The Archaeology of Phases

On the work of Moshe Kupferman and Assaf Romano, Kibbutz Gallery, Tel Aviv, November 2010

By Professor Haim Maor, Exhibition Curator

During the autumn of 1983, while I was in Paris, I stood in front of La Blouse Romaine that Henri Matisse had painted in 1940. There was no one besides myself in the hall in which the painting was exhibited in the Centre Pompidou. For several long minutes I stood there gazing at it, rooted, mesmerized, and moved to tears. I visualized the reproductions of this painting in art books and in black-and-white photographs that documented the stages of work on the painting and froze 14 phases of it. These photographs made it possible to identify the process which preceded the final product.

At the beginning it was a realistic painting and crammed with details and ornamentation. Then there was a covering up and deletion, reductions simplification of the details in the painting; tilting the woman’s body from the side to the front; additional flattening out and generalization and a whitening of significant parts in the painting. Finally – a painting with an intelligent wave of the hand.

This is the final stage of the painting. It is complex in spite of the flattening and generalization. It transmits the ingenious simplicity of a gifted painter.

I remained standing in front of the painting, focused and absorbed within it, tracing the archaeological layers that composed it and trying to expose the secrets of this brilliant simplicity. I discovered what had been concealed from me in the reproductions: the exposed parts of the canvas; soft outlines that had been marked in pencil; sections of underlying layers of color that glint beneath the surface…

At that moment, in the silent hall of the Centre Pompidou, facing this secular icon , I understood that true artists do not hide their uncertainties and hesitations and are not ashamed of the various stages in the painting process. True artists understand that the process of painting is one of creation and destruction, addition, omission and deletion, covering over and exposure, until the moment when the artist chooses to halt the process. The chosen moment is the determinant state which freezes it forever and contains within it the series of phases and the sealed façade, the surface layer of the work.

This personal memory flashed through my head while I was looking at the painting of the late Moshe Kupferman and of Assaf Romano (may he have a long life) which I chose for a joint exhibition in the Kibbutz Gallery in Tel Aviv.

Kupferman and Romano, two painters from the Western Galilee, knew each other and held an ongoing but unregulated dialogue between them over a number of years until Moshe Kupferman died in 2003, but have never exhibited their work side by side. Now, seven years after Kupferman’s death, a first encounter has been made between the works of these two painters.

On the face of it, the paintings of Kupferman and Romano seem to be in opposition within the field of painting. Kupferman was a modernist painter who consciously chose the path of abstraction as his field of investigation. Romano is a post-modernist painter who works and cruises within the wide range between abstract and figurative-realistic painting. For him, these are two options of painting activity that are laid on the ledges of art history, of equal value and legitimacy for use within the framework of contemporary painting creativity.

How can span over and connect them?

This may be presented as follows: the space of the gallery, works of art, surprising and unexpected treasures and combinations. Nothing more is necessary.

When the viewer encounters the cluster of works in a certain order and in silence, a tremor occurs among them that makes words superfluous. This is the special moment – that Kupferman spoke about - in which art begins where words end. This is the moment in which the colorful swirl in front of the viewer can be compared to the pillar of fire or an angel from other visions. The viewer knows that he sees before him a sheer wonder but does not know what it is – who it is – what it is called. “And the angel of the Lord said to him: ‘Why does thou ask my name, since it is a wonder”. The genuine dialogue that the viewer holds can take place only within and through silent contemplation, without words. “ … but the Lord was not in the earthquake. And after the earthquake a fire; but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire a still small voice”.

Thus the viewer is requested to stand in front of this wonderful display that is being held before him in the encounter between the works of two artists in a given time and place at the Kibbutz Gallery.

It is also possible to illustrate a few methods for focused and useful contemplation. For example: The meeting of stags.

In the painting The Extinct Stag, 2010 Romano portrays a stag caught in a thicket who senses a threat. In another moment it will break loose and disappear or perhaps it will die by the hunter’s bullets. The format of the painting – which reflects the field vision through a telescopic lens – already marks the victim. For Romano, the painting medium is analogous to the extinct stag. It has the ability to disappear by its thin layer of color, an insubstantial veil of illusion, an imaginary canvas that questions the riddle of its own relevance. Like the stag, it can die. Romano’s painting works against the background of the post-modernist theories on the ‘death of painting’. This awareness creates a figurative painting that senses a threat and reacts to it. Whether it breaks loose and disappear or find its death with a critic’s bullet – it is marked, labeled and catalogued.

The six stags in the thicket – in Kupferman’s work For Grossbard, 1992 – are a replication of the paper-cuts made by Yehoshua Grossbard of the same type he had created in parallel with his monochromatic paintings. These are paper-cuts based on Jewish ‘diaspora’ themes which appeared on Torah ark curtains that decorated the house during the festivals of Succot and Shavuot or were engraved on tombstones.

Kupferman – a close relative of Grossbard – was erecting a monument to him after his death. One wonders whether the replication of the image six times is merely a formalistic device so that the wavy line can serve as an expressionistic element to contrast with the liquid lines at the bottom of the painting, or whether there is some additional and broader meaning for this loss? Was the death of Grossbard linked with the fate of the six millions who died in the Holocaust?

Kupferman’s work was painted on fragile carton paper, sensitive, easily folded. Was Kupferman setting up a monument in memory of the Jewish-Polish culture from which they both had come? There is a possible and perhaps a called-for association with a broken/crumbling monument.

Moreover, the figurative images that were “removed” with thinner  from various newspapers include a map of the Land of Israel (Eretz Hazvi – the land of the deer) and a clock. The preoccupation of Kupferman with time (the diaspora past; the immediate, regenerated present in Israel, and the limited time of Grossbard which came to a halt) and with space (Poland the first homeland, and Israel the new homeland) proves that the formalist element is not free of figurative images from secondary sources and from the transmission of iconographic-symbolic associations.

This positioning of the two artwork collections of Kupferman and Romano is one possible example for the stream of consciousness that exists in both of them: to live the moment (s) that have been seared into the memory and to relive it/them in a new, coded, veiled medium, processed and softened (seemingly) in a shrouded package. The two artists call this a “mode” within which the processes of painting are created that derive from the frozen photographic state (Romano) or from an image that was “downloaded” from a newspaper or the collection of visual memories from the past (Kupferman). The personal time past and the active time of painting activity contain sediments and create sediments: the archaeology of phases. According to Kupferman, they should be grasped and be used constantly with devotion and loyalty. Art reveals them, betrays them, conceals them. “I do not have a record of phases. I remain close to subjects. Throughout all the years I have acquired personal realistic descriptions which are the sediment we spoke about.  […] I have lived my life without the recording of evidence. What is worth remembering remains in memory and has an influence. What does not remain – has none.

The artificial distance between a figurative painting and an abstract painting should be blurred. A painting is a painting is a painting: great artists paint figuratively and think in an abstract manner or paint abstractly and think in a concrete manner. Romano, following Gerhard Richter, defines it in this way: “A painting always describes something. My abstract paintings are a description of something that is not yet identifiable and is still unknown”.

Sometimes the point of departure of the abstract artist is a figurative description that later on becomes covered over and buried under layers of color. Is this a concealment strategy? Cosmetics? Burial? Suppression? Denial? The answers are not direct and not absolute. I heard an example of this from Kupferman in 1984 in connection with his series of sketches “With Beirut, After Beirut, With Beirut” : “I do not know whether in making these sketches I wished to ‘be cleansed’ of the sights of slaughter or that I wanted to record them in order to retain them in my memory. […] Images that were accumulated in me through watching television […] all this was compressed within me like a memory, like a file of photographs that you know what can be seen in them, even though everything is mixed up together. […] This is stock memory that sums up many images into a single image. […] In the early sketches figurative images appear – strewn bodies and ruins. In the course of work the images are covered, eliminated, changed and blurred. […] From that period of Summer 83 and onwards […] there is a kind of collapse in the drawings. It is a state in which construction tends to fall down and yet still manages to hold up”.

In some of the works shown at the exhibition, Kupferman and Romano play again and again on a “single string” (monochrome color, a double line or a shape that repeats itself) but manage to extract from it a wealth of tones. For an untrained ear the tune sounds like a tedious and irritating loop. The trained and sensitive ear will discern a symphonic fabric, a rich weave that is constructed below the surface, in the hypnotic dimension of quarter-tones and subtle nuances of sound like Indian music or a meditative mantra. Kupferman is a master of correct orchestration and timing, which juxtaposes a dense network with a sparse one. Murmuring underneath are layers rich in syncopations of color or line; the chords combine in a single obscure fabric and in sunrays escaping from the network that imprisons and chains them.

A similar tune exists in the paintings of Romano: hovering bubbles, floating or frozen in place in the painting expanse; raindrops falling on the windshield of a car on the way home; smears of color indicating trees that pass us by in rapid movement and stones in a grey wall laid one upon the other obstruct the view with a combined figurative-abstract grid. Romano quotes two sentences from the Journal de deuil by Roland Barthes: “A photograph: the lack of ability to say what is understood. The birth of literature” and “Beauty is not some kind of superlative formulation of what we imagine, or some sort of realization of an abstract model we visualize, but on the contrary, a new model that cannot be imagined and that reality presents before us”. In this sentence Barthes quotes Marcel Proust from his work Contre Sainte-Beuve. This is a meta-poetic article by Proust which deals with literature. For Romano, in these sentences literature is parallel with painting since this is invention rather than fact.  In Romano’s view, this touches the very essence of the artwork at its place of birth, when reality and language do not basically correspond. This is also an exact formulation for both abstract and figurative painting activity. The creation of a painting in the world is a creation of reality. Even Kupferman would have agreed with him. This is a painting that was made by “painting workers” who repeat the same series of activities in order to create a micro-world of quietude and harmony. But in every painting there is an implicit sense that something has been violated. In another moment the order will be undermined and collapse. The painting is a mound of ruins, a phase of phases.

Kupferman says: “I will actually repeat the same act of painting again and again, but it will change even though I perform the same activities: cover the picture, scrape it, add or remove color. In fact one can finish the painting a number of times and begin it a number of times. There is an inner logic of ‘something dependent on something else’. I can do this coldly, even if the painting includes an expression of emotion and arouses feelings and reactions in the viewer”.

Romano says: “[I produce] a slow painting in a world stricken by an inflation of images […] to work like a laborer / another formulation, preferably / to be a worker”.

Even the encounter between the paintings of Moshe Kupferman and Assaf Romano is a phase of phases. This is a new state that emerges from the encounter between “painting workers”  who are fully aware of dualities: their paintings are layers of color, vibrating membranes laid upon a canvas (Romano: “From nothing to nothing / and a membrane in the middle”) but it is also a vibrating layer that conceals mental content within itself. The paintings are not merely the signs and traces of what was placed upon them. They are also presences that exist in the world and wish to be (Romano: “To make a sign is not enough, I must cause it to exist”).

While contemplating the works I have a strong sense that in this exhibition they want to be together.