Izhar Patkin's paintings and sculptures, in his new exhibition "The Wandering Veil" opening this weekend at Mass MoCA, have so many back-stories that few of us may have the fortitude to uncover them. That's all right, he says. "I need to put them there for anyone who wants to dig deeper."
There is much to dig for. Life, loss, exile, love, remembrance, global migration: These are among the complex themes Patkin addresses through his multilayered imagery in paint, textile, glass, wax, porcelain, metal and wood. Even the title "The Wandering Veil," a play on the medieval tale of the Wandering Jew, suggests exile and elusiveness.
"Patkin is an artist's artist, widely admired within the art world, but less well-known to the general public," says Mass MoCA director Joseph Thompson.
"That is in large part because he doesn't stick to a single format, or style, or media. He is restless and reflexively experimental which is difficult for the art market to grapple with. Thus he had fallen off the radar screen: This show should bring his work, and especially his recent work, back to light."
Patkin, 58, fell off the radar screen for more personal reasons too. After making name for himself on the New York art scene in 1980s; joining the roster of top artists represented by legendary dealer Holly Solomon; and making a splash at the 1987 Whitney Biennial with his "black paintings," he all but dropped from sight.
He talked about that withdrawal, his work, and the trajectory of his career during a lunch break last week while installing his exhibition.
"My father died shortly after 9/11," he said. "Then after that Holly died."
Other deaths followed in a short span, including that of the Kashmiri-American poet Agha Shahid Ali, who had been a close collaborator.
"It was a very introspective period where I didn't particularly care to extend myself out into the world," he confessed. His father's death, he said, was the most emotional event in his life up to that
time. "The emotion was so substantial it felt like an object. It had volume and weight."
Patkin still pursued the themes of exile and making the invisible real that he'd developed early in his career, but found his attitude had changed. What had previously been visual problem solving on a mostly intellectual level, now resonated with deep and personal emotionality.
He developed a series of mural-sized paintings about love and loss on curtains of pleated tulle fabric. Among them is "Veiled Suite," inspired by the poems of his friend Agha Shahid Ali. He posed his father seated before the World Trade Center in a 2006 curtain painting "Arik Patkin WTC."
Those works and others from the last decade join with ones from earlier in his career for this exhibition that originated at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art in Israel and was "re-narrated," as he puts it, for American viewers.
Looking back on his formative years, Patkin said, "Growing up Jewish, I didn't see [religious] icons or Christmas [images] or any of those things until I was 13 years old."
He was raised, he said, "in a culture whose religion has an invisible god that is not to be represented" in images.
Once he left Israel in 1977 to study and work in the United States, however, he found other cultures readily sought ways to express their belief systems through objects, be they the religious relics of Christian saints, the Shiva figures of Hinduism or the designer labels of consumer capitalism.
A "staunch atheist," he saw these belief systems as shaping the evolution of pictorial space from representations to abstractions and finally manifestations of the invisible god, sacred objects of worship in themselves. And he sought to probe through his own art how thin or small something could be made and still be considered itself.
His veiled paintings on pleated textiles appear to move or vanish depending on the angle at which they are viewed. Sculptures may be of transparent glass, or feature mirrors or figures holding voids or empty canvases.
"That is what these images do," he said. "They ask questions about their own physicality."
His "The Messiah's glAss," said to be inspired by the Jewish Book of Zohar, combines religious and secular, Jewish and Christian stories in a reference to the formation of the Jewish state. The sculpture substitutes a severed donkey's head, fashioned in glass, for the holy ark of the covenant, its huge ears echoing the shapes of the angel figures that traditionally guard the ark. It was shown at the Jewish Museum in New York last year in a signal that Patkin was "back in the game," as he put it.
Although Patkin chose to come to the United States to study and work, and was not a refugee, he said he still felt a disconnect from his roots, a kind of exile that is another of his major themes.
"Growing up in Israel, you are indoctrinated to think the diaspora [or scattering of a people from their homeland] is an exclusive Jewish tragedy. Then you come out and find there are many diasporas all over the world."
In New York City, where he lives, he said, "you have Pakistanis, and Indians, and Chinese and Arabs and Jews living side by side and it's OK." They have come from different homelands and while they may share a sense of exile, their adaptation to a new environment can have positive results. Or not.
"Capitalism has become a major force that is flattening the rich difference between cultures," he said. "You travel across the [United States] and there are malls everywhere. The sameness of a vast land created a real crisis of intimacy for me."
His "Gardens for Global Cities," made to resemble Persian carpets or abstract art canvases speak to the form-over-content principles of modern art and the growing sameness of the world's urban environments.
For this exhibition, the football field-size gallery space at Mass MoCA previously occupied by Xu Bing's "The Phoenix Project," has been divided by stage flats into "rooms" visitors can wander through.
While the artworks at the Tel Aviv Museum were presented chronologically, starting with an early painting of Patkin's grandfather, his namesake, and progressing through family, to nation, to religion, at Mass MoCA they are arranged thematically as a progression of ideas.
The show opens with a 1987 metal sculpture of the fictional literary character Don Quixote astride a horse whose back end faces viewers as the enter the gallery. The back stories of the piece point, as a text guide says, to the shape and content of the exhibition as a journey and a story; an examination of how fiction and visual representation shape reality; and how the ideologies of pictorial space are continually challenged.
Other rooms feature Amish barn paintings that are metaphors for doors that admit or exclude; "The Messiah's glAss" sculpture with the donkey head ark; the "Gardens for Global Cities" carpet paintings; his father posed at the World Trade Center; a timepiece with a hole where the clock would be; his black paintings; and other many-layered undertakings from a 30-year career.
So what does Patkin conclude is real?
"Reality is an impossibility because everything is communicated in a symbolic order," he says. "All we know for sure is the measuring stick."