“Stone has lost its glory in contemporary sculpture: for many decades stone has been ‘out.’ First it gave way to bronze, and then to metal and wood, and later it gave way to new industrial materials – plywood, plastic, fiberglass, stainless steel, fluorescent lights, various polymers and more, without even mentioning the latest sculptural interest in organic materials (blood, urine and so on).” These are the words of the curator Dr. Gideon Efrat in “Gideon Efrat’s Storeroom – Israeli Sculpture – The Stone Age”.
I have chosen to open this article about stone sculpture – which for at least four decades continues to be relevant to the work of the artist Avi Sperber – with Gideon Efrat’s frustrating but apparently accurate statement, since for me he is the leading arbiter of Israeli art. Avi Sperber’s new book summarizes a fascinating career of observing, thinking, trying and wondering about everything connected to creating in stone, which is not just the ideal natural material for sculpting, but also serves as a mythical, traditional creative-cultural image, one that links antiquity to the foreseeable future. In spite of the opening remarks, Avi Sperber has found his own unique way of updating the work of creating in stone. His sculpting, in my view, while being indeed contemporary, integrates past, present and future in a planned and controlled way, using familiar modern languages and techniques, mixing elements from nature, from what exists, with futuristic thoughts and ideas.
Avi Sperber is one of the last Mohicans, whose whole being is imbued with real and honest art, who thinks in a completely holistic way about it, while every weekend he manages to cut himself off from his normal practical life, sailing away to fields of creativity and art. This separation is not just mental. He leaves his home in Tel Aviv and drives to Kibbutz Ein Carmel in the north, where he has a stone workshop. This workshop, located on the ground, on the earth, in the heart of nature, plays an important part in Avi Sperber’s work. In his previous book, he talks repeatedly about his real connection as a proud Israeli with the place where he lives and on the role of nature, with its physical and metaphysical materials, and its integration into his sculpture. This is no trivial matter. Sperber is a traffic engineer, a businessman, an intellectual who devotes many hours to studying, reading dozens of books on science, history, philosophy and theology, in order to hone the clear creative concept with which he struggles in his sculpture.
Almost everything has already been said about the current state of stone sculpture in the world as a whole and in Israel in particularl, because stone itself no longer has much chance apart from being used for architecture and for monuments. According to this concept, for many years temples, altars, memorials, and sacred statues were built with stone, but today it has apparently yielded to industrial materials that are lacking in metaphysics. On the other hand, it should be remembered that Avi Sperber’s most recent artistic projects, the series dealing with Biblical themes – the “Third Chapter” in Genesis, the “Golem” project from the Kabbalist tradition, or the “Go West” project from the history of Native Americans and Mayan culture – all these deal with the context of stone-made sculptural symbols and materials linked to these themes, the subjects of myth and related stories. In each of these, Avi Sperber interacts with language itself, with metaphors of form – interpreting and translating symbols and excerpts and creating his own fascinating artistic composition. On this matter, he contradicts the views of those European historians and philosophers who saw the monumentality, the heaviness and the opacity of stone as the end of an ancient historical era. His works exemplify a refreshing and sometimes humorous sculpture, one that connects today’s language with the images of the period.
Gideon Efrat goes on to list the legendary stone statues created in Israel over the years, such as Melnikov’s “Roaring Lion,” Rappoport’s stone busts, Danziger’s “Nimrod,” “Arava Man” or any of the works of Aharon Priver, Moshe Ziffer and others, as parts of a genre on the verge of disappearance, and yet Avi Sperber still has a special way of sculpting and creating in stone. His work always detracts from the stone, penetrates it, pierces it, looks deeply into its features. Later, after years of working in stone, participating in courses overseas and creative encounters with artists in stone, Sperber manages to create unique shapes in stone, sometimes with chiseled rounded parts or extremely thin layers which are so unexpected in massive stone sculptures. His creative process starts with an idea. He forms this idea after a thorough and personal investigation. With the help of industrial materials and his engineering knowledge, he relates to its physical and aesthetic qualities, adapting the new configurations he creates to the existing nature of the material. In recent decades, the subjects of his sculpture have related to teachings, myths and cultural and social traditions, including general topics connected to his personal feelings and experiences which he has decided to respond to in his art.
To a certain extent, Avi Sperber’s long engagement with his own different sculpture brings stone back to center stage. He continues to quote Gideon Efrat on stone sculpture: “Builders got tired of stone”. I am writing about stone, stone, not about cast stone (plaster, clay, mortar and so on) which has also known better days but does not meet the “metaphysics of stone.” If I am permitted this ambitious statement… How can stone retain the supreme sculptural status it has enjoyed since the days of ancient Egypt and Greece, when the value of the sweat resulting from the artist’s struggle with difficult material (which Yaakov Epstein wrote about in his book The Days of Sculpture in 1940) has been cast aside by minimalism, which has released the artist from the obligation of physical work and moved creativity to impersonal industrial processes?! And at the same time, didn’t the electric drill put an end to the hard labor of quarrying stone? And how can stone maintain its sublime conceptual status, when the classical promise of “the essence of experience in rock” has been utterly broken in the modern idiom, never mind the post-modern one (end of quote). On this matter, I will allow myself to return to what I have already written dozens of times about Avi Sperber’s work. Its uniqueness lies in the stylistic freedom that he builds and creates, without subscribing to any particular fashionable artistic movement, to any genre or the latest style on the art scene. Avi Sperber is faithful to his independence, faithful to his authentic path and to his art, in its materiality and its spirit.
Doron Polak, Curator