Izhar Patkin is an Israeli artist who has lived in New York since the late 1970s. His broad body of work, including the enormously successful ‘Black Paintings’ and more recently ‘Veiled Threats’ draws on European, American and Israeli cultural traditions for a vision that is uniquely his own. He intentionally ceased participating in ‘the gallery system’ after the death of his dealer Holly Solomon in 2002, but this self-imposed absence hasn’t mitigated the demand for his often monumental, narrative pieces and he is currently preparing a major retrospective at the Tel Aviv museum next year.
During our interview his manner was purposefully no nonsense, sometimes brusque—he simply doesn’t have time for any small talk. And, he made it quite clear from the get-go that this wasn’t to be a piece about his living space—a vast arrangement of rooms surrounding interior gardens bordering the Lower East Side—but a discussion concerning his art. And his off-handed responses about his art and life often bordered on the existential. Yet in the end, we found him brilliant and, perhaps to his chagrin, a charmer who is easy to tease.
Well, can you talk a little bit about the art you’re making.
I’m working on a few things now … I’m working here in New York in the studio, on a collaboration with a Kashmiri poet [Agha Shahid Ali] … and then there are two other projects I’m doing. I’m working in a glass factory in Marseilles and I’m also working in Sèvres.
How did you start making the first piece [involving glass]?
These are all incidental, these are not things I made for the purpose of making them … I made a huge sculpture in glass, a figure of a dancer, 14 feet tall, a combination of Shiva Nataraja, Josephine Baker and Carmen Miranda, which in now in the collection of the Guggenheim and everything you see in the house is basically leftovers from that project … you’re just an artist so you have a house, whatever, friends, and things just happen, like, what do call it? Like … aftershocks. I just make things like a craftsman makes gifts for his grandchildren. Everything you see in the house that’s not art, falls into that category.
But you do dishes …
The same thing with dishes. When I moved here, I didn’t have any dishes and my friend Lawrence had a kiln, so I just made them. Then people saw them and started commissioning them and actually it turned into a pretty lucrative little business, but I never set out to do them. It doesn’t have the same discipline that making art has.
Let’s talk about the glass factory in Marseilles …
It’s an atelier in Paris and it has been there for maybe two decades now, and they have a history of inviting experimental artists to do projects there.
What’s the project?
We did a large sculpture, which you can see on my website, called ‘The Messiah’s Glass’. It came out of a book that a friend of mine wrote in Israel, called The Messiah’s Ass – the Messiah’s donkey, which is the history of Orthodox Judaism in Israel. It’s the story of twisted faith …
Were you brought up in a religious home?
Do you practice Judaism at all?
But you view it as a form of poetry?
It’s a fact, you know, a fact. It’s not going to help you if you’re standing on line to the gas chambers and say you’re not a Jew. It’s a cultural heritage. Judaism today, for many in Israel, basically expresses itself in Hebrew, in the fact of the language. You can’t escape it, it’s the meta-narrative into which you are born, so you can’t say, oh well, nah … it’s there.
And it winds its way into how you express yourself, obviously…
It doesn’t only wind its way in, it’s there. Years ago I had a conversation with Nam Joon Paik who was a Buddhist and he knew nothing about the Bible, he was 60 years old and he knew nothing about the Bible, it was really interesting. He was asked to do a commission on a biblical subject, so he called me up and said, you’ve got to tell me this story, Genesis or something … so I told him the story, you know, the Garden of Eden, you know, Eve ate from the apple and whatever. And he said, this is what you grew up on?! I said, yeah! He was like, wow! You guys are really nuts!
Tell me about the glass piece. What is it?
It’s a very inventive blown-glass piece that looks like the Ark of the Covenant … you have to see it to understand it.
It is blown in one piece?
No, pieces. It’s very complex, the blowing. We really pushed the envelope.
I was watching [some glass blowers] in the Chihuly studio and it’s really complicated because the stuff is so hot … it’s scary. I mean, you’re holding this long rod with this hot lava on the end of it …
They would tell you it’s exciting, not scary. The guys, when they do it, would tell you it’s a real high. Because it’s magic. It’s really about making something out of nothing because what is glass? It’s silica, it’s sand. The whole transformation, it’s fantastic.
Well, is this what you do, start making something out of nothing?
Yeah, until you become older and then you realize that even the something is nothing.
So ever since Holly Solomon you haven’t committed yourself to a dealer, have you?
No. I probably should get off my high horse and take care of it but in the last decade, basically since she died, I was not in the mood. But this Tel Aviv show that I’m doing at the end of 2010 will probably be a decade of work that nobody’s ever seen … but it was right for me to do that. At the turn of this century, there was a lot of death around me and it was a very contemplative time and I was doing well. People were still buying the work and I didn’t feel the need to participate in that particular dance … but now there’s so much work that has accumulated, so I’m feeling the pressure. Doing the work is a bit Zen and doing the marketing is steroids, and they don’t mix together.
No, they totally don’t mix together.
It’s funny, the way the system operates now with the galleries. Everybody wants the security that you are in the system. It’s almost like a tribal thing. At one point a collector asked me, why don’t you want to show with any dealer now, and I said I didn’t need it at that time, and then I realized it was like telling your mother you don’t want to get married. It’s not a joke, it kind of shakes the stability of the system. Imagine if 20 important artists were to say, we’re done with the gallery system … there would be hysteria.
The recognition part of it doesn’t seem to be a huge part of your identity.
No. But the recognition is nice because it creates a dialogue with an audience that [means] you can continue to grow. I never repeat things. It’s always about storytelling.
When you were kid did you always wanted to create things?
The two things I did as a kid, if you want to summarize, one was I was always moving things around the house. I was always moving the furniture. If I didn’t like things I used to throw them out the window, if they didn’t fit into the scheme of things. And the other thing was that I always had fantasies of going through the walls. When I bought this house, I went around and I knocked on the walls to hear if they were hollow, spaces behind the walls, and we found three rooms that were not on the floorplan.
Do you believe in ghosts then?
No. I don’t believe in any of that. It’s all in our lives, it’s all a construct of our own.
So what do you think happens when somebody dies?
Who cares? I don’t know. The worms eat you.