Corner, 1973–74. Industrial paint on plywood and chairs, 200 x 200 x 90 cm. Photo: Reuven Milon

The Evolution of a Four-Legged Table: A Conversation with Nahum Tevet

From his childhood on a Socialist-Zionist kibbutz to his present studio workshop in south Tel Aviv, the innovative Israeli sculptor Nahum Tevet views his world, and the things in it, in a very specific manner. Driven by an independence of thought and action, he has parlayed a limited Minimalist ideal into extensive installations and discerning reliefs packed with geometric forms planted on measured architectonic platforms. Tevet’s most recent projects, on which he has been working for more than a decade, are both visually explicit and spiritually perplexing—and well within the canon of Apollonian art.

Gil Goldfine: The collective atmosphere of kibbutz life can be both free and restrictive. You were born on Kibbutz Messilot in 1946. Do you remember when the making of art became more than a childhood activity?
Nahum Tevet: Messilot, which is a Ha’Shomer Ha’Tsair (Young Guard) Socialist-Zionist community in the Beit Shean Valley near the Jordan River, was established as a utopian project in the late 1930s. I lived there until the age of 27. I absorbed the firm social values of community and the visual nuances of Modernism through the architectural building styles (Bauhaus and Brutalist) that determined the settlement’s rural planning, its buildings, and occasional furniture.

I had been into painting since I was a child. During my teenage years, I began to make serious forays, attending occasional classes at the Oranim Teachers College, where I studied drawing with Marcel Janco, the important Dadaist, and painting with local “active” artists. I suppose my teenage vision became a reality after my obligatory army service.

Untitled, 2015. Acrylic and industrial paint on plywood, mirrors, and objects, 780 x 550 x 115 cm. Photo: Elad Sarig

GG: With no previous experience and minimal academic training what options were available to you?
NT: Raffi Lavie, an influential painter and educator, who was the established guru for young Israeli artists in the late 1960s, agreed to take me on as a private student for painting lessons one day a week. He quickly became my mentor, and I took a great deal from his methodology and critical analysis of what a painting is and what an artist should aspire to. This took the form of painting on malleable plywood with cheap industrial paints, coating large surfaces indiscriminately without a narrative. It was 1968–69, when via Time and Life magazines, I became aware of Pop art and the initial spread of conceptual art and Minimalism among local artists. I knew then that working as a gardener on a provincial Israeli kibbutz, I couldn’t pretend to be a Donald Judd or a Richard Serra, artists who impressed me greatly.

After completing my year with Lavie, I shared a large studio space with the kibbutz housepainter. Separated by a flimsy chicken wire wall, I felt some kind of affinity with him and his abilities, those functional mannerisms he used to brush large white surfaces on doors and panels. I questioned the difference between this laborer and myself—the artist—both of us basically performing the same physical act of applying paint to large surfaces.

GG: Looking back at your early minimal installations at the Kibbutz Gallery in Tel Aviv and your first one-person show in 1972 at Sara Gilat Gallery in Jerusalem, which were constructed from a conceptual perspective, I have the feeling they were seminal precursors to your current complex sculptures.
NT: I agree. In my early steps as an artist, I saw myself as a painter, not a sculptor. When Lavie challenged me to work out the shape of my canvas, I began to see the painting as an object. I became interested in how a painting is able to hold itself on the wall, where it is positioned in the space (could it be placed on the floor?), and how it functions and relates to its environment. I realized that I was dealing with questions of placement and relationships between forms and volumes, and that my two-dimensional, abstract-monochrome paintings were being transformed into three-dimensional objects often recalling images of beds and stretchers, which I placed in “white cubes.” These “white cubes” were, in fact, old apartments that, in Israel during those years, were transformed into art galleries. The white space, however, retained its humanistic elements of someone’s world and quality of life. Even then, I was aware that I was merging highly abstract formal codes within spaces projecting domestic characteristics.

Once Here Once There, from the “Narcissus Series,” 1980. Wood and iron, 480 x 280 x 140 cm. Photo: Gad Gur-arie

At the Gilat Gallery, from 1972 through 1974, I showed several works on glass, which were actually physical drawings—dimensional, transparent, and textural assemblages—a result of applying funky things and stuff I found around me on the kibbutz such as masking tape, bits of wire and wood, and clips. But more importantly, I also created a number of installations like Corner (1973–74) and Arrangement of Six Units (1973–74), which transformed thin sheets of painted plywood into active sculptural units. Some people thought they were allegorical references to the horrors of the Yom Kippur War of 1973. Forty-five years later, I am still preoccupied with this basic sculptural component constructed from a top (a painting) and four supporting legs (a deconstructed frame).

GG: A few short years after these works, you took a major leap into a sculptural world of untainted rationalism with the “Narcissus Series” and Jamma’in (1986 and 1990), followed by a more intense series that you called “Painting Lessons.” What were the catalysts behind the change?
NT: During the ’70s, I worked with what I would call “fictional private systems.” Like the “Works on Glass” (1972–75), the “Narcissus Series” grew from a group of drawing installations in which a wall drawing, Wall A, would reappear as a mirror image on another wall, possibly in another room. This concept culminated with Installation For Two Rooms (1979) at the Bertha Urdang Gallery in New York. In this particular installation, viewers found themselves contained within a complex skeletal drawing in space. The wooden construction filled an entire room, which was perfectly mirrored in a second room of the gallery. It was impossible to see the entire work at once, or even to photograph it. This architectural/sculptural experience presented me with new challenges, which led to the “Narcissus Series.”

Jamma’in, 1990. Acrylic and industrial paint on wood, aluminum, and record, 290 x 300 x 275 cm. Photo: Oded Lobl

The mirror metaphor slowly led to broken mirrors, kaleidoscopes, and later to the reflective surface of water. Think, for example, of a stone thrown into a body of water and how the outside world is reflected in it. Everything could be “trapped” in such a reflectional device—a cloud, a bird, an idea, a piece of painting, or a moment of art history. The device is not static; it grows and multiplies in ripples, circular rings that blur through time, and holds you watching. This metaphor allowed me to expand beyond one reductive idea as the “engine” for a work. I am more skeptical, and I would rather plant a number of ideas one against another.

The “Painting Lessons” series (1983–90) and works like Jamma’in developed from such thoughts, which grew in a strong spiraling dynamic that allowed me to free myself from reasoning in a rigid rational/conceptual manner and formulate a more complex experience. From that point on, I stopped making preparatory drawings or models; I believe the actual experience of working in real space and time is much more complex and fertile than what one may envision in a flat drawing or preparatory maquette.

In the “Painting Lessons” series, painting and sculpture collide. Eight large floor sculptures and a few large wall sculptures, best described as an assembly of spiraling geometric elements around a central vortex, appear to defy gravity, sailing through space yet magnetized to a stable core. In works that developed a decade later like Seven Walks (1997–2004) and in the very recent For One Room (2018), I have replaced a single stable central core with many independent “events” in synchronicity, spread across a ground-oriented grid.

Painting Lesson No. 5, 1986. Acrylic and industrial paint on wood and objects, 270 x 315 x 290 cm. Photo: Oded Lobl

GG: I appreciate your dedication to Minimalist-Constructivist sculptures, but like Frank Stella, whom you no doubt admire, have you considered moving away from rational forms into non-geometric, organic shapes?
I don’t think introducing organic shapes is the only way to reach complexity. I make things complex by incorporating many, sometimes disconnected or opposing, rationales within the same work; it is not the “one idea” that makes the works work, but many ideas at once. I am not a purist “abstract artist.” I deal with this tradition from the inside and from the outside, mixing an abstract vocabulary with familiar objects, blending sculpture with painting, getting close to design/architecture/decoration, and referring to different historical moments and artists. I build situations that are beyond one’s ability to perceive all at once, and I play with changing scales and distances. It is impossible to experience my work from one point of view—you need to be active, to wander around or inside the labyrinths—it takes time, and it is left to the viewer to construct a narrative. It is important to me that one cannot verbally describe this work and that it resists photography.

GG: The linear design of Ursa Major with Chairs and Boats (2008–09), a permanent wall installation for the First International Bank of Israel in Tel Aviv, teeters between an architectural substructure and a kinetic wheel or compass. The composition is supported by your familiar four-legged elements and open-ended volumes, echoes of Russian Constructivism. Why the esoteric title?
NT: The First International Bank is situated in the heart of Tel Aviv, where there are many International Style and Bauhaus buildings. My starting point was marking the constellation of Ursa Major by assembling clusters of chairs that I arranged on the floor like a “grounded sky.” Only then, did I shift the clusters from the floor to the vertical wall high above viewers’ heads. Like my floor installations, Ursa Major with Chairs and Boats was time-consuming because of the numerous additional objects suspended on the wall, including books and boats. It’s too complex to view quickly. One should stop and spend time moving along the wall in order to take in the whole; it’s the opposite of what a visitor would expect to find in a street-level lobby of a bank headquarters.

Doubled Mirrors (SLDB), 2015. Acrylic and industrial paint on wood and metallic mirror, 50 x 42 x 34 cm. Photo: © Nahum Tevet, Courtesy the artist and James Cohan, NY

GG: Gideon Ofrat, in his book One Hundred Years of Art in Israel, labeled you the anti-locality Israeli artist. Are you convinced?
NT: It is more complex than Ofrat’s label. From my very first show, I have always worked within a much broader international perspective of abstraction. My heroes were Judd, Ryman, and Serra. But, working in a provincial atmosphere, on a remote, relatively poor kibbutz during the early 1970s, my work projected a sort of incredibly local version of Arte Povera.

GG: Can you discuss your working process and how these massive installations with scores of units come together?
NT: I am a hands-on artist. My studio is divided into departments similar to a factory, where products move on a conveyor belt. My initial room is the carpentry shop, a production line where I construct, in series, the various elements that I think I will need for my installations. These artificial readymades have no specific placement in my mind, and I don’t know if they will be required at all. After carpentry, I move to the painting department, where I paint each constructed unit a different color so that it has a specificity and a uniqueness. I then store them all on shelves or in piles in the next and final department.

The assembly room is where the adventure begins. I have no preconceived notions, plans, or sketches when I start to work, only a general idea. The installation might not have a center; it might make a low or tall sculpture; it could be painterly or non-painterly, with decorative or flat hues, but it will probably take a long time to complete. There is a great deal of intuitive consideration taking place, a lot of give and take. Whenever I start a new piece, it is like setting off on a journey without knowing where it will lead. It is a great challenge to stick to a set of limitations and work with a small number of building blocks while hoping for surprising possibilities and unexpected results.

Gil Goldfine is a freelance contributing art editor and journalist based in Tel Aviv, Israel.