izhar patkin

Miscellaneous Texts on Izhar Patkin

Table of Contents:
1. Some Thoughts on Izhar Patkin, text by David Ross
2. Two Artsist Sitting Under a Tree, Izhar Patkin chez Neil Jenney's lumberyard, a conversation

3. Once upon a time I asked my father where electricity came from text by Izhar Patkin written for     the Raoul Dufy catalog (2008)  Musée d'Art Moderne de la VIlle de Paris


Some Thoughts on Izhar Patkin
Text by David Ross
published in Artis catalog, March 2008

It may be the nature of our time that those who reveal what we would rather not acknowledge are ignored or worse, expelled. This may seem clearly true in the world of politics and social relations, yet is equally true in art – though the exclusion may be less obvious. The art world, after all, is composed of unarmed camps that manage to contest by making invisible all that they feel the need to deny.
Izhar Patkin is an artist who has faced up to the test of critical expulsion, and has survived his time in the wilderness quite well. A sabra, Patkin first violated rule one for Israeli artists by moving to New York where he felt free to embrace and re-invent the complex hybridity that lies at the core of being an Israeli.
Patkin arrived in the USA in the late 1970’s – the moment when content (in the form of identity politics) began to emerge as central to the contest of values and ideas that has come to characterize the last quarter century of contemporary art practice. His engagement with narrative immediately set him apart from the formalism of post-minimalism, but more significantly his desire to acknowledge and mine the cultural roots of his own history – a history quite representative of that of many Israelis of his generation – linked him to a generation of artists around the world who similarly embraced the hybrid nature of all cultural expression. But ironically, taking on the role of the storyteller/narrator/author (so natural to Jewish & Israeli tradition) put him on a collision course with the post-modern practices dominant in the New York art world at that time.
This was the second rule of Israeli life Patkin felt compelled to flaunt. With no disrespect to the deeply embedded need for contemporary Israelis to repress their root cultures in order to construct and fully embrace the social construction that is the modern Israeli, Patkin openly engaged global culture – its collisions and its occlusions.
Starting in the mid 1980’s with the enormous success of The Black Paintings and continuing in his current work Veiled Threats, Patkin finds both meaning and beauty in the complexity and contradictions that continue to dog late modernism. But now the world at large – including progressive Israelis – has revised its view and embraces the import of Patkin’s project: the rejection of all forms of fearful tribalism and a willingness to explore and celebrate the nature of life and love beyond the simplification of essentialism.

-David Ross, February 2008

David A. Ross, former director of ICA Boston, the Whitney and SFMOMA, is a co-founder of the Artist Pension Trust.


Two Artists Sitting Under a Tree
Izhar Patkin
chez Neil Jenney’s lumberyard, a conversation, Artforum, October 1992
pp. 80-82


I am not a writer.  I am a painter.  I can call a painting a “painting,” but I don’t really know about “literature” by artists.  On the other hand, this magazine is called Artforum, so I’m in the forum, and I’ve got my toga on, and I’m ready to roll . . . Since an artist’s work and the ideas behind it usually come to the public via labels that do not speak the language of the creative process, perhaps an artist can be the best conduit for another artist’s ideas.  This new series of visits between artists could give voice to ideas without becoming enslaved by formal, academic, or journalistic shopping lists.  These are not the terms in which artists work, live, think, or talk to each other, and many times that’s how the story is missed.  We work and talk in “real” terms: somewhere between “Where do you get that great ga-ga-gooey oil stick” and the desire to defy labels and to get on with the work.

When Neil Jenney first presented his “Bad Paintings,” in the late ‘60’s, they were grouped under the annoying label “Funk Art,” primarily because of their look.  We would never have understood Jenney’s intent without his own insistence that he was thinking of himself as part of an American realist tradition that stretches from the Hudson River School to Andy Warhol. 

Neil Jenney:  I was stuck in a historical corner called “Funk Art,” which was a real entity in the ‘60’s, but the foundation of my contemporary expression was in abstract art.  In those days hard edge was still far out.  The New York School didn’t become an accepted center until Pop art rejected it, became “in,” and was understood.  Up until that moment it was all Paris. 

Izhar Patkin:  a la Monet Water Lilies. 

Pop art moved us to an American experience and made a clear separation between Paris and New York.  No way European anymore; Pop art came and said “We will no longer play the game of moving paint around.  We’re going to just pick an image of America and say: Look, that’s important.”  Pop art is realism, and realism was not considered contemporary in the ‘50s and ‘60s.  Warhol’s “machine” paintings paved the way for realism again. 
His use of the silk-screen was a contemporary innovation equal to that of formal abstraction.  But the real news was actually Marilyn with cheap lipstick and eyeshadow – a new realism that’s American.

In 1968-69, when Jenney made the “Bad Paintings,” Concept Art (you couldn’t get more factual than that) and Photorealism (at the other end of the realist spectrum) were the cat’s pajamas.  You can imagine how they crowded his realist vision. 

Concept Art reduced to Idea Art – got to get to science in the end.  But artists are actually always dealing with object-making.  And it can’t be pseudoscience.  In the end, Concept Art doesn’t have the profound implications of science, so I didn’t find it fulfilling.  Photorealism looked like second-generation Pop.  It was just copying photographs.  It missed the point of realism.  I wanted to do realism, which is about things relating to other things.  They wanted to make it nice and neat; I wanted to make it nice and sloppy.  The “Bad Paintings” I called my “unconcerned” style.  I wanted content; in Girl in Doll, Husband and Wife, Risk and Hazard, I was trying to show the structure of content.  So, no Funk Art, please?  I was concerned that my work was misinterpreted.  That’s when I added the titles.  This literary dimension was about directness – an added layer of meaning; it was not an illustrative reduction.  So your style was not so “unconcerned” after all.  Making it look casual is not easy.  Useful spontaneity is planned.  You have to prepare for it.  When did your “unconcerned” style become “Bad Painting”?  That was Marcia Tucker’s idea.  She said “Bad Painting” not “Bad Art.”  I said, I can go along with that!

Richard Marshall’s “new Image Painting” show presented “ten painters who utilize imagery in non-traditional and innovative ways and make images the dominant feature in their paintings.”

After 1971 Jenney’s image got smaller and the frames got bigger; the paintings got more refined and the titles louder.

I realized that the whole “Bad Painting” thing was holding me back.  I wanted to make good paintings . . . I was thinking about ancient art and how it was the high tech of its time, whereas today art is on the low-tech side.  I thought that it was time for an age of refinement.  You know, when you say “bad paintings,” we look and say “They aren’t that bad, in fact they are kind of good.”  And when you say “good paintings” we say, “You know, they aren’t that good . . . [laughter];  I’m constantly disappointed with the level of perfection when I look at them.  Don’t you think that the “good paintings” actually address a taste that is considered bad (Slick, Hallmark, atmospheric)?  Mind you, I have no taste, since to me everything is cultural information, or prejudice.  Are you saying that the paintings are not really sophisticated?    On the contrary, I think they are extremely sophisticated exactly because they embrace imagery that is closer to “regionallike” craft than mainstream or media-derived high art.  Your feeling about the lowness of these paintings will be confirmed when you see my new paintings.  [laughter]

An important story that is still missed is the American story and not the one that deals with formalism and the rebellion against it.  That saga has been packaged and repackaged over and over again.  The story I’m referring to is the one of content –the narrative that links the chain of American events. 

Every generation has its dragons: Abstract Expressionism was responding to the Cold War.  American  culture was neurotically obsessed with the threat of communism.  Them and us.  Take out the French water lilies, or the country scenes of Cézanne, and you are left with the paint strokes.  Throw it into the melting pot, forget where you came from (we were building a new, homogenized, modern America), and you get to the perfect neutral story of formalism, the one that actually fought for freedom from propaganda, interpretation, or any content other than is true self.  And why not?  We won the war!

Then comes the reign of a centralized, corporate America.  The new unity of the new American dream.  It is to be the dream of the whole world.  Corporations don’t stop at home: Coca-Cola, comics, Campbell soup cans, and Hollywood stars are the still lifes, landscape paintings, and portraits of this new world.  It is all Americanerie for worldwide export (just as chinoiserie was a colonial airport).  America coming to terms with its own popularity.  Europe seems so far away. 

The talk about high-art/low-art or commercial-art/fine-art was informed by the same sentiment as the “Marxist” interpretation of abstraction’s autonomy.  “Labor” was the key.  The story of the abstractionists as the noble workers toiling with true, good paint (and without bourgeois illusions) was replaced by the story of the Pop artists as middle class—our true, good work force—with every bourgeois dream intact.  Minimalism (industrial strength), the other American image, was also sustained by the fruits of this interpretive labor.  I’m not being cynical here, these efforts were all well meant—artists building the dignity of their own generation. 

Whatever the intention was, Gold Marilyn remains the embodiment of a corporate Greek tragedy. 

Then came the big crash.  A new war.  One we were not going to win.  The cities falling apart.  Racial unrest.  Women’s rights.  The sexual revolution.  Role reversals.  The rule of Hollywood studios over stars is over.  Birth of the common hero.  Ecology.  Expansion of the nuclear family.  Gay liberation.  American youth dropping out, Woodstock, romancing the land, fighting bigotry, fighting for equality and justice on a scale that was unheard of before.  It was the biggest revolution in the American history of values since the Civil War.  The American dream was no longer the dream of the whole world.  Actually, the world was getting sick of us.  Neil Jenney and other artists came into the picture.  They wanted an image of America that wasn’t the supermarket, corporate image but, maybe better, the local bodega. 

A humanized awareness.  I was trying to offer an alternative image of America—trying to expand on just the big-business aspect of America that was on the realist scene at the time.  My task was to make my life more intimate and small; like digging a hole. 

Neil Jenney’s work is an important link between Pop and today’s art.  You don’t measure this kind of importance by how many artists copied his style (they didn’t).  He is important as a major link in the narrative of our national identity.  At that point artists were not producing work within a stylistic peer group, but as a heterogeneous group sharing a revolutionary time together.  The women did “masculine” work; the men took to sewing machines.  They became involved with craft as labor, not with ideas about labor.  Regionalism played a role in this new, decentralized New York dominance.  “Ethnic” expression was beginning to rise to the surface.  Decoration was the vehicle to discover Third Worldism.  There was a desire for an intense democratization of the system—you are who you are.  The rejection by young American artists of their country’s role of world leadership ironically led mainstream European art into the future; as we saw later, with the trans-avantgarde, Italians became Italian, Germans became German.

Inevitably, I was going to make American art.  That’s where my soul is.  I’m built American.  But not only American.  Actually your work is very New England.  Think of Currier and Ives; it can almost be seen as Americana of the pre-American-empire times.  I wanted to go from bigness to smallness.  It was a change of task.  I didn’t want that gun-power/American right or wrong/Vietnam nightmare. 

We are going to have to find new models to save not only society, butt the environment and the world.  Consider the difference between a forest and a tree farm: it’s the difference between complex diversity and homogeneity.  Modernist style was “monocultural”; it was international, but, like tree farms, homogeneous and, as we have learned, without cross-fertilization, tree farms die out.  Jenney’s paintings partake of a New England WASPy heritage, but they present white Anglo-Saxon Protestants as one ethnic group among many, not as the masters of the universe.  Forget the monolithic attitude; these paintings share the wall with other cultural expressions.  Difference, diversity, pluralism: Jenney’s work is an important link to a present and future generation that is anticipating and already participating in the arrival of the global village. 

Once upon a time I asked my father where electricity came from
text by Izhar Patkin
written for the Raoul Dufy catalog (2008)  Musée d'Art Moderne de la VIlle de Paris

Once upon a time I asked my father where electricity came from. My father, Aryeh Patkin, was an electrical engineer by profession. I was four or five or six, I am not sure that I understood what engineer meant but I knew he got up very morning for the Israel Electricity Company. Turned out he specialized in implementing techniques for handling live high voltage wires - live mega million watt wires! God forbid the buzz would stop for a single minute!

We sat down and he whipped up pages and pages of magical drawings. First, ships delivering coal to the power plant in Haifa Bay1; then fire and heat and steam turbines. The mysterious smoking chimneys like giant yogurt-jars were a winner


Electric poles and wires carried free ions made up of little dots, dashes and arrows; transformation stations and fuse boxes; and at the end of the line, my mother with the vacuum.

“I guess all you wanted to hear was that electricity came out of the wall outlet,” he said laughing. The tabletop was completely covered with his pen and paper sketches.
“Cool. Now will you draw me a chicken dancing on an egg?” I asked.
He did a good one.
“Now a chicken dancing on a globe,” I implored.
He did a good one.
“Wow, thanks! I am going to learn how to draw when I grow up.”

Decades later, on his dying bed, his last words to me were: "All my life I was seen an engineer, but my deeper story was firstly of a sentimental man, I know you can understand this, you are an artist and you had success at it" “Sentimental about what?” I wanted to know.
“About building things. Town and country. Even an electric grid.”

Once upon another time I met a fairy. Holly Solomon2. A soul mate, a friend, a glamorous rebel, a genius, hah, she was also my Art dealer... On a trip to Paris, she introduced me to Raoul Dufy's Electric Fairy. She had a plan.

Raoul Dufy's "La fee electricite" (1937)
Musée d' Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris

Standing in the middle of the Dufy painting, which was covering an entire oval-egg-shaped room, there was not much to explain to each other; a nod and a smile was plenty. I had just finished The Black Paintings33, which covers four walls of a grand room; a painting you walk into.

Dufy's oval room is a grid of frescos; my rectangular room is a sequence of black rubber curtain pleats. A story of time and illumination flows through both paintings.

The Black Paintings is a narrative based on Jean Genet’s The Blacks; a Clown Show. My black, like Genet’s, is not a metaphor for a guzzler of white light, but rather a canvas for twinkling stars & lunar hide and go seek. With metaphor, it does not matter where electricity comes from, or if fairies, cupids or chickens flapping their wings generate it. Metaphor does not care what comes first; the chicken or the egg? Nor does it matter whether time ends or starts at dusk or dawn. "They all have their exits and their entrances.4" What matters is assertive transformation.

“God forbid the electric buzz would stop for a single minute,” I said to Holly. “On second thought, forget God. Who cares? Didn’t he quit Paris with the Enlightenment and again with the Nazis? Isn’t it amazing to think that La Fee Electricite was first unveiled along side the Nazi pavilion, Soviet pavilion and Guernica at the Exposition Internationale des Arts et Techniques dans la Vie Moderne in1937, all at the same time…”

“What God?” she laughed. “It seems that there is an earthly conspiracy to turn off Dufy's power. You are forbidden to like Dufy if you want to be considered serious. You must choose! Matisse or Dufy. Period,” she protested.

“It is marvelously appalling to mention Dufy to a knowing connoisseur, worse than an electric shock,” I laughed.

“See why I did the Dufy show two years ago?” she said as we walked out of the painting. “Hey, wanna paint my dining room? Rubber curtains? All around?” she winked. “Hungry already? We can discuss over Mont Blanc at Angelina’s.”

I didn’t mention the connection to Nam June Paik’s robot bride. It is part of the same story, but in another time. Do your own research5.


1. Patkin was born in Haifa, Israel, 1955. The Israel Electric Company is located in Haifa Bay. Its futuristic chimneys are very prominent fixtures in the bay’s landscape.

2. Patkin showed at the Holly Solomon Gallery from 1981 until Holly passed away in 2002.
In 1984, the Holly Solomon Gallery presented a show of Dufy’s work that sparked new “concise introduction to the range of Dufy's achievement” John Russell, New York Times, November 9, 1984. The show included ''The Black Cargo Boat.''

3. Izhar Patkin, The Black Paintings, 1985-86. 14”h X 22”w X 28”L.
Collection; Museum of Modern Art, NY.
A grand scale room of painted black rubber curtains based on Jean Genet’s play The Blacks: A clown show.

4. William Shakespeare; As You Like It

5. During the late 80’s and the early 90’s, Paik and Patkin collaborated on numerous works