Parisian house Pierre Bergé & Associé seems determined to introduce the nation of France to Israeli contemporary art, through a series of multiple efforts: On May 6, the house held France’s first ever Israeli-dedicated sale, featuring 70 artists and 150 works, all made in the past decade. This also marked the launch of a branch of operations dedicated to art from that country, to be followed by a second Israeli department at their Brussels branch in 2011. Fabien Béjean-Lebenson, director of contemporary art at Pierre Bergé & Associé and founder of the Israeli Department, talks to Art in America about the emergence of the country in the international art scene, Tel Aviv’s golden age, and gender equality.
ALICE PFEIFFER: It’s frequent for non-Western nations, even those with major emerging markets, to undergo a fashionable bubble in the contemporary art market. Are you formulating in response to any specific market for Israeli art?
FABIEN BEJEAN-LEBENSON: As far as we are concerned, this isn’t a marketing concept, because Israel’s art culture is already strong enough on its own. The creation of the Israeli department emerged out of personal interest. When traveling recently through the country, I discovered a young, emerging art scene in Tel Aviv, like a mini New York of the 70s. There, I saw a real proliferation of artists, collectors, gallerists, and studios popping in industrial spaces. And we felt a need to promote that internationally.
PFEIFFER: Why not include Israeli art under the Middle-East umbrella, which is quite popular these days?
BEJEAN-LEBENSON: This wouldn’t work, simply because Israel shares none of the values of the region.
PFEIFFER: You mention a new energy, but Israel has been productive in the arts for decades, and has produced key figures such as Mordecai Ardon (1896–1992 ) or Yosl Bergner (b.1920). What structures are in place in Israel that made this the right time?
BEJEAN-LEBENSON: Every country goes through a golden age, which is what is happening to Israel right now. Why a sudden proliferation? No one knows. But the country is more mature now than before.Being a young country, the art works of past decades showed some American influence, but today, it seems to have found its own voice, and own, specific diversity of styles, a mix of neo-realism, new figuration, or minimal in other cases.
PFEIFFER: What did the sale indicate?
BEJEAN-LEBENSON: The sale featured a selection of artists between the ages of 30 and 50 and mostly born in Israel. The works were multi-media and included painting, sculpture, video, and installation. But the work reflected two core movements in Israel: geometric abstraction, which originates from one of the Dada founders, Marcel Janco; and avant-garde neo realism, which includes the works of artists like Samuel Ackerman, Mikail Grobman and Avraham Ofek.
PFEIFFER: Women seem very present in the sale. Was this intentional and what does this suggest about Israel?
BEJEAN-LEBENSON: There is a high proportion of women artists in the country. The fact that women go to the army leads to a organization of gendered tasks, and an overall different voice. There, there is more equality between sexes than I have seen in most countries, and that affects the art work too. As for the content of the work, one can’t generalize of course, but many women artists we showed tend to interrogate issues of civilization and history.
PFEIFFER: And the issue of the politics of the region?
BEJEAN-LEBENSON: The art shown isn’t “war art.” It isn’t about depicting a conflict. It is there; it isn’t at core. Some of the artists chose to address problematics that encompass the political situation, but go beyond it, for example, they look at notions of civilization, and co-habitation.
PFEIFFER: What is the relationship to Judaism? To what extent is Israeli art “Jewish Art?”
BEJEAN-LEBENSON: The work is Jewish, but reflects a new type of Judaism, because the artists are neither Sephardic nor Ashkenazi. They feel entirely Israeli, so the relationship to the past is different. There isn’t the same sense of attachment to one’s roots that one might feel in Europe. The art doesn’t follow the post-Chagall logic; rather, it tends to question a novel identity, and broader questions of modernity, temporality, the notion of history. All the artists have their own mark but carry the same proud Israeli identity.
ABOVE: MICHAL HEIMAN, NENNA FROM AMERICA WITH A SPIDER DRESS, 2003.