Images That Obey the Eye

Avigdor Arikha's paintings express the surface appearances of things with such a disarming aptness that, while they satisfy the eye most convincingly, they open up an odd emptiness in the viewer's mind. ``Is that all?'' you find yourself, perhaps not quite consciously, wondering. Is painting only concerned with the highlight on a carrot, the color of a shirt, the softness of a fur hat, or the cool gray light of a corridor wall?

Arikha's drawings, prints, and paintings have been representational since the time in the 1960s when he turned against the modernism and abstraction he had until then wholeheartedly pursued. They have reproduced, in line, ink mark, or paint, what his eye tells him.

He has evolved certain strategies or postures to ensure that his images obey his eye naively. For example, he makes his paintings in a single day - like the Renaissance fresco painters who finished painting on a designated area of damp plaster in a single day because once the plaster was dry, the pigments no longer integrated with the wall properly. Arikha has adapted for his oil paintings this imposed pressure, which concentrates him by demanding speed and simple directness with the brush: There is no time for reconsiderations. Even the fresco painters added certain pigments (blue and gold, for instance) to their images after the plaster was dry, but Arikha leaves his one-day paintings as they stand.

THERE is an irony here, since oil paint dries slowly, can be scraped or wiped off, can be painted over, and built up in layers or glazes. Yet Arikha denies himself such sophistications and behaves almost as if he were using the challengingly unalterable medium of watercolor. For a period he did, in fact, paint a number of watercolors, but then he stopped. Perhaps he decided that it was either too enticing a medium, or looked (as it tends to) too facile. The fluidity of watercolor in skilled hands can easily become a clever spontaneity.

Arikha's hands are skilled, all right. But he knows he needs to fight against fatal facility, against style. He has hinted that too much skill, craft, sophistication, or meaning would undermine the tentative intensity he aims at. In a 1976 interview with Maurice Tuchman in ``Art International,'' Arikha (who is an articulate intellectual - a writer and art historian as well as a painter) was asked:

``How do you manage not to paint themes and ideas, since you think so much?''

The artist replied: ``When I think I don't paint. When I paint I can't think. I'm stupid. Ideas are expressed by words. Painting starts where words stop.``

This could only be true up to a point, of course, but it expresses his stance. Painting is a wordless, and, particularly, a theory-less business at its best. When Arikha paints objects - things like hats, shirts, painting tools, and vegetables in or out of wrapping paper - the essential dumbness of these subjects aids his ``stupidity.'' He once said, when talking about what he believes to be the impossibility of using art to represent great events like the Holocaust (Arikha is Jewish) or war: ``Instead of painting the wars, I paint a tomato....'' He might equally (if he had still been an abstract painter) have said that instead of painting the wars, he painted a painting.

But he clearly believes that painting a tomato has more point to it. Or at least that if he was right to conclude that abstract painting had failed to express anything that mattered, then to paint realistically again was to take up a difficulty that painting needed in order to remain alive, and if that meant courting even greater failure, so be it. Perhaps it is pointlessness, rather than meaning, that a 20th-century artist must make his aim.

The ``tomato'' quote comes from a new book called ``Arikha,'' by Duncan Thomson, that offers an impressive biographical study of the artist and his work: It holds a wealth of reproductions of his childhood drawings of Nazi concentration camp existence, and covers his abstract period right through to some of his paintings and pastels recently exhibited at London's Marlborough Fine Art gallery. Although this book is based on many interviews between the author and the artist, it is not like the 1985 book on Arikha (now out of print) that was composed of articles by and about him and directly transcribed interviews. The quality of color reproduction in this new book is also different - much stronger than it was in the earlier volume.

Among the writers of the previous book was the playwright Samuel Beckett. Thomson, in the new book, continually emphasizes the close friendship between Arikha (who today divides his time between Paris and Israel) and Beckett. At the end of the book, Thomson quotes Beckett in his short novel ``Worstward Ho'':

``On. Say on.... Nothing else ever. Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.''

And Thomson ends with his own variation on the theme:

``Arikha's art, in its distilled beauty, is about survival, going on, failing better, saying again, seeing again, as if for the first time, seeing for the first time.''

SUCH utterances pitch Arikha's art into an arena of seriousness, if not despair, where that might well not be immediately obvious to someone looking at his paintings without background knowledge.

A painting of four hats could easily be mistaken for just a painting of four hats. A monochrome print of a walking stick casting a shadow on a wall or a coat (both of which were images Arikha used to illustrate a prose piece by Beckett) are in terrible danger of being misunderstood as utterly commonplace.

It is not without irony that the need for added information in order to feel your way into the intention and potential of an artist's work - into his inner language - is exactly the predicament that assails many who find abstract art baffling. The painting of things, of objects, is no less liable to incomprehension.

In Arikha's portraits (many of himself, his wife, and daughters), and in his paintings of nudes, however, it is quite literally impossible to see them as ``stupid.'' Even though the artist's effort and acuity are bent on what Thomson calls ``the scrutiny of appearances,'' it is inescapable that these are human records, human images, histories of attitude, character, relationship, circumstance, and change. They cannot be simply paintings of humans as mindless objects. Even his nudes are never just studio models posing. Indeed, some of them have a disturbing resonance with those photographs of starving nakedness that have survived from the Holocaust.

In his self-portraits, above all, Arikha is undeniably conscious of the irony of trying to paint himself ``stupidly'' yet being quite unable to do so. He deliberately makes absurd faces (like the young Rembrandt acting to his mirror) - opens his mouth vacantly - stares blankly through dark mirror glasses, and even pictures himself not painting (in a painting called ``Rest at the Easel'').

But whatever he does, he cannot prevent or avoid the conveyance of feeling and intelligence: His ``stupid'' face becomes one of humanity or even suffering, his pause at the easel an image of a man (himself) lost in a deep well of thought, his dark glasses a symbol of the artist's power of sight to fathom or penetrate what lies on the other side of ... mere appearances.

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