Critics’ Picks

Yitzhak Livneh, Astonishment No. IX, 2004, oil on canvas, 59 x 63".

Yitzhak Livneh, Astonishment No. IX, 2004, oil on canvas, 59 x 63".

Tel Aviv

Yitzhak Livneh

Tel Aviv Museum of Art
27 Shaul Hamelech Blvd, POB 33288 The Golda Meir Cultural and Art Center
July 24–October 25, 2008

For those familiar with Yitzhak Livneh’s prolific career, it might come as a mild surprise to realize that this exhibition is, in fact, only the artist’s first solo museum outing. After all, over the past quarter century, Livneh has become one of Israel’s most influential painters, and in an art scene that is usually much swifter to grant institutional recognition to its major actors, such tardiness might read as odd. A visit to this remarkable show, though, renders this long omission a bit clearer. In works from 1985 through 2008, Livneh emerges as an artist who almost stubbornly refuses the edicts of the local context, preferring to seek inspiration elsewhere; his sources include American advertisements from the 1950s, Sotheby’s brochures, classical statuary, and the seventeenth-century vanitas tradition.

Perhaps most determinedly, though, Livneh’s work draws its conceptual bearing from the ’80s, the decade that, especially in the United States, heralded the end of painting in tandem with a paradoxical explosion in the medium’s presence and fetishization. The work’s intellectual impulse, which is essentially postmodern, coupled with a kind of baroque painterly garishness, distinguishes it from that of Livneh’s more austere or overtly political contemporaries. A case in point is Livneh’s paintings of mirrors. Poised somewhere between abstraction and trompe l’oeil, the gray, bluish, or emerald pieces of glass, rendered in rough, strange washes of oil paint, offer no reflection of external reality, but rather their own ultimate opacity—their dumb, dazzling thingness. This type of pointedly “bad” painting, which defines much of the work in the show, also lights up an intentional thematic wrongness: a sickly, greenish beaver shot (Nude over Mirror, 2000); a woman posing, pinup-like, in a menacingly dark urban landscape (Nude, 2000); and perversely stiff bunches of flowers (Yellow Roses, 1999) all speak to Livneh’s interest in stasis and arrest, the moment before (or after?) things reach their end.

This is also the point where contemporary Israeli realities filter through Livneh’s work. Seen in the context of the country’s increasingly capitalist climate, in which an ideology of mindless leisure is replacing one that valorized invigorating Zionist labor, the solipsism of Livneh’s ravishing objects offers a comment on a culture hell-bent on repressing its own precariousness. So much so, in fact, that a woman working on her abs in a bland, soothing interior—could be Tel Aviv, could be Tucson—seems not to notice she’s using an outsize skull as an exercise ball.