MUSEUM AT A GLANCE: Tel Aviv Museum of Art

Recently, I had the incredible good fortune to spend a few weeks in Israel.  I wandered through cities both ancient and modern, climbed a hill in the desert before sunrise, and ate my weight in hummus, shawarma and pita. 

My editor and I also had an opportunity to take a guided tour of some of the contemporary Israeli art at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art.  My interview with Curator of Special Projects Dr. Batsheva Ida, who welcomed us and accompanied us, can be found here.

The Tel Aviv Museum of Art began as an art collection in 1932, in the living room of the mayor of the city.  Originally a collection of Jewish art and biblical artifacts, it changed locations, and grew to include art by the Old Masters and the Impressionists, among others. 

As our guide Yonatan described, the museum officials soon realized that it needed to serve a dual function in the community.  Should the purpose of a museum be to expose locals to international works of art, or should it be a venue to give local artists a wide international audience?  The Tel Aviv Museum of Art has decided to do both, and with the completion of a stunning new building two years ago, which doubled the museum’s exhibition space, it has galleries upon galleries of permanent exhibits from Israel’s leading contemporary artists.

The new building of the Tel Aviv Museum of Art.  Photograph by the writer.

We walked through several galleries and listened intently as Yonatan talked to us about the wide variety of themes covered by working Israeli artists.  While the artwork itself was not always beautiful or easy to understand, it was always deeply thought-provoking.  While I am not a huge fan of contemporary art, I do appreciate how so much art made today is concerned with the nature of art itself—a degree of self-reflection is inherent in many great contemporary pieces.

The first gallery our tour went to was a large room by the central winding staircase.  The ceiling was high, the walls were pale—it was a fairly traditional, well-light modern gallery space.  Contained in this room was a litany of works, from installations, video pieces, photographs, prints, and paintings.

The first piece Yonatan directed our attention to was, at first glance, fairly revolting. Painted in 2008 by Zoya Cherkassky, “Free Entrance for Soldiers in Uniform” depicts a group of Israel Defense Force soldiers in a gallery setting, standing around a sculpture of a man bent over excreting into his own mouth.   The shock value of this painting makes it impossible to miss in a grotesque, can’t-look-away manner.  The painting keenly juxtaposes the more classical museum setting with the explicit, plainly gross sculpture.  The blank faces of the soldiers in response to the sculpture is meant to reflect our view of the painting, and in a more general sense, the sense of confusion, lack of understanding, and feeling of dismissiveness we often feel when we don’t understand a work of art.

Interestingly enough, Yonatan explained, the sculpture was not invented by Cherkassky, but was created by a group of artists who were critical of the way art in museums alienates viewers.  The sculptors, as well as Cherkassky, are seeking to question the very nature of art, and of how we as audiences respond to works and deal with their shock value.

The next work Yonatan presented was a sort of interactive sculpture/installation.  The work, “Mineral Fountain”, created by Michal Helfman in 2008, takes the form of a white many-sided water fountain topped by a standard plastic water cooler.  The piece is actually a working fountain, combining form and function, art and utility. This work combines both the private and public spheres, evidenced by the juxtaposition of an ordinary office-style water cooler, where private conversations happen, and the water fountain, which is meant to serve the public.  Water is something essential for nearly every living being—a public need—but in this day and age, water has basically been privatized; this necessary substance is now bottled and sold to people who need it to survive. 

Using this device, the artist draws a keen parallel to the way art itself has been privatized.  Everyone needs water to live, but what about art?  Should art only be accessible for people with means who can pay for it, or should it be available to everyone because it is so important for our survival?

Our guide, Yonathan, discussing “Mineral Fountain”.  Photograph by the writer.

The next work we looked at, also in the same gallery in the other two, combined two large installations and a video projected on a nearby wall.  Ohad Meromi’s “Communal Sleeping”, “Workers Club”, and “The Exception and the Rule” created in 2008, come together to critique the kibbutz movement in Israel, based upon the artist’s experience growing up in such a community.  For those not familiar, a kibbutz is a kind of socialist community in which everyone works and is paid the same amount and all work to better the community.  Children are raised together, separate from their parents, and there is not much privacy or individual space.   “Communal Sleeping” and “Workers Club” are architectural forms, set up adjacent to one another, meant to symbolize the separation from the worlds of the adults and children created by the kibbutz ideal.  It’s this particular aspect Meromi has taken issue with based on his own personal experience.  “The Exception and the Rule”, the video work, is meant to be a humorous take on kibbutz living in which people dressed in traditional Jewish garb try and fail to move in sync.  Yonatan explained that Meromi does not like the way the kibbutz community tries to shape people all the same, and this work is the artist’s response to and his rejection of his upbringing.

As I left the gallery, I took in my surroundings and the architecture of the new building of the museum.  The ambiance is clean, light, open and spare, with white walls and exposed concrete breaking any potential monotony.  Looking down from one of many landings/vantage points, I could see all the way down to what turns out to be three stories below ground.  Around the seemingly never-ending descent, the walls are peppered with cryptic phrases like “You’ve Changed”,  “I Believe in Miracles”, and “Close Your Eyes and Open Your Mouth”.

Yonatan discussed the history and design of this new building.  The architects approached this new building in the most inventive way possible, aiming to create a container for art that could also serve as a work of art in its own right.   He placed this building within the narrative created by this question of how a museum should be, from the awe-inspiring churches of old, to the classic museum setting of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, to the Guggenheim in New York, which is perhaps infamous for overwhelming the exhibits within.

A view from a vantage point.  Photograph by the writer.

The new building is built between existing buildings on the campus of the Tel Aviv Museum of Art. Squeezed into a small lot, the building pushes the height and depth limits of the area—ascending 3 stories above ground, and descending 3 below.  The new building contains an incredible 20,000 meters of space in a folded-over design with carefully designed spaces that emphasize and complement the power of the artworks they hold.  The building itself is worth an entire essay of nothing but praise for its ingenuity and creativity. 

A rare photograph of the writer in the museum.  Photograph by the editor.


  1. You have a great job of describing the works discussed on the tour and of summarizing the messages contained in and feelings inspired by the works. I agree that the building itself is a work of art, and I recommend that anyone visiting Tel Aviv make the effort to go to the Museum of Art even if just to experience the wonder of the architecture. Nice job!

  2. This was really cool! It was good that you included pictures along with the description of the architecture! I also enjoyed your description of and commentary on the art pieces that you saw. Also I don't know if it's possible to fix this (or whether your average reader is as klutzy as I am), but I had to retype this comment twice because I accidentally clicked on something outside the article border and had to click the link again and start over.


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