Avigdor Arikha is an Israeli artist who lives in Paris and seems more French than Israeli in the sweeping nature of his opinions and in the Gallic intensity with which he expounded them.
"People who thinks there is anything new in the arts are idiots," he declared in his way of explaining how he came to forsake abstraction and painfully evolve into the deceptively simple representational style of the 22 works that went on display at the Corcoran yesterday.
"In my early 30s I was quite successful as an abstractionist. But I started painting my own set of forms over and over again. Finally, it repulsed me," he explained. "So at 36 I gave up painting altogether and I didn't know if I would ever get back to it.
"It seemed better not to paint at all. A painting without tension is an image, not an experience, and an image is dead. What was it Kant said? That art is not perception, it is a particular perception?"
The solution to Arikha's career crisis turned out to be relatively simple and it may pave the way for other painters to wean themselves from what many see as the waning years of the abstract epoch launched decades ago by Paul Cezanne, a painter about whom Arikha is reverential.
"In the interim I eked out a living with my drawings. I had been doing them since I was a child, " he said.
"Then it occurred to me. I had been drawing objects all my life, and generally with a brush. why not do the same with a paint brush?
"So on night in 1973 I got an urge to paint," he added. "I went into the studio, grabbed my wife's brown coat, hung it on the door and painted it. It was no more than that, but it had the personal form and intensity that I was no longer finding in abstraction."
And the 22 works now hanging at the Cocoran are all in this vein. There is a portrait of a long handled push broom hanging from a gray wall (hardly the most promising possible subject on first thought) that carries considerable power thanks to Arikha's command of bold, powerful brushstrokes. There is a splendid painting of a wall of books in his library. From a distance it looks almost photo-realist but the closer you get the clearer it becomes the details are only approximated by the heavy brush work. His command of color is striking in a picture of a glass half full of whiskey on a table with a black table cloth and a brown background. And most remarkable of all is a recent self portrait where he peers from behind a canvas.
These seemingly simple paintings of commomplace objects are deliberately understated both in color and in technical virtuosity. The effect differs from the current photo-realist movement, which Arikha "abhors."
"Those works are entirely an external experience and that's not art," he says. "Art communicates feelings and ideas and moods. The other stuff merely provides information."
Do not expect the glossiness of Warhol or his followers. Arikha is fascinated with varieties of texture and in conversation he keeps going back to the great masters of texture like Titian, Velasquez and Degas. He takes a visitor into another wing of the Corcoran to view an Eakins painting of a young girl singing that he describes as "a masterpiece."
Another demand Arikha makes of his work is that it have emotional force. To get it, he places an unusual handicap on his work. The paintings are done in one sitting (or one "standing," as he adds).
"Sometimes I just don't have it in me to paint. And when I get the right feeling of struucture and how to use the brush, I want to finish because I am afraid I will lose it. Otherwise, instead of working over something already started, it is better to start a new one." In this show, only the self portrait took two days.
To Arikha, the switch from the abstract to representation is a logical one. "That is the way history works," he said. "We concentrate on one idea so completely that other things get forgotten. There is so much about civilization that we have forgotten. And we have to go back to it to renew ourselves. It is the story of our time. Our culture is in trouble because it has been invaded by the media, television especially, and people get a mistaken view of what life is about. It is where one identity is invaded by another one, and the result is disorientation and a confusing loss of certitudes."
Arikha has invented a label for his work-"post-abstract naturalism." "I did this," he explained, "after my shock at the stupidity of an art critic who wrote about my very nice impressionistwork."
The show closes August 26. CAPTION: Picture, Israeli Avigdor Arikha with self-portrait; by Harry Naltchayan-The Washington Post