Tzvi Ben Aretz

Israeli (1948)

About the artist:

Tzvi Ben-Aretz began his artistic pursuits during his childhood, in Bat Yam. In kindergarten, he was described as an artist. In elementary school, he drew large-scale female drawings on the classroom blackboard. In his youth, he studied with the Bat Yam painter Amelia Heruti, his first art teacher. By then, he was already fascinated by the captivating, powerful, and wonderful scent of oil paints. In one of the neighborhood buildings, on an abandoned floor, Ben-Aretz set up a theater called "Our Blue and White Flag." Ben-Aretz's attraction is evident in almost all areas of art; music, dance, theater, painting and sculpture. Ben-Aretz was admitted to the renowned Renanim School, located in the historical Neve Tzedek neighborhood of Tel Aviv. The school had four departments: theater, dance, music and visual arts; painting, and sculpture. There, he studied under the guidance of Peretz Hesse, Tzvi Tadmor, Mitch Becker, Sonia Natra, and Gila Cohen-Ballas. After his military service, Ben-Aretz studied at the Art Institute in Bat Yam under the direction of Aaron Alkalai, Eliahu Gat, Abba Fenichel, Reuven Berman, and Jacob Epstein.

Later, Ben-Aretz was accepted to the art department at the Bezalel Academy of Art and Design, in Jerusalem. There he was exposed to strong influences in contemporary art, ancient cave paintings, alongside pop art, conceptual art, and expressionist paintings in the spirit of Willem de Kooning, Francis Bacon, and Cy Twombly. His major teachers were Micha Ullman, Shimon Avni, Pinchas Cohen Gan, Dov Heller, Arik Kilemnik, Zvi Tolkovsky, and artists who were influenced by children's art such as Israeli artists: Arie Aroch, Aviva Uri, Michael Eisman and Raffie Lavie.

In 1977, after winning a prestigious scholarship from the America-Israel Cultural Foundation, Ben-Aretz traveled to New York. He was accepted to a master's program and received his MFA in 1980 at Pratt Institute, in historical Clinton Hill, in Brooklyn, New York. He received a Ford Foundation grant, while he was a student at Pratt.

The American avant-garde was a pivotal influence in the 1970s and was evident in Ben-Aretz's body installations and floor installations, on the subject of the human being as a sacrifice, as a result of the Israeli reality, images that relate to graves, altars and the fear of death. In some of the installations and live projects, Ben-Aretz positioned minimal objects so that the viewer could identify the influence of minimal and conceptual art. His distinguished teachers at Pratt Institute were Robert Zakarian and Jerry Hayes. Ben-Aretz's first corner installation with soil photo was published in N.Y. Photo Magazine and in an Israeli newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth in an article "Tzvi Ben-Aretz - Connection to the Soil" by art critic Imanuel Bar Kadma.

In the early 1980s, the East Village in New York became an important international art scene for emerging artists. This was the alternative, protesting in full force against the institutionalized art world of galleries and museums. Artists set up many unconventional, innovative galleries. Artists showed in churches, industrial spaces, lofts, and clubs, which became an integral part of the art scene. Ben-Aretz became a very active figure in the alternative scene of the East Village, as part of the downtown art scene. His paintings became morbid and dark, with expressions of angst, deep pain, and trauma. Some of the series of body works photographs that he created at Pratt Institute were exhibited in the "Borders" exhibition, at the Israel Museum in 1981.

In the late 1980s, Ben-Aretz began creating an extensive series of works on paper, inspired by Robert Rauschenberg, which incorporated invitations and posters from exhibitions in museums, galleries, clubs, etc. Ben-Aretz claims that due to his obsession with seeing so much art, he wanted to incorporate the whole art world, with all styles, into his own. In his view, an intense vision of art is a powerful, violating force. Later, he focused more on paintings and works on paper using the map of Israel. His imagery is often comprised of four units. Added together they became one unit; a method that he still uses these days. During the 1990s, major motifs in his work were the fetus and the eye, alongside erotic images. Ben-Aretz's paintings were done in shades of white, influenced by the minimalism of Robert Ryman and Sol LeWitt. In all of his installations, he used found objects in the tradition of readymades, a major concept of his artistic activities from the 1970s until the present. He was inspired by American artists like Richard Serra, Carl Andre, Robert Smithson, Dennis Oppenheim and The Art Povera Movement. He used soil, glass metal cubes, bricks and leather sheets. New York East Village artist and art historian Dr. Michael Sgan-Cohen commented that Ben-Aretz was the most active in the New York alternative art spaces among the rest of the Israeli community artists in New York. Ben-Aretz admits with some pride that he is the first artist that was involved in the Haarlem art scene that exploded in the late 1990s and early 2000.

Transitioning from the late 1970s, when the main idea was altars and graves, in recent years, his paintings, works on paper, body and space installations have become more complex, colorful, theatrical and also contain elements that are not only art related. Ben-Aretz argues that his paintings became abstract and surrealistic. In a few of his live projects, Ben-Aretz collaborated with other artists: actress Tami Spivak, actress and singer Bat Sheva Zeisler-Gechtman, pianist Bart Berman, multimedia artist Mairav Tal and actor Josh Sagie

In 2011 Ben-Aretz participated as a sculptor in a group installation called "The City Square" by artist Hava Raicher at the Tel Aviv Artists House. Since 2004, Ben-Aretz had minor acting roles with the Israeli Opera. He performed in Aida, Pagliacci, Don Carlo, La Bohème, Nabucco, Carmen, Cavalleria Rusticana and in Macbeth, his role as King Duncan, who was murdered, was the most meaningful role that Tzvi performed. A few of the productions took place near the historical site of Masada by the Dead Sea. Most of them were conducted by Maestro Daniel Oren and prominent directors such as Franco Zeffirelli, Marco Gandini, and Giancarlo Del Monaco. Tzvi had a part in a video Les Pêcheurs de Perles (The Pearl Fishers) an opera by the French composer Georges Bizet, to a libretto by Eugène Cormon and Michel Carré. Ben-Aretz claims that the world of theater makes him very happy and is a kind of catharsis to his wishes as a child to be an actor, which came true through opera.

Art historian, researcher and former Bezalel professor, Dr. Gideon Efrat writes, "Tzvi Ben-Aretz was the first artist in the country to begin combining bodywork and sculpture (geometric and other) in the 1970s, and he is credited with promoting the body's position, placing his body in connection with the exhibition space, bodies and materials (metal to soil). From the beginning of his career, Ben-Aretz has shown intense attention to the avant-garde - Joseph Beuys and others and an insatiable hunger to experiment with the new languages of art, however distant and different they may be, in the exhibition "Borders" (Israel Museum, 1980). Ben-Aretz's body image stood out in its quality and in the unity of organic and inorganic languages, and even then it marked a content route of a state of stress, not to mention - a victim. His (long and rooted) stay in New York "opened" Ben-Aretz to a multitude of artistic options he never knew existed. Translated the spin from New York abundance into artistic, pluralistic language that does not rule out any medium: color, photography, objects, texts, and synthetic, organic materials (fur, for example), etc. As a humble and generous artist in nature, he did not shy away from using images by artists presenting around him, combined with his personal images. At the heart of all the postmodern proliferation in question is Tzvi Ben-Aretz, who continued to focus on body images and express the victim's condition." According to curator and social activist Ami Steinitz, "His work contains significant elements of experience and expertise. Many of the exhibitions and artistic events in which he participated belong and take place in the field of artistic language testing and expression. During his long stay in New York, Tzvi Ben-Aretz was involved in many activities and exhibitions and was involved in developments that made New York's East Village a young and innovative art center. During this period, his works maintained an Israeli iconography - images of the map of the country, land and sacrifice were reflected in his works while using his body and identity to mark his personal destiny."

Ben-Aretz does not consider himself a mainstream artist, yet he was proud to exhibit at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem, Janco-Dada Museum, in Ein Hod, Haifa Museum of Art, Bat Yam Museum of Art, and The Center of Contemporary Art in Tel Aviv. He also exhibited at the Hudson River Museum in Yonkers, NY, The National Jewish Museum in Washington, DC, Baltimore Museum of Art in Maryland, Center of Contemporary Art in Seattle, Washington, The Drawing Center in New York City, NY, Wexford Art Center, in Ireland, Wexford Center for the Arts in Columbus, Ohio, The Jewish Museum in Venice, Italy and Stanislaw Fischer Museum in Bochnia, Poland.

Art critic Jenifer Borum, in her Art Forum magazine review in September, 1992 wrote, "Tzvi Ben-Aretz, an Israeli-born artist working and living in New York, became known in the late '70s for his photo-documented performances featuring his own inert body in a variety of settings. In the tradition of Ana Mendieta and Joseph Beuys, these "live installations" were staged against the stark, urban backdrop of New York City, or in galleries, as part of sculptural ensembles with both natural and industrially fabricated components. His was a unique synthesis of body art and minimalism - two very different modes of challenging the border between life and art culminating in a number of "exhibits" exploring the most overdetermined and fundamental image in the history of art, the cross.

During the object-oriented '80s, Ben-Aretz put aside his "body installations" in favor of painting, only to return to them in two recent works to resume his investigation of the cruciform. Thankfully free of explicitly religious trappings, save the ritualistic atmosphere created by such installations, Ben-Aretz lay, vaguely Christ-like, on the floor, his outstretched hands and feet covered with cone-shaped mounds of earth, his position varying slightly from one piece to the next. In Crucifixion, 1992, he lay face-up, his head resting on a pillow of dirt, his arms perpendicular to his body, while in Pietà, 1992, he lay twisted, face-down, one arm stretched above his head, the other arm extended from his side. Each piece lasted just under an hour, during which time a small flame burned on the mound atop his feet.

Ben-Aretz achieves the kind of tension born of deceptive simplicity, his complete stillness enacting a dialectic between the drama and eroticism of the crucified body, and the purely formal play of horizontal and vertical lines. In the analytic and regenerative space of body art, he recovered the immediacy and power of this archetypal symbol rendered dull and benign by centuries of religious art.

Ben-Aretz's '70s-inspired body installations are perfectly at home in the freely eclectic, body- obsessed, noncommercial performance scene of the early '90s. This medium enjoys a typically post- modern, happy-go-lucky relationship to history in which the differences between Marcel Duchamp, Vito Acconci, and Matthew Barney are often collapsed in a mildly blasphemous, neo-Dada free-for-all. Though devoid of even a trace of its previous art-novelty, body-oriented work continues to be a viable medium for artists to explore the politics of gender and censorship, or more rarely, as Ben-Aretz has done, to engage the scope of art history and breathe new life into the age-old dialectic of form and content."

Doron Braunstein, an ex-New Yorker, singer, performer, theater director and stand-up artist from the alternative Tel Aviv art scene writes in his book Inaugural Israeli Artists in the 21st Century: "Tzvi Ben- Aretz is one of the most unique diverse artists working in Israel. He is the type of artist whose works you cannot be indifferent to. Something in them lifts you up and makes you think, feel and sometimes even wonder about your situation and the state of the world." Braunstein believes that Ben-Aretz does not get the full support and recognition that he deserves from the core of the art world establishment.

In 1977, Ben-Aretz took part in the American action thriller, Rosebud alongside the iconic Irish actor, Peter O'Toole in the old city of Jerusalem, directed by American film director, Otto Preminger. In 2000, Ben-Aretz appeared in a few commercials; one with world judo champion, Arik Ze'evi and one alongside Israeli comedian, Dvir Benedek in a T.V. series about Holocaust refugees.

Ben-Aretz identifies with singer and poet Patti Smith's statement that New York shaped her persona. Tzvi believes that New York and the New York art world shaped his personality as an artist and as a human being. Although he did not know Patti Smith personally, they lived in the same Clinton Hill neighborhood in Brooklyn, New York, where Patti Smith lived with her partner, the very well-respected photographer, Robert Mapplethorpe.

Ben-Aretz considers himself to be an atheist and a free spirit even though his paternal roots were from Orthodox Jewish families whom were related to the Baal Shem Tov, from Galicia, Poland. Tzvi believes that all ethnic groups are equal and that there is no priority of one group above other groups. He denies that the Jewish people are the chosen people.

As a huge animal lover, Ben-Aretz shares the feeding of stray cats, pigeons, and wild birds in his neighborhood and at the beach. He enjoys swimming, and gardening. He propagates a variety of drought-tolerant succulents, cacti, and plants that he rescues. He is often seen art gallery hopping and he stays physically fit by exercising and working out.

- Text edited by Karen Kaplan

Tzvi Ben Aretz

Israeli (1948)

(5 works)

About the artist:

Tzvi Ben-Aretz began his artistic pursuits during his childhood, in Bat Yam. In kindergarten, he was described as an artist. In elementary school, he drew large-scale female drawings on the classroom blackboard. In his youth, he studied with the Bat

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