In 1971 Robert Pincus-Witten spotted something feral sprouting from the backside of Minimalism. In the work of Eva Hesse, Richard Serra and a few others he sensed a spirited bias that, as he wrote, ‘actively rejects the high formalist cult of impersonality’. But the trend was so variegated that naming it a movement seemed implausible, so he sensibly pegged it to chronology, calling it ‘post-Minimalism’. In Israel, Nahum Tevet’s sculptural idiom of phrases built on serial geometry (to which he remains devoted), materialized within post-Minimalism. By 1978 Tevet was converting Sol LeWitt’s epistêmê style into something of his own: in 22 Arrangements of Ten Elements in the Studio (1978) table-shaped building blocks – handmade from unfinished wood – are assembled in sequential formations of Tevet’s design. Post-Minimalists cultivated stylistic development as a zero-sum game, but not Tevet. On the contrary, he underwent no abrupt ideological re-tasking; rather he became more and more inwardly elaborate, to the point of tortuousness. Why?
Tevet’s sprawling installation Man with Camera (1992–4) is all ruin and wreck. It looks as though his homogeneous tables from 22 Arrangements …have succumbed to unpredictable growth patterns until collapsing in a discombobulated heap. Earlier geometric sculptures such as Once Here Once There (1980) and Painting Lesson No. 5 (1986) track his drift towards the capricious and volatile, but Man with Camera is a watermark. What happened? Set the Middle East’s crumbling stability between 1978 and 1992 against the interior turbulence of Tevet’s art, culminating in Man with Camera, and implicit connections arise. In 1979 Israel and Egypt signed a peace treaty, but in 1982 Israel invaded Lebanon; borders in the south were redrawn for the new ‘security zone’ as Israel withdrew from Lebanon. In 1987 the first intifada began in the West Bank and Gaza, and when the Israeli army retaliated, more than 20,000 people were killed or injured. Although Man with Camera has no board-game corollaries (this part of the sculpture means that border threat), one can imagine that the collapse of the sculpture’s centre registers the seismic havoc of life in Israel and the Middle East. If Hesse and Bruce Nauman exposed phenomenological experience using post-Minimalist methodologies, then Tevet’s art is what happened when post-Minimalism was exposed to war.
War-zone art, if I may call it that, seems reluctant to define itself by the blinkered debating-club rigmarole at the art world’s centre; this, in turn, makes it appear less relevant to the art world, which is a shame. After 1978 Tevet’s sculptural language became increasingly organic: it grew what it needed to express his experiences in Israel. That’s where things began for him, and the net result, brought together by Sarit Shapira, who curated this retrospective, is a compelling account of what happens when regionalism trumps internationalism.
I empathize when Israelis grow weary as wholesale interpretations of the country’s contemporary culture are sifted through Middle Eastern hostilities, but wouldn’t it be myopic to disregard the adversity of contemporary life in the Middle East while weighing up Tevet’s art? Between 1993 and 1996 Yasser Arafat and Yitzhak Rabin signed a Declaration of Principles, a militant Jewish settler massacred 29 Palestinians, the Israel–Jordan peace treaty was signed, Rabin was assassinated, Hamas suicide bombers killed 57 people, and Binyamin Netanyahu, campaigning under the motto ‘Peace with Security’, was elected prime minister. Produced amid such upheaval, and an abiding desire for stability, why expect Tevet’s Untitled (1995–6) to look any different? In this installation assorted geometric constituents, elongated or shrivelled in irregular scales and colours, have been obsessively governed, amassed, stacked, balanced and tidied into an internal network fanning out between border-like walls. Man with Camera has been rebuilt into something stable: stability, don’t forget, is a synonym for tranquillity, or even peace.
By the time Tevet created Question Five (2000–3) and Seven Walks (1997–2004), his tour de force, the border walls had begun to consolidate into bunker-like boxes. In the intervening years Hamas continued its suicide bombings, the Israeli defence forces continued to assassinate members of the Hamas leadership, Mahmoud Abbas (also known as Abu Mazen) became the new Palestinian prime minister, the International Court of Justice ruled that the Israeli security barrier violated international law, and then there were the UN resolutions and international road maps. Several Things (2006), Tevet’s most recent installation, seems sparse; the byzantine stacks have virtually disappeared, leaving the impression they re-grouped inside the ever more massive boxes. You decide if ‘defensive’ or ‘protective’ more suitably explains Tevet’s art, just as it’s up to you to read tomorrow’s paper to gauge whether things are stabilizing or escalating. Travel both sides of the security wall and one hears cooler heads agree that ‘the situation is complex’. This seems trite, but is it? Instinct told me the Israeli security fence map should accompany an image of Tevet’s work. The resemblance says more than this review ever could.
First published in Issue 110