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Art Treasures in Israel

Last week, I got high: not once, not twice but more or less all week long. Traveling to Israel with a delegation of art patrons organized by the Jewish Federation of Los Angeles turned out to be the adventure of a lifetime. It's less than twenty-four hours since I returned from my first trip there and my head is still spinning from encounters with fascinating people, ancient and contemporary art, and landscapes of unsurpassed beauty. Landing in Israel at midnight, I was welcomed by two gorgeous ancient Roman mosaics installed above the gateway to the impressive, ultra-modern Ben Gurion International Airport. This was the perfect metaphor for things to come.

On a blistering hot and humid day in Jerusalem, ancient stones of the city radiated its incredibly complex and often bloody history. We made the obligatory visit to sacred sites including the Wailing Wall and the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. It was fascinating. However, not being religious, I didn't feel overwhelmed as many visitors usually do. Not until we entered the sprawling compound of the Israel Museum with its world class, encyclopedic collection of art, did I sense the presence of a higher power. The name of my god is spelled with three letters: A-R-T and, when I strolled through the magical sculpture garden designed by Isamu Noguchi that's where I felt transported. The site-specific installation by Richard Serra consists of four gigantic, rusty steel plates coming to a point where they almost meet but don't touch. Seen from above it forms a cross with a void in the center and stepping into this void, I felt chills down my spine. It was the most brutal and poetic work evoking the subject of the crucifixion with no particular God in sight.

As part of the Tel Aviv-Los Angeles Partnership, our delegation spent most of our time in Tel Aviv, where we visited artists' studios, art schools, museums and galleries. We met professional people whose passion and dedication to art was especially impressive considering the modesty and hardship surrounding many of them. The Bezalel Academy of Art & Design had an exhibition of graduate students which was absolutely the best exhibition of its kind-- in terms of the quality of its art, installation and catalogue. I haven't seen anything better in any of the top art schools in Southern California. A visit to the Tel Aviv Museum with its strong collection of modern and contemporary art was a revelation. I was happy to find there the traveling exhibition of Israel's most celebrated contemporary artist, Michal Rovner -- the exhibition that I had just missed on a recent trip to Paris where it was seen at the Jeu de Paume. How great it would be if this exhibition would come to LA. In her video installations, the artist transforms the writing of the Dead Sea Scrolls into a mesmerizing ritual dance of molecules which under closer inspection reveal their identity as tiny human figures. The stunning full-length portrait by Gustav Klimt is, hands down, the most amazing painting in the Museum's collection. I asked about the possibility of bringing this masterpiece to LACMA to be seen along with the five great Klimts from the Maria Altmann collection. Pity, it cannot travel as it was given to the Tel Aviv Museum on condition that it never be loaned.

On the last day of our trip, we drove to the Kibbutz Ein Harod which has the oldest Israeli museum. This 1940's building contains a series of galleries bathed in beautifully modulated natural light. Architects from around the world, including Renzo Piano, make a pilgrimage here to study the subtle secrets of its modest structure. Before returning to Tel Aviv, we made one final stop in the Israeli Arab town, Umm al Fahm to see a pioneer gallery showing avant-garde art by Israeli and Arab artists. The very existence of this gallery, with its fourteen years of struggle to survive in a less than hospitable environment, is a miracle. Then and there, I felt a strong confirmation in my belief that art and culture have the potential to overcome the walls keeping us apart.

  • Israel Museum Jerusalem
  • Bezalel Academy of Art & Design
  • Tel Aviv Museum
  • Museum of Art Ein Harod
  • Umm al Fahm Gallery
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