New York

Menashe Kadishman

Perhaps the most interesting thing about Menashe Kadishman’s paintings and sculptures is their relentlessly rural imagery. What makes the works even odder is the fact that this imagery—the paintings show sheep, the sculptures a bird and snake—is presented with sophisticated urbane means, if the use of rather routine—when not mannered—Modernist styles is still urbane. The sculptures are uncomplicated constructions—contrivances is a better word—of flat planes, the paintings are tepidly gestural. The figural elements remain schematic symbols, whether covered with a skin of Cor-Ten steel rust or fleshed out with bright paint. A certain lyrical point is made, but the works have the air of an experiment that hasn’t come off: the telling of old stories—one sculpture is called Pietà, another Prometheus, both 1987–88, and a painting is titled The Sacrifice of Isaac, 1988—with new means. Only the means aren’t really new, and the mythological stories have become academic, no longer intriguing. They are too ready with meanings to deal with the modern problem of meaninglessness, always just around the corner of any activity. Innocence has to be another strategy, or it isn’t even worth damning with faint praise.

But these works were made to speak to an Israeli audience and Israel has a vested interest in antiquity. Indeed, traditional Jewish iconoclasm may be responsible for the simplicity of Kadishman’s work; he does not seem to want to be visually too fast for an audience that traditionally favors the word over the image. Kadishman’s modernization of traditional ideas—with styles that belong to the tradition of the modern and so are no longer struggling with modernity—ends up creating a species of high-culture kitsch.

Kadishman’s work is relentlessly sentimental. This sentimentality may work in a world that still wants to pretend it is physically provincial—quaintly rural—but how it can make sense to a people who are far from intellectually provincial is beyond me. (Unless, of course, they have the notorious soft spot in their hearts intellectuals seem prone to having.) While I admire Kadishman’s effort to create an art with a moral mission, I find it impossible to accept one with a predetermined sense of the moral. Such an art unwittingly loses the sense of pathos it means to generate, for pathos emerges from a sense of conflict. In Kadishman’s works, even the old conflict between traditional mythological ideas and dynamic modernist means has been stifled. There is no sense of any tension between them; they get along all too well in Kadishman’s art, which is why his work seems merely charming.

Donald Kuspit