Driven to Abstraction: How New Horizons Changed the Face of Israel Art

The new revised edition of Gila Balas' seminal book on the 1950s art movements reads like a page-turning novel.

Hadassa Wollman
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'Hallelujah,' by Moshe Castel (1958).
Hadassa Wollman

“Ofakim hadashim: Holadat hahafshata baomanut hayisraelit” (“New Horizons: The birth of abstraction in Israeli art”), by Gila Balas, Modan Publishers, 327 pp. (in Hebrew and English), 168 shekels ($43)

In July 1948, not long after the state’s founding, the Association of Painters and Sculptors dedicated its new home on Alharizi Street in Tel Aviv with a large exhibition. An atmosphere of a new dawn prevailed. Cabinet ministers and senior army officers, foreign diplomats and a large crowd packed the hall at the opening. But those who truly stood out on that festive evening were 15 prominent artists – already considered the finest in the nascent state – who had chosen not to participate.

The next day, the dissidents, 14 painters and one sculptor, issued a controversial manifesto, and within a short time mounted a parallel exhibition of their own at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art. They objected to representative, egalitarian shows. “There is no democracy in art,” declared Marcel Janco, one of the leading members of a group that called itself New Horizons.

Now, In “New Horizons: The Birth of Abstraction in Israeli Art” – a revised, bilingual edition of her seminal and long out-of-print 1980 work – Prof. Gila Balas takes readers on a simulated tour of that iconic exhibition. No easy feat, as some of the works no longer exist, having been destroyed or painted over by the artists.

The charter of New Horizons, drawn up later, spoke of “cultivating original plastic arts of an uncompromisingly high level, and identifying with contemporary art informed by the idea of progress.” (Quotations from the Hebrew translated by Haaretz.)

The emphasis was on creating modern art. In the view of these artists, greater interaction with the outside world, together with a thrust toward “clean and pure” abstract painting, would enhance creativity in Israel. It was essential, they believed, to break away from the “local” and to strive for the “universal” – by which they meant European, Western, French. Paris was their mecca; all of them had spent longer or shorter periods there, and for some the city became a second home.

A close perusal of the works of the New Horizons artists shows that even though each of them continued for the most part to work in his own style – which naturally evolved over the years – the group ethos was artistically enriching. They visited one another’s studios, and they were militantly committed to the group and its underlying philosophy. Their struggle for art, as they perceived it, influenced many younger artists and resonated in their own work even years after they had ceased to function as a group.

In conjunction with their exhibitions, they frequently organized meetings with the viewing public, in order to initiate them into the world of abstract art. In this sense, they viewed themselves as educators. They were the only group of artists in Israel who identified themselves on an ideological basis, formally registered themselves as an association and took a militant approach in public. And to no small extent, they also shaped the face of the land, in their sculptures and monuments that were installed in public spaces, the images they conjured up and their large murals.

A single woman

Over the years, the New Horizons group expanded and contracted. All told, Balas writes, 24 artists were part of the group at one time or another, among them just one woman, Ruth Zarfati. Most had not been born or raised in Israel (similar to the nascent country’s founders). Palestine and afterward Israel was an “acquired” homeland, as was the Hebrew language.

The group’s leading member, its chief protagonist, was painter Joseph Zaritsky, the oldest but the major innovator. Born in Ukraine in 1891, he served in the Russian army before immigrating to Palestine. (The biographies of the group’s members are fascinating: One served in the Greek army, another in the Alpine unit of the Italian army, some were in the pre-state elite Palmach “shock troops,” one was even a company commander.)

Zaritsky’s colleague and one of the founders of New Horizons, the painter Yehezkel Streichman, said, “The best thing that happened to Israeli painting is the sheer existence of Zaritsky.” He was a true abstract artist, with a vision and a potent sense of color, rendered in harmonious rhythms and forms, and he also possessed an impressive ability to organize projects and get them off the ground.

In Israel’s early days, a fierce debate raged over whether abstract painting should be considered art at all. Following the first exhibition by New Horizons, which stirred great interest, the newspapers’ cultural supplements were filled with articles for and against. One critic wrote, for example, that the abstract works “reflect the inner worldview of a despairing petit-bourgeois intelligentsia.”

The poet Alexander Penn wrote a denunciatory article in the local Communist Party newspaper Kol Ha’am, in which he described the group as lacking an ideology. The poet Lea Goldberg observed, “One cannot dismiss abstract painting with the argument that it is not understood.”

In 1958, a major exhibition to mark Israel’s achievements in its first decade was held at Jerusalem’s Binyanei Ha’umah. On the evening before the official opening, Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion visited the exhibition, which showcased the country’s accomplishments in science, business, culture and the like, together with his entourage. A large-scale work by Zaritsky, titled “Otzma” (“Power”), which the artist had created especially for the exhibition, was prominently displayed adjacent to the section depicting the country’s economic achievements.

The prime minister was dumbfounded by Zaritsky’s abstract painting, finding it incomprehensible; his aide Teddy Kollek had it moved to a less prominent place in the show. Balas quotes artists who were present as overhearing Ben-Gurion say, “It’s the same thing with or without the picture.”

Fading ardor

Disagreements among the members of New Horizon finally caused a split, though not total dissolution. That move was spearheaded by Janco, who was already an internationally recognized artist when he immigrated to Palestine in 1941, having been one of the founders of the Dada movement in Europe. (He was later the city architect of Tel Aviv and one of the founders of the Ein Hod artists’ village in the Galilee.) Janco argued for a synthesis between local and universal, and between figurative and abstract. Indeed, the works of some of the group’s members proved the validity of his approach.

Janco left New Horizons in 1956, together with the painters Yohanan Simon and Aharon Kahana. Personal reasons probably played a part in the decision. It was an undeniable fact that even the proponents of universalism emphasized the country’s striking local characteristics – the sun, the strong light (a “surplus of light,” in the words of sculptor Yitzhak Danziger), the open spaces. Zaritsky observed that the work of Israeli artists would unavoidably reference the place.

By the end of the 1950s, the ardor had indeed cooled; the tenth and last group exhibition of the New Horizons artists was held on Kibbutz Ein Harod in 1963. As so often happens with avant-garde groups, the vigor of New Horizons abated when its goals were achieved. The disbanding was a process, but probably the main reason for the group’s breakup was a thrust toward commercialization.

Until then, the artists had sold their works by themselves and supported themselves by engaging in various extra-artistic professions, mostly teaching. In 1961, however, an immigrant Canadian businessman, Sam Dubiner, opened an art gallery in Tel Aviv, thorough he which he was able to connect many of the New Horizons artists with agents abroad. As a result, the artists started to earn enough money to make a living from their work.

One of them told the muckraking weekly Haolam Hazeh, in the late 1960s, “I am selling so many pictures now, and at prices you wouldn’t believe, but on the other hand I no longer feel like an artist. Because when I paint, I can’t get the American market out of my head, the kinds of colors they like, and how to stay fashionable all the time.”

Balas quotes the sculptor Yehiel Shemi: “It’s a sad story. He made them geniuses overnight, and that killed them. He deprived the artists of their private instrument of judgment.”

This revised edition of “New Horizons” includes the introduction from the original 1980 edition. Many of the group’s artists were still alive in 1980, and Balas interviewed them. In addition to the English translation, the new edition adds biographical and other updates, and more reproductions. It’s a research work that reads like a page-turning novel, filled with passion, colorful characters, dramatic struggles and works of art suffused with inspiration.

Hadassa Wolman is a literary critic and an artist. For many years, she headed the literature department at Israel Radio’s Reshet Alef.