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Izhar Patkin was cursing his apartment building in the East Village in Manhattan. The intercom wasn’t working and he was expecting guests. “I can’t stand all of these stupid maintenance issues,” he says on a recent day as an assistant ran outside to leave a note on the door.
It’s hard to commiserate with Patkin, 58, an Israeli-born artist who lives and works in a sprawling space on East First Street that used to be an old vocational school and is built around an outdoor courtyard. The rooms — too many to count — flow one into the next and are decorated with hand-painted furniture and colorful glassware chandeliers. The previous night, Patkin held a reception there to celebrate “The Wandering Veil,” his solo exhibition at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art in North Adams, which is on view through September. Joseph Thompson, the director of the museum, was on hand along with other art world personalities and downtown fixtures such as Alan Cumming and Philippe Vergne, the director of the Dia Art Foundation, who just a day later was named director of the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles.
Originated at the Tel Aviv Museum and the Open Museum at the Tefen Industrial Park in the hills of the Western Galilee, “The Wandering Veil” consists of a series of paintings in ink on pleated tulle curtains. The centerpiece of the show is a group of mural-size paintings called “Veiled Threats,” which were inspired by poems about memory, love, loss and exile by his close friend, the late Kashmiri-American poet Agha Shahid Ali.
“The Jew and the Muslim,” Patkin says. “We were both incredible snobs about our craft.”
Patkin collaborated with Shahid on the series from 1999 until the poet’s death from brain cancer in 2001. When Shahid learned he had three months to live, he called Patkin to assure him that he would finish the poems. “He wrote a masterpiece in the format of Dante’s canzone,” Patkin says. “When he wrote it, he was legally blind. Coming from one country to another, I always felt I had to explain myself.” Not with Shahid. In the exhibit, Shahid’s poems are attached to clipboards rather than on the walls, so visitors can sit down and read them at their leisure. “It feels more intimate,” Patkin says.
The artist calls the early Aughts his “years of calamities.” In addition to Shahid, Patkin’s father died, as did his friend and art dealer Holly Solomon because of complications from cancer. Once a lively fixture on the art world circuit, he lost interest in the game. “I was very introspective and very existential,” Patkin says. “When you lose so many people in such a short period of time, that’s what happens.” Patkin never stopped working, but he worked for himself, in the comfort of his secluded home. “It was good to have that time alone,” he says.
The artist uses a variety of materials for his work. Tulle, which is called “bridal illusion,” or simply illusion in the fashion industry, “became a metaphor for the canvas,” he says. “I always want to invent something that I couldn’t find. My true medium is telling stories and the materials are characters as much as the actual stories are all characters. When you’re surprising yourself or the viewer with something you haven’t seen before or an unpredictible combination, it stops you in your tracks.”
A set of Sèvres porcelain became the medium for a work about extinction. Patkin used egg cups sized for the eggs of three extinct birds to represent the lost American species. “We know the date the last one died because they all died in captivity,” he says.
An earlier series, “The Black Paintings,” which was part of the 1987 Whitney Biennial, featured ink images on hanging, pleated Neoprene — a beautiful rubber curtain. Now they’re in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art in New York. One of the paintings, “The Fall,” shows a naked Eve — Christy Turlington, who modeled for the artist — preparing for her exile from the Garden of Eden as fashion editors are handing her their finest threads. “Everything in the fall landscape is prêt-à-porter, including the uprooted trees and the sky,” Patkin says.
With the Massachusetts MoCA exhibit, Patkin and his work are back on the public stage. “The good thing about putting something out in the world is that it gets you ready for the next step,” he says.
Patkin is preparing a new body of work that explores sex, eroticism, love and intimacy. “I’m not going to do a Freudian analysis,” he says. “With this show [“The Wandering Veil”], I’m finishing a really big cycle. I think this is an appropriate subject for a rebirth.”