New York

Avigdor Arikha

Marlborough | Midtown

In Avigdor Arikha’s ink drawing View from the Méridien, 1998, the unmarked texture of paper conveys the open space of the sky. Delicate, atmospheric ink adds to the presence of the surface. In fact, the image seems embedded in the surface—being part of the paper rather than sitting atop it. In a sense, the drawing discloses the ground’s primacy the way shadows in life show the primacy of matter. Virtually all of the more than thirty drawings here displayed a connoisseur’s minimalist touch, whether in line or shading, so that surface never lost its autonomy.

Just as Arikha puts us in intimate, contemplative relationship with surfaces, he also puts us in intimate, contemplative relationship with scenes, seeming to bring his subjects up close to viewers. Anne in the Studio, 2000, in which a woman rests her head in her hand, conveys the meditative mood of Arikha’s works. Objects have rich emotional patinas, as in The Old Typewriter, 1999, in which the object has the murky black complexion and contours of a portable Remington. Arikha shows no cliché romanticism or nostalgia for the golden days of youth—which weren’t so golden for the Jewish artist, who was born in 1929 and worked in Nazi labor camps from 1941 to 1944, the year he was brought to a kibbutz in Palestine. Instead, he offers a resourceful, respectful, fresh response to the life around him, even when considering inanimate things, as in Towels, 1998.

The drawing Avishai Margalit, 1999, similarly conveys a positive, humane attitude. There is nothing pretentious or arrogant about this man (a professor of philosophy at Hebrew University) but rather a sense of good cheer—which Voltaire said was part of the wisdom necessary to meet life. Yet some split in his consciousness is still suggested by the drawing, because his right arm is shadowy while his left arm remains completely white. A sense of subdued drama functions in many of the works, in fact, often expressed in terms of contrasts in shape and color or among light and dark objects, in Socks, 1998, and in A Dead Acanthus Leaf with a Lily, 1999. Considering the entire grouping of drawings and paintings on view, there is even some unresolved sexual tension between desirous old men and desirable young women—as Self-portrait Nude and Nudity (both 1999) make clear.

Arikha is a master of these “violent harmonies,” to use Gauguin’s phrase. The latent conflicts that never quite erupt into emotional violence make his works quietly uncanny and upsetting. The artist is a new old master, integrating the traditional idea of a picture with a modernist sensibility to produce what Delacroix called a “masterpiece”: a work the sight of which “checks you in spite of yourself, capitivates you in a contemplation to which nothing bids you except an invincible charm.”

Donald Kuspit