One day before the recent suicide bombing in southern Tel Aviv, some kilometers from where the explosions took place, I wandered into an exhibition by Menache Kadishman at the Tel Aviv museum. The first rooms of paintings included Chagall-like paintings of sheep, lambs and ram, but it was not in these paintings that the poetic language of universality and resistance lay. The questions of identity and anti-war sensibility were more forcefully proposed later, and with greater elasticity, in a room of abstract, minimalist sculptures and installations.
His international renown unprecedented in Israeli art, Menashe Kadishman was awarded the 1995 Israel Prize laureate in sculpture. Born in Tel Aviv in 1932, Kadishman was, as a young man, a shepherd in a kibbutz in Israel. His portraits of sheep, rams, and other animals are realistic and soft reflecting, perhaps, his earliest comforts as a boy, a stability of place and identity. In 1959 he moved to London, studying there until 1962. He remained in London until 1972 and had his first one-man show there in 1965 at the Grosvenor Gallery. His minimalist sculptures were designed so as to appear, as many art critics have noted, to “defy gravity”. This was achieved “either through a careful balance and construction as in Suspense” (1966; Jerusalem, Israel Museum.), Robert Rogal, the director of RO Gallery has written, “or by using glass and metal so that the metal appeared unsupported, as in Segments (1968; New York, MOMA), and the glass allowed the environment to be part of the work.”
What is remarkable about tracing the artistic growth of Kadishman are the ways it grew to subtly subvert the politics of a post-1967 Israel. An Israel overwhelmed by its own existence, confused by its industrialization and militarization and by its own advance onto the contemporary stage. Rather than express either outrage or self-righteous alternatives, political correctness or more aggression, Kadishman, in the 1970’s, plunged into deeper realms of abstract artistic expression. He indeed entered a dimension where the artist can “defy gravity”, but also where an Israeli can speak not of territorial gain or loss, but, rather, of approaching the universal philosophical questions of identity.
In 1985, Kadishman sculpted The Sacrifice of Isaac (see graphic at top of page; 1985 Cor-ten steel 15’1″ x 15’5″ x 9’10” Gift, Dr. and Mrs. Simon A. Levit and Family, 2003). This sculpture, in its re-envisioning of the Biblical tale of Abraham’s offer to sacrifice his only son Isaac to God, confronts the theme of the sacrifice of young soldiers sent into war.
“The original story in the Book of Genesis tells that an angel appeared moments before Isaac’s sacrifice and substituted a ram in place of Abraham’s beloved son,” writes curator Fred Jones, Jr. from The Museum of Art at the University of Oklahoma, “In the present sculpture, Isaac (representing youth sent into battle) is sacrificed, while the ram (representing the state, government, or authorities responsible for war) survives and emerges emboldened from the body of the slain Isaac.”
“The Sacrifice of Isaac, was partly inspired by an experience the artist had while serving as a soldier in his native Israel. On patrol, he came across a body so badly decomposed that he was unable to tell if the person was Arab or Israeli. Kadishman has said the only thing of which he was certain was that the person had been sacrificed in the name of war.”
Some critics have proposed that Kadishman returned, through his work, to a sense of the Jew as a nomad, a shepherd, and, yes, a wanderer of many nations. But I saw in this exhibit evidence of some other lurking and much darker proposal. It involved a return to a sense of a non-prescribed identity, a dimension both mysterious, and savage but, more importantly, universally primordial – defying not only “gravity” but a kind of post-nationalism – “Israeli” as defined by universal strokes and construction where territory is defined as an interaction of self and nature. And that “self and nature” can exist, non-reliant and without any acquisition of land and/or actual territory. This proposal would allow genuine “identity” to be formed out of a negation of restricted definitions of place and “Jewishness” showing through their absence a way to begin again.
In the retrospective currently on display at the Tel Aviv museum of Menashe Kadishman’s work, Curator Morderchai Omer, presents over fifty creative years in Kadishman’s life as an artist work. “This is the first time that an exhibition will bring to light his early works of the 1950s,” Omer writes, “closely following each stage in his work and in the language of expression which he formulated in various mediums – painting, sculpture, drawing, and installation. In his minimalist abstract sculptures of the 1960s, his conceptual installations of the 1970s and in his later works in painting, sculpture, drawing, and printmaking Kadishman raises a wealth of themes aligned to a deep affinity for the place and time in which he lives, but which nevertheless are charged with universality and an innovative plastic language.”