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The Paintings of Jordan Wolfson

by Linda Zisquit, 1999

Jordan Wolfson is a representational painter. He works from observation, in oil, and paints in traditional genres – interiors, landscapes, still-lifes, and figures. Always searching for “the spirit in the mass,”* Wolfson encounters the quotidian world as a physical and emotional experience, never mere photographed images void of weight and mass. I first saw slides of some of Wolfson’s oils a number of years ago when he was introducing his work to a group of young students in the Negev Desert. One image most strongly remains with me of a tabletop, a cloth spread over it, and some crumbs – no fruit arranged on a plate, or glass pitcher, just remnants of a meal or dried flowers on an otherwise immaculate white cloth. With all the light of morning on those crumbs, and all the desire for perfection in the folds of the cloth draped over the table’s edge, I felt my life enriched in that moment of first encounter with his work.

Since that summer I have frequently entered the corners, the bathrooms, peered under the sinks, over the kitchen counters and through the windows of Wolfson’s paintings. Again and again Wolfson focuses on these intimate, common, homey spaces of human habitation where the ‘nothingness’ of daily life occurs. It is in the ‘negative spaces’ of our existence, vacant corners and floors, domestic places we use for our basic human needs, where usually our eye glances and moves off, that Wolfson engages us. In these works the subject matter is always modest, the barest essentials are observed with seriousness. Wolfson takes a hard look, honoring human life through his depiction of the simple spaces we inhabit. A quiet corner swept clean becomes an essential place, as if here a human being can endeavor to come to terms with his portion, perhaps here one can contemplate, examine and briefly achieve the goal of what painter and critic Andrew Forge has called ‘the whole self’. “Painting means nothing to me,” writes Forge, “if it does not symbolize vision and the part vision plays in the definition of a stable body seen at a distance, a stable self-image, and consequently a stable, freestanding view of the outside world.” Here, a broom leaning against the wall, the chores done, the table wiped, a brief glow, a momentary rest, and now the ‘real’ internal work of finding that stability can begin – but only when everything superfluous is put aside. And maybe, for me, that is the challenge and the clarity of Wolfson’s paintings – the kind of life they speak of, the struggle for truth they uphold in the small tasks and insignificant spaces they explore, and above all, the seriousness of that wrestling that I feel in the paint, the energy expended in getting at what is seen, and the joy finally reached inside these quiet rooms.

Wolfson’s faith in painting as a ‘stable, freestanding view’ of the world is reflected in his work of the past seven years in Israel. “The Bathtub”, 1993, with its round metal floor drain, its wall knobs and toilet seat, its shower curtain and hose, painted in shades of grey and beige except for the red toilet seat edge and the white strip of door, creating a space almost dingy, worn, marked by use, yet neither desolate nor empty – seems to invite a living absence as the observer of these works fills the vacancy with her own physicality. In a number of seemingly empty, isolated interior spaces, the artist is engaged in trying to get the sensation of the unseen into the paint, into the image. In his own words, “When I’m painting empty spaces I’m trying to paint the presence in those spaces.” In “Grey Interior”, 1998, his brush moves across the distance of the floor to the soft couch. But the eye wanting light lifts to the window, large and low, through which intense, hazy daylight pours in. Only then the eye is stopped at the chair directly beneath it, a director’s chair of canvas and wood bleached by the sun, offering a place for sight to rest, but demanding eyes open, an upright, wakeful attention that doesn’t allow perception to slip into distraction. In this painting all the actual objects are situated on the periphery of the room. The wall and floor take up most of the canvas, so there’s even more ‘nothingness’ of subject matter than usually captures Wolfson’s attention. Is it a ‘still painting’ because wall and floor and couch and chair do not move, are not alive? These things are charged with power. True, there is no drama in their narrative, no one in the painting who moves through the room to sit on the couch, yet entering this space becomes essential as soon as one’s gaze encounters it. Someone was here as I am now, facing the walls and floor. It’s hard to overcome the threshold; there’s a hesitation to move further inside the room which nevertheless offers solace, quiet, a return to inner vision as a respite from all that moves outside. But if I do not enter and sit, there is no chance for introspection, or recollection. One has to overcome inhibition to cross the surface of the floor where markings go back and forth as though vacillating, resisting entrance. The horizontal brushstrokes at the forefront of the painting are aggressive, short, tense, obvious, the paint is thick, hard to pass over. Then surfaces become smoother as one reaches the comfortable, longed-for couch and chair and the window’s muted brightness that seems to come both from within and without.

“I understand my work as a combination of a visual experience and a tactile or kinetic experience,” says Wolfson. Other painters, particularly Frank Auerbach, de Kooning, and Hammershoi have been cited in reference to Wolfson’s work. One can see common elements in their concerns and subject matter, and sense Wolfson’s affinity to their respective intensity, energy, and intimacy. His painting surfaces often call to mind Francis Bacon’s statement that a painter brings the sensation and the feeling of life over the only way he can; “…I think that you can make, very much as in abstract painting, involuntary marks on the canvas which may suggest much deeper ways by which you can trap the fact you are obsessed by. If anything ever does work in my case, it works from that moment when consciously I don’t know what I’m doing…”

In 1997 Wolfson moved his studio from his Jerusalem apartment in Baka to a building in Mekor Baruch, an old, poor, religious downtown neighborhood of stone structures with large low windows. Though he had begun painting figures from models several years earlier, the move seems to have been the catalyst for a turning point in his nude paintings and ushered in an exciting new series of work. “Woman Through Doorway”, 1997, and “Interior With Woman, Chair and Window”, 1998, are interiors with nudes seen from a distance; the same empty spaces fill the canvas as before, only now a figure appears sitting in the corner or reclining on the sofa. In “Woman on Couch III”, 1998, a large figure is lying naked on a couch with a provocative red cloth draped over it. In “Woman with a Hat”, 1998, the woman is relaxed yet upright, sitting in the director’s chair, her body uncovered, her legs spread and stretched out just enough for comfort and balance. These works signal a generous and deepening turn toward the human, the flesh tones, the open erotic body of a woman not threatened or imposed upon by the painter under whose brush she sits or lies. And the figures are not “trapped” in Bacon’s words, but are alive and confident in their skin. The woman sits on the director’s chair, the window with soft sunlight warming her shoulder from behind, a sunhat jauntily shading her head, her arms comfortably resting on the arms of the chair, her legs firm on the ground, her feet in clogs keeping them warm and giving the entire figure a groundedness, a force so entirely autonomous and independent that her nakedness is not a vulnerability. And part of the life of these nudes seems to come from the unexpected accidental markings on the couch, on the floor, or on the wall behind – slashing gestural bars of paint, finger marks pressed alongside the figures, giving tension and dynamism to what’s crammed inside the rectangle.

Wolfson uses a limited palette, yet the paint’s density is manipulated in ways that animate the surface, giving it physical reality as a living thing. Wolfson’s struggle is a rigorous one, so that something seen is experienced in all its fullness. In his recent landscapes there is an intense light, a worn quality to the stone, a village feel to the streets, a profusion of leafy foliage, all typical of the small Jerusalem neighborhood where he lives. These works are more expansive than the interiors so charged with a desire for intimacy. Still, in the empty spaces of sky and stone and shadow one feels the pressure and movement of what is present – an intensive light, dense heat, the weight of atmosphere, dust, haze. Again making something out of nothing, Wolfson focuses on familiar commonplace ‘corners’ in the city, a dingy warehouse in the Talpiot Industrial Zone, a Baka rooftop with its nearby eucalyptus, a turn in the winding Rakevet Street, rather than on the breathtaking grand Jerusalem vistas encompassing gold and silver domed mosques and ancient walls. Wolfson’s landscapes seem to wrestle with the contradiction of density and light as the stone and cement forms both resist and absorb the light’s corrosive intensity. In “Talpiot, Industrial Zone III”, 1998, the sky is an empty space, dense with white dusty light, filled with movement and palpable dry desert heat pressing down on the landscape; it also shimmers weightlessly over the distant mountains as the industrial buildings and small monastery in the foreground maintain their form inside its vapors. “Baka Rooftop, II”, 1998, challenges the viewer as it draws the eye in, its tree curving upward behind the roof and in front of the distant line of Jerusalem houses and hills, a red tiled roof peeping out from the dark shadows and brighter leafy greens, everything at once muted and decipherable. The movement in the brushstrokes conveys the changing behavior of the light and creates a space believable and fluid in its challenging mutability.

In 1994 I started Artspace in part because of my passion for Jordan Wolfson’s work. He has had three solo shows here since then, again because his work is essential to me as a depiction of reality that is both visceral and mysterious. Like the unfinished or missing part of Apollo’s archaic torso that suffuses the rest of the sculpture with brilliance and galvanizes us with the force of it incompleteness to confront our lives, Jordan Wolfson’s paintings invite us to struggle to see what is not easily apparent, as they offer comfort, stimulate desire and permit wonder of this world:


We cannot know his legendary head
with eyes like ripening fruit. And yet his torso
is still suffused with brilliance from inside,
like a lamp, in which his gaze, now turned to low,

gleams in all its power. Otherwise
the curved breast could not dazzle you so, nor could
a smile run through the placid hips and thighs
to that dark center where procreation flared.

Otherwise this stone would seem defaced
beneath the translucent cascade of the shoulders
and would not glisten like a wild beast’s fur:

would not, from all the borders of itself,
burst like a star: for here there is no place
that does not see you. You must change your life.

Jerusalem, May 1999

Linda Zisquit is a poet and founder/director of ARTSPACE GALLERY, Jerusalem.

*David Bomberg



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