Holon Institue of Technology, Israel - 2017

Eyal Danieli in Series, by William Corbett.

Collaborators is Eyal Danieli’s first public exhibition in Israel. Prior to this his work has appeared here in private homes brought from Manhattan where Danieli has lived and worked since 1985.

Danieli was born of Israeli parents in 1961 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania where his father was in graduate school. His parents moved to Toronto where his father worked in business for several years before the family, Danieli has two brothers and a sister, returned to Israel.

His father died suddenly in 1973, a terrible blow to the family that hit Eyal especially hard. He struggled in the classroom, a “ne’er do well” he calls himself, managing to last until his junior year in high school before he’d had enough and dropped out.

His interest in art, nurtured by his father, sent Danieli to work in a set designer’s shop in Tel Aviv. There he helped construct and paint stage sets. He saved his money, enough to return to America, to stay with close family friends in New Jersey where he earned a GED, got a driver’s license and bought a coast to coast round trip ticket on Greyhound. He also bought a guitar so as to accompany himself on the Bob Dylan songs he loved and a pair of boots. To this day he keeps a guitar in his studio.

Back in New Jersey, he was called to Boston to work on the Boston Opera’s sets, from designs by his Israeli employer. The work finished, Danieli went home to serve in the Israeli army. His three years in the Israel Defense Force coincided with the invasion of Lebanon, Operation Peace for Galilee in July 1982. This introduced him to American Apache helicopters, images of which he has frequently returned to in his art.

His service ended, Danieli enrolled in Jerusalem’s Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design. His father had passed on his love of drawing to Eyal, but he did more than just draw war stories based on the American Television shows Rat Patrol and Combat that they enjoyed watching. He copied Van Gogh drawings with him, imparting the lesson of learning from the masters through imitation. In his home Danieli has one of these drawings framed and a drawing by his father of the army boots he wore in 1947, perhaps a reminder that a basic function of drawing is to record. In his memory Danieli still sees the reproduction of Picasso’s “Three Musicians” over the sofa of his family childhood living room. Today a Picasso etching from the 347 Series, acquired in trade, hangs on his dining room wall, a direct line from his past.

At Bezalel Danieli, eager to spend his days drawing from the figure, found himself in an uncongenial world of theory, “lots of yakking” and he hated it. He knew that his father’s friend, the painter and novelist Yoram Kaniuk, had gone to Paris to learn painting so he was aware that there was a world for his ambitions beyond Israel. Where to go? Luck intervened when he spotted a notice on the school bulletin board advertising scholarships at the New York Studio School. In Hebrew, Eyal means “forthrightness” and Danieli had enough of that spirit in him to go to New York with his slides and present himself at the Studio School. He had not called ahead; he was that determined.

In five years there, 1985-1990, he earned the education he sought. He spent his savings, then supported himself on work study and sheet rocking, plastering and painting jobs. After being given the job of school custodian, Danieli lived in the school’s basement, on call at all hours, earning himself the nickname “Mr. Studio School.”

He drew from the figure under, the passionate and opinionated, Nicolas Carone and he also took classes with Mercedes Matter and the sculptor Jonathan Silver. One day Carone told him, “You got what you needed from me now go to Esteban.” Esteban Vicente, then in his eighties and an old world European, taught color. When his classmates were taken aback by Vicente’s manner— “Why is this man insulting us?” --Danieli became a mediator between him and the class and he grew very close to Vicente from whom he received an education in color. He also became friendly with the great art historian Meyer Schapiro, one of the renowned teachers of his generation. A serious reader of non-fiction and art history, Danieli made sure he got the foundation he had come for from the Studio School, in the drawing room, in his reading and at the many lectures by artists that are a major component of the School’s curriculum. He heard R. B. Kitaj speak, an early enthusiasm, but the American Jew and the American-Israeli did not mix well.

He drew inspiration from the late work of Philip Guston, a founder of the Studio School whose bold figurative paintings and drawings had begun to exert a strong influence in American art. But his “hero” at the school was Morandi, whose work he spent two years copying. Given the restraints worked under, this foreshadows Danieli’s embrace of the series. Such was his dedication that he won a travel grant to visit Morandi’s native Bologna.

Danieli remembers that he was twelve years old when he heard Yoram Kaniuk pronounce Francis Bacon the “greatest living painter.” At Bezalel he began looking at Bacon’s work and discovered the photographs of Eadweard Muybridge upon which Bacon based so many paintings. Absorbed in Muybridge’s motion studies, Danieli began to draw naked figures walking and running, their feet off the ground as in Muybridge’s photographs. He painted over these drawings with thin wash and taped the drawings together to form scrolls. He continued to explore Muybridge’s photographs at the Studio School and to make more scrolls, which he has kept rolled up in his studio. It was less Muybridge’s images, the horses, bison and men, than the repetition of these images that appealed to him. He has come to call his feel for working “over and over again to realize the image” in series, a “methodology” that is a “disposition of mind.” This became central to his art.

In 1988 Danieli met Amanda Guest, a fellow artist at the school. They fell in love and married. After leaving the school they found an apartment, and for him a studio on 14th Street, in the meat market near the Hudson River which he divided in two, one half for his work and the other for a framing business he had started. In 1994 they moved into the third floor of a building in Soho on Sullivan Street. Virginia Lust had a gallery on the ground floor into which Danieli moved his framing business in 1996 keeping a small gallery in the front of the shop. Lust’s husband Herbert, who had befriended Alberto Giacometti as a student in Paris and collected his prints, mounted a show of those prints framed by Danieli in the gallery. He remembers that no one came to the show but that over time, walk-in customers and word of mouth kept the business going and today it flourishes.

It’s impossible to know how many paintings, prints and drawings Danieli has framed over the years, and it is equally impossible to know what effect this has had on his art, but a little speculation is warranted. For an artist who works on paper, predominately in oil stick, charcoal and ink, and within the range of 6” x 8” to 48” x 30”, handling so much art with an eye toward how it can best be presented must have contributed to his muscle memory for, at the least, scale. Like any day job framing took studio time away from Danieli. One wonders if relatively few hours in the studio merged with what he describes as an “onslaught of repetitive images” to spur drawing in series, a format in which he finds his fullest expression. “Doing another one,” he explains, “releases me from the previous one” but the drawings that follow do not supersede those that came before. This is where Muybridge comes in. A series of Danieli drawings make motion by accumulation. One of them can stand alone, complete in itself; several in a row pick up the pace and a wall of them begins to vibrate.

The eye apprehends this everywhere in Danieli’s earlier work, a group of helicopters might be stills from a war film or giant insects attacking in a horror movie. These choppers of death in Vietnam and Palestine are whirlybirds that ferry the superrich to the Hamptons on New York’s Long Island and patrol our inner cities. Seeing them against pink backgrounds, first light, we hear them come in low. Juxtaposed in six rows of ten panels, with a camel’s head and hand pointing a pistol interspersed, they create a movie and its soundtrack. Wherever these helicopters occur in Danieli’s work, bearing no insignia they are anonymous, one of the Twentieth century’s gifts to our nightmares, fantastical as Goya’s Modo de volar (Way to fly).

The figures in Danieli’s Seig Heil series “Good Morning Mr. Keifer”, inspired by Keifer’s 1969 visit to locations in France, Germany and Italy where the artist had photographs taken of himself giving the Nazi salute, are also anonymous. This gives them a political presence beyond mere statement. We have all raised our arms literally or figuratively to pledge allegiance, a gesture we might come to regret. Danieli had 6,000,000 of these figures in mind. The actions these raised arms commit will not be absolved on the grounds of duty. In the name of the allegiance we pledge, do we have any idea exactly what we are we capable of? The mind leaps to imagine what action Goya would find for these figures.

Danieli’s art of those years is a fingertip away on the Internet. For Collaborators he has chosen to show only recent work in three series, Holy Smoke, Fallujah and Collaborators. Holy Smoke is a departure for him in that the series finds a new wind-born shape form in every drawing. His application of oil stick on sheets of cheap paper is thick and black as tar. The image that presents itself is muscular like sculpture, tactile. This is not sleek tuxedo black but chemical, the odor of 9/11 and industrial fires. Danieli first encountered oil stick at the Studio School, but it was not in favor there and he didn’t begin to use it until working in his own studio. You draw with the fat crayon but the surface achieved can appear brushed on. He thinks of it as “quite literally and physically the embodiment of linking drawing with painting.” There are technical difficulties, it doesn’t dry well and sometimes not at all, but he is positively corny in his feeling for the medium. “I have vowed countless times,” he muses, “to stay away yet return to it like to some old lover clandestinely visited on the sly.”

That’s the only romantic thing that can be said about these drawings, which call to mind the greasy black smoke from burning Iraqi oil wells or Syrian cities. This is the smoke from our hecatomb, not the hundred oxen sacrificed by the ancient Greeks at Troy, but the fire in which we may read our future. This is the devil’s work and we are the devil, terrified by our power and knowing this rite will bring no peace. Yet the smoke can be beautiful as the black girders, railroad tracks and locomotives Franz Kline painted. This is the void made into a column of air, without mercy but at the mercy of the wind. We are destroyers these drawings say, a theme of Danieli’s. How can we survive this urge so deep within ourselves? These drawings have no answer, but exclaim in wonder--Holy Smoke! Americans say when stunned by a sight—at the smoke signals we continue to send.

The drawings of Hasid men, a longtime preoccupation of Danieli who sees them, behatted, on the streets of Williamsburg, Brooklyn as he drives to and from his Brooklyn studio, are based on photographs he has found in newspapers and magazines. He has made these images his own and like the saluting figure these men are anonymous. You’ll recognize them as they hurry to shul, in their own world, buffeted by the larger culture, dependent upon it but resistant to it. Danieli has called them “Fagin’s” and given them adventures. They appear to be conspirators but not buddies. So many loaded images more so, I must presume for Jews, than they will ever be for this goy. It is there anonymity that engages me, their meaty yet unknowable presence, the real that we can see, what is hidden in plain sight, that is the source of all mystery.

Any artist working black like Danieli had to be bowled over by the once-in-a-lifetime show of George Seurat’s incomparable drawings at New York’s Museum of Modern Art a decade ago. He was, and acknowledges the master as the “germinating factor in the emergence of the silhouette in my work.” Seurat put his conté crayon at the service of observable reality. You will see steamboats, street sweepers and men breaking stone. Such is the quality of his draftsmanship and his fine tuning of light and shadow that his imagination transcends his subjects. Danieli has striven for images, using similar means, that are symbolic and universal.

The “Fallujah” drawings and paintings are also based on a photographs Danieli chanced upon in a news paper during the recent conflicts in that ancient Babylonian city in what was once called the cradle of civilization. It shows an empty plaza or marketplace leading to low buildings built out into a “ V “ shape making a pocket. Danieli thinks he has been there, not in Iraq but somewhere in his middle east. He treats the view in color with pastels, embracing it as pastels will and imparting the allure it has for him. Dreams will take place there. For some viewers it will be a haunted place where dramas known to them alone unfold.

In his charcoal drawings of this view Danieli breaks the scene apart into fragments. In series the eye wants the view to emerge and coalesce. It’s like looking into a kaleidoscope, one that refuses to be turned to give you the view that you know is there. The distance from the soft pastel colors to black and white is unsettling. Is it that the past cannot be recaptured? The ancient Greek philosopher Heraclitus said that anyone can tell you what will happen in the future. He hoped to find someone who could tell him what had happened in the past.

Eyal Danieli’s art finds this all too human predicament congenial. In his devotion to the series there is movement forward like the days of the week on a calendar, but the eye can always turn back to see where it started, get another sense of the journey and begin again.

-William Corbett