Art, Poetry, and Silence Philosophy in Ben-Zion

"Like a ropemaker backwards I move
to the days of my beginning and twist
the threads of my past
til I reach
to the source I derived from
- to eternity"

from "Returning" in Songs of Ben-Zion 1, 1928

All great creators who achieve, even for a moment, a work that succeeds in touching the truth, dissolve into their work and establish a feeling of communion. In the Hebrew, the words "truth" and "art" derive from the same root for in the presence of absolute truth as in the presence of masterful art, one forgets everything. Everything except that which is revealed. "From wonder into wonder, existence opens." *1

Throughout humanity's vacillating understanding of the meaning of art stands an unwavering beacon: a work of art must take your breath away, stop you in your tracks quietly or dramatically it must enter your being and provoke profound recognition and transformation. Looking at the Archaic Torso of Apollo, the poet is shocked into under- standing: "You must change your life" *2

Ben-Zion's life is marked by a pattern of unusual constancy and clarity: art, poetry, and silent philosophy. Silent, because despite his writings and passionate proclamations, his ethos was insinuated by his increasingly intense and simple way of being. He spent a lifetime looking into things, touching them, so that subject and object exchanged energy, entered each other, transforming.

If we allow for The WAY and WORK of this man to intimate itself into our gaze, we can imagine that he looks up and sees a "sky pebbled with stars," *3 that he mines beneath the earth like an "archaeologic mystic" *4 and "draws stars from stones.''S We see him chiseling the shape of his love for his people, painting them not only as the "people of the book" but also as the "people of the stars." Book and Starsfire of enlightened mind, irradiating flame of pure feeling. Mind and heart, together illuminating truth and beauty always and already in all things, simply as they are. We hear him as a young man singing a song of himself weaving a thick-gnarled rope and years later, in old age, coming to recognize these very same threads as thin and delicate, metaphor for the light sound safeguarding him across the bridge of time.

So now a bridge needs to be built to reach this man. We need to travel through stones, through stars, through earth, particularly into the desert of beginnings, of the unfolding of humanity's consciousness, and more largely into the desert of imagination, for imagination is a desert, fertile and filled with silence.

The stamp of his being was etched already in childhood, a morphology he seemed to recognize as indelible, unalterable, a fate he gathered into the "apron of his being" and carried full circle. This, together with the chiseling at the stone of his being, unsparingly and faithfully, was to mark the tone of his life.

In an epic-like poem he wrote in his thirty-first year, he set forth with prophetic hinting the salient themes he had begun to embody and was hereafter to grapple with: roots and homelessness, family and aloneness, nationalism and universalism, love and the great work. In this poem, Shiva, ("Returning") the hero asks to find his way in the world, endlessly posing questions to the earth and sky, placing them in the atmosphere like a vessel posed between world above and world below, and seeks a way back to the self, to his God. Here is introduced the vision and in-sight of the artist. Moreover, the choice of image of ropemaker is richer still because of a deep respect for "pure" and "rooted" gestures, ancient gestures repeated through time, and even richer still because of the unique perspective created by the walking backwards.

He was born Ben-Zion Weinman in 1897 in the Ukraine to his father, third generation cantor and composer of liturgical music, and his mother, an enchanting storyteller. In the 1930's, when he became known as a painter, he dropped his family name saying that "one name is enough for an artist", an action at once a break with the formalities of the past and an emphatic stamp of being.

The inability to conform was familiar to him from childhood. His silent immersion in prayer disturbed his father, as it appeared dangerously close to the contemplative passion of Chassidism. He was inclined toward drawing and gathering things, which was looked upon as frivolous and unbecoming. As a youth he began reading translations of Emerson, Thoreau, and other philosophers. Spinoza, whom Novalis called a "God-intoxicated man" inebriated his nights, a vertiginous spinning of his secure cosmos. By now he had developed and nurtured a love for the Hebrew language, playing with words, conjugating verbs, which he would in later years compare to his delight in playing with pebbles. At age sixteen he took a room at the outskirts of town, supporting himself by giving Hebrew lessons. Here he was able to read and draw without disturbance, and it was here that he "adopted the wheat fields and pine woods." He walked endlessly. Walking was his great happiness—his youth taught him that and he remained tied to the earth for all his days. It was a walking meditation, an unbroken dialogue with nature. As an old man, when asked if he believed in the possibility of learning from a teacher, he replied: "Yes, go into the woods. Pick up a stone. Look at it. Turn it over. Look at it."

Indeed, this was his schooling. Except for a brief period at the Volksbochschule in Vienna as a young refugee during the First World War, (a malnourishing experience as he digested badly the constraints of academism and the prejudicial attitude towards East European Jews), he was completely self-taught. During his long, solitary walks in the fields and forests of his youth, his work as an artist was slowly maturing, through the movement of living surfaces to be penetrated, the consciousness of inanimate life. After his father's death in 1920, he came to New York carrying a knapsack filled with Hebrew dramas and poems and his father's music manuscripts. Over the next decade he lived within a community of seminal Hebrew writers but chose not to accompany them to the yet-to-be-born state of Israel when it became clear that America could not support Hebrew literature.

He lived in the Bronx, along the great parks. He drew the chimneys and rooftops he could see from his room's window. He wandered the art galleries of the city, studied the art museums. He continued to write in his beloved Hebrew language until the great darkness descended upon the world, the night of destruction, the holocaust of humanity's soul. Counting meters, particularly in the language of the martyred ones, was unthinkable. Tormented, restless, he fell silent to words, mute.

This turning away from the unsayable, was, of course, at that moment of history, not uncommon. It was all upside-down, nowhere to go, nothing to say, as one witnessed one's beloveds, to quote Primo Levi, "leave towards nothingness." And if, "in a dark time, the eyes begin to see", for him, this turning to line and color and pigment was a returning to a young dream. And thus, in the early thirties began the prodigious work that was to become the sine qua non of his creative output for the coming five decades: drawing, painting, etching and sculpture. It began with sharpened twigs dipped in ink. It began on old handmade paper torn from old books bought by the pound on Fourth Avenue, with oil paint upon wood boards removed from closet shelving and discarded bread boards. During the war years it took the shape of obsessive and incessant frenzy of sketching and drawing at any free moment on pieces of napkin, grocery wrapping paper, sketchbooks, and scraps of fabric. As the devastation simmered and raged, he was drafting the living, breathing life of Europe's

Jews as if he needed to counter each heinous and debasing movement of human hand by a counter life-affirming gesture. He drew men, women, and what he came to refer to as simply the "Jewish Heads." The heads were in endless variations, as if all the life was concentrated in the head, like masks. Perhaps even more than the Biblical and thematically Jewish work these heads were his love affair with his people. Those he rendered in watercolor and gouache achieve a quality at once austere and exuberant, washed in haunting combinations of colors—blue streaking across black, red like a wash of poppies. The heads are in dark and in light, asking to separate the sacred from the profane. One large watercolor depicts a Jew wrapped in a prayer shawl, the man immersed in greenness as he is immersed in prayer, gaze turning inward like a circle of solitude within a circle of draped shawl. Another large head is colored with an ethereal texture of pale pinks, yellows, white, as if mist or airy nothing descended upon paper. These watercolors have a shivering beauty, so in themselves, and in the way of paradox, so beyond themselves. And we can move seamlessly to the group of gouaches and oils named "De Profundis: In Memory of the Massacred Ones" emerging from the depths if one has stayed long with the silent, empty space of great pain. In these, many heads are crowded against one another in silent, desperate scream, outlined in black with strong parallel and diagonal lines. The colors of flesh are at times muted, at times bold, emerging like something seemingly far and yet alarmingly upon us. The heads seem like minerals, or a heap of rocks, or gravestones.

The bold, black, outlines in his oils, like his concentration on drawing, seem to have been an intention to secure a mastery of line. The artist, Joseph Solman, reviewing Ben-Zion's first one-man show at the Artists' Gallery in November 1936 wrote: "the stout black arabesques that surround his forms resemble strangely the broad and rhythmic Hebrew script." He struggled with this translation from word and sound to line and color and this struggling irregular quality remained in his work throughout.

Not only the rise of fascism in Europe disquieted him, but the social upheavals of the period—the Great Depression, racial inequities—inspired many paintings with titles such as "Lynching," "Homeless Man," "Confined," "Crucifixion of the Road." "Lynching" (1934-5), although earlier and far less abstract than "Jacob Wrestling with the Angel" (1936), is nonetheless related in that both works do not present a realistic depiction of the event but rather offer, through swirling movement and ominous mood, the knowledge of something fateful taking place. Of further interest is the fact that in these early paintings, as in the later visual response to the Holocaust, the blood and gore of carnage is never explicitly pictured, rather per contra, the images of life-as-it-is-lived is held up to mirror the very mutilation and annihilation of such life.

In the mid-thirties, while on the WPA Project, Ben-Zion was introduced to Robert Godsoe, who ran the Secession Gallery, a harbor for those non-academic artists who tended towards expressionism and abstraction. Joe Solman recalls that it was a canvas titled "Iron Bird" which seized Godsoe's imagination and swayed his decision to accept Ben-Zion into his gallery. This "Iron Bird" augurs not only his choice of iron as material for sculpture more than 25 years later, but hints at a playful and earnest preoccupation with paradox. Out of his enchantment with modern dance and countless renderings of dancers, the most evocative is the "Bound Dancer" which appears and reappears.

In 1935, dissatisfied with the quality of exhibitions, a group of artists decided to secede from Secession Gallery. One short of the quorum, The Ten was established as a group of independent, expressionist painters who were synonymous in their opposition to conservativism, rigidly academic, provincialist painting, and were committed to "see objects as though for the first time." Mark Rothko, Adolph Gottlieb, Ilya Bolotowsky, Joseph Solman, and Ben-Zion were among the original group and they, along with guest artists, exhibited together several times a year for five years. The group disbanded as the individual artists became affiliated with different galleries and as the groundswell began to mount around 1940 in what was later to be referred to as the New York School, and even later as Abstract Expressionism. After World War II many painters rejected the traditions of American social realism and those traditions imported from Europe, and artists such as Rothko, Gottlieb, and Motherwell proclaimed abstract art to be "true mysticism. "Ben-Zion's character and philosophy were already deeply formed by his early immersion in Jewish study, poetry and his intrinsic power of observation. He was suspicious of complete surrender to formlessness, of delving into the bottomless unconscious, of forced, superficial, eclectic borrowing of symbolism, all of which, he felt, inevitably resulted in a meeting of chaos with chaos, and an eventual deterioration of art. Late in his life he was to write: "The aim of art always was and will be order. To get order out of chaos. To give meaning to the scatteredness and to rescue images from oblivion."

This period was to mark Ben-Zion's short-lived formal fraternization with a political-artistic fellowship of any kind. The isolation, whether self-imposed or extemally dictated, after more than two decades of plenteous exhibiting, became grave and consequential. He remained singular, far from prevailing-changing-commercialized fashion, "outside the camp." It was an unfaltering obstinate devotion to his individual path which in "Shiva" he calls the road to the gates of etemity. For him, art and life were inseparable, he detested noisy, empty philosophizing. The commandment he answered to was, in Heschel's words: "You must build your life as if it were a work of art." And so the body of work grew and developed, having sprung from mature seed. He found himself painting the Bible. This according to his testimony was not a conscious decision and the first of these paintings "The Prophet in the Desert " (1935) can be understood as a spiritual self-portrait. Three years later he painted "Prophet on the Ruins." The figure is economic in color and devoid of pictorial embellishment. Bending into himself, the prophet is wrapped in a cloak of fear or humility, and yet we feel the power of a great boulder. It seems Ben-Zion longs for the prophets, that through this ripresa, this fecund thematic returning, he is able to live with them and among them.

The heroes of the Hebrew Bible stayed with him for the next half-century. Noah, Abraham, Jacob, Joseph, Ruth, Deborah, Tamar, more prophets, always Job, and over and again the choice of Moses, man of God. He depicts them like the language of the Bible—lean, concise, and perhaps as much related to humanity's evolution as to the particularities of ancient Israelite history.

What emerges in viewing the work is a marked lack of engagement with the tradition of Western art, which historically is essentially Christian art. There is a striking involvement with ancient cultures, with a particularly strong affinity for the Near Eastern. The spell of a perfect representation of the human body cast by the Renaissance, tracing itself back to the Classical ideal of the ancient Greek and Roman, and its eventual petrification as superficial, academic dogma, challenged many of the towering artistic figures in the early part of this century. This reexamination of Greek-to-Renaissance tradition looked beyond European culture at works of art which until now held little more than anthropological interest. Ben-Zion drew his belief in the loftiness of artistic creation from the Hebrew Bible. In his memoir "In Those Days" he notes that God names his first artist craftsman Bezalel Ben-Uri, which means "in the likeness and shelter of God, son of my light".

Although Ben-Zion's biblical work is not theological in its intention it clearly is engrossed with the possibilities of dialogue between human beings and their creator. Art—beauty and the idea of the holy are knit together as a way of approaching the great unknown. Thus, the stars which illuminate so many of the paintings are not only in their rightful place but dance freely upon the earth. In "Jacob's Dream" the vertical axis of the ladder, becomes a metaphor for inner and outer movement. Exaggerated hands and feet are the instruments of feelings ascending and descending the rungs of life.

In Ben-Zion's work a profound feeling for the thing itself is present. He said that for him there was no difference between his nature paintings or any other motif. This quality of thingness, the coming-into-being-oneself, allowed him to move from "Jew in Green" to "Grassy Meadow" with ease. His female nudes look closely related to the Biblical figures. Their powerful forms could easily be graceless had he not imbued them with grace, almost adventitiously. They are sensual but never salacious; sexual in that they are rooted in their skin as in the earth, yet not camal. Their naked bodies accept our gaze no differently than fruit set upon a plate. Ruth's ripe body, the ample shape of Tamar—they are reminiscent of ancient Mesopotamian fertility figures, not outwardly beautiful but so filled with honesty or awe that we are astonished at the beauty which radiates from within. He rarely used a model, as he rarely painted nature while in nature, nor a still-life with objects before him—his senses took it in and gave it over to that inward eye.

He moved seamlessly from one medium to another. The graphic quality of the work allowed for a happy transfer onto copper plate and thus grew eight portfolios of etchings (at the initiative of Curt Valentin, one of the grand human figures on the art scene of the day). Among them are the 36 etchings of "Gilgamesh and Enkidu," an epic whose origins date back to the Sumero-Akkadian bards. In what seems to be the first pictorial rendering of this epic it is noteworthy that Ben-Zion treats this drama as he does the Hebrew Bible: the dense mythological motifs are pruned and shaped so that the universal, timeless human questions step forth.

The figure of the blacksmith appears in the portfolio of "The Lamed-Vav," the Jewish legend of 36 righteous men who exist secretly in every generation, by whose merit the world may continue to exist. Iron was a rare metal in the ancient and antique world and the craft of smithing, passed on in secrecy, took on complex spiritual powers. Ben-Zion's passion for iron along with the sculptural character of his painting set in motion his work with iron. Here, more than elsewhere in his work, the artist's humor and whimsy project as he plays lightly with iron. His gift as a sculptor is perhaps strongest in his capacity to see the possibilities, figurative and abstract, in the found objects, just as he sees such in the pebbles on whose surfaces he drew endlessly, or the clay concretions he mounted as examples of nature's monumental sculpture). Blacksmith and anvil, potter and wheel-laborers of pure work, instruments of transformation. If he tended to idealize what he saw as non-intellectualized crafting of material (be it stone or flax or letters, as in "The Scribe"), it was because what he admired most and yearned for was to become one with the work, and more, with life itself.

Which brings us to that issue of rootedness and boundlessness he returned to in poem and painting. It brings us to a question which may be posed and left for contemplation: what is the Jewish in this artist and what is the more or beyond he reached for?

Ben-Zion believed that man is challenged to remove the layers of time in order to "touch the origins." He remained close to his particular source in order to achieve the transcendent and perennial. Perhaps he felt that given a chance to become other his rededication to remain a Jew allowed him to offer not a more Jewish world, but a more human world. "Life is not a problem" he wrote "so is art not a problem. The problems start when life begins to be used the wrong way." He believed in the Way, in all the great ways. He trusted stillness, from which his "song rose up." He wrote that "the creative person, the artist, the thinker, never confronts theunknown with fear... death

is the inevitable. No living creature of any species can ever escape it. Death is the culmination of life. But death is not the only unknown. Everything around us is the great unknown. The only thing immune to death are spiritual attributes and penetrations into the great unknown."

Which brings us inevitably to the environs of Ben-Zion, for to be in his space and presence was to understand that he enveloped himself within an ambience of things which carried the thumbprint of creation. Minerals, rocks, prehistoric tools mingle with antique pots, ancient fragments, which mingle with textiles, handmade toys, hand-blown glass, in chorus with paintings and iron sculpture. He disliked being called a "collector." He liked to say that things came to him, that he gathered them while sauntering. He knew much of their history but was irritated by an overly scientific approach because it seemed to distract him from the essence of a thing. There was tranquility, even symmetry; there was elegance only in that things seemed at ease, unlabored, and he, as if set down within his element, moved among them, communing, asking to know.

In his flax-colored, raw-silk jacket reminiscent of his wheat paintings, his squared body looked composed and in quiet-the legs stable and rooted, the hands placid, the face filled with light and passion. He came to resemble, more and more, the prophets and patriarchs of his paintings. He as painting them as they painted him.

A light sound
like the thinnest of threads
accompanies me in the darkness of the abyss.
God forbid
if this thread should break
I am like one lost in the endlessness.
This sound from the beginning of
my childhood
like a voice in the endlessness
of life
accompanies me wherever I turn.

(from Songs of Ben-Zion 111, 1980)

And so the sound carried him across the narrow bridge.
Round, unbroken ring of life. Music over the narrow bridge.

by Tabita Shalem

Edited and revised from an unpublished article: "Awe, Beauty and the Possible: A Meeting with Ben-Zion." Unattributed quotes are from oral and written statements by Ben-Zion. Dedicated to the memory of Mara Climan who still, and always, sits on my right shoulder, with love.

1 Lao-Tsu
2 R.M. Rilke (poem of the same name)
3 H.D. Thoreau
4. Longhi
5. MarinaWerner (writing about Mantegna)

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