Afflicted by Beauty
Yadid Rubin arrives at his studio in Kibbutz Givat Haim Ichud every morning, and leaves it at noon; that was also his daily routine when he had worked in the cotton- and corn-fields – an exhausting work without glamour. He paints in a sweepingly dynamic manner leading towards a climax, and then cuts himself off from the painting and leaves the studio, only to return to it on the following day.
Rubin’s paintings refer to the landscape surrounding his studio, but they do not depent upon the visible. Even after the cypresses he often paints were cut down, they continued to exist in his paintings. At the Avni Institute of the late 1960s Rubin was taught to kill color; in the 1980s he resuscitated it, using oil paints that merge into a glowing, dense colorfulness. Rubin paints sitting on the floor or standing in front of the canvas, which leans against the back of a chair. He applies the paint with his hands, with a spatula, with brushes or straight from the tubes. The strong colors, thick as plasma, endow the paintings with a feeling of opulence and vitality. Like Vincent van Gogh, by whom he is influenced, his view is subjective; but unlike van Gogh’s tormented, religious perception of landscape, Rubin’s is secular.
The plowed fields, the trees, the tractor in the field, the chicken-coops, his studio, the Kibbutz members’ habitations have all presented Rubin with motifs for his paintings; he repeatedly paints the same landscape in many variations – like jazz music. Unlike Israeli artists of the 1920s (such as Nachum Gutman or Reuven Rubin), he does not paint the local landscape in passionate admiration; rather, he is attentive to local light like the “New Horizons” artists. He does not attempt to find meaning in the landscape or to engage in a dialogue with it like Eli Shamir (landscape as a portrait) or to capture the metaphysical aspects of the place through light, like Daniel Elnekave’s realistic paintings. His landscapes are not autobiographical like Michael Gross’s or Uri Reisman’s (to whom Rubin was particularly close). They do not establish memory and are not imbued with trauma like Farid Abu Shakra’s. However, his paintings are not severed from the landscape, to be painted in light of theories as is the habit of modern painters. The boundaries and territories in Rubin’s paintings relate to his color boundaries and territories, where there is no “place”. The landscape only serves him as a pretext for a persistent preoccupation with color, which is accomplished in seclusion, in a studio without windows.
There is no sky in Rubin’s paintings; their place is taken by the sun. The colors of the sun – at times taking up as much as half of the canvas space – vary from painting to painting. This is not a sun that serves as a source of changing light, but rather its schematic sign. It appears as a number of concentric circles, or as a spot of paint surrounded by lines which echo it in ripples, forming an arc. Structurally, the arc at the top of Rubin’s paintings is reminiscent of the arcs in Books of Hours (Medieval illuminated prayer books), such as the Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry, the illumination of which was made by the Limburg brothers (1413-1416). Over each of the miniatures in the Book of Hours an arc is painted, containing events compatible with the season’s zodiacal signs, in its center a small yellow circle representing the sun. The Book of Hours describes the cycle of seasons, and man’s labor accordingly; man’s image is absent from Rubin’s landscapes, and with it the eternal conflict between figure and background, which might cause a rift in the painting’s homogenous fabric.
For Rubin, the landscape is a semantics of signs, replacing the realistic and naturalistic idiom of forms. John Cage spoke of the naturalistic painters’ wish to conceal the medium in favor of that which the medium describes; Rubin emphasizes the medium. His landscapes are composed of a variety of patterns, forms and colors. The colors form a rough, crowded atmosphere, robbing the landscape of its original materiality. In the past, the paints with which paintings of nature had been made were extracted from that very same nature – like Heidegger’s Greek temple, originating in the same rock which it was built upon; the temple is, at the same time, both temple and matter, and the act of realization distinguishes between them. However, in Rubin’s paintings the paints only imitate those extracted from nature. In fact, they are but a formula, originating in industrial technology.1 The paints that establish his nature are more akin (in some of his works) to synthetic, shining plastic, photography and video than to the medium of painting; like them, they are flat and artificial (despite their materiality). Although Rubin remains in the world of matter, in the world of everyday, the colors in his works perform a de-materialization of the landscape.
Rubin’s landscapes are reduced to basic forms, focused on the canvas in chromatic energy. The flat bursts of color, based on the spectrum’s pure shades, are covered in lacquer, retaining the paint’s texture and fullness. The oil paint’s liquidity and its slow drying process allow Rubin to engrave images and forms in the still wet paint. The colors are arranged in oppositions – red and green, blue and orange, sulfuric yellow and purple – and are applied to the canvas in various degrees of thickness. In paintings dominated by yellow or orange, Rubin utilizes a limited range of colors, as if attempting to express indirect sunlight. When the colors are dissonantly loud, he tones them down with white, pink or lilac. The bright colors are a coordinating, uniting element, compensating for the powerful oppositions and creating a weave of harmonious changes upon the surface. Occasionally, surfaces of pure dark color are covered with a bright haze, causing the images to materialize and dissolve simultaneously. Thus, on a red surface covered in lilac, the upper part shows a sun, composed of red and yellow circles, emerging out of the lilac mist, while the lower part presents cultivated earth, buildings and schematic rows of trees, all advancing in tentative red toward the purplish haze.
The colorful repetitive patterns create an organized whole; the fields of form and color are formed by a repetitive succession of lines, dots and circles which, balanced by horizontal and vertical rhythms, create an harmonious, rhythmical structure. The continuous energy field flows across the surface, solidifying in the trees. The schematic rows of trees (mainly cypresses), often to be found in Rubin’s paintings, are placed either in the picture’s center or at its edges – a reference to late Romanesque paintings (influenced by Byzantine and early Christian art), where clusters of figures and trees are common. Another similarity is to be found in the latter’s division of the surface into panels, creating a pictorial narrative – much like cartoons – comparable to the painted frames delimiting Rubin’s paintings, and his absolute control over the design of the surface. The repetitive patterns and the arbitrary, rich colorfulness may also remind us of the stylized patterns of Aboriginal paintings, characterized by a complex use of dots and lines arranged in winding paths. Aboriginal painting is related to mythologies and ideas about the earth and man’s relation to it, and is characterized – like Rubin’s works – by ‘all-overness’, which is dictated by the painting process itself; the backdrop is placed on the floor, in mimicry of traditional ritualistic paintings, which were made on the ground.2
This orderly dialectic of form and color is the subject of Paul Cézanne’s famous remark, according to which painting from nature does not consist in copying an object, but rather in an actualization of our feelings and desires; such actualization is made possible through syntax. One of Rubin’s works (they are all untitled) presents a landscape, sticky like melting ice-cream, composed of ocher, orange, purple and gray. There is no site or mediation in the dense painting – a reference to the texture of Claude Monet’s Rouen Cathedral, whose front is not bathed in light but in paint. The abundance of patterns in Rubin’s paintings create flat, decorative paint surfaces in vermilion, agate green, pink, white, purple, yellow, ocher and red; plenty of red. Against a warm red backdrop, Rubin has painted a white tree – a mere trunk with naked branches. The red is embroidered with lines and spots in various shades of green, yellow, ocher and gray, embodying the motif of furrows. Unlike the yellow, the red does not move forward, and contrary to the blue, it does not retreat; it floats. Possibly, Rubin’s model for this painting is Henry Matisse’s Red Studio, where the red joins the studio’s front to its back. Rubin, like Matisse, presents (unintentionally) a fragment of a world which our starved senses crave – not indifferent or hostile, but inviting and filled with beauty. In a sense, his works have characteristics typifying religious icons, aimed at capturing the believers’ hearts through the powerful, simple beauty of their forms and colors; in them, too, the artist’s pleasure in his work is apparent.
The contemporary world is not comfortable with beauty. This may be because of the inability to deconstruct it – namely, its lack of surrender to anything but itself; it distracts us from that which is considered better, more responsible, and is thus afflicted with irresponsibility toward other forms of discourse (the politically correct, for instance). Matisse claimed that although there is neither any clear use for beauty, nor is there any evident cultural need for it, culture cannot do without it. It is said that beauty has been buried by criticism: works of art are appreciated for their critical meaning – deconstructing the aesthetic as an alternative to its realization; the aesthetic as subject matter, perhaps, not as a goal. According to Jeremy Gilbert-Rolfe, art has become a practical anthropology of sorts – namely, art after art is art that can do without art.3 Plato might also be read (in a manner reminiscent of contemporary politically correct writing) as insisting that the beautiful assumes that which is pleasing and omits the good and the useful.4 Paraphrasing Jacqueline Liechtenstein, an entire tradition – sticky, iconoclastic, changing yet monotonous in its discriminations, inclinations and biases – regards Plato’s claim as the model for its own aesthetic and moral Puritanism, indicating fear and confusion vis-à-vis taking pleasure in beauty.5
Rubin’s works reflect many influences; he consciously presents an historical, eclectic and pluralistic approach. His works have been influenced by artists such as van Gogh, Karl Schmidt-Rottluff, Maurice de Vlaminck and Andre Derain, as well as by non-European cultures. Like them, he has cut himself off from the responsibility characterizing drawing and writing, which in being descriptive are committed to discursiveness. If drawing is retinal painting, in which the world is imagined as it appeared prior to its organization, then Rubin’s paintings fulfill his predecessors’ promise to demonstrate the possibility of a world that precedes drawing. He presents us with an organized visual event, consisting of that which is not apparent to the eye – the energy that produces visibility. Rubin renounces drawing in favor of color, relationships and forms. The relevance of his works stems from his ability to be irrelevant to the actual world and yet, unconsciously traveling toward beauty, essential to it.
1 The question whether there is a difference between paints extracted directly from nature and industrial ones – and if so, how is the difference expressed in the painting itself – deserves a text in its own right.
2 It is interesting to note that the execution methods of Aboriginal painting resemble Jackson Pollock’s use of the canvas, which he placed on the floor, as place or arena. It is believed that Pollock was influenced by Navejo sand paintings, which he had seen in his youth.
3 From conversations with artist and art critic Jeremy Gilbert-Rolfe (a co-founder of October), conducted in 1994-1995.
4 It is interesting to note Y.H. Brenner’s view of the moral trap inherent in identifying the colorful Orient with the Beautiful, since the aesthetic view of the place is blind to the Orient’s reality and values – namely, to morality.
5 Jacqueline Liechtenstein, “Plato’s Cosmetics”, Uncontrollable Beauty, New York, Allworth Press, 1998.