The Illuminated Room of Jenifer Bar Lev



The Illuminated Room of Jenifer Bar Lev

By Ellen Ginton


Jenifer Bar-Lev has classified the works in this exhibition into two categories: letters and rooms. The division is based on the physical form of the works. Of the rooms, only one is a woman’s — Mary’s Room — and all the others belong to men: to Mark, Simon, Charles, David and Abed. The room motif also recurs in the title of the brief artistic autobiography that appears in the catalogue — “The Sewing Room”. It turns out that this is a stereotyped image of woman, based on the familiar interpretation of the verse “All the glory of the king’s daughter is within: her clothing is of wrought gold” (Psalms 45:14).

Virginia Woolf’s classic book is called A Room Of Her Own, Marilyn French’s book is called The Women’s Room, and in The Song of Songs, which Bar-Lev quotes from in one of the “Rooms”, a text reads “the king has brought me into his rooms” [the AV and most English translations have “chambers”, but Hebrew lacks this distinction (Tr.)]. The poetry journal edited by Helit Yeshurun is called Rooms, and Bili Moscona-Lerman’s program is called Inside Rooms. The heart is divided [in Hebrew] into rooms; the idiom “the heart’s rooms” also points to something interior, and from here it is only a short way to Bar-Lev’s other image — the letter. Not only a room, but also love — a love letter. All the rooms and letters in the exhibition are decorated with hearts — perhaps the popular feminine image for love. Bar-Lev says that “to make art is to give, to express love, it’s both to give to yourself — to let yourself make — and to give to people, to the world, like to give birth, a sign of love” (in a talk with me, E.G.).

In Hebrew, the words for “room” and for “penetration” are derived from the same root, “I-In”. What penetrates into the room? Where art is concerned the answer is, first of all, light. So it is in Vermeer’s painting The Letter, which we will be referring to again, but also in Bar-Lev’s works. The first work Bar-Lev made with words, as she tells us in “The Sewing Room”, speaks about light. Perhaps it was there that she first saw the light in art. Firstly, this is a patchwork of white on white. Secondly, the work distinctly recalls the paintings of Agnes Martin — an artist Bar-Lev has a special interest in — which have to do with light. Thirdly, the text in that work says “More light”. In “The Sewing Room”, Bar-Lev writes: “I am interested in work which lets in light”. The phrase “More light” is attributed to Goethe on his deathbed, and can be taken literally as the plea of a man who feels the light of the world being extinguished for him, but also as a spiritual last testament of a man of the Enlightenment who also investigated the nature of light.

This phrase, in the form of “give more light”, was quoted during the sixties by the American light artist Dan Flavin, in a sequence of aphorisms about light. Flavin, as a minimalist and an artist of neon light, had an influence on American women’s art, especially that of Jenny Holzer, who works with light-texts. Indeed, one almost cannot avoid making a comparison between Bar-Lev’s “Rooms”, which are made of textile (and of text), and are permeable to light, and the use Jenny Holzer makes of rooms and light, for example at the 1990 Venice Biennale. Michael Auping calls them antechambers or chambers: “Indeed, one might see Holzer’s Venice Installation as an allegory of a spiritual journey, the ultimate goal of which is to attempt to prevent a real hell on earth. Her antechambers become a kind of purgatory, an unresolved plane of sin and guilt, a room swarming with anxious thoughts as we wait for doom or redemption. From each of these chambers we are beckoned by rooms filled with light, and the disembodied voice of Holzer’s electronic signs. The room with its inset stone tablet and vertical electronic signs — the anxious tribute to motherhood — becomes Holzer’s post-modern madonna [the room is called The Child’s Room]. This is not the male artist’s image of contrition and purity, but an aggressive, if not vengeful protectress, an image that is not simply metaphorical and patriarchal, but real. Holzer’s fears are not fantasy but derive from the often brutal facts she sees around her”.[1] It is clear that the common parameters of the “Rooms” — light and texts — are aggressive, technological and public in Holzer’s works, while in Bar-Lev’s they are intimate, manual and harmonious. But although Bar-Lev’s rooms — and light — are not real but imaginary, one may see her works too as a journey or mystical state that opens the gates of revelation.

Roland Barthes’ books nourished American feminist thought during the eighties. Among his well-known books was one on photography which is called Camera Lucida,[2] as a reversal of the dark room, the camera obscura, which is the camera itself as well. Not only did photography play an important role in the development of American women’s art; the development of photography itself is inseparably connected with that art. A room, or a dark room, is a traditional image for a woman. One may interpret the name that Barthes gave his book as a symbol for the feminist project. This project, as a project of reversal, also appears in Jenifer Bar-Lev’s work. In “The Sewing Room” she writes: “Needle wisdom sews the world together from behind. If the garment is turned inside out, perhaps the needle wisdom can not only mend, but design”. In “The Sewing Room” Bar-Lev describes her grandmother’s room, the quiet sewing and the women’s talk in the afternoon light. This is like the scene in Vermeer’s room, if not in the painting where they write the letter, “embroidering” the text, then in a room in another of his paintings, or in paintings by other artists, where women are seen in their traditional occupations. These occupations included that minor genre that was allowed to women too, like still-life and landscape painting, “low” versions of which Bar-Lev has introduced into her latest works, her “Rooms”.

Daily life is one of the subjects and bearers of the feminist project. Barbara Kruger, in a 1987 article in Art News, says: “Daily life was what these pieces were all about. Rather than abstracting or repressing daily life into busywork, I became a reporter. Because I felt that daily life and the social relations around it are what is repressed in art”.[3]

Bar-Lev’s texts deal with — and are built upon — daily life. There are many recurring motifs in them: food, cooking, sewing, cloth, eroticism and sex, men and women, traveling, family and art. But the medium of these subjects or the model for the text is the dream. The personal, traditional dream, not the collective reverie. The dream is joined by memory, for it is clear that the texts deal mainly with Jenifer Bar-Lev’s American experience, with memories of her youth.

An additional remark on light relates to the text of Charles’ Room: this is one of the texts in which, for the first time, the work speaks in two voices, is composed of two kinds of text. One, the veteran voice, is intimate, feminine, personal (which by virtue of the work becomes public), and its language — low, contemporary English — has transformational laws of identity; the other — ancient, biblical, divine, collective — speaks a high and masculine Hebrew, and has a rigid order and univocal laws of identity.

In Charles’ Room the biblical text is a well known passage from Psalms (104:1-9): “… my God, thou art very great; thou art clothed with honour and majesty. Who coverest thyself with light as with a garment: who stretchest out the heavens like a curtain… Who laid the foundations of the earth, that it should not be removed forever…”.

What connects the two kinds of text is similar to what connects the parts of the first texts — associations, resemblance, transformation. Bar-Lev puts them both into the same room with no difficulty. At times she even attempts to sabotage the high tone of the biblical text, as for example in Mark’s Room where, she told me, she brought in the text on Simeon and Levi from “Jacob’s Blessing” because in the painting there were parts of Levi’s jeans. So too, perhaps, in the text of Charles’ Room. The leather clothes of the shoppers in the neighborhood store become garments of light in the biblical text, homonymically [in modern Hebrew, 11H (light) and itv (leather) are both pronounced or]. The leather clothes “became transparent in a certain light”, like the works, which have to let the light penetrate. Light is a high, sacred, divine element, and also a foundation of knowledge, but the light is also what makes the clothes transparent, that is, erotic. The distance or closeness between the high and the low, between the spiritual and the physical, between art and sex and more, is a recurring motif in Bar-Lev’s works.

But the masculine biblical voice also speaks in the name of what is called the law. In the same verses from Psalms it is also said that [He] “laid the foundations of the earth, that it should not be removed forever”. One of the projects of feminism is to challenge “the law”, or the order and the power which were determined by men, not women. In this context, Jacques Derrida[4] compares women to the man from the country in Franz Kafka’s “Before the Law”, and there too the man outside the gate “in his darkness … is now aware of a radiance that streams inextinguishably from the gateway of the Law”.[5]


Bar-Lev Writes a Love-Letter


The title of the American feminist critic Jane Gallop’s book, Thinking Through the Body,[6] is borrowed from a sentence in Adrienne Rich’s book Of Woman Born: “I am really asking whether women cannot begin, at last, to think through the body, to connect what has been so cruelly disorganized” (Rich’s emphasis).[7] In one of her chapters, “The Other Woman”, Gallop analyzes an article by Annie Leclerc entitled “Love Letter”. The title refers both to the form of the article, which is written as a love letter, and to its subject, Lady Writing a Letter with her Maid, a painting by the 17th-century Dutch artist Vermeer.[8]

The subject of “The Other Woman” is writing and sexual differences.

Bar-Lev’s texts deal with art and sexual identity: how is it possible to be both a woman and an artist, on the assumption that art is not asexual. That is why the texts are interlaced with sexuality. On the one hand, they foreground the difficulty of arriving at art: for example, in Mary’s Room there is a transvestite cabaret artiste, i.e., one with a disguised sexual identity, but “Unfortunately no one can understand a word she says”. In Mark’s Room we read: “One of my paintings is being displayed in a public place. You have to walk a plank to get there”. Art is conceived almost according to the (masculine) Romantic model of the accursed artist who is required to pay for his choice. In the text of Famous Artists too there is “an official building full of paintings most of which are misunderstood”. It must be stressed that the difficulty with art has to do with the transition from the private to the public.

On the other hand, the texts also foreground the affinity between art and sex (or food). Actually, these three functions — painting or speech, sex and food — are transformed into one another in the texts. In Mary’s Room, when a difficulty arises and “A person I know asks me to interpret”, a dramatic change takes place in the text and it goes on: “So I make dinner”. The text ends on a positive note: “You … eat them and it is good”. The dinner itself is described in a way that evokes associations with painting: “and serve it outside in the sunlight… You pick [a branch] up and plunge it into a bucket of dressing and that is the salad” (and after that comes the biblical, masculine text, which deals with dietary laws — not with what is good, but with what is prohibited or permitted).

In the transformational language of these dream texts, food changes into painting, or into text, and for this reason to take a branch and plunge it in a bucket outside, in the sunlight, recalls the movies which document Jackson Pollock’s drip paintings.

In “The Sewing Room” Bar-Lev writes: “When I first realized I was an artist, I looked around for role models. Mary Cassatt, while also an expatriate, remained unmarried and childless, not what I had in mind for myself”.

In “The Other Woman”, Gallop also describes a painting by Mary Cassatt, of a woman “writing” a letter. The chapter opens with a discussion of a collection of articles, Writing and Sexual Difference.  Among other things, Gallop sees this title as signalling the emergence of feminism on the stage of high theory of writing: on the anthology’s cover there appear two black-and-white photographs of people writing — a woman on the front cover and a man on the back cover: “The woman is writing a letter; the man — a book. Women write letters — personal, intimate, in relation; men write books — universal, public, in general circulation. The man in the picture is in fact Erasmus, father of our humanist tradition; the woman without a name. In the man’s background: books. The woman sits against floral wallpaper, echoed in reverse by her patterned dress…. Perhaps most significantly, the man holds pen to paper and his pen is echoed by the scissors hanging there (on the bookshelves), likewise aiming its point at the smooth white paper. The scissors bring out the incisiveness, penetration, violence of the pen. I would hesitate to associate that threatening point with masculine sexuality — I would not want to jump to a phallic conclusion – were it not so tempting here in proximity to the image of the penless woman literally licking the paper. Or maybe kissing. In any case, her relation to the paper is not mediated through an instrument but is direct oral contact. Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar have suggested that in the masculine tradition the text is a woman, the pen a penis, and writing understood as coitus. In the picture of the woman, her face is as white and smooth as the paper, so that when she brings it to her mouth, like embraces like. Is ecriture feminine lesbian cunnilingus?… This picture of the woman licking paper is made by Mary Cassatt, an American woman who like many of us went to Paris in pursuit of her art”.[9] Bar-Lev didn’t want to go to Paris. Her art is nourished by American art and life.

Gallop points out the oral nature of “feminine writing”. This is a transition from the phallic sexual paradigm to an oral one. In an article from 1977, “Coming to Writing”, Helene Cixous writes: “Texts I ate them, I sucked them, I kissed them”. “I caressed [my books]. Page by page… To write: to love, inseparable. Writing is a gesture of love…. Read-me, lick-me, write-me love”.[10]

We should recall that the orality of writing and painting had already appeared before this among American artists, such as Jasper Johns and Bruce Nauman. Johns wrote in his notebook: “Painting is like eating”, and Nauman made the work Eating My Words.

I already noted above that Leclerc’s “Love Letter” is also an essay that is published in a book. On this, Gallop writes: “Leclerc wishes precisely to heal the split portrayed on the cover of Writing and Sexual Difference: women write letters, men books. Love letters have all been written from the body, in connection with love. Leclerc wants all writing to have that connection; she wants love to enter into general circulation, rather than remaining private and secret…. Leclerc brings the love letter out of the closet and into the public domain.”[11]

Here too, as in comparing Bar-Lev’s “Rooms” with those of Jenny Holzer, the resemblance is partial. Bar-Lev’s “Love Letters” are not really love letters. In the first chapter of Gallop’s book, the author notes three writers who tried to bridge the gap between private and public, or theoretical and concrete, writing. Besides the Marquis de Sade and Roland Barthes, she names Freud as one who operated at the interface between the autobiographical and the theoretical.[12] He is the one who proposed a science by interpreting his own dreams and analyzing his personal history and the affinity of these to his work with other people. “In the preface to… The Interpretation of Dreams, Freud explains that he had no choice but to use his own dreams for constructing and demonstrating his theories. `But if I was to report my own dreams’, he adds, `it inevitably followed that I would have to reveal to the public gaze more of the intimacies of my mental life than I liked, or than is normally necessary for any writer who is a man of science and not a poet”.[13]

Bar-Lev’s “Letters” (and “Rooms”) are dreams, or dream-like texts, in which she thinks in public, or publicly stages the intimate life of her psyche. Although the texts are displayed in a museum and not out in the city streets, and are private in format, the contact with the medium and the public accords them a political dimension.

Gallop’s text goes on to say “Vermeer has portrayed a woman writing a letter. She is, however, not simply a woman, but a “Lady” (actually, a bourgeoise) and with her is another woman, her servant. The difference between women is here, first of all, a difference of class. Yes, there is a tradition of women writing (writing letters, at least), but the women are of a certain class: first the nobility, and then the bourgeoisie. There is a class of women who write and a class who serve those who write. Leclerc writes: `Admit finally that there is in this woman writing, a spoiled woman [emme gatee]… a woman for whom the quill came into her fingers without her having to pluck it from the bird’s wing’. Writing is not just a work of the spirit; there are material requisites. Labor must be done by another so that this woman can write. Women no longer need servants to write letters; but what about the sort of open letters, public love writings Leclerc would write, that we would write? We must know the women of another class whose labor we rely on so that we can write: the women who clean our houses, care for our children, type our manuscripts”.[14]

In her “Love Letter”, as cited by Gallop, Leclerc draws attention to two disparities present in Vermeer’s painting. One is between the woman writing and the woman servant; the other is within the woman writing herself, between her right arm that writes, virile, foregrounded in the light, and her left arm, in the shadow, that represents the servant: “The disjunction between maid and woman writing is repeated as the difference between the mistress’s left and right arms”.[15] For Leclerc, the disjunction is between the woman writing and the woman who knows, who is a servant and represents feminine bodily knowledge. For Gallop, the painting represents two splits: the inner psychological one, between the left arm and the right, and the social-class one.

For the speaker in Jenifer Bar-Lev’s dream-texts, there is no “other woman”. In her texts there appear, at most, the contrasts between left arm and right arm, to use Gallop’s terms. The texts are the woman who writes. The “other woman” is present in the ornamented format of the patchworks, in the weave.

When one encounters motifs of writing and sexual difference, of works that allow the light to penetrate, and of the possibility of reversing the garment, what comes to mind is Marcel Duchamp’s The Large Glass, in which all these conditions exist. This is a work which is entirely writing, though a writing that goes on behind the scenes; a work which deals with sexual difference, allows light to penetrate, and one can look at it from the other side, and see the seams. Actually, it is an androgynous work, half man and half woman.[16]


From Textile to Text and Back


In the background of Bar-Lev’s works stand traditions of folk art and •• women’s craft — especially Victorian and American: painted wooden signs, interior decorations made with ornamental stencils, but mainly sewing work and its distinctive American representative — the patchwork quilt.

Art historians Griselda Pollock and Roszika Parker have written a fascinating description of the subjugation of women throughout European, and especially English, history, as reflected in the history of embroidery and needlework. They survey the way in which women’s qualities were identified with their craft, and the way these traditions were brought to America with the pioneer society and adapted to the conditions of the new place.”[17]

During her formative phase as an artist, Bar-Lev took an interest in feminist projects which dealt with the history of needlework, like Judy Chicago’s comprehensive book Embroidering Our Heritage,[18] which accompanied her work The Dinner Party, and expressed the same position as that propounded by Patricia Mainardi in the following text: “Women have always made art. But for women the arts most highly valued by male society have been closed to them for just that reason. They have put their creativity instead into needlework arts which exist in a fantastic variety wherever there are women, and which in fact are a universal female art form transcending race, class and national borders. Needlework is the one art in which women controlled the education of their daughters and the production of art, and were also the critics and audience… it is our cultural heritage”.[19]

While accepting that weaving, embroidery or the patchwork quilt are indeed a remarkable cultural achievement, Pollock and Parker argue that an empathetic feminist approach cannot allow itself to ignore either their inferior status in the art hierarchy, which distinguishes between art and craft, or the fact that needlework has been both evidence and a means of the subjugation of women throughout the history of culture.

The crafts which were always described as requiring nimbleness and manual skill, as decorative and lacking intellectual demands, were identified with women. This attitude reached its peak in the Victorian period. At the end of the 18th century and the beginning of the 19th, embroidery, which had become a compulsive occupation, was a synonym for femininity. Needlework, at that time, both embodied and sustained the feminine stereotype, set limits to women’s life and education, and operated as a socializing and oppressive force. The domestic qualities expected of a “good” woman — patience, devotion, submissiveness, obedience, service and modesty — were taught through numerous exercises in sewing and embroidery, and rehearsed by means of the pious verses embroidered on “samplers”.

The story of the quilts and woven blankets is particularly interesting, for they were one of the genres which underwent a process of change in status and were recognized as art. As they entered the sphere of high art, they underwent certain transformations, which were intended to free them of any association with domestic craft. At exhibitions devoted to the genre, and in the criticism written about them, the geometric designs in certain quilts were defined as abstract; the quilts and woven blankets were regarded as paintings, and the women who sewed or wove them became “nameless masters” — all in order to allow these artifacts to be appreciated as art. One of the examples cited by Pollock and Parker is the exhibition of quilts held at the Whitney Museum in 1972, which was called “Abstract Design in American Quilts”. The title of the exhibition emphasized the formal elements in the quilts as the reason for recognizing them as (abstract) art. Strangely enough, the exhibition was dedicated “to the anonymous women whose skilled hands and eyes created the American quilt”.[20] Yet this dedication suggests that these women are not present, not represented in the works they have made. The dedication reduced those women to skilled hands and eyes, as if quilt-making bypasses mind, emotion, thought or intention. Furthermore, quilts were not even made anonymously, and were often signed and dated.

The stereotyped qualities that were defined as the feminine spirit in art, as feminine style, were identified with the domestic spirit. Feminist anthropologists have noted the fact that because the feminine spirit was connected and limited to the home, women’s activities were from the outset necessarily accorded a lower status than the activities of men outside the home. Claude Levi-Strauss, in his analysis of myths and cultural systems, shows that differences in status of objects, customs and even groups of people depend on the place they are given on a symbolic scale that goes from “Nature” to “Culture”. This scale makes it possible to ask the question “Is Female to Male as Nature is to Culture?”[21]  It would have been possible to show, by a structural-anthropological analysis, that women often perform similar tasks to those of men, but their work is awarded a secondary status because of the different place where the task is performed: the home. The difference is between private and public activity, between domestic work and professional work. It is out of these different conditions that the hierarchical and sexual division between art and craft has arisen. What distinguishes between them is primarily the place where the objects were made, and for whom: while art is a public and professional activity, the conditions of production and the audience of craft — the home and the family — are of course different from those of art which is made in the academy and studio for the market and the galleries.

The fact that the quilts and woven blankets obtained artistic recognition through emphasis of the formal and geometric aspect of the finished product while the conditions of their production were ignored, attests to the importance attributed, in the definition of art, to the artist’s identity and the place and means of his creative production. Yet precisely these — the history of the quilts and the conditions of their production — could have provided the basis for a radical critique of the history of art. The appreciation of the quilts as abstract designs and not as symbolic structures in fact voided and denied their distinctive language.

Through weaving and needlework, woman became a “captive queen”, who spent her time in her rooms embroidering, like the example provided by Mary, Queen of Scots, who worked on embroidery while imprisoned, as described in a letter by Nicholas White.[22]

The same separation from active life is also reflected in the stereotyped feminine roles in folk-tales, such as “The Sleeping Beauty”. In this tale, the pricking with the needle which puts the woman to sleep is a dual image, for feminine craft and for the phallic.[23] Simone de Beauvoir writes, in The Second Sex: “Woman is the Sleeping Beauty, Cinderella, Snow-White, she who receives and submits. In song and story the young man is seen departing adventurously in search of woman; he slays the dragon, he battles giants; she is locked in a tower, a palace, a garden, a cave, she is chained to a rock, a captive, sound asleep: she waits”.[24]

With the influence of feminism, the seventies witnessed attempts to implement a change in contemporary magical tales — the comics — where the heroines are not always as passive as the Sleeping Beauty or Cinderella. In 1977, Stan Lee, a comic-book creator who deliberately invented “superhero women” for Marvel Comics, wrote: “… for too many years the emphasis has been on men of action. For too many years the females have been relegated to mere supporting roles. We think it’s time to change that. It’s time for the Super Woman!”[25]  He and his colleagues created many heroines, among them Spider-Woman — Jessica Drew in real life — who in an adventure drawn in 1979 is shown confronting one of her early and persistent adversaries who — how appropriately! — is none other than Brother Grimm.[26]

One of the motifs that preoccupied Bar-Lev in her early sketch-books was Spider-Woman, a symbol of power and a contrast to the tradition of passivity. The figure of Spider-Woman makes it possible to look for an alternative metaphor, one that will represent a different spirit in women, instead of the woman who embroiders or the Sleeping Beauty. This “unripe” feminist attempt to imitate the muscular, masculine, invulnerable model (Spider-Woman) has been replaced by the discourse on the restoration of “the feminine principle” in civilization to its rightful place, the discourse about the mode of “feminine” knowledge that is connected with intuition and inspiration.

In contrast to the crafts to which women were subjugated in the course of history, the medium of feminism is feminine writing. Like other women artists, Bar-Lev has turned writing into the main tool of her plastic art. But she does not ignore feminine history, and in the background of the texts that other activity is always present.

It should be recalled that the historical opposition between feminine craft and writing also has another side: writing, weaving and embroidery are perhaps not such different activities, as the similarity between the words text and textile may suggest. But it is not only the words that are similar, but the objects too, and so in Hebrew [and in English] we use words related to “weaving” and “embroidering” as metaphors for acts of thought.[27]


Writing in Harmony with Jenifer Bar-Lev


Reading and re-reading Bar-Lev’s texts has convinced me that their basic quality, beyond any particular story or content, is their unique harmony and quietness. This harmony is a great (artistic) present to the reader/viewer. If we listen to the totality of the text we receive a sense of serenity and harmony. At times, sentences in the text embody a threatening potential: “I came to stay for a while in the home of my gangster lover… I enter one room There is a corpse chained to a bedpost”. Even a text such as this is no longer a threat to the reader even before it is resolved in sentences like “I tell my lover that I have found the perfect place for us Oh no he says not in there You see I say my mother was wrong His main characteristic is his basic niceness”. Something in the spirit of the text, in the “depths of its soul” (or perhaps in the depths of its body) is suffused with serenity, quietness, harmony.

One cannot separate this harmony from a certain American tradition. In general, the split, the contrastive structure, is characteristic of the European tradition, not the American. Jackson Pollock only perfected on a large scale something that was already embodied in the American tradition when he created an art that lacked a hierarchy (and I have already noted that in the text of Mary’s Room, one can recognize an allusion to Pollock). But even more than to Pollock’s compositions, Bar-Lev’s harmony is indebted to mystical traditions of the Far East, which found expression in the America of the fifties in the vocal stories of John Cage, for example, and perhaps also to the mystical negro songs she heard in her childhood. Bar-Lev cultivates her affinities with Eastern mystical ideas through her yoga exercises, and we should not slight their importance in determining how the character of the texts is neutralized of tension.

The connection between food, feminism and mysticism was already presented by Judy Chicago in that paradigmatic work in the history of women’s art which has already been mentioned here — The Dinner Party. There, on each side of the mystic triangle, thirteen plates are set, the same as the number of participants in “The Last Supper”.

During the sixties, through Pop, Minimalism and Post-Minimalism, American art designed structures in which things are not placed opposite each other but beside each other. Likewise, the absence of any joining element in the sculpture of Richard Serra and Carl Andre, for example, and the absence of any glue, or nails, made a considerable contribution to the neutralization of compositional, systemic tension. Since the text — even though it generally appears on an ornamental or material format — is the central component of the works and in itself constitutes not only content but design, the harmony is the harmony of the text: “What is the recurring motif I find most beautiful? Letters, simply letters, the content is already inside” (Bar-Lev, in a talk with me, E.G.). In the text of I Meet a Blond, the phrenologist is wearing “a beautiful skirt very intricately cut and beaded and sequined In curvilinear patterns spelling out words and phrases”. The decomposition of the text into letters that create a design, with the aid of changes in color, size and location, emphasizes the physical: the optical, spatial and vocal aspects of the text. Reading it is different from ordinary reading. The text, clearly, is not transparent. The process of combining the letters into a sequence of words and meaningful sentences turns into a vocal process, a process of the mouth, the lips (reading with the eyes alone no longer suffices). The reading — and not only the writing that preceded it — turns into a physical, oral process. This is the other, non-satirical aspect of Johns’ work The Critic Sees, and even more of a group of early works by Bruce Nauman: From Hand to Mouth, and the hologram works of lips, which are also an analogy between mouth and vagina.

Bar-Lev writes, in Famous Artists: “We pass a marketplace with piles of oranges And other delicious fruit We enter an official building full of paintings…”. In Abed’s Room: “I have a box full of illegal paintings in my car I pull into an oriental restaurant”. In David’s Room: “I start to read him a letter from his dead mother… They ask me to make them some tea”. The logical/illogical shifts from one subject to another, the harmonious contiguity of different subjects, are legitimating and liberating, in a therapeutic sense, and the threatening realities lose their sting. But beside the therapeutic aspect, the harmony also has an aesthetic aspect. The analogy between the design of the text (which is also voice) and the material design of sculpture or music leads to a further conclusion: despite the movement that is described in the texts, the voyages, the shifts from subject to subject, the changes of identity, the sudden transitions in the plot, the general impression is static. Something recalls American repetitive music. In Steve Reich’s Psalms, for example, women sing a biblical text like the one that appears in Bar-Lev’s new works. This music, despite its logical basis, has mystical connotations (as does Minimalism in general).

Robert Indiana, artist of letters and signs of American Pop, has an important place in Bar-Lev’s world, in the shaping of her art. In a series of works which she dedicated to a large group of artists, he is the one with whom she “makes love” (Making Love with Robert Indiana).[28] If Bar-Lev now writes letters, and even love letters, Robert Indiana is the artist who created a sculpture from the letters of the word “LOVE” (“LOVE letters”). In Hebrew too, the word “מכתב” (“letter”, as epistle, not character) refers to the most general nature of a text: a “מכתב” is any text (והמכתב מכתב אלוהים הוא — “and the writing was the writing of God, [graven upon the tables]” — Exodus 32:16).

Bar-Lev recalls two works which left a powerful impression on her when she only began to become acquainted with American art. At the big Pop exhibition presented by the Whitney Museum in 1974, she saw Bed, a work by Rauschenberg from 1955, and Bedroom Ensemble by Oldenburg, from 1963. Both these artists have a connection with the surrealistic tradition and both works deal with sleep, and hence — with dreams and with sex, subjects which recur constantly in Bar-Lev’s works. But the works by Rauschenberg and Oldenburg also deal with decoration: the blanket on the Bed is a quilt, a patchwork, and Bedroom Ensemble is crammed full of materials of different textures and patterns. In both cases there is a design which conceals or contains something deeper, more intimate. The dream, any dream, is a text made up as a patchwork. That is why Bar-Lev’s texts resemble Rauschenberg’s blanket. They patch together memories of her American childhood, questions of sexual identity, erotic reveries and the desires of art.



[1] Michael Auping, “Reading Holzer or Speaking in Tongues”, in: Jenny Holzer, The Venice Installation (United States Pavilion, The 44th Venice Biennale, May 27 – September 30, 1990), p. 37.

[2] Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida, Hill and Wang, New York, 1981. Original French title: La chambre claire.

[3] Barbara Kruger, quoted by Carol Squiers, “Diversionary (Syn)tactics”, Art News, February 1987, p. 83.

[4] Jacques Derrida, “Women in the Beehive”, in: Discourses: Conversations in Postmodern Art and Culture (The New Museum of Contemporary Art, New York; The MIT Press, Cambridge, Mass., 1990), p. 117.

[5] Franz Kafka, The Complete Stories (Schocken Books, New York, 1971), p. 4.

[6] Jane Gallop, Thinking Through the Body (Columbia University Press, New York, 1988).

[7] Adrienne Rich, Of Woman Born (Norton, New York, 1976), p. 284

[8] Gallop, p. 167.

[9] Ibid., pp. 163-165.

[10] Ibid., p. 165.

[11] Ibid., p. 166.

[12] Ibid., p. 5.

[13] Ibid., p. 6.

[14] Ibid., pp. 167-169.

[15] Ibid., p. 173.

[16] In Of Woman Born, Adrienne Rich writes of the contribution the notion of the androgyne made to feminism, and also of the limitations of its positive meaning.

[17] Roszika Parker and Griselda Pollock, Old Mistresses: Women, Art and Ideology (Pantheon Books, New York, 1981). The discussion that follows is based on the chapter “Crafty Women and the Hierarchy of the Arts”.

[18] Judy Chicago and Susan Hill, Embroidering Our Heritage: the Dinner Party Needlework (Anchor Books, New York, 1981).

[19] Parker and Pollock, p. 58.

[20] Ibid., p. 71.

[21] The title of an article by Sherry Ortner, cited in ibid., p. 69.

[22] Ibid., p. 61.

[23] On this subject, see the article by Shulamit Lapid, “The Sleeping Beauty, Or: Be Pretty and Keep Quiet”, in: Leon Bakst: The Sleeping Beauty, catalogue (Tel Aviv Museum of Art, 1992).

[24] Simone de Beauvoir (1961) is quoted in a book on women who spin: Marta Weigle, Spiders and Spinsters: Women and Mythology (University of New Mexico Press, 1992) pp. 36-37.

[25] Ibid., p. 38.

[26] Ibid., p. 40.

[27] See, e.g., the use made by Dganit Berest of the image of cobweb-spinning in Veronese’s painting Dialectica, which also draws an analogy between spinning and intellectual activity. Dganit Berest, After `Dialectica’ (Veronese)) and the Brownian Motion, 1988. See reproduction in Fresh Paint: The Younger Generation in Israeli Art, catalogue (Tel Aviv Museum of Art; The Israel Museum, Jerusalem; The Israel Festival, Jerusalem, 1988).

[28] One of the series of works entitled Empathy with Artists shown in an exhibition under that title at the Bograshov Gallery and documented in the Gallery’s broadsheet no. 2 (October-November 1989). The work Fishworld, which was a key work in this series, is documented in the catalogue Feminine Presence: Israeli Women Artists in the Seventies and Eighties (Tel Aviv Museum of Art, Summer 1990), pp. 75-74.