Uri Lifshitz in the 1970s

The exhibition replays Uri Lifshitz’s shift from “drawing in oil” – his own definition for drawing with a brush – to painting that exploits the material and chromatic properties of the medium. Centered on the wrestler and boxer paintings of 1973–74, the exhibition highlights the way in which Lifshitz transforms the flowing movement of lines into the dripping of paint and expansion of stain, juxtaposing the swollen veins of the wrestlers’ bodies with splashes of blood, drops of sweat, and bruises.

The breakthrough marked by the wrestler paintings becomes even more apparent when they are compared to a group of drawings from the same period, which are likewise included in the exhibition. Their juxtaposed display stages a transition from Surrealist automatic drawing that generates monstrous, orgiastic formations – to a performative, executional mode of painting, in which the effect of pre-existing photographic images is intensified. Whereas the automatic drawing functions as a sort of conductor to unconscious processes within the artist’s psyche, the executional mode of painting treats the image as an independent pre-existing entity, which it translates and exhausts. With respect to the former, one can still speak of style or seismographic handwriting, but in the case of the latter the artist becomes a tool, a medium, a mechanism. In this sense, the wrestler paintings are where Lifshitz acquires his painterly signature, but at the same time avoids the relativity inherent in the concept of personal signature in order to exercise the impersonal totality of the painted image. The wrestler paintings are devoid of “compositions” or “expression”: nothing in them derives from an aesthetic decision, but is an outcome of what the painted image requires or is capable of carrying. For example: the white smudges radiating from the boxer’s dropped head in the painting Boxer (1973), are neither gestural nor decorative, but rather indicate the impact of the punch delivered to him. (One could also say that the shift from drawing to painting echoes the shift from the white paper to the dark, baroque background, out of which the wrestlers emerge.)

The significance of the wrestler paintings lies in the fact that with them Lifshitz establishes, or rather articulates, his mode of executional painting in terms of a physical struggle, a battlefield. The paintings demonstrate the artist’s movement from inner violence – exemplified in the paintings of schizophrenics from the 1960s – to outer violence, violence as a cultural trait. Linking the appearance inside and of the painting to a physical struggle, amounts to a vision of a conflictual world bred by and based upon a violent friction. It brings to mind the philosophy of Heraclitus, who asserted that “war is common and justice is strife, and that all things happen by strife.”1 The wrestler paintings give rise to perceiving the conflict between opposites as the organizing logos of the world; but beyond the metaphysical stance they represent, these paintings can also be read as a political allegory, a protest against a reality of constant war between two hawkish rivals. 

Philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy underlined the essential tie between violence and the image. In a text published in 2005 he writes that “violence always completes itself in an image. If what matters in the exercise of a force is the production of the effects one expects from it … then what matters for the violent person is that the production of the effect is indissociable from the manifestation of violence.”2 The wrestler paintings equate an image with an act of violence. This equation undermines their status as pictures, as representations that signify something in its absence, and recreates them as a material presence, a physical body, bare flesh caught in a violent assault that inflicts bodily harm yet reasserts its impossible elimination.

There has been much mention of the iconographic-thematic influence of Francis Bacon on Lifshitz. However, one should also talk about their shared interest in (dis)figuration, not as a visual preference but as a means to touch bare flesh as it quivers between life and death. In his book about the English painter, Gilles Deleuze claims that Bacon’s figures “are of flesh, and what fascinates him are the invisible forces that model flesh or shake it. This is not the relationship of form and matter, but of materials and forces; to make those forces visible through their effects on flesh.”3

The wrestler paintings combine Lifshitz’s analysis of the spastic human figure with his practice of painting after photography. Beginning with these paintings, which are based on press photos, the artist’s painterly work posits itself against the visibility and mechanics of the photographic image. Like no other Israeli painter before him, Lifshitz challenges the dominance of the spectacular image. On the one hand, he assimilates his painting into the visual flux of mass media, but on the other, distinguishes himself therefrom. He emphasizes the inferiority of art in the age of technical reproduction, but under these circumstances insists on its non-appropriable qualities. As a unique Pop painter, his involvement with media images is depictive as well as procedural. His painterly execution of photographic images contests their immediate circulation and distribution through and within communication networks. By doing so, Lifshitz seeks to acquire the status of a social, semi-technological institute. Suggesting his own version of the Warholian moto “I want to be a machine,” he disobeys the ideological systemic mediation of the state and the press, and engenders an alternative systemic mediation of violence.

Ory Dessau

  1. Heraclitus, Fragments, trans. Brooks Haxton (London: Penguin Classics, 2003), p. 50.
  2. Jean-Luc Nancy, The Ground of the Image, trans. Jeff Fort (New York: Fordham University Press, 2005), p. 19.
  3. Gilles Deleuze, Francis Bacon: The Logic of Sensation, trans. Daniel W. Smith (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2005), p. 22.