This essay looks at Michael Sgan-Cohen’s reception in the Israeli art field over a period of 25 years. It suggests that whereas Sgan-Cohen’s signature style of referencing and reworking Jewish sources did not change much over that time, the Israeli art field did shift in its reception of his work, from an unfavorable stance in 1978, to a somewhat more accepting one in 1994, to recognition of Sgan-Cohen as an artist of merit in 2004. Critical commentaries on his exhibitions and interviews with key personalities within the field shed light on Sgan-Cohen’s reception and elucidate the changes within the field itself. Moreover, by focusing on the emergence of postmodern discourse and its influence on the Israeli art field and framing these findings within the realm of field theory, this study creates a context for understanding these structural shifts in the Israeli art field, as it came face-to-face with postmodern discourse.
In 1977, while he was living in New York, the Israeli born-and-raised art theoretician Michael Sgan-Cohen published his manifesto entitled “Assumptions Concerning the Possibility of the Birth of Jewish-Israeli Art,” in which he declared that Israeli art should return to its “Jewish sources” and disengage from “Western culture.2 In accordance with the norms for such declarations, Sgan-Cohen formulated twelve guidelines to implement the return of Israeli art to its inherently Jewish roots, that is, an art of the word and the symbol, an act of deep thought, close in spirit to the Bible, and a social and moral praxis.3
Needless to say, such a bold move was not met with much enthusiasm on the part of those involved with Israeli art, as they perceived the field as one of the most secular and Western arenas of Israeli culture. Thus, Sgan-Cohen’s demand was out of touch with contemporary currents and most unwelcome. Moreover, as Sgan-Cohen was a secular native (tzabar), raised among Israel’s Ashkenazi intellectual elite of Jerusalem, his manifesto came across as strange and out of character.4
One year later, in 1978, Sgan-Cohen stunned Israeli art circles again with his first solo exhibition, as he crossed over the then-rigid borders that separated art and theory. Mounted in Ha’Kibbutz Gallery in Tel Aviv, the show was composed primarily of transcriptions from the Bible and Psalms, clearly an effort in accord with the theme of his declaration.5 This manifesto-turned-artistic statement actually served as the foundation of Sgan-Cohen’s prolific career.6
By way of Sgan-Cohen’s three solo exhibitions, 1978, 1994, and the posthumous one in 2004, this essay follows the process of his reception in the Israeli art field and questions the place of work grounded in Jewish content in Israeli art praxis.7 Further, as Sgan-Cohen’s signature style of referencing Jewish texts and themes in a conceptual manner did not vary much during his entire 25-year career, investigating the changing stages in critical reception surrounding these exhibitions reveals structural changes within the Israeli art field.
The Jewish in Israeli Art
Israeli art history frequently identifies its origins with the founding of the Bezalel School of Art and Crafts by Boris Schatz in 1906. There is no question that the school had a hand in the shaping of national art and secular culture, but most of the works produced during its first phase (1906–1929) focused on biblical themes and Judaica. A generation later, this emphasis on Jewish subject matter was challenged by some of Bezalel’s students, including Reuven Rubin and Nachum Gutman, who were seeking to develop a new style, which became known as Eretz Yisraeli. According to art historians Benjamin Tamuz, Dorith Levite, and Gideon Ofrat, this group repudiated everything that depicted the “Diasporic essence.”8 Art historian Sara Chinski described this shift as one of the hallmarks of artistic modernity the world over, arguing that the binary divide of the religious and the universal, the diasporic and the native, the old and the new continued to shape the Israeli art field at the end of the twentieth century.9
There was a second “revolution” in the field in 1948, with the emergence of the New Horizons movement, led by Yossef Zaritsky, as he searched for a universal and Western language in art, rather than a local and a national one. New Horizons, which adopted an abstract style, mostly devoid of narrative, gained in popularity from the 1940s through to the mid-1960s. With its sweeping aspirations and abstract practices, it dominated the Israeli art canon for decades, rejecting works of art that were not in line with its ideology (i.e., practices drawing direct inspiration from the Diaspora and Jewish sources, as well as everyday life.10 The New Horizons approach was superseded in the late 1960s by an emerging formal and conceptual pluralism, which was characterized by the art movement known as 10+. Along with its legendary leader, Raffi Lavie, this group utilized daily life as subject matter, while formally manipulating everyday objects to create collages and assemblages.11
The decades of the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s were embodied in the 1986 seminal exhibition in the Tel Aviv Museum, entitled The Want of Matter: A Quality in Israeli Art, curated by Sarah Breitberg-Semel. The exhibited works by many artists from 10+ reflected a style of low-cost materials and artistic sloppiness, which was assumed to be representative of authentic Israeli art.12 In many ways, though, the traditions of New Horizons continued to be influential, especially the use of abstraction which served as a basis for national art.
Owing to the 10+ expansion of the limits of art and the aftermath of the 1973 Yom Kippur War, Israeli art in the 1970s and 1980s became more political and critical of the country’s society. As such, the borders of the art object, the position of the artist, and the boundaries of the artistic sphere were challenged as Israeli artists went on to adopt land-art, environmental art, body art, and conceptual art practices.13 Up until recent times, this view dominated the canonical narrative for Israeli art, which was to be found in most Israeli art history books.14 However, with the inception of postmodernism in the 1990s, there was a shift in Israeli art discourse, which then raised questions pertaining to the nature of Zionism, Israeli identity, and the place of the Jewish and the marginalization of others, among many other issues. A full survey is beyond the scope of this essay, but several examples follow.
In her book, Israeli Cinema: East/West and the Politics of Representation, Ella Shohat, Professor of Cultural Studies at New York University, challenged a “taken-for-granted sense of entitlement” by the dominant Ashkenazi elite and redefined the parameters of legitimate history, as well as the format of legitimate historiography.15 Art historian Amnon Raz-Krakotzkin also notes this perceptual bias in a formative two-part essay relating to the “Negation of Exile.” In his text, which did much to invoke a discussion on poststructural issues at the time, he suggested a rethinking of the Zionist phrase “negation of exile” in favor of a new “Israeli-Jewish identity.”16
Reappraising the narratives of Israeli art history at the beginning of the twentieth century in her essay, “Facing the Diaspora: Jewish Art Discourse in 1930s Eretz Yisrael,” Dalia Manor challenges the canonical narrative of Israeli art history as she describes the 1930s as an era of respect, admiration, and identification with the work of diasporic Jewish artists from the Paris school. Although the Parisian artists did not depict Jewish subject matter and could not really be described as Jewish artists, they were connected with the artists of Eretz Yisrael through a shared notion of Jewish identity, “hidden elements in the mysterious Jewish soul.”17
This period was somewhat fleeting, however, as New Horizons gained influence in the 1940s, thus renewing the struggle between Eretz Yisrael and the Diaspora and the local versus the universal. This binary model and especially the negation of exile, which was deemed a crucial part of the Zionist ethic, was again foregrounded in Israeli art practices, reinforcing the sidelining of diasporic and Jewish subject matter.
Gideon Ofrat offered a key analysis of the binary division between the secular and modern versus Jewish and diasporic. In an article entitled “The Dialectics of the 50s: A Hegemony and a Plurality,” published in the catalogue that surveys 1950s Israeli art, in conjunction with the 60th anniversary of Israel’s independence, Ofrat notes the duality of those years—“art for art’s sake” (secular values), represented by New Horizons, or “art for society’s sake” (local values). Questioning the function of art, Ofrat asks if the role of Israeli art in the 1950s was to reflect issues in Israel’s society—the War of Liberation, mass immigration, Arab villages, the aftermath of the Holocaust, biblical orientations, and more, or was it simply to portray the universal language of art?18
However, more than any other art historian, it was Sara Chinski who explicitly accused the Israeli art field of fostering and perpetuating the Zionist narrative, while marginalizing both the Jewish Diaspora and Jewish history. In “Silence of the Fish: The Local versus the Universal in Israeli Discourse of Art,” published in 1993 in the Israeli journal Theory and Criticism, she contended that Israeli art not only accepted the negation of exile, but actually did much to propagate it, and that the result of such an approach led to a rejection of all that was not in accord with the secular and modern art practices. Chinski’s book, The Kingdom of the Meek: The Social Grammar of the Israeli Art Field, which addresses the same issues, was published posthumously in 2015.19
In retrospect we can see that the 1990s saw much change and critical reflection in the Israeli art field, which included a critique of the ways in which the Jewish Diaspora, history, and identity were marginalized. Thus some 15 years after Sgan-Cohen published his manifesto, his call to make Jewish sources the bases of Israeli art seems even more extraordinary, a notion well ahead of its time.
As noted, Sgan-Cohen was an art theoretician and a tzabar, so it seems fair to assume that he was well informed regarding the history of Israeli art and its negation of exile. Being raised by the Ashkenazi elite, it was expected that he would trod a secular intellectual path, yet he clearly chose to break with expectation (doxa) and walk a more Jewish one.20
After his IDF service, Sgan-Cohen studied art history and philosophy at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. In 1969 he moved to California to further his education, graduating with an MAa in Art History from the University of California at Los Angeles. He continued his studies at the City University of New York, eventually earning a PhD. in Art History, completing his dissertation in 1989, two years after he returned to Israel. He was active in several areas of the art field: as a teacher at Brooklyn College, Bezalel Academy of Art in Jerusalem, and Haifa University; as an art critic for Ha’aretz, Kav, Art Forum, Art in America, and Shishi; and as a curator for several prominent Israeli artists, including Leah Nikel and Yechiel Shemi.
In 1990 Sgan-Cohen published a second article, entitled “Chur and Aaron,” in which he retracted his appeal to the Israeli art field, declaring that his twelve propositions were in fact strategies for his own artwork.21 As noted, 4 years later, he mounted a second solo exhibition, in the Ramat Gan Museum of Art, and following his untimely death, a third, posthumous exhibition was held in 2004 at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem.
Given his secular background, where and how Sgan-Cohen became familiar with the Jewish sources is unclear, but his interest in Jewish/biblical texts and themes became apparent in his essay “Chur and Aaron,” as it recounts his personal history. When he first arrived in New York, he was astonished to discover how freely American artists worked on any subject that interested them, without hesitation or restriction. As he embarked upon his artistic career, he adopted this same liberated attitude, which, in his words, became “Conceptual Israeli-Jewish art.”22 Moreover, he confessed, “If I would have stayed in Israel and not moved to America, I am not sure if I would have created such artwork.”23
The discourse in the field of Israeli art and the foregoing brief look at Sgan-Cohen’s personal history serve as background for the survey of the reception of his work and how that work both shaped and was shaped by the perception of Jewish aspects in Israeli art. With the new millennium, the Israeli art field seemed (at least on the surface) to be more accepting of work that explored Jewish themes. This can be seen, for example, through the writing of Sara Breitberg-Semel, former chief curator of the Tel-Aviv Museum, who, in effect, casually secularized Sgan-Cohen’s Jewish art. In her essay, “Michael Sgan-Cohen as a Jewish Artist Persona (and Israeli),” she reveals the underlying structure of his work as having been largely influenced by his secular Israeli biblical education, along with his later acquaintance with New Age Kabbalistic ideas.24 Although she acknowledges his referencing of Jewish sources, she seemingly limits it by associating his work with the “enchanted, hypnotic powers of Kabbalistic imagery, Jewish handwriting, and Jewish amulets.”25 Thus, whereas Breitberg-Semel’s reading seems to suggest that the referencing of Jewish content had indeed found its legitimate place within the Israeli art field, a closer look reveals that this casual approach and apparent reception are more complex than they appear, a point is addressed further on.
“Painting and Sculpture” was the title of Sgan-Cohen’s first solo exhibition, which was curated by Miriam Tuviah-Boneh and mounted in Ha’Kibbutz Gallery, Tel-Aviv, in December 1978. In a 2013 personal interview with Tuviah-Boneh regarding the reception of Sgan-Cohen’s art, she recalled the excitement she felt when she first encountered his work, “It shook my core … he took texts from our Bible and Jewish sources and gave them visual expression … creating local authentic art …. I gave him a platform … I trusted him, as he was an art historian.”26 Affected by his art and recognizing his intellectual abilities as an academically trained art historian, Tuviah-Boneh set the stage for Sgan-Cohen’s first solo exhibition and fostered his transition from art discourse to art-making.
The exhibition spread over the two rooms of the gallery and included twenty-seven pieces, twenty-six of which were grounded in Jewish sources. These works were in a range of media: collage, assemblage, readymade, and text-image (which were common in conceptual American art and were becoming more common in Israeli art at the time), and were dominated by the use of primary colors—red, yellow, and blue.
Most of the pieces incorporated visual text, specifically biblical transcriptions. Included among them were The Twelve Minor Prophets Series, Micah 4:1–4 , Micah 3:9–12, Numbers 33:1; 34:19, Deuteronomy 34:1–3, and Isaiah 40:1. Each transcribed image had its own unique composition, word density, letter highlights, and a mix of cursive and print scripts. For example, Zefania (1978) (fig. 1) is divided into three rectangles that form a square. The word density flows differently in each rectangle: the smaller rectangle on the upper right, in comparison to the larger rectangle on the left, flows in a wavy manner, and specific words have been emphasized through enlargement and with print and cursive Hebrew juxtaposed. Comfort Ye, Comfort Ye, My People (1978) features differently colored letters, stressed phrases, and alternating Hebrew scripts (fig. 2). Most of this visual text is in blue, with various words and phrases in black.
Another prominent feature of Sgan-Cohen’s visual text is his employment of tautology, as seen in Moses (1977–1978) (fig. 3). This image portrays two date trees immediately following the words, “Ir Ha’Tmarim” (the City of Dates).
Among the other artworks in the show were readymade objects. The Bible—Torah Prophets’ Writings (1978) (fig. 4), for example, depicts the Bible, with its three books marked by different primary colors on the edges of the pages. The Ark of the Covenant (1977) (fig. 5) depicts a white wooden medicine cabinet with a gold Star of David on the door, which is slightly ajar, as the two wooden shelves seen on the left, leaning against the back of the cabinet, protrude a bit, which keeps the door from closing.
This 1978 exhibition not only marked Sgan-Cohen’s transition from the world of art criticism to art practice, but it also launched his public reception as an artist by the Israeli art field. As such, the limited yet controversial critical commentary in connection with the show, published in three daily national newspapers—Davar, Ha’aretz, and Yediot Achronot—were significant. Furthermore, the differences in the critics’ approaches to his work shed light on some of the underlying issues current in the Israeli art field at the time.
Art critics Talia Rappaport, writing for Davar, and Nissim Mevurach, writing for Ha’aretz, both expressed disapproval of Sgan-Cohen’s conceptual art practices, objecting to the fact that it included language and theoretical ideas. Rappaport described his work as, “hinting at political comment … but their suggestions … lacked clarity … and portrayed pretentious ideas.”27 In a similar vein, Mevurach contended that the show, “lacked visual aesthetic value,” describing it as “trivial contemplation.”28 However, in her evaluation of Sgan-Cohen’s Twelve Minor Prophet Series, Rappaport changed her tone, describing it as “good old established painting,” and interpreted it through formal analysis. Moreover, she clearly favored this more painterly artwork over what she saw as Sgan-Cohen’s overtly theoretical and political work.29 Thus, at the end of the 1970s, both Rappaport and Mevurach appeared to be at a loss in regard to conceptual art. It seems that Rappaport expected to use a formalist interpretative approach, whereas Mevurach regarded this practice as deficient in visual aesthetics.30
It is interesting to note that whereas conceptual art discourse was not yet commonplace in Israel in the 1970s, it was already quite well established in the United States.31 As Sgan-Cohen was living in America at the time, studying and working as an art historian, it seems fair to say that he was probably not only familiar with the principles of conceptual art, but was also well acquainted with its various models.
On a different note, Mevurach raised another problematic issue surrounding Sgan-Cohen’s art: his shift from the realm of art theory to the domain of practicing artist. His suggesting that Sgan-Cohen’s work, “could have been more … suitable as a journalistic topic,” and professing astonishment that, “this presenter [Sgan-Cohen] … who has been crowned by the academy … could produce such artistic nonsense,” made it clear that Mevurach’s believed in separating art discourse from art practice.32
The same issue was apparently quite charged in the United States as well. The “shocked reaction” of the American art field to Clement Greenberg’s daring to strip paint, stretch unstretched canvases, change image orientation, and cut what he thought to be excess canvas was viewed by the American art field as unacceptable behavior for an art critic.33
The third and final opinion on Sgan-Cohen’s 1978 exhibition was proffered by Adam Baruch and published in Yediot Achronot. Baruch, who was born in the Jewish Ultra-Orthodox neighborhood of Mea Shearim, had also crossed rigid borders, as he transitioned from the religious world into the secular realm. Graduating in law from the Hebrew University, he became an art critic and literary essayist, writing for several of Israel’s daily newspapers, weekend cultural supplements, and prominent art magazines, and was recognized as a leading authority in the Israeli art field.34
In his review, Baruch casually called Sgan-Cohen an “artist,” which not only attested to his acknowledgment of the latter’s transition from theoretician to artist, but also revealed his direct opposition to Mevurach’s position.35 Moreover, his comparison of Sgan-Cohen’s art to that of the “Talmud and the culture of footnotes,” illuminated not only Baruch’s recognition of the merging of theory and practice, but also made it clear that he understood the multilayered system of deductive meanings in Sgan-Cohen’s artwork.36 That is, he recognized a complex reading that drew from both Jewish and academic sources, which, at the time, were both frowned upon by the Israeli art world.
Two years later, Baruch wrote two further essays that addressed Sgan-Cohen’s Jewish turn, wherein he underscored a tension between the secular and the religious Jewish identity in Israel’s social spaces. In his first text, he focused on Sgan-Cohen’s habitus, emphasizing his secular roots and his potential disposition, comparing him to renowned philosopher Yirmiyahu Yovel: “Sgan-Cohen the Yerushalmi (Jerusalem born and reared), an army officer, 189 cm, full head of dirty blond hair, is the beautiful boy that the new intellectualism dreamt of.37 Sgan-Cohen could have been all that Yirmiyahu Yovel was and all that Yirmiyahu Yovel was not.”38 According to Baruch, as Sgan-Cohen embodied the Zeitgeist of the first-generation Israeli-born New Jew/tzabar persona, raised in the Ashkenazi elite social and cultural hegemony, it was not expected that he would break with doxa and turn toward Jewish sources.
In his second essay, Baruch offered a plausible explanation as to why Israeli art critics were unable to comprehend Sgan-Cohen’s art. In doing so, Baruch again shed light on the tension between the realm of the Jewish and the domain of the secular in Israel’s social spaces, suggesting that Sgan-Cohen the artist, and the Israeli art critics were speaking different dialects of Hebrew:
The Hebrew of the Israeli art critics is written in Israeli and not in Hebrew, and, so, Sgan-Cohen speaks a language that is not yet understood by Tel Aviv. And because art is a language, he [Sgan-Cohen] is speaking a language that is different to the language of the critics.39
Sgan-Cohen’s second solo exhibition, Michael Sgan-Cohen: Paintings, 1978–To Date, was mounted in the Ramat Gan Museum of Israeli Art, and, again, was curated by Miriam Tuviah-Boneh. The exhibition encompassed thirty-three works, thirty paintings and three readymade objects. Compared to the 1978 exhibition, in which visual text dominated the show, the 1994 exhibition comprised primarily painted imagery and very little text, but Sgan-Cohen’s signature style of referencing Jewish material in a conceptual way remained unchanged. This is best exemplified by way of Map (1992) (fig. 6) and Covenant of the Word (Circumcision) (fig. 7).
Map (1992) images the Judean desert juxtaposed against a deep blue sky; the words Bagda Yehuda (Judah hath dealt treacherously) appear near the center of the image, a little over to the left. In essence, there is actually no connection between the map and the text, rendering the depiction somewhat ambiguous, which has resulted in a range of readings.40
Covenant of the Word, a self-portrait, depicts the circumcision of Abraham as it is described in Sefer Yetzirah, wherein the Patriarch sacrifices his foreskin in return for the Hebrew alphabet. This work comprises seven small canvases—hand prints, footprints, self-portrait with an open mouth filled with the Hebrew alphabet, uncircumcised genitals, and a three-dimensional cube on a blue background, which serves as a focal point and immediately attracts one’s attention. The representation of the different body parts suggests that the subject is kneeling on all fours, which indication was enhanced by its position on the museum floor.
In comparison to the 1978 exhibition, which was the subject of only three reviews, nine critical commentaries addressed the 1994 show. These essays were published in various national newspapers, weekend cultural supplements, prominent art periodicals, and in the exhibition catalogue. Most of the writers were artists, curators, and art critics, who, in general, recognized Sgan-Cohen as an artist and theoretician, and acknowledged his use of Jewish sources grounded in conceptual art.
Among others there were reviews by Adam Baruch, Chaim Lusky, and Chaim Maor; discussions regarding these three texts and an interview with Itamar Levi follow. Lusky and Levi, two critics that were relatively new to the discourse on Sgan-Cohen’s art, played a significant role in highlighting the issues around Sgan-Cohen’s reception. Moreover, their comments offered new insights and analyses regarding Sgan-Cohen’s art, as they merged his various explorations—conceptual, linguistic, theoretical, and Jewish. More importantly, they illuminated the transformations within the Israeli art field—changes that transpired between the 1978 and 1994 exhibitions.
Once again, as in 1978, Baruch mediated between Sgan-Cohen’s show and the public, contending that, “This exhibition is also called remarks on culture, remarks on modernism, and remarks on artistic discourse.”41 By interpreting this show as “remarks,” and referring to it as a dialogue, Baruch seemed to frame it as a textual rather than a visual endeavor, which reflects his understanding and acceptance of the blurring of the boundaries between theory and praxis. It also might have suggested that he was attempting to create a definitive (and even unbreakable) link between the artist’s two vocations, and in this way, echoed Sgan-Cohen’s embodiment of theoretician and artist.
In this same text, Baruch introduced a new key term into the discourse surrounding Sgan-Cohen’s work (and into the Israeli art world more generally), The Talmid Chacham Chiloni (The Secular Learned Scholar), which resonated as follows:
Sgan-Cohen … should have been a precise reflection of the Israeli Zeitgeist ... but Sgan-Cohen went to the U.S.A. and stayed there over fifteen years ... I would say; painting by this sort of ‘Talmid Chacham Chiloni,’ who painted a thought, a memory, a symbol … there in New York, for all those years, somehow changed his taste and preferences. He abandoned his Israeli persona … and I will simply say that he became more Jewish.42
As he addressed Sgan-Cohen’s breaking with doxa and changing his cultural milieu, once again, as in 1978, Baruch hinted at the tension between secular and religious Israeli identities, acknowledging Sgan-Cohen’s abandonment of his Israeli persona, which led to his move toward the culture of Judaism.
Art critic and teacher Chaim Lusky, in direct opposition to the critiques of the first solo exhibition, described Sgan-Cohen’s work as “abundant with linguistic sophistication regarding complex and precise text-image relationships,” thus expressing his appreciation of the role language and writing play within the visual practice.43 Like Baruch, Lusky framed this exhibition as a textural endeavor, “[Sgan-Cohen’s art] offers the public a unique linguistic, philosophical, visual experience.”44 Unlike Baruch though, he did not view Sgan-Cohen’s grounding his work in Jewish content as “becoming more Jewish,” but, rather, saw it as being in accord with secular Israeli culture, contending that, “This is a language that declares and points to spiritual layers hidden within the holy tongue, which have transpired into a secular language, while remaining rich and associatively authentic.”45 Thus, although Lusky did acknowledge Sgan-Cohen’s use of Jewish sources, he quickly moved on to interpret it in a secular way.
In his final comment, Lusky noted an increase in the use of Jewish sources in the practice of Israeli art. Sharing his insights regarding the influence Sgan-Cohen’s 1994 show may have had on the Israeli art field, he noted: “This exhibit may be a meaningful turning point in local art ... a possible transformation … from a total disregard [of the Jewish heritage].”46 Thus, Lusky not only viewed this referencing of Jewish sources as qualifying such content for a legitimate place within the predominantly secular Israeli art field, but he also seemed to recognize it as part of a larger shift within Israel’s social spaces, which would subsequently change its discourse.
The Israeli art field’s response to the referencing of Jewish sources in 1994 was in fact part of an ongoing debate at the time, and although Lusky suggested that Jewish content was becoming more acceptable in the Israeli art canon and discourse, Chaim Maor, artist, curator, and art critic, thought differently: “It is hard to talk today about a Jewish painting … without … igniting controversy amongst the art researchers.”47 Thus, in contrast to Lusky, according to Maor, the use of Jewish material in the practice of art had not actually found its legitimate place within the Israeli art field. On the contrary, the issue remained a matter of ongoing debate.
In sharing some insights, Itamar Levi, a psychologist, curator, and art critic offered a different response to the 1994 exhibition by combining the Jewish and the conceptual in Israeli art, recognizing that union as a mark of the uniqueness of Sgan-Cohen’s work. In comparing Michal Na’aman’s utilization of Jewish sources to that of Sgan-Cohen, Levi, as Baruch, seemed to view Sgan-Cohen as a “secular learned scholar”:
If Michael had done this less religiously, then he would have had more in common with Michal Na’aman … she was absorbed with the secular, not the Jewish. Furthermore, she had sudden epiphanies, whereas Michael’s insights emerged from deep within an entirety; stemming from the rules of the Hebrew language, like an entirety of the Midrash, the Talmud.48
Levi also compared Sgan-Cohen’s Jewish references to those of Moshe Gershuni, contending that, “Gershuni … was easier to understand because he projected emotional ambiguity toward this subject.”49 He went on to clarify this by saying, “It is easier to identify and understand emotions … but Michael dealt with the sources in a manner that was unfamiliar to the secular Israeli.”50 Hence, according to Levi, it was because Sgan-Cohen’s artwork was seemingly affiliated with the Jewish rather than with the secular and/or the emotional that the Israeli art field struggled to apprehend his work.
The critiques of Sgan-Cohen’s 1994 exhibition appeared to acknowledge and accept the blurring of the borders between theory and praxis, text and image, an issue that had seemingly been problematic in the reception of his conceptual art in 1978. Moreover, with his recognition as an “artist,” questions regarding Sgan-Cohen’s transition from theoretician to practicing artist appeared to be resolved in 1994. Nonetheless, the referencing of Jewish content remained rather controversial within the art field. Although it was more or less shelved, the issue was not totally resolved.
In order to better understand the major changes evident in the Israeli art field, one of the immediate frameworks relevant for understanding Sgan-Cohen’s reception is the emergence of postmodernist discourse. Furthermore, the increasing impact of these shifts can be traced to the years just prior to the mounting of the 1994 exhibition.
Although, as noted, Sgan-Cohen’s signature style did not change much between 1978 and 1994, the Israeli art field and broader social structure underwent distinct transformations. Noticeable shifts in the social structure followed in the wake of the Yom Kippur War (1973), the defeat of the Labor Party in 1977, and the Shalom HaGalil—the Lebanon War (1982). In consequence, such issues as the disintegration of the concept of the mythical tzabar and a questioning of the Zionist hegemony and of Israeli-Jewish identity surfaced, as Israel experienced major cultural, political, and social upheavals.51
The Israeli art field was not unaffected by the shifts in the broader social spaces. The appearance of Theory and Criticism, launched in 1991, for example, served to disclose the Israeli art world’s response to the extensive societal changes. The journal quickly became an influential platform for postmodern discourse, as among other subjects, as noted earlier, it challenged the Zionist narrative, along with the terminology upon which that narrative was based.
Israel in the 1990s witnessed the inception of postmodern discourse, not only in the country’s social spaces but also within its art field. A similar, yet earlier postmodern transformation can also be traced in the United States. As noted above, a tension between theory and practice, and more specifically between theorist and practitioner, was a dominant feature of the American art field in the 1950s and 1960s. In the early 1980s, however, more avant-garde art practices and art discourse in America saw a change in the relationship between these two spheres. These shifts were also brought about by way of academic and prestigious art journals, as well as by artists themselves, including Judy Chicago and Cindy Sherman.52 As postmodern discourse gained momentum, so did the role of language within visual culture (prominent within conceptual art), which, in turn, became better understood within art discourse.53
Thus, with Sgan-Cohen living and studying in America from the late 1960s through the late 1980s, as postmodern discourse became more common, it seems fair to assume that he was probably well aware of the changing positions and dissolving borders. Consequently, with American postmodernism paving the way, he shifted from theoretician to artist, and in the 1970s intertwined theoretical and philosophical ideas into his practice of art. Exhibiting this work in Israel as early as in 1978, a time when the country was not yet open to the discourse of postmodernism, led to reviews that were both limited and controversial. With the mounting of his 1994 show, however, which opened against the backdrop of a peaking poststructural debate, a metamorphosed Israeli art field emerged, a field that was able to comprehend the role language played within visual culture and accept the idea of a union of theory and praxis.54 Furthermore, as the Zionist narrative was under scrutiny, the Israeli art field took a new look at its position regarding the role of Jewish culture. Nonetheless, whereas drawing Jewish content into the practice of art had become fairly more mainstream, it seems that the issue remained somewhat provocative within the world of Israeli art.55
Sgan-Cohen’s third and final solo exhibition, curated by Amitai Mendelshon, was mounted in 2004 in the Israel Museum, Jerusalem. Entitled Michael Sgan-Cohen: A Retrospective, it included more than sixty of his works, most of which had been exhibited in his two earlier shows. Pieces he created after 1994, although few in number, were also on display, and these also reflected his signature style of referencing Jewish sources in a conceptual way—biblical transcriptions, self-portraiture, and readymade.
Unlike the 1978 and 1994 shows, this exhibition featured several of Sgan-Cohen’s sketchbooks, shedding light on the artist’s thought processes and the nature of his creativity. Figure 8 portrays the flag of Israel, painted onto plywood; the Star of David and the backdrop of the flag are not painted in solid white so that the texture of the wood is visible, and the flag is attached to a broomstick. Figure 9 is a reproduction of double-page spread in one Sgan-Cohen’s many sketchbooks, showing flag illustrations along with relevant notes.
This posthumous retrospective was very well received by the Israeli art field. It was mounted in one of Israel’s major museums, had a comprehensive accompanying catalogue with an advertising market promoting it, and engendered multiple articles, reviews, and critical commentaries in daily newspapers, prominent art magazines, and the Internet. Even more than the two exhibitions that were mounted during his lifetime, the 2004 retrospective and its widespread reception deserves a detailed examination and analysis, but unfortunately, the limited scope of this essay precludes doing that here. However, reference to essays in the catalogue by two of the major figures in the Israel Museum, one by Yigal Zalmona, the chief curator of the Israel Museum, and the other by Amitai Mendelsohn, who, as noted above, was curator of the retrospective, reflect different interpretations of Sgan-Cohen’s art, as well as highlight the changes within the Israeli art field in the decade prior to the 2004 show.
Both writers first and foremost recognize Sgan-Cohen as an artist of merit and acknowledge the profound impact his intellectual ability and his use of texts and language had on his art. Both also view his Jewish referencing as a nonissue although their approaches are different. Zalmona, as Baruch, interprets it as being rooted in Jewish culture and describes Sgan-Cohen as a “secular learned scholar.”56 Mendelsohn, on the other hand, more in line with Lusky, interprets his referencing as being more rooted in secular culture. Thus, although Mendelsohn does acknowledge Sgan-Cohen’s use of Jewish sources, he moves quickly onto a secular interpretation of his work.57
Changes in the connections between Jewish culture and Israeli art explored in relation to Sgan-Cohen’s work can be seen in the comments of art historian and curator David Sperber. In an effort to explain the Israeli art field’s relationship with the referencing of Jewish content in aesthetic practice, Sperber borrowed the term “hybridization” to express an impression of continuity between the religious past and the secular present.58 Subsequently, by acknowledging the use of Jewish material, thereby recognizing the Jewish past, the Israeli art field freed itself from the need to engage in religious analyses and could move on to interpret Sgan-Cohen’s work in a secular way.
This tendency was noted in Lusky’s 1994 interpretation and is quite obvious in Mendelsohn’s 2004 approach to Sgan-Cohen’s art. The apparent acceptance of a secular reading of the use of traditional Jewish sources would suggest that the issue was finally resolved within the Israeli art field. Yet, if that is so, how does one account for the fact that most of Sgan-Cohen’s work has been ignored and/or sidelined by Israeli art critics?
Exemplifying the field’s tendency to marginalize artwork that draws too heavily from Jewish content, which perhaps makes a secular reading difficult, one can compare two of Sgan-Cohen’s readymade pieces: Sitting/Settlement (1992) (fig. 10) and Chair with Psalms (A Psalm for Asaph) (1992–1994) (fig. 11).
Sitting/Settlement features a wooden chair with a map of Israel painted on the seat. On the backrest is an almost clear blue sky, with one lone white cloud on the top right. Chair with Psalms also pictures a wooden chair, painted in white, with a black canvas attached to the backrest on which a Psalm for Asaph has been transcribed in white. These two pieces were created in the early 1990s, they are readymade objects, and were both displayed in the 1994 and the 2004 exhibitions. Sitting/Settlement has been the subject of multiple secular interpretations in a range of prominent Israeli publications, whereas, to the best of my knowledge, Chair with Psalms has yet to be addressed by the Israeli art field.59 Thus, questions arise regarding the field’s ability, or inability, to accept art that resonates as “too Jewish.” Sitting/ Settlement depicts a map of Israel and its title alludes to Israel’s political situation (be it the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the questioning of Israel’s borders, and more), whereas Chair with Psalms depicts a transcription from the Book of Psalms, which leaves verHy little room for a secular reading.60
As many of Sgan-Cohen’s works draw heavily from the world of Jewish content and many of them have yet to be acknowledged and interpreted by the Israeli art field, it seems fair to ask if their reception (or lack thereof) is determined by whether they can engender a secular reading. Although at first glance, in 2004 it appeared as though the Israeli art field had resolved the issue of using Jewish content in aesthetic practice, on closer inspection one could argue that this issue is still a somewhat problematic subject within that world.
Sgan-Cohen’s art spanned a twenty-five-year period and his signature style stayed very much the same over that time, but the Israeli art field shifted in regard to its reception of his work. The change in the field’s approach metamorphosed from an unfavorable stance in 1978, to a somewhat more accepting one in 1994, to recognizing Sgan-Cohen as an artist of merit in 2004. Nonetheless, this reception seems to be contingent upon the field’s ability to interpret his work in a secular way. Thus, it seems reasonable to contend that by 2004, Sgan-Cohen’s transition from art theoretician to artist and his use of language in his conceptual art had not only been accepted within the field, it had actually metamorphosed into assets for incorporating his work into the Israeli art canon. However, his referencing of Jewish sources in his aesthetic practice has seemingly never been fully resolved within the field.
The present research leads to the suggestion that the reception of Sgan-Cohen in the Israeli art field appears not to be conditioned upon the aesthetic value of his work, but rather on the structure of the field. Moreover, as a large number of his pieces have yet to be recognized, it is hard not to wonder if that is because they are simply “too Jewish.” Thus, it seems fair to say that Michael Sgan-Cohen was indeed a distinctive and innovative artist, who created art in a fashion that was well ahead of its time and, in some respects, that may still be true to the present day, nearly 40 years later.61
I would like first and foremost to thank my advisor, Dr. Merav Yerushalmy for her incredible support and enlightening guidance throughout the writing of this essay. I would also like to thank Leora Laor Sgan-Cohen, Michael Sgan-Cohen’s widow, for her inexhaustible willingness to answer endless questions, her kind sharing of written and visual material, and her generosity in opening her home and Michael Sgan-Cohen’s archive.
Michael Sgan-Cohen, “Assumptions Concerning the Possibility of the Birth of Jewish-Israeli Art,” Sifrut ve-Hagut 11–12 (1977): 79–87 (in Hebrew).
For more on Sgan-Cohen as a native-born Israeli, see Anita Shapira, “The Bible and Israeli Identity,” AJS Review 28.1 (2004): 29. For more on the intellectual elites of Jerusalem, see Amnon Ramon, Doctor Lives Opposite Doctor (Jerusalem: Yad Yishak Ben Zvi, 1988), (in Hebrew).
Michael Belshaw, “Artists’ Statements: The Fate of the Name,” Word & Image 27.1 (2011): 124–133.
Rivka Bakalash, “Self Portrait as a Pattern of Homeland Landscape,” Dimui 25 (2005): 92–95 (in Hebrew); Tamar Manor-Friedman, Running Words (Jerusalem: Jerusalem Print Workshop, 2002); Yael Guilat, “Between Painting and Poetry, Sacred and Secular Realms: A Reading of the Works of Yehuda Amitai and Michael Sgan-Cohen,” in Pictorial Languages and Their Meanings, eds. Christine B. Verzar and G. Fishhof (Tel Aviv: Tel-Aviv University Press, 2006), 295–304.
Most Israeli artists who drew from Jewish material were inspired by the Bible, as seen, e.g., in the work of Michal Na’aman, Moshe Gershuni, and Michael Druks.
Benjamin Tammuz, Dorith LeVite, and Gideon Ofrat, The Story of Art in Israel: From the Days of Bezalel 1906 to Present Day (Givatyim: Massada, 1980), 38, (in Hebrew); Dalia Manor, “Pride & Prejudice or Recurrent Patterns in the Historiography of Israeli Art,” History and Theory: The Protocols, Bezalel, Department of History and Theory 1 (2005): 13–28, (in Hebrew); Dalia Manor, Art in Zion: The Genesis of Modern National Art in Jewish Palestine (London: Routledge Curzon, 2005).
Sara Chinski, “The Silence of the Fish: The Local versus the Universal in the Israeli Discourse of Art,” Theory and Criticism 4 (1993): 105–22, (in Hebrew).
Manor, “Pride & Prejudice,” 22.
Ibid., 26, 28.
Nissim Gal, “Art in Israel, 1948–2008: A Partial Panorama,” Meria Journal 13.1 (2009): 70–94.
Tammuz, LeVite, Ofrat, The Story of Art in Israel; Yigal Zalmona, 100 Years of Israeli Art (Jerusalem: The Israel Museum, 2010); Amnon Barzel, Art in Israel (Milan: Giancarlo Politi Editore, 1987).
Ella Shohat, Israeli Cinema: East/West and the Politics of Representation (Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 1989), 269.
Amnon Raz-Krakotzkin, “Exile within Sovereignty: Toward a Critique of the ‘Negation of Exile’ in Israeli Culture,” Theory and Criticism 5 (1994): 24–118, (in Hebrew).
Dalia Manor, “Facing the Diaspora: Jewish Art Discourse in 1930s Eretz Yisrael,” in Thematic Series Israeli, Exiles—Homeland and Exile in Israeli Discourse, ed. Ofer Shiff, Iyunim Bitkumat Israel Thematic Series 10 (Beer-Sheva: Ben-Gurion University Press, 2015): 13–51.
Gideon Ofrat, “The Dialectics of the 50s: A Hegemony and a Plurality,” in The First Decade: A Hegemony and a Plurality (En-Ḥarod: Mishkan le-omanut Ein Harod, 2008).
Sara Chinski, The Kingdom of the Meek: The Social Grammar of the Israeli Art Field (Bnei Brak: Hakibbutz Hameuchad, 2015).
For an in-depth discussion of doxa, see Bourdieu, Distinction, 208–226; also see above note 3.
Michael Sgan-Cohen, “Chur and Aaron,” Studio 17 (1990): 23, (in Hebrew).
Sarah Breitberg-Semel, “Michael Sgan-Cohen as a Jewish Artist Persona (and Israeli),” in Michael Sgan-Cohen, Jewishness and Israeliness in His Art (Tel Aviv: Tel-Aviv Museum, 2001), 75, (in Hebrew).
Interview between the author and MiriamTuviah-Boneh, Herzlia, March 2013.
Talia Rappaport, “Biblical Obsession,” Davar, December 29, 1978, 21, (in Hebrew).
Nissim Mevurach, “Castor Oil,” Ha’aretz, January 12, 1979, 24, (in Hebrew).
Rappaport, “Biblical Obsession.”
In order to establish a better understanding of Rappaport’s position regarding the practice of conceptual art and her preference for formal analysis, see Talia Rappaport, “Attempts in Post-Conceptualism,” Davar, February17, 1978, 17, (in Hebrew).
In a 2013 email correspondence between myself and Sarah Breitberg-Semel, I sent her a copy of the article she had written for Davar: “Ten Young Artists,” Davar, January 1973, 24, (in Hebrew), in an effort to understand her critical commentary referencing Michal Na’aman’s work in 1973. In hindsight she acknowledged her lack of comprehension concerning conceptual art, “It is hard for me to remember what I saw then in Michal Na’aman’s work … but I can see from what I wrote that I did not acknowledge her move toward conceptual and linguistic work, as I discuss topics such as composition, and the exhibitory space, and do not relate in any way to Michal’s implementation of language.”
See also, Benjamin H. D. Buchloh, “Conceptual Art 1962–1969: From the Aesthetic of Administration to the Critique of Institutions,” October 55 (Winter 1990): 107. Liz Kotz, Words to Be Looked at: Language in 1960s Art (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2007), 4.
Quotes in this passage are taken from, Mevurach, “Castor Oil.” In order to more fully understand Mevurach’s underlying conceptions pertaining to aesthetic practice, see Nissim Mevurach, “On Two Revolutions in the Visual Arts,” Kaveret 13 (2006): 66–68, (in Hebrew).
Caroline A. Jones, Eyesight Alone: Clement Greenberg’s Modernism and the Bureaucratization of the Senses (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005), 4–6.
Eli Tycher, “Speak It,” Davar, February 20, 1981, 35, (in Hebrew).
Adam Baruch, “The New Beauty and the Ambiguous Anxiety,” in Hebrew, Yediot Achronot, Jan. 5, 1979, 7.
For an in-depth discussion on “disposition,” see Pierre Bourdieu, Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgment of Taste, trans. Richard Nice (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1984), 169–75.
Adam Baruch, “And Who Did Show Up”? Yediot Achronot, July 1981, 22.
Adam Baruch, “The Last Coat of Many Colors in New York,” Yediot Achronot, December 30, 1983, 27, (in Hebrew).
Amitai Mendelsohn, “Symposium,” in Michael Sgan-Cohen: A Retrospective, ed. Tami. Michaeli (Jerusalem: Israel Museum, 2004), 168. The source of Bagda Yehuda is part of a prophetic vision of doom, and is found in the Bible in Jeremiah 3:8 and in Malachi 2:10.
Adam Baruch, “Michael Sgan-Cohen Says …,” Shishi/Tikshoret, March 11, 1994, 18–19.
Ibid. Talmid Chacham is an honorific title given to one well-versed in Jewish law, in effect, a Torah scholar; chiloni is Hebrew for secular. Baruch has appropriated this term such that it now refers to Sgan-Cohen as a secular Torah scholar.
Chaim Lusky, “Associative World,” Yediot Achronot, May 27, 1994, 31, (in Hebrew).
Chaim Maor, “Tefilliin, Prayer & Wonders,” Al’Hamishmar, May 6, 1994, (in Hebrew).
Interview between the author and Itamar Levi, Tel-Aviv, May 2013.
Uri Ram, “Memory and Identity: The Sociology of the Dispute among Historians in Israel,” Theory and Criticism 8 (1996): 20, (in Hebrew).
Rosalind Krauss, “Poststructuralist and the ‘Paraliterary,’” October 13 (Summer, 1980): 36–40; Steven Knapp and Walter Benn Michaels, “Against Theory,” Critical Inquiry 8.4 (Summer 1982): 723; James Elkins, “Art History without Theory,” Critical Inquiry 14.2 (Winter 1988): 354–378.
Louis Torres and Michelle Marder Kamhi, What Art Is: The Esthetic Theory of Ayn Rand, (Chicago: Open Court, 2000), 263; William J. T. Mitchell, Iconography: Image, Text and Ideology (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1987), 208; Robert Nelson and Richard Shiff, Critical Terms for Art History (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996), 49–54.
Ram, “Memory and Identity,” 9–10.
Yehuda Shenhav, “Is There Such a Thing as Secular Jewish Culture?,” Ha’aretz, September 11, 2007, (in Hebrew); Ya’akov Yadgar, Beyond Secularization: Traditionalism and the Critique of Israeli Secularism (Jerusalem: The Van Leer Institute and Ha’Kibbutz Hameuchad, 2012) (in Hebrew); David Sperber, “Israeli Discourse and the Jewish V”oice,” Images 4.1 (2010): 129.
Yigal Zalmona, “The Desire to Observe,” in Michael Sgan-Cohen: A Retrospective, ed. Tami Michelli (Jerusalem: The Israel Museum, 2004), 182.
Amitai Mendelsohn, “The Bible in Primary Colors: The Sources of Michael Sgan-Cohen’s Art,” in Michael Sgan-Cohen: A Retrospective, 178.
Fort Sperber’s suse of the term “hybridization,” see footnote 55 above, Shenhav, “Secular Jewish Culture?”
For more Sperber’s position of continuity between the religious past and the secular present, see footnote 55 above, David Sperber, “Israeli Discourse,” 109.
Guilat, “Between Painting and Poetry,” Mendelsohn, “Symposium,” 167, Zali Gorevich, “Michael Sgan-Cohen: An Aleph-Bet Painter,” Studio 92 (1998): 39–50, (in Hebrew); David Heyd, “I Have Caused You to See It with Your Eyes,” Studio 92 (1998): 20–25, (in Hebrew).
See above note for interpretations of Sitting/Settlement.
As I embark upon my PhD dissertation, this lack of critical commentary by the Israeli art field regarding the contemporary Jewish art movement in Israel will loom large in my research.