Avigdor Arikha’s first New York exhibition since 2007 is an unflinching record of how he apprehended the world. Since his breakthrough 1973 conversion from abstraction to “post-abstract representational painting,” Arikha’s paintings, drawings and prints of friends, family, himself and familiar locations, were done, without exception, during one daylight sitting. Looking at Arikha’s impressive and complex body of work in this first mini-retrospective in the United States since the artist’s death in 2010, it’s important to ask why realism fails to frame Arikha’s art. Why was Arikha uncomfortable using biography to clarify his work? When asked where he was from, Arikha generally responded, “I don’t have a country.” Or, “Why should anyone want to know about me?”
I met with Arikha’s wife, poet Anne Atik, in New York, along with their two daughters, Noga Arikha and Alba Arikha. What’s temporary and what’s permanent is the subject of Arikha’s art and Alba Arikha’s new memoir “Major/Minor” (Quartet Books, 2011). As Noga Arikha put it, “It was supposed to be temporary in Paris.” Turning to her sister, she explained: “You know that. We were supposed to go one day to Israel. This got transmitted to me big time… that wherever you are isn’t where you will be permanently.” This battle between transience and homeland is, of course, a Jewish story, and it certainly had a direct impact on the artist’s family.
Arikha was deported, along with his family, to a Romanian concentration camp, later to be rescued by the International Committee of the Red Cross and sent with his sister, in May 1944, to Palestine. Though the artist eventually settled in Paris, he spent stretches of time in Israel, where his mother and sister lived, as well as in Europe and America. These places, however, never represented permanence for Arikha. This push/pull between countries informs Arikha’s art at a fundamental level. Paradoxically, on a personal level, as Noga Arikha noted, “we ended up being the most sedentary family in the world as a result.” For his art, this state of flux and anxiety exists as a tool of visual perception, driving the artist to an extreme present tense and turning his art into a state of high-wire visual tension. When it works best, the viewer cannot look away.
Arikha’s ability to direct his vision to the present isn’t simply a result of craft; it’s about a decision to work — perhaps, as his close friend Samuel Beckett worked — without allegory or metaphor. The result is art that’s rigorous and confrontational. Alba Arikha: “Beckett had immediacy and my father had immediacy.” With immediacy comes the threat of failure or error; both are unacceptable to Arikha. His successes were significant enough to place his art in major international collections from the British Museum, in London, and the Centre Georges Pompidou, in Paris, to The Israel Museum, Jerusalem; New York City’s Metropolitan Museum of Art; London’s Tate Gallery, and the Musée du Louvre, in Paris. His knowledge of form and perception was a lifetime achievement.
Some of these accomplishments can be seen in extreme close-up Sumi ink drawings, like the powerfully haunting “Tree in Port Royal, 2000,” “Garden, 1972,” “Vegetation, Jerusalem, 1996” or the more whimsical “Pablo Casal’s Suitcase, 2007.” The richly built density of the marks often belies their hesitant but determined touch. The marks wander about paper or canvas, creating a dense, scratchy surface. As Arikha moves between foreground and background, he causes a subtle tension to arise between a remote past and a difficult present. There’s little that’s frivolous about Arikha’s art. While the Sumi ink drawings are undisputedly visceral, some works in the exhibition feel gratuitous or inert, like many of the pastel nudes or “Pencil Sharpener, 2000.”