Fire, Water, Earth and Air: Israeli Art in Its Element

From the Tel Aviv Museum of Art’s collection of some 20,000 Israeli works, curator Dalit Matatyahu chose just over 120 to tell the story of Israeli art in a unique way

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Dalit Matatyahu. “I have the feeling that plastic art has become a thin shell of images that we seek to read.”   Hadas Parush
Dalit Matatyahu. "This is the gate that will lead to the next stage: the ability to accept Palestinian art.” Credit: Hadas Parush
Gilad Meltzer
Gilad Meltzer

Two factors are liable to cast a dark shadow over the “Material Imagination” exhibitionthat opened on February 17 at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art. The first is the uncertainty and the gloomy atmosphere induced by the coronavirus pandemic. And the second one is the pandemic of red dots and lines for selfies in a room full of mirrors. Anyone who was able to get a ticket to the current Yayoi Kusama retrospective, is warmly advised to also visit the “Material Imagination” exhibit, which is drawn from the museum’s permanent collection.

That collection, which includes over 20,000 Israeli artworks in all types of media, is celebrating its 90th anniversary. But it is only now – three years after assuming her position as curator of Israeli art at the Tel Aviv Museum, and after a two-year delay due to the pandemic – that Dalit Matatyahu is realizing her dream of choosing, arranging and displaying the history of local art as she envisions it.

Gilad Ratman, “Che Che The Gorgeous,” 2005.Credit: Gilad Ratman/Tel Aviv Museum of Art

The work on the exhibition went on for over two years, “but in actual fact,” Matatyahu laughs, “from the day that I began curating, and maybe my whole life.” The plan is for the exhibit to remain open for three years, although parts of it will be replaced and other works added. There will also be a rotation of different artists featured in a room spotlighting a single artist – it is currently dedicated to the later paintings and early drawings of Ruth Schloss. “We have no shortage of artists whom I would be pleased to display, but who are not included in the exhibition,” says Matatyahu. “What I am missing is space, but we will try to fix that.”

The exhibition stretches across three halls and is divided according to four meta-elements: earth (in the “Promised Land” hall), fire (“Blazing Movement”), and water and air (“Airship”). These are not elements in the scientific-chemical sense. But they reflect a return to the way in which material was seen in the ancient world before modern science arrived and made order out of chaos. There are those who would call this perspective the poetic dimension of the human experience. Matatyahu is now attempting to restore that same poetic dimension to works of art and to the way of looking at them.

In spite of the broad scope, this is an exhibition that, aside from two works of art, is wholly taken from the museum’s own collection. In other words, it reflects not only the world view of Matatyahu and of the institution’s current staff, but that of the history of choices, acquisitions, preferences and concessions of all her predecessors.

Yehudit Levin, “Joie de vivre,” 1981.Credit: Tel Aviv Museum Of Art

“One of the things that I realized in the course of working on the exhibition is the concept of Sarah-Breitberg-Semel [formerly the chief curator of Israeli and Modern Art at the museum] – ‘cumulative qualities.’ I had the privilege of working with the collection for a long period of time. Going down to the storerooms for an intimate encounter with works with which I was familiar and also with those with which I was not, surprised me because of the richness of what has been created in this place. It also [deepened my] understanding that the collection is not merely a stockpile of objects and images, but also of the ways of thinking of all my predecessors, of curators and directors, of acquisition committees – and it reflects how tastes have changed.

What is the meaning of water work? Or of fire?

“It’s clear to me that it is not possible to take a work of art or a creator and to say with utter certainty ‘This is water,’ or ‘This is fire.’ But there is something different about the dosages. In nature, as well, the elements are experiencing a process of assimilation, and are influenced by one another. These combinations are less present in the exhibition because in any event it is sufficiently complex. It was with this approach that I went down to the storerooms. As if without any knowledge, without searching for a specific artist, work, year, period, style, woman or sector. I looked for the works that are the most significant for the elements with which I am working.

“I sorted the entire collection by the four elements, and then began a process of observation, finding balance, weaving together of connections and contexts and filters. At the end of the day, it is limited by the size of the halls, and of course there are quite a few works that I didn’t include and that will be displayed at a later stage. The structural principle of the exhibition will remain for several years, but there will be internal turnover of some of the artworks.”

“Material Imagination” exhibition. Stretches across three halls and divided into four meta-elements. Credit: Hadas Parush

Forgotten female artists

Many museums around the world have in recent years been responding to calls to correct the injustices of the past, diversify the range of exhibits, increase the presence of women and minorities in collections and commit to a corrective change in acquisitions to the inventory that currently consists mainly of white male artists.

When I interviewed Matatyahu in February 2019, when she entered the post, she agreed that the major collections of Israeli art, the exhibitions, and the way in which the history of art in Israel is written and taught are problematic and exclude certain groups and narratives. However – and this is a significant however – she stressed that she does not think of acting through this prism.

What about the possibility that the history of Israeli art will be read through a prism of the material, she asks. “This sort of reading could produce another history, a new identity-based segmentation, without being so declarative [as to say] ‘Here is an exhibition of an Ethiopian artist;’ ‘Here is a group exhibit that deals with Yemenites.’ There are other ways, through which it is possible – and I will try – to change the narrative without descending into clichés, stepping on land mines or engaging in affirmative action.”

“I think that looking at Israeli art through the material, therein lies the story of this place, certainly no less than through the prism of Mizrahi-Ashkenazi, here and there, women versus men, Jerusalem versus Tel Aviv,” says Matatyahu. “Almost always, things have been shown here in a form of this versus that, binarily. And I will try to show that things are becoming intertwined, becoming mixed together, influencing one another. And so, in the same space, you will find ‘Want of Matter’ (‘Dalut Hahomer’) along with the early Bezalel, conceptual art with Authentic Israeli Art, Canaanite with abstract.”

The landmine of identities and representations is still found in the “Material Imagination” exhibition, but steps have been taken to minimize the damage, to make amends. There are many works by women from different periods in the exhibition. When I comment that the Mizrahi presence is still meager, Matatyahu hastens to clarify that the correction is still underway: “Josef Halevi, Avshalom Okashi, Sionah Tagger, Etti Abergel, Eli Petel, Miriam Cabessa, Avi Sabah, Maayan Elyakim and many more.”

Bella Brisel, “Protection,” 1956.Credit: Margarita Perlin / Tel Aviv Muse

What about Palestinian art?

In contrast with previous exhibitions based on the museum’s collection, it would seem that there is also representation that is not merely lip service to Arab Israeli artists. Matatyahu’s explanation, in her typical fashion, is a winding road. “Although I do not know how to explain it in words, I feel that there is something Jewish about the exhibition. Jewish as opposed to Israeli. It is not the Diaspora mentality or the Jewish symbolism, but rather something spiritual, almost religious. In my sense of it, the spirit of the epic culture to which we turned our backs for a very long time permeates the exhibition. In my opinion, this is the gate, perhaps the only one, that will lead to the next stage: the ability to accept Palestinian art. Without the Jewish dimension, the denied dimension, we will not stop denying the Palestinians.”

“Material Imagination” exhibit. An attempt to “correct” historically, to diversify, to bring back artists, especially female artists.Credit: Hadas Parush

There is a noticeable attempt in the exhibition to “correct” historically, to diversify, to bring back artists, especially female artists, who have been forgotten or shunted off to the cellars, and to recollect works of art that have not been shown for years. It is a pleasure to stand in front of Avshalom Okashi’s colossal horizontal painting, in front of the wonderful wall collage by Judith Levine, to return to the video performance by Adina Bar-On from 1999, and to become acquainted with female artists who vanished into warehouses, such as Shoshana Heimann, Sultana Soroujoun and Bella Brisel. Alongside more than a few usual suspects – from Nahum Gutman to Michal Na’aman, from Sionah Tagger to Joshua Neustein – the roster of artists and artworks that were chosen for the exhibition is full of surprises and also rediscoveries. When was the last time that Mordecai Pitkin’s art was shown? And who remembers Josef Halevi? His painting of the winged animal from the early 1960s, before he moved to Holland for a lengthy period, is a reminder of quite a few artists whose “type” or “style”, did not catch on in our provinces and who found a home as well as success abroad.

In spite of the way that the exhibit is arranged around the four elements, it is not easy to understand its logic. It is not as if when you walk into the hall of works grouped under “earth,” you see landscapes or sculptures that are necessarily made of boulders or soil. There are portraits, and a rusty bas-relief by Neustein that might be a map of the Land of Israel, or might be a sword, the famous Bezalel rug, and the cart by Gideon Gechtman made from materials that simulate stones and boulders. There is hardly any earth here.

Dalit Matatyahu. “I have the feeling that plastic art has become a thin shell of images that we seek to read.” Credit: Hadas Parush

“At the risk of being simplistic, I would say that in art there are two poles. On the one side is the representation, the description, the story. And on the other side, the one that interests me more, you will find the enhancement of the representation, the event. My stubbornness in regard to this pole derives from the way in which art has been read and experienced for a long time, and in my opinion that is not correct; it is indecent. I have the feeling that plastic art has become a thin shell of images that we seek to read, like a capsule of words. Every work has a story, a claim to make, and the question is if the story or the claim work. It is a falsification of what art can or does do. I experience it from every which direction – from the academic world, from the visual culture. People go too far and overstate what the works are actually saying. And I say, ‘Hold on there, we’ve forgotten the most basic things, the materials, the shape, the mechanism. Art is capable of generating something in the encounter between materials and objects and images. People are looking for stories, not for the work of art.”

When I visit a chronological or subject-based exhibition, or one that is dedicated to a certain current in the art world, I understand its structural logic. Here it is much more vague. This is an exhibition based on the museum’s collection that is not chronological and does not focus on any one current, but rather on a conceptual and poetic view. Isn’t there a risk that the process will be incomprehensible?

“I have no idea how the exhibition will be received, but in the meantime all of the suppliers, the ushers, anyone who is not necessarily from the art world and who found their way into the halls as it was being set up, said in one way or another, ‘We never knew that Israeli art was so beautiful.’ I feel that there is something in this exhibition that welcomes the audience with open arms. Something that shows our art at its best, and from which the story of all of us emerges. So yes, you do not get a chronological survey or a narrative in which this current comes after that movement. But damn it, haven’t we babbled on long enough about this chronology already? Enough. There are other ways to display, to read, to think Israeli art, and I am proposing this way.”

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