Avigdor Arikha’s Art of Pain
The skilled Israeli painter, a Holocaust survivor who died two years ago, has a major gallery show in New York. Plus: an interview with his daughter.
To launch a slideshow of images from the current exhibition at Marlborough Gallery in New York, “Avigdor Arikha: Works from the Estate,” click the link at left.
On March 10, 1965, a month before his 36th birthday, the Israeli artist Avigdor Arikha experienced a moment of profound transformation after viewing an exhibition of Caravaggio’s paintings, “Le Caravage et la peinture italienne du XVIIe siècle,” at the Louvre. When he emerged, he was through with abstraction, where his burgeoning reputation, especially in Israel, had to that point rested, and committed himself to painting and drawing exclusively from life.
From that day on, Arikha worked only in black and white, until 1973, when he began painting in color again. He felt that, as he observed in an interview a decade later, “to paint an apple is as great now, as the challenge to paint a square in 1906. Only how do you paint an apple after Cézanne?”
He didn’t only go on to paint and draw apples of course, but coats, hats, bookshelves, all manner of fruit and vegetables, paint tubes, landscapes in Jerusalem, New York, and France, as well as figures including his wife, the poet Anne Atik, his daughters Noga and Alba, Samuel Beckett, the Queen Mother, and, always strikingly and never in repose, himself.
Avigdor Arikha died in 2010 at the age of 81. The current exhibition at Marlborough Gallery in New York, “Avigdor Arikha: Works From the Estate,” presents 56 oil paintings, pastels, watercolors, drawings, and lithographs, some of which have never been seen in public before.
It’s tempting to view Arikha’s work as that of a gorgeous throwback, as Michael Kimmelman parsed it a few years ago, the production of an artist who reminds us “what craft means and how pleasurable it is to see.” But there’s something at once darker and more forceful going on in his work: The empty armchair and the black corner of a portfolio resist narrative, but the objects signify nonetheless. Here’s the way in which I think they do: In Rilke’s ninth Duino elegy, the poet writes, “Perhaps we are here in order to say: house, bridge, fountain, gate, pitcher, fruit tree, window … but to say them … more intensely than the Things themselves ever dreamed of existing.” There is precisely this heightened intensity in Arikha’s baskets of fruit, pots of flowers, files and boxes, suitcases, and coats on pegs.
From where does the intensity of Arikha’s images derive? Samuel Beckett wrote of Arikha, “I have not ceased to admire … his acuity of vision, sureness of execution, and incomparable grasp of the past and of the problems that beset continuance. It is perhaps in this double awareness, at once transcended and implicit in his work, that he is in a sense heroically alone.”
Arikha himself once said, “The artist, like the mystic, has to stand outside history. That’s the true way for him to enter it.” This may have been his credo as a painter, but it resonates because he is one of those whom history came and grabbed by the throat in the 20th century. Born near Radautz in Bukovina, Romania, in 1929, he was 11 when his family moved to Czernowitz in Ukraine, and 12 when the occupying Nazis deported him with his parents and sister to the concentration camps of Western Ukraine. Arikha’s father was beaten to death in Lucinetz in 1942. The young boy sketched the deportations.
Arikha himself spent more than a year in forced labor in an iron foundry in Mogilev. In December 1943, his drawings were shown to commissioners from the International Red Cross, who were impressed or moved enough to include his and his sister’s names on a list of children whose release was to be secured in a pending financial deal with the camp authorities. The list was only supposed to include children who had lost both their parents. Arikha’s mother was still alive; he and his sister were given false identities, and three months later they were removed from the camp. Arikha and his sister then immigrated to Palestine. In 1948, he was severely wounded during the Israeli War of Independence and briefly left for dead. Two years later he began his life in Paris.
Aside from the extraordinary drawings that he executed in the camps as a child—a soup line, a pile of skeletal corpses on a cart—he never confronted his own past directly. Instead, like his friend Beckett, he explored the space between action and inertia, wholeness and disintegration, via objects that simultaneously suggest these contrasting properties: Malone’s exercise book, brimless hat, and pencil are not far removed from Arikha’s portfolio, fur hat, and scarf and pencil sharpener. It is no surprise that Arikha was commissioned to design the set and costumes for Endgame at the Samuel Beckett Theater in New York in 1984.
Then there is Arikha’s own face, which is History’s, too. His self-portraits frequently show a man who appears to be in agony, often half-naked, wild hair, brow furrowed. The contrast with his empathetic, tender (but not at all sweet) sketches and portraits of his wife and daughters couldn’t be greater.
Arikha worked in a kind of controlled frenzy, rarely spending more than a few hours and never more than a day on any one piece, and, with rare exceptions, at one sitting. Anne’s Coat (1973), the first painting Arikha accomplished on his return to color and shown now in New York for the first time, is one of the revisited works. He was a cerebral man with an encyclopedic knowledge of art history, history, science, and much else, and his Ginsberg-like process—“first thought best thought”—seems an unlikely companion to his ferocious intellect, but his febrile imagination was geared to immersion in the passing moment. The fruit in his still-lifes, as one critic has remarked, often looks as if it is teetering on the edge of the table on which it sits: arrest without rest.
I have a favorite Arikha; it is a 1977 drawing, Apple Tree. I’d been lucky enough to meet the artist at the home of my friend, the poet T. Carmi, during the summer that it was executed in Jerusalem. Somehow that fruit tree—three apples on its thin boughs, a rush of overgrown foliage surrounding it, and the glimpse of a stone garden wall beyond—has the power to evoke for me the admixture of peace and volatility that I knew then, when I lived in Jerusalem.
In the current show, there are trees in Port Royal, in an unnamed garden. Along with the marvelous objects and portraits, they disturb and delight equally. This is less true of Arikha’s nudes, nine of which are on display in New York, and which, I have to admit, baffle me: They seem to be situated at a precise midpoint, in a neutral zone, between Modigliani’s ravishing, seductive beauties and Lucian Freud’s ravaged fleshy disasters. Nothing else is neutral in the current show. Rose, suitcase, or coat: Arikha engaged the world that he observed unflinchingly, with concentrated passion.
An Interview With Noga Arikha and Marcello Simonetta
The historian of ideas Noga Arikha, Avigdor Arikha’s younger daughter, and her husband, the historian Marcello Simonetta, are a dauntingly erudite and cultivated couple. True scholars, whose writing is wonderfully unimpeded by academic jargon, they each appeal in their work to a broad audience. Arikha is the author of Passions and Tempers: A History of the Humors and Simonetta of The Montefeltro Conspiracy: A Renaissance Mystery Decoded. Most recently they collaborated to produce the first biography in English of Lucien Bonaparte, Napoleon and the Rebel: A Story of Brotherhood, Passion, and Power. Both Arikha and Simonetta possess endearingly open personalities and are engagingly candid.
The charming, 85-year-old Istanbul poet and painter Habib Gerez buries his Turkish-Jewish heritage in a country where Jewish artists are not accepted