The Praxis of Landscape, or History at a Standstill
Galia Bar Or
Yadid Rubin’s landscape painting is unprecedented in the local art field: he gives free rein to color as never before seen in Israeli art, and relishes the decorative which was rejected in its inner circles for many years. With the long breath of a life’s work, Rubin’s painting proposes a new syntax which does not correspond with the subjectivity, intimacy, and authenticity of the landscape, notions by which Israeli art has structured its identity.
Rubin’s artistic choices are all but obvious: during his breakthrough years as an artist (the 1960s) he engaged in sculpture centered on abstract geometrical forms and physical as well as optical relationships which generate an illusion of space. Subsequently, he turned from sculpture to painting, and of its various currents he opted for landscape painting. From the broad range of options introduced by the concept of landscape, which has had a unique significance in Israeli painting, Rubin chose a single, restricted section: the landscape of his habitat, the kibbutz—a well-defined landscape, human in its sense as a system of life which projects organizational structures on its surroundings. Here too, however, Rubin’s area is very specific: he depicts a landscape which is always comprised of the same few images, and avoids representation of the human elements constituting it. The human—as well as animal—figure is absent from his paintings; all that is left of it, at most, is a general torso of a tree trunk.
Conceptual Landscape and Mental Mapping
Looking back at the first published catalogue of Rubin’s works1 reveals an artist well versed in the local artistic discourse of the time. Dating from 1978, the catalogue, which focused on conceptual landscape painting, accompanied Rubin’s solo exhibition at Julie M. Gallery, Tel Aviv, one of the leading, dynamic galleries at the time. It featured a text by Amnon Barzel, a major Israeli curator and a well-known figure in the avant-garde circles in Israel and abroad in those days. The catalogue reflects the spirit of the time in its pragmatic design, the serial editing which emphasizes image sequences, and the choice of works which follows conceptual trends: painting, photography, print, and drawing in collage technique on plywood. Nevertheless, something about the catalogue—one entry in the biographical notes—is strikingly unusual: “From 1970 has been involved in designing the settings for festivals and celebrations in his kibbutz.”
What does it mean “designing the settings for festivals”? Preparation of holiday-décor as artists did for kibbutz dining halls which served as common gathering space? Why was it so important for Rubin to include such information in his catalogue in a period when the prevalent, desired image of the artist seems to have rejected such communal activity? At the time, Rubin was known mainly as a sculptor and a conceptual artist (rather than a painter), and he even won acclaim as such. A decade earlier, in 1968, he had already exhibited alongside Avraham Eilat, Yair Garbuz, and Yaacov Dorchin in a group show at the Kibbutz Art Gallery, Tel Aviv;2 in 1970, he participated in an important group exhibition in Jerusalem3 alongside leading avant-garde artists Yoav BarEl, Avital Geva, Moshe Gershuni, and Raffi Lavie. Did he engage in “kibbutz” painting concurrent with his up-to-date participation in the contemporary art scene? Identification of such an iconic aspect at the root of Rubin’s conceptual painting could have yielded interesting insights, but in effect it exposed another, equally important and relevant dimension to which he must have referred in “designing the settings for festivals and celebrations in his kibbutz”: Rubin never engaged in “holiday decorations” nor did he design posters, because (among other reasons) in the stream to which his kibbutz belonged artists were not asked to harness their art in the service of any communal, social, or political task for ideological reasons.4
Artists such as Avital Geva of Kibbutz Ein Shemer or Yuval Danieli of Kibbutz HaMa’apil operated in Rubin’s geographical proximity: these were members of kibbutzim affiliated with the Kibbutz Artzi—Hashomer Hatza’ir (National Kibbutz—Young Guard) movement, who were asked to dedicate a considerable amount of their “art time” to the social and political space in their kibbutzim due to the stricter ideological platform of their movement. In contrast, the model of the artist which evolved in the Kibbutz Meuchad (the United Kibbutz) federation (and in the “Ichud” after the schism of the 1950s) already in the 1920s, since Haim Atar’s work in Ein Harod, legitimized relative independence for the artist in society. The artists of the first generation were adamantly dedicated to their art, inspiring Rubin, who knew some of them personally: in the late 1960s he used to join his mother, Lena Rubin, coordinator of the Sculpture and Painting Department of the Kibbutz Movement, on studio visits to kibbutz artists throughout the country, among them Yehiel Shemi, Moshe Kupferman, and Ori Reisman. Lena Rubin believed in the power and importance of art in the kibbutz, and exerted much effort to foster a young generation of artists. Among kibbutz artists she was considered “the mother of all artists”, and was also the figure behind the establishment of the Kibbutz Art Gallery in Tel Aviv (1966), intended to grant exposure to kibbutz artists in central Israel.5 Rubin thus belongs to the second generation of kibbutz artists, a generation that grew up in the late 1950s whose notions of kibbutz and art naturally differ from those of the founding generation. The artists of his generation who hailed from Hashomer Hatza’ir kibbutzim left their mark by adoption of social-conceptual art, whereas the artists of the Kibbutz Meuchad persisted in creating “art for art’s sake” as part of the period’s range of currents.
The unusual information in the catalogue, which Rubin significantly chose to repeat in ensuing publications, relates to “artistic installations” such as unique lighting for Hanukkah (the Jewish Festival of Lights), obtained by a simple yet sophisticated arrangement of spotlights in the space, or collaboration with other members in “happening”-type events. Rubin recounted that “all the holiday celebrations were based on my decorative ideas, not through the words or the scriptures. It was a time of togetherness, we lived mainly outdoors, and the atmosphere was very good. The involvement in the festivals left me with my feet on the ground. It enabled me to be in touch with people, with reality. Painting is an occupation that pulls you away from people; in painting you are on your own.”6 During that time, his summers were spent working in the cotton fields in his area of expertise (pest control), while the winter days were devoted to painting. During the long painting months he missed social involvement and human contact, and therefore conceived of “festival design” as an experimental practice incorporating his private occupation with the public sphere.
One of the activities he initiated, which would prove highly significant to his future work, focused on the image of the kibbutz landscape as imprinted in the consciousness of individuals and the community. Rubin instructed fellow-members to “draw an overview of the kibbutz, as registered in your memory,” to create a memory-picture spanning a broad section of the landscape of the place. Countless sketches of the kibbutz, created by members under Rubin’s instruction, are still kept in a drawer in his studio, attesting to their personal significance and relevance to the process he developed in his own work. In fact, the members created mental maps of sorts, which indicate inner patterns, “landscape pictures” which indeed refer to a concrete place (Kibbutz Givat Haim Ichud), yet present conventions of space representation ranging from the cartographic to the decorative. The kibbutz scenery is depicted via the incorporation of familiar images in a systematic structure—neighborhoods of rectangular houses or ones with sloping roofs, a central road and forking paths, clusters of trees in a schematic configuration, central buildings or reference points, such as a water tower—while leaving fluid boundaries between the delineation of the place itself and the space in which it is planted.
Around the same time, the mid-1970s, artist Penny Yassour of Kibbutz Ein Harod Ichud engaged in the processing of mental maps as part of her research on “mental maps and environmental image” in the Geography Department at the University of Haifa, where she studied simultaneously with her studies in the Art Department; she too instructed the members of her kibbutz to draw a detailed map of the space which they considered their habitat. Rubin was not familiar with Yassour’s pioneering work at the time (which was still unpublished and, to a large extent, may be said to have preceded the local artistic discourse now deeply interested in the field); Yassour was likewise unaware of Rubin’s unusual work, and it seems that both of them, at that stage, had not regarded this activity as an integral part of their artistic practice. Moreover, despite the similarity between the two projects, the point of departure of each was different, and so was the accumulating meaning within their respective oeuvres. Yassour placed her own emphases in formulating the guiding question: “What do you consider to be your environs?”—drawing an affinity between one’s definition of one’s habitat, his/her experience of the space, and perception of identity. Henceforth Yassour developed an intricate occupation with space, which she linked to modes of memory construction: private and collective, biographical and historical.7 Delving into this subject and its implications to the art world in the kibbutz context may shed light on the nature of memory work (even if it is not conscious) in Rubin’s painting; it may account for an extended process whose essence is the distancing of the direct experience of a vision of reality. The idea of mental mapping reflects a process-based logic of layering sensory and emotional experience alongside cartographic and iconic representations to create a mold of a place which remains dynamic in essence.
Internal Image of a Place and Conventions of Representation
In the mid-1970s, while the kibbutz members were painting mental maps under his instruction, Rubin himself focused on a different type of painting: oil on canvas depicting the most intimate space for him, the studio interior. He created a series of monochromatic gray-pink paintings where he explored issues pertaining to surface and space, two-dimensionality and three-dimensionality, drawing and painting, reality and memory, filling the canvas with hovering specter-like representations of frames, work tools, and other accessories from the artist’s quintessential private space.
In personal notes he kept for himself at the time, Rubin expressed his doubts as a painter: he was dissatisfied with the modus of experiential or impressionist painting, the heritage of his studies at the Avni School of Art, from which he endeavored to free himself in this series. Shortly thereafter, the unique buds discernible in this series have already evolved into a distinctively personal line: a representation of space by means of a cross-hatch, decisive line which acquires substance of its own and a strong, independent presence, more powerful than that of the object hints scattered on its surface: isolated schematic representations of images from his immediate setting (e.g. house, tree, field) processed via set forms and transformed into local coordinates, signifying reference points which carry a meaning both subjective and collective.
Unlike Yassour, who studied mental mapping as part of her academic work, further exploring this practice in her artistic work which consciously confronts issues of space and consciousness, Rubin’s engagement with the subject was initially intuitive, yet it paved a rich and fascinating painterly path for him, in the course of which he developed his personal language. From this phase on, his work addressed the tension between the two poles of his artistic activity, the kibbutz and the studio: an internal image of a place, and conventions of representation which were laid bare to expose the signification schemes structuring them, the heritage inherited from conceptual art.
The first phase in this work mode was summed up in the catalogue of Rubin’s 1978 exhibition. The author of the catalogue text, curator Amnon Barzel, discussed Rubin’s obsessive repetition of the same few images, noting that the works “are actually documented questions,” and that “between the indifference of uncommunicable nature and the forms registered on the paper lies the ‘self,’ the artist who is entirely incapable of preliminarily cutting himself off from the given forms.”8 The concentration on the “given forms” was to liberate Rubin and pave his way to realms which he subsequently developed at a single artist’s inclination.
Adam Baruch, who also wrote about this formative exhibition in Rubin’s career, gave his essay the interesting title “Observation Diary,” which shifts the focus from the object of representation to the time of observation. “Discussion of this recommended exhibition calls for an easy introduction for a reader who did not see it,” he gently praised, stressing that “comprehension of the reference and message are followed by persistent repetition. Repetition in itself is a value, expressing the multiple possibilities to translate a given landscape form onto the artist’s paper.” Baruch identified at the root of the exhibition “a utilitarian philosophy regarding the very limited hope in the artist’s attempt to capture form-landscape and offer a “final” formulation on paper, on plywood, or in photography.” Being aware, however, that landscape painting, more than any other genre, carries the traces of essence, he supplemented his review with an explanation: “If a painting portraying a cypress tree (for example) by means of its graphic image (form contours, impervious areas) still requires a credibility coefficient, then all of the aforesaid is such a coefficient. Rubin’s cypress avenue is not an illusory replication, but rather a utilization of an authoritative image to create a picture of a cypress avenue.”9
Rubin himself did not theorize much. He did, however, keep a journal in which he expressed his doubts and reflections. In his (unpublished) notes he tackled the elusive line between the short-lived and the unchanging, between assumption and knowledge, and explored the affinities between the intellect and the senses, between landscape and a mental-emotional condition, between beauty and truth. Thus, for example, he wrote:
What is the connection between beauty and innocence? Can beauty be something sophisticated and calculated? What is a feeling of beauty, of power? Is beauty nature’s response to the tremendous dirty work done, to the everyday, to cyclicality, erosion, metabolism? Is it but a superficial external shell or is it something deep-seated, recurring, influential? Is it possible to comprehend things without knowledge? Is knowledge the construction of things or is it, in fact, limiting because one may use the little facts to construct the thing itself, but no more?10
Existential questions, quandaries, disconcert, thrill, idea fragments—all these indicate a work process which begins with thoughts registered on paper, continuing through painting, and developing in circles, rather than via a predetermined decisive route.
Rubin’s work, even if it focused on a specific, concrete landscape, was trend-crossing and bore a new face each time in its oscillation between internal image and convention. Discussing Rubin, Raffi Lavie wrote that he has the ability to create color combinations “typified by unique, engaging, and highly expressive materiality and form,” and not only “does each period differ in nature from the previous ones, but every painting appears as though it had been created by someone else, so that it must be experienced as the sole work of an anonymous artist, which in no way lessens the experience.”11 Today, after the eye has become accustomed to Rubin’s unique landscape, there is no mistaking the artist who created it, and it is clear that while Lavie’s description is exaggerated, there was truth in it until the late 1980: in those days, while paving his way to the painting’s eruption in color, Rubin’s painting was characterized by the multi-faceted aspect of search. The question thus arises: What memory reservoir of painterly patterns inspired Rubin, concurrent with the dialogue he conducted naturally with contemporaneous trends?
Painting’s Memory Reservoir: Local and Foreign Sources
Rubin was exposed to diverse painting options from a young age. “There was always an artistic atmosphere at home,” he says, and “the immediate as well as the more distant surrounding prompted and even pushed me toward art, maintaining that I was talented in painting.” Rubin mentions Miriam Ben-Aharon, who was “an incredible teacher” and believed in him, “even though I wasn’t a virtuoso in painting, I was not skillful in conveying existing sights in painting, namely copying reality, but rather engaged to a greater extent with the material and its translation into my own language.”12
As a youth he was sent to art courses organized by the kibbutz movement. Before graduating high school he was already exposed to world art in Austria, to which his parents were sent by the kibbutz as movement emissaries, and audited classes at the Academy of Fine Art, Vienna (1957-58): “Europe and its treasures—painting, sculpture, architecture, etc.—opened the door to understanding the logical development and continuity in art. Art is an outcome of everyday life, something that I could not find here in Israel.”13 During that period he experimented in model painting and anatomy studies in the spirit of the classical academy; in his work outside the academy, he painted freehand in color. In 1962, following military service, he enrolled at the Avni School of Art, Tel Aviv. In his third year, his unique color qualities were noticed by Willem Sandberg (former Director of the Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam, and senior adviser to the nascent Israel Museum), who recommended him for a study grant abroad (Marks & Spencer Scholarship), which landed him at London’s Royal College of Art for two years (1967-68). Rubin is still unsure what Sandberg saw in his color work: “I didn’t understand what he was referring to; l was painting exclusively in black-and-white at the time, I sought but failed to find color. The teachers at Avni—Streichman, Stematsky, Mokady—were virtuosos. I held them in high esteem, but they wanted us to paint abstract. They taught us to use a lot of white and turpentine, and it killed the colors. I couldn’t accept it, I didn’t like it, I was broken by the Lyrical Abstract. I took a break of several years to get away from it.”14 During his studies in London, Rubin turned to sculpture.
Of the Israeli artists who influenced him, Rubin mentions Moshe Kupferman, and mainly Ori Reisman with whom he conducted a dialogue (possibly a solo dialogue with himself). Rubin met Reisman upon his return from his London studies, when he joined his mother on a studio visit to the artist. “In a period when the entire world did otherwise, I was surprised to find Reisman persisting in his own way, taking no heed. I decided to do the same thing. Painting and color were the pressing things, as far as I was concerned.” Rubin admired Reisman’s color work and his sharp compositions, and learned a great deal from him. Artists’ relationships, however, are naturally dynamic and multi-directional; they offer inspiration while at the same time introducing a model which serves as an anchor for counteraction, for shaping an alternative option. For a very short period, in the second half of the 1980s, Rubin’s work displayed a direct affinity with Reisman’s painterly gestures, but in the following years he gradually developed what may be considered the opposite pole, to be discussed below.
Although Rubin created several cycles of paintings in oil on canvas early in the 1970s, the distinctive painterly transition in his work began in the early 1980s. The configurations of schematic landscape which he developed earlier were colorless. Once he found his color, it became a key element in his work.
“I Began Celebrating in Color”
“I remember watching a program on television; there was host Ram Evron and next to him a vase of spectacularly colored flowers. I thought to myself: television—in three colors—does it; it conveys a spectacularly colored picture; why can’t I do it in painting? That’s where I began.”
In 1982 Rubin rented a studio in Jaffa and started creating large-scale paintings saturated in color. The technical skills which he had not acquired during his studies in Avni, he learned from the salesman at the “Painter’s Corner,” who taught him “retouching” and “final varnish.”
A large-scale, colorful painting in oil on canvas was not a common sight in Israel in the 1970s, but in the 1980s—after a conceptual and minimalist decade in which the world declared the death of painting—it made a resounding comeback. The expressive “New Painting” swept Europe and the United States, and had a strong presence in Israeli art as well. One of its major features was mythologizing of the landscape and the human figure, which bore a sensual archaic or neo-expressionist quality and were shaped with an outburst of gestural brush strokes and color. The mythical power of the landscape, illuminated with a foreign twilight or with a fire’s blaze, and the human figure which appeared as though it had been conjured up from the depths of the cultural unconscious or burst forth directly from the movies—all these conveyed a dialectical tension between an apocalyptic vision and sensual, emotional vivacity, eliciting existential anxiety.
Rubin’s series of large-scale oils on canvas created in 1984 (and presented at the Kibbutz Art Gallery in 1985), however, is neither mythical nor expressionist: despite the strong colorful element dominating it, the large dimensions, and the freedom of execution, it is one of the more intimate series he has ever created. Perhaps it is not accidental that the series also included a shoulders-up self-portrait with a sharp expression, whose green-haired head hides the vanishing point of a perspectival landscape picture a-la the cypress avenue. Through ostensibly crude drawing, Rubin tackled a different aspect of painting in each work, avoiding romantic sentimentalism. Without being lured by the visionary dimension prevalent in the period’s painting, he created non-mannerist, direct and alert painting. Closed in his Jaffa studio, Rubin delved into photographs of the landscape which occupied his attention, the kibbutz landscape, and systematically explored different painterly solutions to the relationship between a figure or a group of figures and the scenery, experiments whose lessons he implemented in his subsequent work. One of the solutions he examined was a division of the canvas into a frontal plane comprising perspectival diagonals, and a rear plane, in the depth of the painting, extending across like a horizon. In some of the paintings the planes are reversed, as in the aforementioned self-portrait.
In 1985, the year in which the series was exhibited, Rubin already stopped using photographs in the painting process and removed the figure from his painting, leaving only a torso of sorts against the backdrop of the landscape. He began processing a landscape for himself as a memory vision, more abstract yet still based on a structure of a lower world and an upper world, earth and sky. The landscape work focused on simplification of the relationship between dotted areas or areas covered with flickering lines, either dense and impervious or radiant and glaring; the color work was now opened to unexpected, tense encounters between the colors’ qualities, materiality and hues: blue and yellow, turquoise and pink.
Rubin’s series from the first half of the decade were not documented in catalogues, and the same was true for the large series of paintings from 1975-76 which preceded the schematic-conceptual works discussed in the catalogue of the exhibition at Julie M. Gallery (1978). Rubin’s tendency to explore issues pertaining to the language of painting and to breathe new life into them is discernible in these forgotten series of paintings. They reflect a searching, inquisitive nature and a willingness to go beyond realms which do not yield to an orderly binary process, while displaying a wide range of painterly skills.
In 1988 Rubin had a solo exhibition at Kalisher 5 Gallery, Tel Aviv, concurrent with another exhibition at Tova Osman Gallery in the city, which focused on significant work previously unexposed in museums. The exhibition was accompanied by a catalogue (published with kibbutz backing), whose text, not accidentally, was written by Gideon Ofrat, the quintessential independent curator of Israeli art. After surveying the diverse-to-contradictory options put forth by Rubin’s painting, Ofrat maintained that it was the tension between these options that nourished his work: “The canvas of his paintings has turned into an area of mental pluralism as well as, possibly, an arena for the lengthy and continuous process of existential crystallization which may never be resolved and/or have any resolution at all. There, at the portals of Paradise, stands Yadid Rubin, re-entering for a moment inside the gates, driven out in the next. He is the one who does the chasing, he is the one who’s chased away.”15
At the end of the 1980s and in the beginning of the 1990s Rubin returned to the few schematic images of kibbutz landscape which he had developed in the late 1970s, albeit now in spectacular coloration. Color and image, structurally consolidated, introduced a new concept of landscape and painting, very different from that of Ori Reisman. Whereas in Reisman’s work the subject-artist and the “inner” essence of the landscape fuse to convey the “authenticity” of the turbulent encounter between painter and subject, Rubin’s painting from 1990 onward no longer assumes the existence of such a subject and such a landscape for whose “essence” the artist strives. In this sense, of eliminating the subject’s authority as an aural source, Ofrat’s assertions seem to coincide with Rubin’s shift: “He is the one who does the chasing, he is the one who’s chased away.” Rubin’s landscape composition does not yield to the gaze’s yearning to penetration inward; his landscape is devoid of perspective, skyless, his world loses its substance: “A frame—square, rectangle, circle—defines an area of jurisdiction, the elements’ size is subject to relative judgment, small-large-small-large only in relation to the observer, not as a global value—dark, light etc.”16 The emphasis is no longer placed on a focal point, but rather on the details comprising the whole, interwoven into one another like a rug, or interlaced like beads in a necklace. Rubin’s view of color likewise changed, drawing away from Reisman’s: “When I observed painters who engaged in color over time in an absolute manner, I realized the limited nature of a unidirectional decision or the fanaticism of predetermination. Reisman, for example, who posed for himself examples of colors in the form of a piece of plastic or fabric, ultimately suffered from the terminal, fixed definition of the outcome.”17
The uniqueness of Rubin’s view of the landscape, as developed in the late 1980s, in relation to the perception prevalent in the canon of Israeli art, is elucidated through the local artistic discourse in the country in the decade under discussion, which was a distinctive decade of painting and color.
Painting in the 1980s and the Canon of Israeli Art
The series of exhibitions presented at the Tel Aviv Museum under Marc Scheps’s dynamic direction, unfolded the trends in “new painting” in the United States (“American Painting,” 1981) and Germany (“New German Painting”, 1983); the curators of the major museums (Sarah Breitberg-Semel, Yigal Zalmona, Ellen Ginton) continued to spot contemporary trends in local painting throughout the decade.
The advent of “New Painting” in the 1980s posed a difficult challenge to critics, who regarded themselves as trailblazers facilitating the conditions for acceptance of trends which the public at large had difficulty digesting. In the previous decade—e.g. in the review of several painting exhibitions presented in Israel in 1975, among them Rubin’s exhibition at Engel Gallery, Jerusalem, and Michael Gross’s at Julie M. Gallery, Tel Aviv—critic Ran Shechori articulated rueful thoughts about the state of painting, which follows “familiar, likeable formulae from the past.” Hurting the rejection of avant-garde by the audience, Shechori maintained that “the limitations and faults of the representatives of the raging masses’ taste thus become a norm of honor and a value to boast. If someone fails to relate to this or that phenomenon (avant-garde art), it follows that it is worthless, a mere evil, violent invention of bleeding heart epicureans—the dark agents of a foreign culture in pursuit of our souls.”18 While in the 1970s the choice of painting was considered a betrayal of avant-garde, the return to figurative painting in the 1980s was already perceived as a true reaction and a flattering appeal to the masses’ taste. Hence, this was a hard nut to crack for art critics who, in those years, became curators in the major museums: Sarah Breitberg-Semel, an art critic in Yedioth Aharonoth, who was appointed Curator of Israeli Art at the Tel Aviv Museum in 1977, and Yigal Zalmona, previously art critic of Haaretz, who became curator of the Department of Israeli Art at the Israel Museum, Jerusalem in 1982. In their role as curators they had to be attentive to the trends of the time and to present the goings-on, while maintaining a critical distance which makes for ethical judgment. This was Breitberg-Semel’s goal in the exhibition “A Turning Point” (The Tel Aviv Museum, 1981). In her catalogue essay, which echoes Shechori’s aforementioned assertions, she warned against the trap of oversimplification lying in wait for “New Painting”:
The artist is not popular. Earlier on, the lack of sympathy was accompanied by some tolerance within the tradition that attributes real value to culture. Today, this tolerance is waning, being replaced by mounting nervousness at the bizarre creations of the artist above society’s head. To society, these creations seem more silly than sublime, although meant to represent and reflect it, and are, by law, partially financed by it. Democracy has not revolted against modern art because it found substitutes. But it can be said that this situation varies between decades of obvious indifference and sheer contempt. The choice eventually to be presented by democracy will be that of unheroic solitude or ‘art for the people.’19
Breitberg-Semel believed, justly, that her role as curator of a leading museum was not to promote “art for the people,” but rather high art gauged by the systematic structuring of a language. Therefore, in the catalogue she emphasized the artist’s commitment to the language of art and, based on this rationale, sought to find and expose only artists whose work has a solid backbone, one which allows fundamental translation of the winds blowing in society into a contemporary work of art. Surveying the range of common trends in the local scene in the early 1980s, however, she found that the majority of these select artists belonged to the “Midrasha school,” going on to describe the language which formed in it: “The Midrasha has become with the years a stylistic stronghold with its own norms: compositional sophistication created by the confrontation between the various components of the painting and the preservation of a lean poor element in the general structure of the work. The norms of this school dictate a local and very particular way of digestion to the new trends.”20
In her activity and writing, Breitberg-Semel was not only an esteemed curator, but also the quintessential formulator of “Israeliness” in art. It was by her inspiration that a great deal of contemporary painting (one which obeyed trends that passed the test of the “Midrasha language”) was presented at the Tel Aviv Museum. The kingpins of this language—”compositional sophistication” and “preservation of a lean poor element”—were distinctively formulated in the exhibition “The Want of Matter” curated by Breitberg-Semel in 1986, which summed up (ever more ascetically) the ethos promoted by Raffi Lavie during many years of diverse activity in the fields of painting, curatorship, teaching, and criticism. A definition such as “preservation of a lean poor element,” however, excluded a wide range of options introduced by painting at the time, such as Rubin’s painting, which refined an approach diametrically opposed to the principles of frugality and want.
Artists who focused on other aspects of painting were not included in the “New Painting” exhibitions at Tel Aviv Museum of Art, and the deficiency in historical research of the turbulent and conflict-ridden local practice in those years is still felt. Of the myriad occurrences, only the clash between the Tel Avivian and Jerusalemite approaches has been explored: the Midrasha versus Bezalel, Tel Aviv Museum of Art versus the Israel Museum.
The activity of independent artist groups, such as “Ahad Ha’am 90” and “Rega,” for example, was not explored; nor were artists and curators active outside the establishment (Ami Steinitz, Arie Berkowitz, Tuvia Abraham), who operated art schools, such as Meimad and Kalisher, managed alternative galleries, exposed artists not assimilated into the museum exhibitions, and strove to establish a different perception of painting and a different exhibition policy; or exhibition spaces with a focused political and social agenda, such as Antea (women’s art), The White Gallery (photography), or Bograshov (established and financed by the political movement Ratz).
The traces of the extensive artistic activity in the 1980s likewise failed to find a home in the narrative of Israeli art, and the artists who exhibited in frameworks which challenged the canon have still not gained recognition in the major museums. Only recently has there been renewed interest in this field of activity, as attested to by the concluding exhibition of the 1980s (held as part of the project surveying six decades of Israeli art on the occasion of the country’s 60th anniversary) at Haifa Museum of Art (2008; curator: Ilana Tenenbaum), and mainly the forthcoming collection of essays about Ahad Ha’am 90 Gallery, which includes a pioneering study by Dalia Manor.21
Yadid Rubin was a highly regarded teacher who teamed with the faculty of the “alternative” art schools Meimad and Kalisher, whose approach to art differed from those established at Bezalel and the Midrasha. Rubin valued the dialogue with fellow teachers—among them Anton Biderman, Tsibi Geva, and Elie Shamir at Kalisher; Arie Berkowitz and Boaz Tal at Meimad—as well as the unmediated contact with the students and their fresh openness to painting and the world. A colorist, decorative approach was greatly encouraged. Students such as Meira Shemesh, Meir Pichhadze, and Farid Abu-Shakra attested to the fruitful dialogue with Rubin and his support in their first steps as artists. Meira Shemesh, for example, said it was Rubin who referred her to Tova Osman, in whose gallery she presented her first exhibition.22
Rubin’s works were included in many of the exhibitions organized by these art schools. He participated in the exhibition “June ’85: Painting, Photography, and Sculpture in Tel Aviv-Jaffa,” the result of a collaboration between the Meimad School of Art and kibbutz-based artists, which traveled between several venues in Tel Aviv. The Kalisher School of Art included Rubin’s work in the group exhibition “Landscape View” (1986) alongside five other artists—Larry Abramson, Moshe Elhanati, Rachel Salit, Gabriel Klasmer, and Tamara Rikman—a show whose curatorial concept reflected the zeitgeist: the artists began working on the exhibition without a definite subject, and regarded the dynamics of its evolutionary process as a value in and of itself. In 1987 Rubin presented a solo exhibition at Sara Levi Gallery, one of the leading galleries in Tel Aviv, and in 1988 he staged a solo show at Kalisher 5, concurrent with another exhibition at Tova Osman Gallery, both in Tel Aviv (these exhibitions had not yet exposed the paintings on which he began working at the end of that year: large-scale canvases introducing a new concept of landscape, unique to Yadid Rubin).
Critic Nissim Mevorach concluded his review of Rubin’s exhibition at Sara Levi Gallery with the following words: “This is one of the most recommended exhibitions seen here of late. Let us also note that, in light of the fact that the major museums in this country hadn’t seen fit to include works by Yadid Rubin in their collections and exhibitions, it is not unlikely that a situation may be created here whereby acceptance into their halls will be deemed a testimonium paupertatis.”23
The Decorative Landscape
I prefer looking at the backdrop paintings (décors) of the stage where I find my favorite dreams treated with consummate skill and tragic concision. Those things, so completely false, are for that reason much closer to the truth, whereas the majority of our landscape painters are liars, precisely because they fail to lie.
— Charles Baudlair24
Rubin’s kibbutz landscape was re-united in the artist’s studio, which, not accidentally, is closed to the outside: it is the studio of the painter of kibbutz landscape, located within the kibbutz landscape, but it is devoid of windows. In the type of painting selected by Rubin, the landscape construction process is akin to an act of staging or a jigsaw puzzle, where one may change the location of details based on memory, relish variations of composition, substitution, shifting, filling, multiplicity, subtraction. Color enjoys such great freedom in his work that it is thrust forth from the painting like an object with body and volume. Color is perceived not only in terms of values and color hues, but also in terms of its qualities as physical matter which responds to pressure, compression, squeezing, the traces of the body’s impression, coagulation time, gravity. Artist Pinchas Zinovich of Kibbutz Tsuba described it as follows:
Rubin paints sitting on the floor or standing in front of the canvas which leans against the back of a chair. He smears the paint with his bare hands, with a spatula, with brushes, or directly from the tube; his style is intense and compressed with lush, spectacular coloration. The repeated color patterns create an orderly totality: the fields of color and form consist of a recurring sequence of hatching, lines, dots, and circles, which balance the horizontal and vertical rhythms into a harmonious, rhythmical structure, generating a strong sense of abundance and vitality, ostensibly striving to breach the boundaries of the canvas.25
As in American painting, Jackson Pollock’s for example, Rubin’s painting is based on the concrete physicality of paint and its behavior as a material in changing situations, and not only on its hues. Pollock’s painting (and all the more so that of his followers), however is founded on a set of rules determined by the artist in advance, so that the painting “paints itself,” so to speak, and the finished painting is an outcome of the process which spawned it. The artist, the “human agent,” indeed waived the subjective handwriting, but at the same time, it was he who dictated the entire process, procedure and outcome. Rubin’s painting likewise waived the unique status of the “human agent” as one who sets the “world” in motion by virtue of his formative logic: the details are sensual, protruding, outstanding, as if brought to life, calling to mind various objects, beads or wagging tongues (as in the work of his student Meira Shemesh); in other cases, his painting resembles a mosaic.
In order to diagnose Rubin’s landscape painting, one may draw on a familiar art historical typology, and define it as paysage décoratif—decorative landscape. This genealogy leads one to architectural frescoes in Pompeii and Heraklion dating back two millennia, which were enclosed by an “arabesque” frame. These works emphasized an element of invented landscape, and the structure of the painting was a-priori adapted to the wall’s two-dimensionality. At the beginning of the 20th century the term was applied to landscape painting which did not strive to imitate sights of reality or a “place” in its concrete contexts, and began to be tied with the schematization and abstraction of an image, as well as with the power of invention embodied in the naïve and primeval. The Fauvist landscape, for example, was perceived as an innovative layer of the notion of landscape in its academic division into “historical landscape” (Poussin) and “rural landscape” (in its sense as intimate).26 While perspectival landscape painting was considered a Western invention, the decorative landscape (Matisse) opens a multi-cultural dialogue which combines qualities of West and East, high and low, painting per se and popular art (folklore), center and periphery. In this spirit, Smadar Sheffi commented on the resemblance between Rubin’s “carpet-like” painting and aboriginal painting: “Rubin thus turns, whether consciously or not, to worlds which have been, and to a large extent are still, regarded as marginal.”27
Whereas in the History of Art, landscape was considered “feminine,” and the act of the painter who forces his gaze on the landscape was deemed “masculine,” Rubin’s decorative landscape reverses this opposition as well. The same applies to color. Centuries-old depth patterns were assimilated into Western art, anchoring drawing as an infrastructure for painting and as a “masculine” cognitive element, whereas color was perceived as marginal and “feminine,” and its non-symbolical meanings were pushed back. The negligible status of color in the discourse of the late 20th century was manifested in an essay by artist and musician John Cage, concluding that: “Color must be experienced concretely in artifacts. Thus it offers a corrective to that lively branch of our subject that, despite the vognish topic of ‘the gaze,’ has sought in recent years to exclude visibility from its discourse.”28
In the Israeli context, decorative was deemed derogatory for many years. The modernist architecture dominant in Israel since the 1930s created an environment free of decorativity—possibly even anti-decorative—in the spirit of Adolf Loos’s functionalist proclamation that “decoration is a crime”; this setting naturally projected on the construction of Israeli identity and the modeling of the public landscape. Later on the “aesthetic”—landscape painting in particular—was attacked from another perspective too: the critical discourse (which became established in the 1990s) adopted a hermeneutics of suspicion, which traced the way in which the language of representation collaborates with the hegemony, facilitating concealment and even justification of systems of production and control. Traditional landscape painting was exposed as a blind spot which disregards the concrete place and the logic of domination and repression underlying the social, economic, and political relationship.29
One cannot deny the importance of the critical perspective which confronts the “hard facts”30 assimilated in idealized environments; nevertheless, we may still profit from reexamination of landscape painting as a form of communication in terms of the practices constituting it,31 and from a current perusal of the notions of decorative landscape and analysis of the historical junctions which prompted their constitution in relation to the repertoire of latent, dynamic, and changing messages of landscape painting.
Rubin’s painting concatenates a hidden genealogy which must be laid bare. The type of landscape painting which became established in Israeli art, as optimistic as it was, did not develop the independent aspects of color but focused on the sense of space and on conveying something deemed the local light. Rubin’s painting, in contrast, is sensual, spectacular, replete with painterly inventions; the sense of place seems to arise in it from the absence of a concrete place, and together they form a dialectical reality, both private and collective. This reality, as clearly visible as it may be, is reduced to a miniature of a nature frozen in place, decorative still life.
“Despite the vivid coloration, often identified as optimism, Rubin creates a place which is far from naïve,” Sheffi diagnoses: “the tractors he paints in the fields resemble lost toy cars, and the complete absence of figures conveys the feel of a deserted place.”32 Haim Maor adds: “Yadid creates his order from within the act of dismantling: he decomposes the landscape into molecules, grains of sand, clods of earth, dots of paint, layers of intensive, expressionist, tangible colors that build up layers in relief that cover more than they expose, hide more than they reveal.”33
Rubin’s landscape abandoned the sky, disregarded the promise of “New Horizons” and the subject concealed in a centralist composition: no longer landscape as a view of the world from an Archimedean reference point, whether essentialist or critical; there is no longer a point by which one may set something in motion—neither a world, nor a landscape. The “arabesque,” the decorative element, does not strive to heal via nature’s harmony (as did Matisse), and avoids unification of the landscape as part of painterly conventions and ideological beliefs. Color assumes and sheds dimensions, the decorative is spun and unraveled, plowed until it turns in on itself at eye level, opening a cyclical, rather than linear, dialogue. The notion of the other—like the concept of multiplicity—is not foreign to it.
Rubin abandoned the anecdotal and opted for the arabesque; he waived the catalogic in favor of the synthetic, and instead of pursuing the ephemeral, he employed the principles of the repetitive pattern. The recurring decorative element of the landscape carries dimensions of memory, confronting “history standing still and refusing to unfold” (Adorno),34 or, to use Rubin’s own words: “A time that passed as if it had never occurred, now the time is occurring. That which was leaves signs, memories, someone was here. The signs testify and disappear. Whatever will be is unpredictable.”35
1. Cat. Yadid Rubin, with text by Amnon Barzel (Tel Aviv: Julie M. Gallery, 1978), n.p.
2. All the participating artists at the time were kibbutz members: Avraham Eilat of Kibbutz Shamir; Yair Garbuz and Yaacov Dorchin of Kibbutz Kfar Hahoresh, where the latter is still a member.
3. In the exhibition “Five Rooms,” The Jerusalem Artists’ House.
4. Each kibbutz federation had a political-social-cultural agenda all its own. Yadid Rubin was raised in the Kibbutz Meuchad (United Kibbutz), and absorbed its values at Kibbutz Givat Haim Meuchad, where he was member until his first marriage. Following his marriage he moved to the neighboring kibbutz, Givat Haim Ichud, where he is still a member. Previously, following the 1951 schism, his parents’ paths split: his father moved to Givat Haim Ichud and his mother stayed in “Meuchad” with Yadid. Later on, she moved to Givat Haim Ichud too.
5. Lena Fligelman-Rubin (Bessarabia 1908 – Kibbutz Givat Haim Ichud, 1976) was the daughter of a journalist father and an opera singer mother. She immigrated to Palestine in 1929 and married Yitzhak Rubin, business manager at Kibbutz Givat Haim. During her first years on the kibbutz she worked in the nursery and held additional cultural positions. In 1966 she was appointed coordinator of the Sculpture and Painting Department in the Kibbutz Movement.
6. Rubin quoted in “Following the Furrows,” Alei Tefer: Emek Hefer Regional Council Bulletin (May 2009) [Hebrew].
7. See Galia Bar Or, “Mapping and Collective Memory,” Panim 49 (Feb. 2010), pp. 75-83 [Hebrew].
8. Amnon Barzel, in cat. Yadid Rubin, op. cit. n. 1.
9. Adam Baruch, “Observation Diary,” Yedioth Aharonoth, 8 Dec. 1978 [Hebrew].
10. Yadid Rubin, handwritten notes jotted next to pencil drawings, late 1970s, the artist’s archive [Hebrew].
11. Raffi Lavie, “Principally Color,” Ha’Ir, 27 Feb. 1987 [Hebrew].
12. Rubin quoted in Hagai Dor, “Art as a True Profession: An Interview with Yadid Rubin,” Kibbutz Givat Haim Ichud Bulletin, 23 March 1979 [Hebrew].
14. Rubin in conversations with the author, 2010. All the unreferenced quotes from Rubin henceforth were drawn from these conversations.
15. Gideon Ofrat, “Yadid Rubin and Friends,” cat. Yadid Rubin, trans. Siona Bodanski (Tel Aviv: Tova Osman Gallery, 1988), n.p.
16. Yadid Rubin, handwritten notes, 4 Oct. 1992, the artist’s archive [Hebrew].
17. Yadid Rubin, handwritten notes, 2 Nov. 1992, the artist’s archive [Hebrew].
18. Ran Shechori, “Celebrating Painting,” Haaretz, 17 Oct. 1975 [Hebrew].
19. Sarah Breitberg-Semel, cat. A Turning Point: 12 Israeli Artists, trans. Mooky Dagan (The Tel Aviv Museum, 1981), p. @@.
20. Ibid., p. 35.
21. Dalia Manor, “The 1980s Spirit: Ahad Ha’am 90 Gallery,” Ahad Ha’am 90: The 1980s, ed. Raz Samira (Tel Aviv: Halfi Art Books, in print) [Hebrew].
22. See “A Research Interview by Miri Gal-Ezer,” cat. Meira Shemesh Beauty Queen (Ein Harod: Museum of Art, 2004) [Hebrew].
23. Nissim Mevorach, “Moderate Minimalism,” Haaretz, 27 Feb. 1987 [Hebrew].
24. Charles Baudelaire, “Le Paysage, Salon de 1859,” in Roger Benjamin, “The Decorative Landscape: Fauvism and the Arabesque of Observation,” Art Bulletin, 75:2 (June 1993), p. 295.
25. Pinchas Zinovich, “Kibbutz Landscapes, Mental Landscapes,” Hakibbutz, 29 Jan. 2006 [Hebrew].
26. Historical landscape features figures in heroic gestures arranged in classical structure, whereas the rural landscape is based on an intimate mundane scene in nature, and therefore considered a point of departure for Impressionist painting, which shifted its fundamentals to the urban setting; see Gill Perry, “Primitivism and the Modern,” in: Charles Harrison, Francis Frascina, and Gill Perry (eds.), Primitivism, Cubism, Abstraction: The Early Twentieth Century (New Haven & London: Yale UP, 1993), pp. 46-61.
27. Smadar Sheffi, “Where is the Tractor Headed,” Haaretz: Gallery Supplement, 5 April 2006 [Hebrew].
28. John Cage, “Color in Western Art: An Issue?,” Art Bulletin, 72:4 (Dec. 1990), p. 539.
29. See: W.J.T. Mitchell, Holy Landscape: Israel, Palestine, and the American Wilderness, in: Landscape and Power, ed. W.J.T. Mitchell (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2002), pp. 261-290.
30. See: Philip Fischer, Hard Facts: Setting and Forms in the American Novel (New York: Oxford UP, 1985).
31. See Roger Benjamin, op. cit. n. 24, p. 205.
32. Sheffi, op. cit. n. 27.
33. Haim Maor, “Nature’s Order, the Nature of Order,” cat. World Order: Maya Cohen Levy and Yadid Rubin, trans. @@ (Beer Sheva: The Avraham Baron Art Gallery, Ben Gurion University of the Negev, 2001), n.p.
34. Theodor W. Adorno, Aesthetic Theory (Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1984), p. 105.
35. Yadid Rubin, handwritten notes, 4 Oct. 1992, the artist’s archive [Hebrew].