Israeli Artist Larry Abramson Takes Local Botany Into Modern Politics

Larry Abramson quit his post as head of a prestigious art department in wake of censorship row, but as an artist, he's just as dedicated in his work.

Send in e-mailSend in e-mail
Go to comments
A print by Larry Abramson from the exhibit “Botany.”
A print by Larry Abramson from the exhibit “Botany.” Credit: Uzi Tzur
Uzi Zur
Uzi Zur

Larry Abramson, “Botany.” Curator: Irena Gordon, Jerusalem Print Workshop

Few people are ready to “fall on their swords” in the name of integrity and the principles in which they believe. Larry Abramson is one of those people: In the name of freedom of artistic expression, particularly that of his students at Shenkar, where he served as head of the Department of Multidisciplinary Art, he chose to resign his position and give up the power and perks that came with it in the wake of the censorship of a student work that portrayed Minister Ayelet Shaked in the nude.

As an artist, Abramson is just as dedicated in his work, but he manages to perfectly balance the message and the work of making art. The language and beauty and complexity of his art completely avoids superficiality and didacticism. It is aesthetic and refined and imbued with a secular awe of Creation.

Abramson relates to the botany of this country through the filters and patterns of artists-scholars who preceded him, with great admiration, but then he takes it several steps further, to the contemporary, the current, the political. He seemingly flattens and tightens together layers of botany, art and ideology into a geology and archaeology of this place, with all its beauty and ugliness and pain, its innocence and malice, and makes them well up beyond this, to beam light or cast shadow, or to assemble organic power systems within the art’s inner space.

The unique exhibition at the Jerusalem Print Workshop puts on display what is perhaps the purest and most distilled aspect of his art, which gives it the dryness it needs, the desert air: Printing, which on the one hand compresses this work almost to the point of symbolism, but at the same time preserves enough depth to avoid being nothing more than flat graphics. The final effect of the press suits the language and character of the print and of Abramson’s art. His printing is integral to his art and can also stand on its own, as it heightens the tension between etcher and painter, between line and shape, and seamlessly unifies them.

A print by Larry Abramson from the exhibit “Botany.”Credit: Uzi Tzur

On display in the upper exhibition space of the Jerusalem Print Workshop are 33 individual prints from the Das Kleine Blumenbuch 2014 (After Rudolf Koch), which form the heart of the exhibition. Abramson covered pages from the Israel Hayom newspaper from the time of Operation Protective Edge with a thin layer of paint, and upon this he printed a perfect black shadow print of a delicate German wildflower. The images were taken from a small volume entitled “Das Kleine Blumenbuch” that was published in 1933 in Leipzig and contains illustrations of plants done by Rudolf Koch, a graphic designer who identified with the German nationalist movement and who later designed fonts that were used by the Third Reich. Abramson surreptitiously recreates the cultural and ideological thread that once tied together the German return to nature with that of the New Jew, before the terrible break between them, and adds a contemporary dimension of pain and suffering, anguish and guilt.

One of the loveliest prints is called Kuckucks Lichtnelke. In this work, Abramson covered the page of newspaper with a layer of yellow – the color of fields after the harvest, waiting for the fire of battle to set them alight and transform the yellow into the black of smoke and ash – and over the fields he rolled a liquid layer of azure that doesn’t quite grip the yellow. And so, atop the inflammatory rhetoric of the newspaper during wartime, upon the yellow of the fields and the blue of the sky that are seeping into each other, surrounded by a thin fringe of exposed and yellowing paper, appears the delicate and precise dark shadow of the German plant, like a survivor about to fall part in the light that is only slightly dimmed. The piece is exquisite, while being simple and bracing.

The Sumpf-Herzblatt and Ackergauchheil flowers, despite their lengthy names, are placed unobtrusively on the page, as the lines of the newspaper blare below the blue and yellow, covered with a pale white epidermis. Silhouettes of beauty hovering amid danger.

In Abramson’s 2012 series, “Flora of the Land of Israel (After Ruth Koppel),” pages of Haaretz from the time of the Six-Day War are used as the underlying basis upon which layers of paint are spread, and the silhouette prints are native flora appear like something out of a shadow theater show. The images in this series are taken from a botanical book published in 1949 with illustrations by Ruth Koppel, who was born in Germany and, according to curator Irena Gordon, “consciously chose to concentrate on the flora and fauna in the Land of Israel, as a way to help consolidate the Hebrew identity, and was involved in the study of the flora of the Land of Israel from the beginning.” The silhouettes of the anemone, the red chamomile, the cyclamen, the burnet and other plants are captured in all their precise beauty, down to the last petal, and yet remain somehow simultaneously elusive. These pages of prints radiate the sadness of the mourning notices for the war dead, whose names are visible through the paint and the silhouette. The works encompass different layers of time, of memory and forgetting, of life and art.

In the lower exhibition spaces, other series by Abramson that also draw on botany are on show. The 1992 series Carob Writing is a series of six silhouette paintings of carobs, surrounded by a lush aura of paint that soaks into the paper. Abramson dipped the edges of the paper in diluted black on either side, at varying distances from the edge. The carob silhouettes are like the secret code of beauty itself.

A print by Larry Abramson from the exhibit “Botany.”Credit: Uzi Tzur

One of Abramson’s most exciting and sensitive projects are his etchings for Zali Gurevitch’s poetry book “The Book of the Moon” that are also on display here. He beautifully captures the poet’s implied surrealism and melancholy, ironic lyricism.

The exhibition is accompanied by an artist’s book, one of the most beautiful I’ve ever seen, designed by Magen Halutz and so perfectly attuned to Abramson’s work – from the cover inspired by the classic cover for “Das Kleine Blumenbuch” to the inside of the book, where one finds all the series in the exhibition fully represented in photographs of rare quality, in addition to the chilling “1967 (Haaretz)” series that is not part of this exhibition. A volume to be treasured.

The exhibition has been extended through August 31.

A print by Larry Abramson from the exhibit “Botany.” Credit: Uzi Tzur