was repeating himself, that he couldn't maintain the creative tension and bring new elements, but that has changed, and he is renewing himself. I saw that his batteries have been recharged, and so have mine. Of course, physically I cannot devote the same amount of time as before, but when I am motivated by interest, I have the energy. That's how it was with this exhibit."
Fischer has been a curator since 1954. The last retrospective he curated was that of artist Yehezkel Streichman in the Tel Aviv Museum in 1997. He says that as opposed to the present exhibit, Streichman's was a didactic monograph. He presents Kupferman's paintings without explanations.
Here you have left the audience to deal more or less on their own with an exhibit which is not simple.
"Once I did an exhibit with explanations, and when I visited it, I heard students of the Bezalel Academy of Art and Design wondering who the idiot was who had written them. The question of addressing the audience is complex. I have sometimes thought that two texts should be prepared - one designed for professional circles, and the second for the general audience. I also once suggested writing two captions for pictures - one for children and one for adults."
"Because one needs money and energy, which I don't have. I assume that anyone who comes here is already familiar with abstract painting. There is a text at the entrance, and at the end of the exhibit, I put up a wall with quotations by Kupferman about his work. That way, people don't rush out, they stop and think. We wanted to make an accompanying film, but there was no budget. Even for a selection, Israeli television wanted huge sums."