Joseph Gattegno was a man whose life purpose was clear to him from an early age to his last day – he was born to paint. To paint is to exist. Painting is the process and the act, it is the idea and mostly – it is the outcome.
By Yair Garbuz
For him, painting was a source and a realm of skepticism and determination, observation and interpretation, thought and emotion, search and discovery, the changing, the new, and the surprising, of taking apart and constructing. He belonged to a dying breed of painters, one who considered painting to be a profession that carries with it duties and routines, and a destiny and fate that there is no point, and indeed – no need, to embellish and justify with words. For him, words and theories were nothing but crutches that one should aim to rely on as little as possible. It was a commitment of which there is no way out or a respite – painting resonated in his mind day and night. It is wherever the painter is; when he paints and when he does not paint, when he looks at the painting and when he criticizes it … but even when he walks down the street, when he reads a newspaper, and even in his dreams at the dead of night.
The painting is simmers and stews on a small fire that can suddenly grow to a fiery flame. We could say that his notion of art was romantic, total, but thoroughly non-bombastic. Gattegno was a modest, quiet, and pleasant man, but he knew that the act of painting should not be executed with modesty but with the utmost pretention, and that in any case, it should be judged and criticized without allowances or lenience.
Joseph Gattegno’s development as an artist drew from numerous sources. But without doubt the first and chief among these was French Modernism, particularly Lyrical Abstract painting, which was embraced by the Israeli art scene, where it reigned supreme more than any other artistic school. It was an amalgamating painting that covers and blurs and unifies and creates a homogenous, cloudy, lyrical surface. Like his predecessors, the veterans of Israeli abstraction, he too was never an abstract painter in the pure and formal sense of the term, but rather a painter who created abstraction, that is, who feeds images into his paintings and changes them through a free dissolution of reality, with varying degrees of blurring and abstraction.
This was his practice in his early years as an artist, and later, after returning from a long stay in Paris and leaving behind the gray and melancholy light, the encumbering French refinement. We can also detect the influence of American Pop Art in his paintings, in that these have become less disintegrated, more contrasting, more colorful, and somewhat more social and ironic, but ultimately refer to the subject as an excuse and as a catalyst for the artist’s freedom to distort, take apart, compose, and invent.
Gattegno claimed that this shift in his work took place in 1984, after which Tel Aviv served as the major source of inspiration and an incentive to paint in colorful and dynamic rhythms. He felt that despite the many international influences and sources, Tel Aviv was the origin and starting point for impression, movement, and change. He did not shy away from the possibility of remaining a local painter, who also brings into his paintings the dazzling local light, the scorching heat, and the dripping sweat. He described his paintings as urban trips:
“In my paintings, I roamed the streets, the painting easel with me, and transported selected fragments of my impressions, from different angles and various distances – onto the flat canvas. The titles that appeared in my paintings, like “I Went and Came Back,” expressed this approach. […] When I embark on the trip, I do not know when the painting will reach its conclusion and what will be its final color palette. Whether it will be very figurative or if the shapes will be more abstract in nature. […] the painting starts with quick and spontaneous impressions and continues with thinking and planning. If after the first “trip” I am not pleased with the composition that I have created – I do not attempt to fix it, but rather go on another trip, in which new shapes take the place of the previous ones.”
Another tier in the sources of inspiration that fed Gattegno’s art – his favorite painters, who influenced his work at various times, and whom he addressed in his works in the form of a homage, or quote, or parody, or incentive for change. In the few lines that Gattegno wrote about his art, color stands out as the central element and characteristic. He does not mention an equally important aspect – the tactile nature of his brushwork and the rich and sensitive range of “states of paint”: from diluted and transparent to thick and granular, from dry to wet, from flowing to fixed, from thin to opaque. He does not mention the painting that remembers, that is, the one that holds in its depths a material and formal history.
As mentioned earlier, Gattegno was not a man of many words, and even less so theories. He looked for his right slot within an existing tradition – to be a link in a chain among his contemporaries. I believe that in all of his walks and trips and visits to museums and galleries and in other artists’ studios, he has learned the most from his strict, monastic professional schedule. It begins with the expression “to go down to the studio” – that is to say, to the bleak shelter that the city has put at his disposal … to go to the studio almost every day, even when he did not feel like it, even when the taste was lost, even when the brush seems to stand still. To go without the mannerisms of a painter but with the needs of a painter. To put on the easel an empty canvas, or an unfinished canvas, or a canvas that elicits regret, or exasperation and disappointment. To sit in front of it and regret profoundly and not give himself any allowances and smoke one cigarette after another until the hand wants to move. To put paint on the palette. To look and think in terms of adding and subtracting, changing and erasing, lightening and intensifying, and other such things for which there is no explanation but there is a need.
The painting takes shape before his eyes, the focus shifts, the spotlight turns to parts that were neglected, the important becomes trivial, and vice versa – something that was secondary becomes central, top changes places with bottom – all so that the moment of signing the painting will be the most ethical it can possibly be – an acute and strict verdict. In every painting that succeeds, there is also a separation from the previous painting, from what has become or may become a force of habit. The studio is no only a place where accomplishments are made, but also a place of movement, where one let go of accomplishments. And so, he would sit in front of the painting and become riddled with regret and cheer up and be filled with fear and rejection and then a chance and hope. He worked in series, but was concerned about the unifying power of the series, and made sure that each painting would maintain a whole and coherent world. The critique is divided into three parts, thus spanning the entire duration: critique of the painting’s initial intention before it begins, critique during the painting process, and critique after it is signed, sometimes immediately after the completion of the work and sometimes a short or long while after. It is from this accumulative habit that professional ethics emerge.
Gattegno belonged to the type of painters who believed quantity was one of the best ways to distill quality. At the end of the day, in retrospect, Gattegno never belonged to a distinct artistic school, but took something from everything and imbued his sources with his own personal touch and character. He was not an Expressionist but his paintings had many expressive moments – some of them stemmed not from poignant and extreme content but rather from the spontaneity of painting, and from his adventurous work. He certainly was not an Impressionist, but had tremendous respect for their treatment of color and painterly sophistication. He also was not an Abstractionist because to him Abstraction seemed too fanatical and therefore he juxtaposed the abstract with the figurative. He did not do Pop Art and did not like the imitations of commercials, the graphics that infiltrated painting, and the industrial and alienated paint work and intentional vulgarity, but was nevertheless influenced by the irony and the grotesque nature of Pop Art.
He was not a political painter, but anyone who starts from a figurative point of departure will always pass through the social and at the very least brush with the political periphery. He was neither revolutionary nor conservative but a painter with an individual path, who moved along the outskirts of traditions. It seems that this need for definitions by contradiction, e.g. “he was not,” is a testament to his uniqueness and the fact that his painting was not rooted in theories.
To a certain extent, he remained faithful to his early steps as an artist, at least in that his painting throughout the years was multi-layered, full, saturated, and treated almost in its entirety.
I loved going down to his studio and seeing the quick and exciting paintings and watercolors, seeing the trials and successes, the hesitant pauses and the decisive gestures. I loved seeing the accumulated qualities, the strive for profundity, the uncompromising struggle for the perfection of each and every painting. I loved showing him my paintings, listening to his reviews and views. Josef Gattegno perceived the contemporary not as a fashion, or as the order of the day and a command for the given moment, but as a long marathon whose results will only unfold, if at all, gradually. He was a thoughtful, sharp-eyed painter with an artistic and human sensibility, and a varied, humorous, and musical brush. A man who observes. A man who turns observation into an expression – into an experience.