Efrat Natan Retrospective: Israeli Minimalist Art That Broadens the Mind

The exhibit at the Israel Museum ranges from kibbutz-related works to pervasive Christian iconography, offering a striking chance to chart the development of this seminal Israeli artist.

A reconstruction of Efrat Natan’s 1979 installation “Roof Work,” at the Israel Museum.
Eli Posner. From the Artist’s Collection

Two things are especially impressive about “Whitewash and Tar,” the retrospective of artist Efrat Natan, who was born in prestate Israel in 1947. One is the reconstruction of her 1979 installation “Roof Work,” which was originally exhibited on the roof of the Tel Aviv apartment in which Natan lived at the time. At its heart are upside-down squeegees leaning diagonally on a wall, like clothes hangers that are also improvised crucifixion devices. Hanging on them are white undershirts.

These would become the artist’s trademark, recurring in different forms in her later works, signifying and symbolizing a host of real and abstract elements (including man, a pioneer’s body, shrouds, remains of saints, tortured flesh, disintegrating material, a blind spot, purity and sacrifice, yearning for innocence, and a white flag). Adjacent to the wall are other items, including half a barrel with an undershirt that has been cut into two halves. These are draped over it like leather stretched for drying. Three windows are situated on the floor like a triptych – a kind of large glass on which vinyl records are lying, along with an undershirt split lengthwise that resembles a Rorschach test inkblot, a large head-hole in its center. Nearby is a totem pole made of a stack of records. Lying on a box are undershirts in the form of “bunny rabbits,” shoulder straps protruding like ears. A chair is clothed in an undershirt. A bowl on the floor contains a record and a squeezed undershirt. To the side and above, a peculiar effigy – an undershirt on a hanger – dangles from a zip line, casting a shadow on the museum wall. There’s an accompanying soundtrack, Bach’s “Cantata 140” (“Awake, the voice is calling us”), heard through a small side window.

It’s fascinating to see how the roof installation is translated in the museum space – and, even more, to compare photographs of the original with the present iteration. The photos from nearly 40 years ago show gas canisters on the corner of the roof, unreproducible dirty walls, chaotic wiring (electric cables and clotheslines) that slice the sky, and a background landscape of plastic shutters, solar heaters and television antennas.

All these symbols of quotidian urbanism have disappeared in the church-like, sanctifying museum installation, in which the roof becomes Calvary (aka Golgotha). Comparisons spring to mind between Natan’s spartan roof and Sigalit Landau’s 2002 installation, “The Country.” And also about differences in sensuality and expressiveness between the body art, performance and theme of sacrifice and redemption in Natan’s work and the early work of Motti Mizrachi.

Tracing refinements

The second impressive thing is the tangible manner in which the retrospective successfully distinguishes the work. In Natan’s case, this type of exhibition is particularly relevant. The juxtaposition of very early and late works from an oeuvre of four decades – which also included lengthy periods featuring no artwork – reinforces the similarities between them, and makes it possible to trace various refinements over the years. Artistic personality, style and modes of working all become sharpened in retrospect.

'Morning Flag,' 2007.
Efrat Natan

For example, “Head Sculpture” (May 1973), one of Natan’s best-known works – in which she walked through the streets of Tel Aviv, her head covered by a hollow plywood, T-shaped box/mask/sculpture the morning after a military parade – melds the language of minimalism, body art and installation art of that period with Christian influences (public self-signifying is a mark of Cain; the act is one of walking the Via Dolorosa). These elements also recur later in the video work “The Twelfth Window” (2002), in which a figure who’s carrying an iron bed with a perforated plywood base on her back approaches us as though climbing, growing larger and then being returned in a loop to the start.

This is what’s so striking about the retrospective: a small number of recurrent themes and images. The images coalesce in formats, sizes, applications and different forms; they accumulate a substance of ambivalence, consolidating the active presence of a language in the process of being created.

One example is the recurring perforation – from the hole in a record, right down to a series of “holey” and disintegrating undershirts laid on black velvet surfaces and viewed through a screen, the whole producing a mute map of sea-and-land (“Evening Triptych,” 2005; “The Big Window,” 2015; and others). Or the tent that is also a canopy-covered bed (“Nocturno,” 2005).

Another crucial dimension that gathers presence and heft in the retrospective is the centrality of music in Natan’s work. Bach on the roof; Stockhausen on the stairs; the Chinese torture of dripping water; the material presence of the records. And there are also the imagined sounds, which are easily filled in – a humming of insects whose presence is hinted at in all of the works that include screens.

Natan is an important figure from the generation of the “talking-about-art” artists, the artists of Aboutness (a term from linguistic philosophy) who succeeded in establishing themselves in the canon of Israeli art. In part because of this reflexive-conversationalist quality, the exhibition catalog at times lapses into tiresome overinterpretation, which cannot compete with the poetic power – which is actually related to proportionality and a sense of rhythm – of the works themselves.

A scene from 'The Twelfth Window,' (2002).
Efrat Natan

‘Making do with little’

Natan’s work can be seen as post-kibbutz art, in the sense that it focuses on the aesthetics of the system and sculpturally articulates the functionalism of the apparatus and the manner in which it shapes a private entity; thus, private consciousness can exist within it only as a closely guarded secret. But alongside the minimalism related to the kibbutz ethos (the “religion of labor”), and along with the body art and conceptual art of the 1970s – of which Natan is a leading representative – the dominance of Christian iconography in her art is also striking (the scythe of the Angel of Death; the comparison between body flesh and bread; the Via Dolorosa; various crucifixions; notions of salvation; holiness and return; etc.).

According to curator Aya Miron, “Natan’s works are characterized by ‘making do with little’; their forms are simple and they are made of everyday materials, mostly in the range between the black and the white. The materials and objects she makes use of are richly charged with content. The undershirts, for example, which she ties, stretches, tears or crumbles, take on additional meanings with each new appearance: As a basic item of clothing of the pioneer-worker, as an image of the private body, and also as celestial bodies and clouds that are reflected in a big window and proffer a host of possibilities to the imagination’s gaze. Like the undershirts, other materials too – such as milk and dough, window netting, mosquito nets, and records – stem from her childhood environment in the 1950s, and over the years they have accumulated meanings relating to topical events in this country, the local milieu, and the history of art.”

Miron also attributes great importance to the artist’s memories, and personal and family experiences in the construction of her private mythology. For example, the aesthetics of the stellar constellations in her work (and hence also her “making do” with dramatic black-and-white) originate from walking with her father to the children’s house in the kibbutz where she grew up, ahead of the being-put-to-bed ceremony, while observing the heavens and talking about astronomy. “These motifs became imprinted in her body consciousness, and through it passed into her art,” Miron writes.

The exhibition is curated clearly and uncompromisingly, free of both accessibility (in its bad sense) and pleasantness. The pervading tone is one of loyalty to the artist and the art. Miron has succeeded in preserving the characteristic atmosphere of the secular monastery, the air of severity and meticulousness, down to the finest detail, the whole opening into a large metaphor of culture.

The exhibition conveys the asceticism that transforms the use of materials from life into a text of lyrical power, one that transfigures prosaic, secular images into magic art fraught with hermetic symbolism.

“Whitewash and Tar” is at the Israel Museum, Jerusalem, until October 29. Friday and holiday eves 10.00-14.00; Sat.-Mon. and Wed.-Thur. 10.00-17.00; Tue. 16.00-21.00.