A Private Chapter in Art History
Mitch Becker emerged into the art world of late 1950s Chicago, between gestures of Abstract Expressionism and declarations about the "death of painting." The hot names of his youth, such as De Kooning, Rothko, and Rivers, provided him with interest and challenges for years to come, and his awe for them is still evident in his voice to date, many years after drawing away from them. During his first decade as a painter he has had his fair share of exhibitions and garnered public recognition both in the USA and in Israel, where he settled in 1972. Here he built a studio at home, and for a living taught painting at the Midrasha School of Art. As a teacher, Mitch inspired thousands of students, but as an artist he lived amongst us in solitude: possibly practicing the social isolation of a modern artist, possibly keeping his distance from the horror of modernist orthodoxy.
Mitch was drawn to painting from the very outset of his artistic career, but the spirit of the time prevented his development as a full-fledged figurative painter. Indeed, the Old Masters never left the museum walls, and one could always observe and learn from them, but the contemporary, anti-painterly art world took a stand and demanded his attention; its voice was especially roaring in Israel, where "old" means the early Bezalel era. A long battle was waged between these forces in the studio on Shlonsky Street, Herzliya.
Mitch's artistic development during five decades outlines an option—perhaps even a necessary option—for the resurrection of painting from its ashes, after the narrativity, the image, and the act of painting itself have been burnt at the stake of modernity. Recalling the influence of critics Clement Greenberg and Harold Rosenberg on the artistic milieu of his youth, Mitch concludes briefly: "I couldn't figure out what the hell they were talking about." Obviously, this is a reconstruction from the perspective of a seasoned artist who has cumulated enough self-confidence over the years to declare that he likes to paint, that he is enchanted by the painterly space, that he has a passion for colors as they are revealed in nature, and that his self-worth and the value of his work are entirely independent of the written word.
As a young artist, this was much harder. During those years he felt an obligation to meet the challenge posed by his teachers: "Yes, but what do you want to say?!" Today Mitch admits that he simply lacked the courage to let his sense of sight show him the way. Nevertheless, the images refused to abandon his paintings. He was a natural-born painter. Like a cave painter, an Egyptian painter, a Renaissance painter—like any painter in history up until the low-painting diet of the period in which he grew up—he took paints in hand in order to create an image that would describe, symbolize, recount a story, and lure the eye. Mitch's early images were hinted, hovering amid forms and colors, generated by and drifting within the freedom brought about by Action Painting and color fields. Over the years the images have become more defined and detailed, and spontaneity gradually made room for a growing sensitivity to the visible sights before him. Mitch's nature as a painter became clearer as his images gained an ever growing sharpness out of the brush strokes and the abstract color splotches. In the 1980s, the gestures and patches of paint in his works became a point of departure for wholly figurative associations, a world of images triggered by an initial stimulus of color puddles and large smears. At the time the images were formed on the canvas as in self-analysis. He depicted himself, his family, his plights and deliberations. His painting could not have been more distant from declarations about the state of art… until he became tired of seeing himself at the center of his work.
The change of direction was dramatic. Perhaps it could not have happened any other way; in order to shift gradually from "anti painting" to figurative, naturalistic, realistic painting based on observation of the visual world one has to live two hundred years. Mitch didn't have two hundred years of slow adaptation, thus, in 1989 he made a sharp transition in his approach to painting. The decisive push for the change in fact came from a painting class. He himself reverted to working as a student, with all it implies, and at 50 made his first attempts at depicting people and objects true to life—in terms of proportions, tonality, hues. "What do you want to say?!" was set aside; the personal subject matters were likewise set aside, and replaced by objects in the studio: fruits, fabrics, windows, paid models. Whereas in the past, abstract stains which emerged on the canvas functioned as a trigger for the modeling of images, henceforth it would be the volume, the light, and the structure that stimulated the eye, enabling the image to emerge—but the affinity between the stimulus and the image now became more binding. Suddenly each sign on the canvas acquired a new meaning. The spot, according to this new approach, had to do everything the spot in the old style had done—with one crucial addition: it had to construct a figure. Concurrently, the modernist heritage was not eliminated from his practice. It burst forth in his love for the material and for the brush gestures, as well as in Mitch's spoken language: his students became acquainted with Vermeer and Velasquez as the Great Masters of "abstract," arch-manipulators of space and light, the creators of a painterly illusion with purely formal means.
Nearly two decades have passed since Mitch surrendered himself to re-learning. He was not alone in that; he kept in mutually-enriching contact with a small community of painters who share similar interests. The study phase has long ended. The mature paintings produced by the seasoned artist in his 60s remained in his studio and at home—until recently—and the detachment from an audience and from the public discourse became ever more present. Mitch had not absorbed, nor has he processed the reverberation that these paintings may potentially elicit in the broader public. While in the early 1990s it was the academic interest that attracted the painter to the Spartan world revealed in his studio—in recent, post-studies years he has been examining how to combine the sophisticated painterly tools he acquired to the themes that truly fascinate him, in his own life and in the world in general. In order to succeed, you must see your paintings out in the world—exhibited, observed, discussed.
At any rate, while Mitch's paintings lay in wait, the loss was mainly ours. If
liberation from the artistic restrictions of the mid-20th century is an all-encompassing cultural trend, then Mitch's successes deserve broad public attention. Something happened in the studio on Shlonsky Street in the past ten or fifteen years, something that will make many people reconsider—and feel—art; now that something may be seen in the gallery.