Yehudit Sasportas

Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive (BAMPFA)

The Carpenter and the Seamstress, 2000–2001, the first major work by Yehudit Sasportas to be seen outside her native Israel, was a room-scale installation (at Deitch Projects in New York) pitched at an uneasy juncture between painting, sculpture, and architecture—a collapsed or compressed architecture, in fact, that seemed to convey a concentrated emotional tension whose reason could not be reconstructed from its form. Even once told that the underlying structure referred to the floor plan of the artist’s childhood apartment and that the seemingly archetypal figures of its title are her parents, the work’s combination of formal austerity and coloristic lyricism remained as hermetic as it was seductive.

Sasportas’s new installation, By the River, 2002, builds on the framework of The Carpenter and the Seamstress yet allows more points of entry. It’s not exactly that the new work is less abstract, but rather that it is abstract in a different way. The pictorial content of the earlier work was primarily formed by more or less dense concentrations of thin lines on colored grounds—these displayed on panels mounted both vertically on the gallery walls and horizontally on the floor—that conveyed a distinct sense of some imagery being missing. The lines formed patterns of density and transparency, as if their space had formed a negative impression of some objects now absent. This time, the constituent panels—whose disposition is no longer based on the house of childhood memory but still retain a similar architectonic structure—are displayed on the floor only, though their supporting and framing structure sets them at several heights. But while the stripe configurations, always now black on black, still occur on certain panels, these more often now carry that identifiable imagery whose passing was formerly only mourned: skies, landscapes, houses, and so on, sometimes overlaid with more diagrammatic patterns that seem to reflect some sort of scientific data, painted in areas of cool, flat, pale color. Possibly the overlaid diagrams bear some relation to the rather generic places pictured, but how would one know?

As with The Carpenter and the Seamstress, then, By the River can best be understood as being concerned with a specific experience of unknowing. To whom do memories belong? By using a stripped-down, generic representational style, Sasportas seems to suggest that the memory traces that haunt this architectural setting are common almost to the point of ubiquity—her sky is not the sky of Moroccan emigrants in Tel Aviv, but a sky such as anyone anywhere might recognize it when so represented; a house or even a tree might be more geographically specific, but even these are sufficiently detached here from any originating context, like emblems in a child’s alphabet book. My own small daughter, who has never lived in a house in the sense that the emblematic house would seem to intend, knows the generic house symbol as the signifier of “house” in general. House and home are psychologically loaded terms everywhere—politically loaded too, and that must be the case in Israel even more than most places. Refraining from any polemical stance may be what allows Sasportas to evoke so poignantly the dissociated network of feelings—personal, local, and well-nigh universal—that gather around such terms and thereby help us to understand better their power when deployed politically, on whatever side.

Barry Schwabsky