There are certain people whose life force is so invincible, gainsaying our usual notions about the flagging of energy that comes with age, that they appear to be immortal in their own lifetime. When such people die, the shock of the inevitability of mortality is brought home anew, underlying the fact that all their knowledge and vividness—all that made them singular—goes with them. In their wake lies an almost deafening cessation, a thunderous absence.
The artist Avigdor Arikha, who died at the age of 81 in Paris on April 29, was such a person. It was impossible for anyone who knew him not to be affected by his intellectual gusto (he had a scholar’s grasp of art history), his ironclad convictions about what did and didn’t make for great art, his passionate embrace of the moment. His self-portraits correctly suggest a kind of interior friction, almost as if his hair were standing on end.
I loved Arikha’s drawings and paintings from the moment I first became aware of them sometime in my 20s. I loved the surety of the draftsmanship, the way an entire atmosphere could be conveyed by the tilting of a tree or the angle at which a knife lay on a plate, the sudden intrusion of the color red. His still lifes put me in mind of the curiously sensate quality of objects, the intermittent but urgent claim they have on our attention. There was a discipline to Arikha’s sensibility, a kind of almost Augustan control, that all the same bowed to the dictates of an overriding eroticism, a fascination with the sensuous allure of the world that found its way into portraits of empty beds with voluptuously tousled sheets as much as it charged his portraits of nudes.
My interest in Arikha was further piqued by a New Yorker profile of him that ran in 1987, in which his eventful early background was filled in—his childhood in Romania, his survival in a Nazi labor camp as a young boy due to his drawing skill, the near-fatal injury he suffered as a soldier during the Israeli War for Independence, his move to Paris in 1949, and his friendship with Samuel Beckett. I came away impressed by the artist’s resilience and his deep immersion in the written word. (Indeed, Arikha wrote very well and was himself the author of various critical pieces on art and artists, such as “Considerations of the Notion of the Masterpiece in Western Art” and “The Modernist Disconnection.”) Somewhere along the way I persuaded my mother, who together with my father was a modest collector, to purchase an Arikha. Sad to say, the work, which dated back to the abstract period he eventually repudiated in the mid 1960’s, was not one of his strongest efforts, and at some point it was sold.
My sense of connection to Arikah—call it kinship, a kind of excited recognition of common impulses—was such that I decided to get in touch with him when I went to Paris in September 2008 to write a profile of the artist Sophie Calle for The New York Times’s T magazine. (This despite the fact that I have always been a shy enthusiast; I am not, that is, the sort of person who readily reaches out to figures I admire, if only because it is hard for to imagine that these people would have the faintest interest in my trying to connect to them.) I contacted Arikha through Marlborough, the gallery that has represented him for much of his career, and explained my wish to meet him. They suggested that I send him an email in care of the gallery, which I did, and shortly thereafter I received a welcoming email from Arikha suggesting I call him when I was in Paris. His email, like mine, closed with the word “lehitraot.”
My trip was a short one, but I ended up seeing the Arikhas—Avigdor and his extraordinary wife Anne, herself a gifted poet—several times. I first visited him at home and got to see his large, precisely organized library as well as many of his works. We immediately fell into a conversation, all three of us, that felt like it had been going on forever, touching on painting, writing, Jewishness, family matters, the people we knew in common, the French, Israel, and the volatile state of the world. What was supposed to be a brief visit ended up going on for hours, concluding with a cup of tea in the Arikha’s cozy kitchen. The next evening I planned to meet them for dinner at a neighborhood bistro, and my last night in Paris I went to dinner with them at the home of a mutual acquaintance. By this point I had seen Avigdor in all his many colors: gracious, impatient, warm, disdainful—and always fiercely partisan. I knew that he didn’t like fat people and that he considered non-representational art to be a dead end. (This included conceptual or video pieces such as Sophie Calle specialized in, which he didn’t even credit with being art.)
After I returned to America, I stayed in frequent touch with both Anne and Avigdor. I heard about the homage planned by the Louvre’s Département des Arts Graphiques on the occasion of Avigdor’s 80th birthday and about the marriage plans of their elder daughter, Alba. They, on their end, faithfully read everything I wrote and suggested that I be in touch with Noga, their younger daughter, who was living in the city with her husband, Marcello, both of whom were writers.
Last June, Avigdor and Anne stayed with Noga and Marcello on the Upper West Side, and I had another chance to see a lot of them. Avigdor was already not feeling up to par, but aside from his reference to not having painted in the last two months and his showing signs of tiredness a bit earlier in the evening than he had been in the habit of doing, there were few indications that anything was wrong. I had the four of them over for dinner shortly before they left—I worked feverishly on the menu, knowing what quiet gourmands they all were—and Avigdor seemed back to his old cordially contentious self. He seemed appalled that I couldn’t remember the name of a David painting and was undoubtedly horrified by my slapdash collection of paintings, deigning to bestow approval on only one small work—a painstaking still life of a sugar sifter—that caught his gimlet eye.
I had no idea when we said goodbye that I wouldn’t see Avigdor again. I thought, despite hearing of his being unwell from Anne, that we had years left in which to talk and argue and laugh. I find it implausible that he has left the scene of life, taking all his erudition and wit and blazing talent with him.
Daphne Merkin, a contributing writer at the New York Times Magazine and a contributor to the TLS, The Times Book Review, Bookforum, and Departures, teaches writing at Columbia University. Her latest novel, Twenty-Two Minutes of Unconditional Love, will be out in June, 2020.
Daphne Merkin, a contributing writer at the New York Times Magazine and a contributor to the TLS, The Times Book Review, Bookforum, and Departures, teaches writing at Columbia University. Her latest novel,Twenty-Two Minutes of Unconditional Love, will be out in June, 2020.