By Roslyn Bernstein
In 1961, at the age of seven, Larry Abramson emigrated from Durban, South Africa to Israel. Rejecting apartheid, his family came as part of a group of public health professionals, to establish a community health center at the Hebrew University’s medical school. They settled down in Beit Hakerem, a garden neighborhood established in the 1920’s for teachers and academics. It was a moment when intellectuals argued the world in cafes on Ben Yehudah Street and Jerusalem had the feel and promise of a cultured European city. After high school and study at the Chelsea School of Art in London, Abramson remained in Jerusalem, marrying a native, and raising his three children there. He loved the light and the city and he never left.
Not until September 2011, when he purchased and moved into his first studio in Kiryat Ha Melacha, an industrial area of South Tel Aviv that was built in the 1960s for light industry–printers, sweatshops and bookbinding. High city taxes had chased industry out and the neighborhood had deteriorated. Around ten years ago, artists saw an opportunity, and they began moving in. At that time, like in SoHo in the 1960s, lofts were cheap. City officials wanted to gentrify the area, which was rough, and there was a special low tax for the first 100 city square meters of studio space, which encouraged artists to start renting and buying. Although the studios were officially only for “painters and sculptors,” other artists moved in, too, keeping a set of paints handy, just in case an inspector arrived.
Abramson was thinking of moving to Tel Aviv then, but his political activism kept him in Jerusalem for three more years. “We lived in Kiryat Ha Yovel,” a neighborhood in southwestern Jerusalem on Mount Herzl. Built in the early 1950s to house new immigrants from Arab countries, its demographics changed over the years, with young couples gradually replacing immigrants and with the proletarian character of the neighborhood shifting upscale. Today, with a population of nearly twenty-five thousand, the neighborhood is in a fight for survival.
“Several years ago, the Bayit VeGan Rebbe gave the green light to his followers to buy apartments in our community, Kiryat Ha Yovel,” Abramson explained. Haredim began buying up cheap apartments and they began to demand changes to accommodate the orthodox lifestyle. “In a short time,” he said, “they took over.” Although Abramson and a group of residents took up the fight for their homes and their lifestyle, “Jerusalem was becoming a shtetl,” he said.
Abramson had a distinguished art career in Jerusalem, starting as a printer and curator of exhibitions at the Jerusalem Print Workshop, teaching at the Bezalel Academy of Art and Design and then, for seven years, serving of the Chairman of its Fine Art Department and Head of the Bezalel Program for Young Artists. But long before the unsuccessful fight to save Kiryat Ha Youvel, Abramson realized that art and artists were migrating north. As a consequence, in 2002 he became a Professor of Art at the Multidisciplinary Art Department of Shenkar College in Ramat Gan, not far from Tel Aviv.
During his years there, he moved his studio from his home to the Artists Studios in Talpiot, with support from the Jerusalem Foundation, and finally to a floor in a building there, where he and two colleagues built three separate studios. He created his art there but, Abramson said, there was never an open exchange with other artists. “Jerusalem as a whole is a city of compounds, all enclosed, and that mentality is part of Jerusalem’s mentality. You bunker down into your world.”
For the last fifteen years, especially since the second intifada, which dealt Jerusalem a death blow, Tel Aviv has overpowered Jerusalem. Fewer and fewer artists come to study at Bezalel in Jerusalem and, even if they do study there, they leave when their studies end. In Tel Aviv, there is a strong sense of community. “There’s a lot of contacts among artists, among galleries, among commercial spaces. For sure the scene is here.”
For the first time in his daily routine, Abramson finds himself meeting with other artists. Before he left Jerusalem, a friend warned him that in Tel Aviv he would have to maintain a social life, drink coffee, and sit in cafes. “I find myself actually talking about paintings, grounds and pigments now,” he said.
The walls of his 110-square-meter Tel Aviv studio (formerly a glass cutting factory) are covered with new work, destined for “1967,” his one-man show which will open at the Gordon Gallery on June 5th (the 45th anniversary of the outbreak of the Six Day War, to the day). “I am currently working on things more connected to the past—sort of a critical lament,” Abramson said. When his father cleaned up his Jerusalem attic and was about to throw out a collection of newspapers from the Six-Day War, Abraham took it. “It was asking me to do something.”
Abramson feels strongly that the Six-Day War was “the cancer that brought down the body.” So, his new work on the old newspapers incorporates several images—a modernist icon of a black square and a skull of death lurking in the Israeli arcadia. On a shelf over his desk, Abramson points to a skull that he brought to Tel Aviv from his old studio. There, the walls were taken over by things. “I threw out stuff when I moved,” he said, though he brought the skull and roses of Jericho with him.
Another new series involves creating black silhouettes of local flora from a botany book. “It is a connection to my childhood in the fields, picking wild flowers,” he said. “It is a reflection on the way Zionist culture bonded with the land.” For Abramson, though, it is also a lament, which he accomplishes by turning the flora and fauna into black silhouettes and putting them over the historically loaded newspaper.
Abramson reflects on the role of the artist in Israel. “I have a leading metaphor in my mind,” he said, “of the relationship between the artist and his studio. It’s taken from biblical spies—who came back with stuff (vine branches). The artist is that kind of spy. You venture out and look at reality and then you come back and try to figure it out.”
In addition to Guernica, Roslyn Bernstein reports on arts and culture for such online publications as Buzzine, Huffington Post, Art Critical, and Arterritory. Bernstein is a professor of journalism at Baruch College, CUNY, and the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism. She is the author of Boardwalk Stories and the co-author of Illegal Living: 80 Wooster Street and the Evolution of SoHo.