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. Democrac