Nude, Bronze  H-2.10m

Nude, Bronze H-2.10m












The Hand that Thinks

   Pierre Restany

“Narcissism, before being self-love, is the impossibility of making the distinction between the reality and the model of the reality”, Ofer Lellouche says to us. This narcissism is the prerogative of all the great contemporary artists who have remained concerned to transfix in their work this instant that is so fleeting and aleatory, yet irrevocable once it appears: the thrill [frisson] of the encounter between the reality and its model.

         Such is the message that Ofer conveyed to me when we met at the symposium at Tel-Hai in 1980, where he had presented his video-performance: a self-portrait on a transparent mirror. That major action, which in a striking manner underscored the distance, upon the same spatial plane, of the gestural disposition of the representation and of the real presence of the model, appears today as a declaration of intentions. At the time, it stimulated an interminable discussion between us about narcissism as a metaphor of the operational limits of language. An interminable dialogue, because it presented itself from the outset as something impossible to conclude, and which today, following our meetings between Tel Aviv and Paris, has become the implicit code of a privileged communication, on the level of the said as well as of the unsaid. In this text I will make abundant use of this active privilege of a rich intellectual friendship; I do not forget that it introduces an imposing retrospective of 25 years of work on the self-portrait. Such an observation obliges me to attach a major importance to the artist’s acceptance of a contingent fatalism: Lellouche cannot paint Lellouche except as in the course of painting a self-portrait. Why? This perception opens an endless questioning, in omnidirectional perspectives, on the philosophy of the regard, and on the very act of creating, for a painter as for a sculptor.

When I think about Ofer or when I see him before me, I often have the impression that he has placed a transparent mirror between us, and that by his pose, his attitude, his comportment and his regard, he is in the course of outlining a virtual self-portrait to my wishes, which I have to photograph in order to preserve its trace. Since I don’t take photos, this fleeting instant is destined to come and inscribe itself in my memory and to people it with a crowd of furtive Lellouche self-portraits. I am far from being alone in feeling the reverberation in me of the echo of the image of himself that Ofer offers unleavably. Ofer is to his public as Narcissus is to his echo: they are all those who seek a tangible sign in response to their anguish of being: and find it in the unavoidable presence in the artist’s “Me” of his “Other”, his model.

To convey the simultaneous presence of these two “mes” in a single “I” that is Ofer Lellouche’s bewitching talent – a veritable performance, he would say. But the thinker of the regard must not forget the exacting master of the art, the art of a sculptor become a painter: the head and the hand, the hand that draws, engraves, paints, the hand that models The retrospective at the Tel Aviv Museum attests to the wealth of the production and the diversity of the technical researches during 25 years of work. The path began with the vast variety of works on paper from the seventies (drawings, lavis, charcoals, dry-points), concluding (so far) with the recent sculptures in plaster, that were announced by the bronze torso of 1987 and the has-reliefs of 1999, not forgetting the small heads on stems from the eighties – as well as the large oils and the engravings on the theme of the nude in the self-portrait, the self-portraits on backgrounds of landscape (hills of Judea, the seaside, flora of gardens), the works on Korean Hanji paper and a cabinet of drawings in small formats from the nineties…

Ofer’s hand in incessant activity experimenting at this very moment with a technique of engraving on hard cardboard so dear to his friend Jim Dine. The hand that paints cannot paint: itself. Ofer says to us, the eye is necessarily fixed on the eye of the spectator. When this does not hold, he paints the hand that thinks. And when he paints it, he paints it a little larger than nature, lightly yet clearly out of proportion to the bust and the rest of the body Each time that it appears in a self-portrait at the end of the folded right arm, extended to the front above the plane of the left arm which holds (or is supposed to hold) the palette, it takes the starring role of the image and immediately focuses our regard. Yes, this hand that thinks is really the indispensable link between the referent and its sign. This emphatic arrest of the hand is a signal or memory within the work: it fixes the standstill of an organ point – the painter’s eye, suspended in the void, between the mirror and the canvas. It plays this major role in three of the works in very large formats that I am particularly fond of: the sell-portrait on the background of a landscape of Judea (1987-88), the self-portrait in the red shirt (1987), and the diptych Self-Portrait in a Garden (1992) both the latter on the background of abundant flora.

Most significantly in the aquatints and the large canvases of the nineties where the regard, Ofer works against the light, and the world appears to him in a naturally monumental perspective. The figure that emerges from the depth of the obscure gray field receives the caress of the light and a scattering of clear touches in a kind of rain, I should say – distributed from above, starting from the head. Our eye, ascending, observes then that it is structured in a function of the already sensed regard. Its function is cardinal and it is omnipresent, but at its limit it can also not be, so much is the static mass of the body impregnated with the intensity of the regard of the artist, who has traversed it in the wake of the light.

Ofer takes this strong sensation into account when he introduces his headless body among the five other figures of himself that constitute the concluding group of sculptures in the exhibition. Here, without doubt, we have the reasoning of a sculptor, but even more precisely that of a maker of statues. For in the final analysis, what Ofer, with his mastery of the range of grays in the depth of the field and of the distribution of the clear values of the light paints in his nude self-portraits is not the direct model of his body but the modeled image that he has been able to take under the hand of the maker of statues. The hand of Ofer the painter is formed in the operational wake of the hand of a great sculptor.

In writing these lines, I am of course thinking of Cesar, of the specific weight of tire body and of its pose, of the contour of the metallic breast, in the classical pieces such as the Homage to Leon (1964) or the Venus of Villetaneuse (1962) and the Victory of Villetaneuse (1965). Ofer was a pupil of Cesar at the Beaux-Arts for four years, from 1971 to 1975. He retains an intense memory from this tine, both of the man and of the work. The rapport between the pupil and his teacher prefigured the rapport between the artist and its model. The pupil followed his master’s narcissistic curve; he followed the peripeties of the regard and the projection of his doubts between the reality and the model. In presenting his compressions the cubes of crushed automobiles compressed and calibrated by the tort at the May Salon in 1960. Cesar – like Duchamp with his Readymades – took the “narcissistic plunge”. This gesture of direct appropriation, a taking of absolute power over the real, brought him across to the other side of the mirror. He came to join me on the other face of art, that of the adventure of the object, which was being conducted by the New Realists. But he did not feel completely at ease there. Cesar the appropriator did not discourse well with Cesar the maker of statues who, beyond certitude, needed to rediscover the doubt and the perplexity in the regard’s coming and goings between reality and its model. A non-fortuitous coincidence: Ofer frequented Cesar’s studio at the precise moment whet the sculptor from Marseilles undertook his series of “Masks”, which were more or less distorted castings of his own face. He exhibited them at the Creuzevault gallery in 1973 under the least explicit title I had suggested to him: “Head to Heads” [“Tete a Tetes”]. Not content with casting his face invaded by expansions inside the bronze or the thermo-formed plastic, he made loaves of bred out of them. The public devoured these round “Cesar-loafs” on the day of the opening. The sculptor’s narcissism had abutted on anthropophagy. How many of those eaters of loafs took into account that they were in the process of giving themselves up to a cannibalistic ritual aimed at appropriating the mysterious power of Cesar’s eye? Cesar-Lellouche: a summit meeting between two narcissists united by the dualistic analogy of the regard they bear upon the world. We went walking, Ofer and I, in Cesar’s secret garden: after the masks of 1972 we meditated on the self-portraits of 1984 and the sublime heads of 1997. Therefore I am only more sensitive about revealing the signs of intimist evidenciation that buoy Ofer’s secret garden in the retrospective at Tel Aviv: the works on paper of the very early eighties that, like a whiplash, invested the frontality of the face with a visceral gestural violence: the head mounted on a flat base and along stem that a little later, accompanied the lavis and the gouache drawings of busts; the astonishing torso, a torn fragment, from 1987; and, finally, the small heads-masks from 1997 and bronze bas-reliefs from the year 2000.

This should be noted: Ofer’s oeuvre, like Cesar’s, is an oeuvre à clefs. In Ofer’s oeuvre, Cesar is a key that plays the role of a hinge-point in the evolution of his personality: in contact with this monument of creative intuition, Ofer formed, verified, and consolidated his own ”philosophy of the regard and of the hand”, and did so on the basis of his artistic practice and his existential experience. The encounter with a great artist is always an encounter with an immense solitude, Ofer knew. The encounter with Cesar led him to assume and structure his own solitude. When he left Paris in 1976 to install himself in his studio in Jaffa, Ofer Lellouche was ready to assume the plentitude of his creative consciousness, as well as the rich amalgam of his composite culture. For he comes from afar. Born in Tunisia in 1947, he emigrated to France at the age of thirteen. From his Mediterranean childhood he retained an elective affinity with the “sea-shore”, which he would have the leisure to rediscover and enrich in Israel. From 1963 to 1966 he studied mathematics at the prestigious Saint-Louis High School. These formative years marked him durably and conditioned his approach, both perceptual and conceptual, to the world and to his space, to man and his proportions. All his teachers agreed in predicting a brilliant future for this gifted pupil. Ofer’s future didn’t pass though the Polytechnic and the Ecole Normale Supeneure. He left for Israel in 1966, just in time for the war. In 1968, a stay at an army convalescence center allowed him to take stock. The mathematician hesitated for a moment before the temptation of literature, and opted definitively for painting. In fact, between 1969 and 1971 he simultaneously studied in the painter Streichman’s class at the Avni Institute and took courses in the French Department at Tel Aviv University.

Another thing that the contact with Cesar brought to Ofer was the opportunity for a direct reflection on the Parisian culture of the forties and fifties, in which the sculptor from Marseilles had been profoundly involved during his own beginnings: Cesar and Germaine Richier, and above all Cesar and Giacometti. For Ofer, the reference to Giacometti would complete and compensate for the analysis of Cesar’s narcissistic inclination. The culture of the forties and fifties was that of the painters of the French tradition and of “the second School of Paris” who, faced with the indifference of the giants Matisse and Picasso, had to assume the great dilemma of the passage from figuration to abstraction, or, in other words, the distancing of nature and of the perception of nature in favor of the signifying autonomy of the pictorial gesture and Action Painting. Nor is this all! After having lived the abstraction-figuration quarrel this School of Paris had to assume the surpassing, the absolute identification of the sign with the referent in the appropriative gesture of the New Realism and the homologization of the image in the informational flux of consumerism in the work of the Pop Artists. In a recent article, Ofer showed himself to be particularly indulgent towards these artists. The history of art in Paris during the fifties comforts him in his narcissism.

To those who ask about the nature of Ofers narcissism today, I will reply resolutely that it is of an optimistic nature. “Narcissism, before being self-love, is the impossibility of making the distinction between the reality and the model of the reality, between a throw of the dice and change”: this existential observation is a fundamental  sign of vital energy and of faith in man. It is not in vain that Ofer invokes Mallarme: “A throw of the dice will never abolish chance”. It is under this title that the artist offers us the catalogue raisonné of his work in nine etchings, a rapid sequence which concludes with two aquatints that represent a theory of pregnant women whose bulging bellies intone the most serene of hymns to life. The title of the thematic series of which they are part: Cesar’s studio. Passing through Paris after the Gulf War, Ofer went to see the place that had been Cesar’s studio at the Beaux-Arts. He found it empty. Nothing remained apart from some clay models on their bases. Struck by the profound humanity of these sketches, he decided to make a series of works that would remind him of this vision, while recreating the presence of life in Cesar’s studio.

If a throw of the dice will never abolish chance, an image will never abolish the real. As long as it identifies with the real, as long as it takes the painted canvas for a real world, and thus reunites the referent and the sign. One can better understand the sane ambition of Ofer Lellouche the self-portraitist. Self-love cannot be dissociated from the love of man. There can be no narcissism without humanism. This is the key to reading the metaphor of Cesar’s studio that the artist makes us decipher through Mallarme. And that unveils to us the profound direction of his oeuvre, an oeuvre intensely lived, intensely thought. Ofer Lellouche, the hand that thinks…

Pierre Restany
Paris, April-May 2001