Now, only months after the artist’s death, is no time to be coy. Moshe Givati’s work is a revelation: dynamic, throbbing with life, pulsating with meaning. The exhibition “Equus Ambiguity – The Emergence of Maturity,” is up for only a few more days but I urge you to hurry to the Jadite Gallery and familiarize yourself with this under-recognized artist.
Givati was born in 1934 in Hadera to Romanian speaking parents months after his father’s death—a traumatic event that his mother never talked to him about and about which he died knowing almost nothing. Although Givati was associated with several Israeli, European and American artistic movements such as New Horizons and its successor, Tazpit, in Israel and associated with Lyrical Abstract painters in France, Givati resisted such categorization and was even hostile to names and labels. To that end, he did not title his works or publicly interpret them, claiming in an interview, “If art lovers find ideas in the paintings, they are experiencing their own discovery. My touch on the canvas is my story.” Promotional material, as well as the exhibition catalogue from his 2006 retrospective in Tel Aviv note Givati’s insecurity and desire for acceptance. I suspect, however, that Givati, a lifetime manic-depressive, craved recognition more than acceptance and by this I mean recognition in the true sense—instead of accolades, Givati wanted people to recognize and validate the journey laid bare on his diptychs.
Givati provided clues. His final exhibit is named for the 1974 play in which a psychotic boy blinds six horses in a work that explores themes of religion, sacrifice and mental illness—themes Givati was intimately acquainted with. He was not, however, that boy. In the second half of the exhibition’s title, Givati claimed a banner, an “emergence” of maturity. A term that often evokes equanimity and serenity, maturity is just as much a meditation on loss. Growing into an identity involves peeling and discarding other identities. Only once you reach maturity do you realize that you cannot be a fireman, a world leader and an artist.
Givati’s career was long and uneven. While at times Givati associated with collectives—he spent many of his early years on a Kibbutz—he never felt fully integrated into collectives, whether an artistic, religious or a nationalistic movement. Givati was both celebrated as an up and coming artist and fell into homelessness. He associated for a time with the Lubavitch community in Crown Heights and even met with the Lubavitcher Rebbe a few times. Givati spent years living outside of Israel, feeling at home nowhere but always with a drive to create, to search, to explore. His was a journey, an odyssey even, and despite reaching maturity, Givati was not able to shake off the pathos of Equus, the torture of ambiguity. Givati was like the man who longs for the security of belonging to a group but is unable to cling to a group to which he feels anything less than complete solidarity for. Givati was a journeyman and, while still at the kibbutz in name, left for long periods of time to travel in Europe—Rome, Toledo and especially Paris. In 1974, Givati moved to New York City, lived in the Chelsea Hotel—famous for its artist residents at the time, and operated a screen-printing workshop.
In the beautifully displayed exhibition, Givati’s history is all but transcribed on the walls. As the title informs, the theme is Equus—based on the 1973 play by Peter Schaffer, and almost every work in the exhibit features horses, usually lightly rendered on a deeply saturated and colored canvas. Givati’s background in screen-printing, for example, is apparent in a delicately rendered textile of the image of a horse, or more precisely, a model of a horse. In the painting, the horse seems more like a mannequin, there to hold a textile of some sort that reads like a Native American blanket. Underneath the blanket is another black and white covering on the horse. It could be a tallit. Or it could be a shroud.
We the viewers, the reviewers, the curators and the collectors are left to sort through the material remains of that process. We are left to draw comparisons between Givati and New York artists, especially Givati’s fellow residents at the Chelsea Hotel of the late 1970’s and early 1980’s: Larry Rivers, whose influence was acknowledged by Givati and other artists who played with the role of narrative in art such as Jean Michel Basquiat, Donald Baechler and even Francis Bacon who used triptychs the way Givati uses diptychs, investigating the fragmentations, the dichotomies of the soul while referencing religious imagery. Givati recalls in his memoirs that when he visited in the early sixties, he “found London inundated with Francis Bacon’s works. Nouvelle figuration had already infiltrated the world of abstract, and later influenced my work as well, which in essence was not lyrical abstract at all, as it was often described.”1 It wouldn’t be the only time that Givati borrowed imagery from a religion that was not his own.
The Gilad Shalit painting, for example, features a cross and bars. Before knowing the background (most of Givati’s works are untitled), the black stripes immediately evoked the Holocaust for me. Deena Lusky, the curator of the exhibition, relates that Givati confided in her that he produced the painting in just one night – immediately following Shalit’s release and return to Israel. “It hit me so hard,” Givati confided, “that I painted in a frenzy all night through, without any thought or plan, just giving free reign to what was going on inside me.” Furthermore, Lusky writes that Givati denied that when asked about the cross, he abruptly replied, “It’s not a cross.” Lusky’s interpretation is almost as lyrical as the painting is gut-wrenching—based on the four frames:
The coloring of the painting is a deep blue, white and brown. The cross itself is not proportional, signifying a deeper and wider meaning. In Gilad’s case neither the United Nations nor the Red Cross […] did any real attempts to provide Gilad the care he deserved as a soldier taken captive by hostile forces in war. The so-called cross is painted in white with a blue background (signifying the Israeli flag), maybe conveying Givati’s disdain to this fact. The second frame is a figure with childlike terrorized eyes; hands raised high over his head in surrender, behind jail bars. Gilad was only 20 years of age, a child soldier when taken captive. However, Givati portrays the destitution Gilad must have felt of being held for over five years in captivity with no human connection; served meals through a slit in the locked door, and his sole link to the outer world was through a single channeled, black-and-white television in his cell, by painting the third frame of a body behind bars with no head. The fourth frame in the painting portrays a young man with no mouth and a disproportional body painted in shades of brown, as if it were a mass of earth needed to be shaped all over again.
The painting addresses Israel, identity, isolation. Givati seems to relate to Shalit and feel empathy for him. Despite Givati’s ambivalence towards his country and his religion, he related to the isolation of his fellow countryman. What is more alienating, after all, than art?
The most consistent element in Givati’s work was identified in a review of his very first solo exhibition by Joav BarEl, at the time, art critic in Haaretz and Givati’s best friend—that is, “the painter’s quest for self-acquaintance.”2 Givati’s self is no more fragmented because of his mental illness. In fact, one of the most successful elements of the exhibit is Givati’s ability to explore his theme both widely and deeply. While the works vary in technique, most of them are somewhat abstract with clear but minimalist depictions of horses’ heads.
One of Givati’s specific brands of diptych seems to serve him very well. His life and his work were full of dichotomies, binaries and contradictions. Only with the whole picture, is the work clear. As Lusky notes: “Givati’s work cannot be contained to one genre of art; his brilliance was manifested by his ability to oscillate between the organic and the geometric, the real and the abstract, the meditative and the expressive, the monochromatic and the colorful, the amorphous and the structural, the transparent and the covered, the empty and the loaded, the implicit and the unequivocal, the dream and the imagination, optimism and despair, connection and separation.” These binaries were an essential part of Givati’s identity. Though he may not have been able to successfully resolve the tensions in life, in art, Givati was able to join the two parts, literally the two canvases. The viewer only understands the work when the two canvases are joined.
Jean Piaget says that even as babies, we try to fit knowledge into a schema. We are wired to make sense of things and fit them into systems that we have already built for ourselves. I am sadly and neglectfully not familiar with Israeli artists of the last thirty years, so I try to connect Givati to New York artists. He lived in New York, I reason with myself, at the Chelsea Hotel no less. Therefore, I should be allowed to draw a line connecting the work of these disparate artists.
My favorite painting, the first one I noticed, the one that grabbed me as I entered the gallery and pulled me into this unfamiliar artist’s world, is also the one that defies me and avoids interpretations. Yes there are horses, there are sideways crosses (or are they exes? Does it matter?) Each block of color in this large canvas (measuring approximately 86 by 81 inches) features brushstrokes rendered differently. My husband, my companion for the opening, immediately read the painting as the work of a depressive, a product of anger. I felt differently, however, and read, or felt, rather, the painting as both urgent and deliberated. Givati needed an outlet: he had something to say.
Hans Kofler compares Givati’s struggles to the fluctuations “between Equus and Pegasus—between the blind, tortured and tormented horse and the wild, free and winged horse who soars to the skies.”
Another painting, 1814 (Untitled), features five white horse heads strung on a branch. Above are a white horse head and neck and a red horse and neck facing away from each other: the white one facing down and the red head proudly facing up as if to depict the eternal struggle between Equus and Pegasus.
1 Givati, 395.
2 Givati, 398.
Shoshana Greenwald is completing her master’s degree in material culture, decorative arts and design history at Bard Graduate Center. She can be reached at email@example.com.
About the Author: Shoshana Batya Greenwald recently received a master's degree in decorative arts, material culture and design history from Bard Graduate Center. She is the collections manager at Kleinman Family Holocaust Educational Center (KFHEC) and a freelance writer.
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