Photo Finish

Tel Aviv

Left: Israeli Art Prize winner Sharon Ya'ari, dealer Daniella Luxembourg, and Tel Aviv Museum of Art director Prof. Mordechai Omer. Right: Herzliya Museum of Contemporary Art Director Dalia Levin.

“Sharon Ya’ari is the poet of Israeli photography,” enthused Daniella Luxembourg after the presentation of the Israeli Art Prize at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art last Friday. The New York–based dealer and art consultant (and jury member) continued, “Photography is the most important Israeli art. Given the political conflict and the constant presence of international press, artists don’t want to simply document events. They want to document their thoughts.”

Impassioned and politicized are the two adjectives that best describe the newly thriving Tel Aviv art scene. Israel’s answer to the Turner Prize is in its eleventh consecutive year, but the second Intifada prevented it from achieving prominence earlier. Now, with the fragile ceasefire, Israel appears calmer than it has been in years and Tel Aviv looks like many other cosmopolitan art centers. Collectors live in palatial villas in the well-watered suburbs to the north. Artists have studios in the dusty industrial districts to the south. Dealers are literally in the middle, often with galleries on the ground floor of residential buildings from the 1920s and ’30s.

Left: Tel Aviv Museum of Art curator Ellen Ginton and gallerist Irit Sommer. Right: Dealer Shifra Shalit-Intrator with artist Miri Segal.

Although the local art scene is on the outward-looking secular left, the partially state-funded Tel Aviv Museum of Art still finds it difficult to embrace emergent art—hence the rise of the nimbler Herzliya Museum of Contemporary Art—so the Israeli Art Prize is a significant event in the larger institution’s calendar. The awards ceremony started at noon on a hot spring day. The director and chief curator of the museum, Prof. Mordechai Omer, delivered his speech entirely in Hebrew, so “Chag Sameach” and “Nathan Gottesdiener” were the only words that I recognized. Gottesdiener is the elusive Munich-based patron who puts up the twenty thousand dollars awarded to an exceptional artist under forty living in Israel. He is reputed to own an unrivalled collection of German realist art by Otto Dix, George Grosz, and other notables. When approached for comment, he would only say, “I don’t give interviews. I want the artist to have the stage.”

“Hope for Long-Distance Photography,” Ya’ari’s exhibition of black-and-white photographs and filmic “frame loops,” did indeed hold sway as much of the talk at the sober opening was about art and politics, rather than the usual banter of “How much?” and “Showing where?” Tel Aviv Museum curator Ellen Ginton discussed Ya’ari’s work in relation to “post-traumatic experience,” while past Israeli Art Prize winner Miri Segal said solemnly, “The majority of my work does not express a political opinion. Nevertheless, in Israel, it is not possible to look at art apolitically.” Ya’ari agreed, but took a slightly different line: “I don’t want to do what people expect from a certain location. I prefer art where politics is metaphorical—not narrative, direct, or verbal.”

On our way to the artist’s lunch at a nonkosher “fusion” restaurant called Nana (Arabic for “mint”), we drove down historic Rothschild Avenue and saw the building that was the site of both the original Tel Aviv Museum (founded in 1932) and the declaration of the State of Israel (in 1948). The grand tree-lined boulevard is now the home of Sotheby’s and new-style galleries like Sommer Contemporary Art. I was seated next to Irit Sommer, the thirty-four-year-old Swiss-Israeli dealer who has just attained that benchmark of international success—a stand at Art Basel. She told me, “Brave curators like Francesco Bonami, Dan Cameron, and Charles Esche came here when things were very tense. That was a lifeline. Now artists are returning from London, Berlin, and New York. Collectors are making more frequent visits. It’s still a small art world, but it’s very dynamic and intellectually complex.”

Left: A work by Sharon Ya'ari. Artist Michal Rovner.

Three days later, I returned to the Tel Aviv Museum to see the permanent collection and Michal Rovner’s blockbuster solo show “Fields.” The galleries of small easel paintings (from Renoir to Pollock) were quiet, but Rovner’s show was heaving with visitors of all ages. They were riveted by her video-projected people-cum-letters and by the violent force of her abstract fire landscapes. Amidst the crowd, I bumped into Rovner. She observed: “If you work with people, it is impossible not to be political.”

As we were driving back to our hotel by the beach—and making plans to spend the afternoon marveling at surfers negotiating the peaceful Mediterranean waves—we took a wrong turn and encountered a roadblock. From the car, I could see police, paramedics, and ambulances. A suicide bomber had killed nine people and injured at least fifty others. It was the worst incident of its kind in over two years.