True to Her Way, but Always Fresh

When the Tel Aviv Museum did a retrospective on Lea Nikel in 1995, she was already a cultural icon.

When the Tel Aviv Museum did a retrospective on Lea Nikel in 1995, she was already a cultural icon. Students wrote seminar papers on her contribution to Israeli art and the growth of local abstract art; her drawings were popular, hung in countless Israeli homes, and adorned calendars. That same year, she was awarded the Israel Prize for art, which only confirmed what already had been known for years: Lea Nikel was the first lady of Israeli drawing.

Over the last three years, she stood out as the only artist from the older generation who had become a part of the younger circle. She exhibited in the Sommer and Heder galleries in Tel Aviv, both identified as youthful galleries, and did so as part of the regular exhibition program, not a history lesson. It suddenly seemed as she if found her place as an international artist, regardless of the questions of identity that haunted Israeli art.

She exhibited at the Sommer gallery in July her works from the early 1990s until the last few years. The exhibition of abstract works in summer tones of brown, dark green, purple and red presented her as an artist in full force at the height of her creative abilities, not as one wrapping up her work.

At the Heder gallery, she exhibited beautiful, refined small new aquarelles. On pages from a drawing pad, Nikel drew inner panoramas, usually abstracts. Sometimes an identifiable image appeared, such as a flower or a butterfly. Using light colors, she offered the viewer dreams that are hard to grasp and feel, an offering of beauty and quality that one cannot help but respond to.

The problems Nikel dealt with - composition, colorfulness, formal problems relating to a drawing as a drawing, as an autonomous discipline - are rarely addressed any more in this way by younger artists. It is as if the growth of figurative drawing pushed abstract drawing into a corner, the Israeli paradox referred to as "the lyrical abstract" (which was perhaps lyrical, but definitely not abstract). Nikel remained true to her way, but always remained fresh.

These wonderful aquarelles were done around a decade after Nikel's retrospective at the Tel Aviv Museum, which was supposed to have summarized her body of work. She exhibited often, but this retrospective was only her seventh museum exhibit, and the first that had a clear-cut research tone and portrayed her as someone, who despite her great popularity, remained without successors. Nikel suggested a kind of insistent modernism that was not accepted here. She created something of her own, composed of lyric abstract and international abstract, far from the "paucity of the material."

Until the mid-1950s, Nikel drew portraits, landscapes and still life, all part of the conservative repertoire in which she was skillfully active. For non-figurative drawing she moved to Paris; the expressionist feeling of her early works remains, but conceding observation as a primary source of drawing opened new channels for the strength and overflowing energy of her drawings, small and large alike, that lasted until her death.

Initially, her abstract works were influenced primarily by informal French artists such as Jean Fautrier and Dubuffet. In the early 1960s, Nikel gradually began distancing herself from the gloomy colors that marked her figurative drawings in favor of the shiny colorfulness, dark and light, that marked her work in recent decades.

In 1963, shortly after returning to Israel from Paris, Nikel went to New York for the first time, and in the late 1960s, after a stay in Israel, went to Rome for three years. From 1973-1977, she returned to New York, and since then had lived here on Moshav Kidron, where she drew in her studio with giant windows overlooking an open panorama. Nikel's travels, beyond the biographical material, are indicative of her never-ending search of the need to renew oneself, to get updated and expand the limits of drawing.

It was actually Nikel's openness and curiosity that enabled her to fashion her own style, which is clear and yet difficult to define beyond concepts such as "abstract," and which she adhered to regardless of the trend. Her works exist between the guiding presence of the creative tools of art and the constant struggle with drawing space as a kind of abyss of oblivion. There is something independent, even cautionary, in Nikel that is found in her best works as well as her lesser ones. She dared to create using intense colorfulness, stains and unequivocal points, and in her works, there is a joy apparent, as well as wonder at the world. More than just being fine works in the most initial sense, they captivated many with their optimism.

When referring to Nikel, it is hard to mention signature works, because she is an artist with a body of work that merged together into a critical mass of beauty and power. Anyone who ever met her was impressed by her great commitment to art. Nikel felt that art is something important - not as a reflection of society or a political statement, but as an expression of life talent, creativity - and she expressed her sentiments without cynicism or defense mechanisms before her.