Haim Saban’s confidence in Hillary Clinton

Three weeks ahead of the California primary, I was ambling through a crowded tent at the Museum of Contemporary Art’s (MOCA) annual gala when I spotted the Egyptian-born media mogul Haim Saban holding court at the front of the room. 

I made my way to the long communal table where he was seated, hoping to take the pulse of the billionaire Democrat once said to be the largest individual donor to the Democratic National Committee. He also happens to be a longtime and devoted friend of the Clintons. 

A year ago it seemed unthinkable that Hillary Clinton’s historic bid for the Oval Office could be eclipsed by a septuagenarian Jewish socialist or a bloviating bulvan from New York real estate, but here we were, inching closer to a general election and Clinton’s path to the White House seemed to be growing ever more treacherous: Two months out from the Democratic National Convention, she was still battling her opponent from her own party, even as her Republican challenger clinched his nomination and got straight to work rousing the ghosts of Clinton past.   

“I’m not worried,” Saban said in his unmistakable Middle Eastern accent. 

Beyond his many roles as a businessman — media proprietor, investor, executive, producer — and philanthropist, Saban has carved a second side career in politics, funding and supporting Democratic campaigns and candidates. He also established The Saban Center for Middle East Policy, a foreign policy think tank in Washington, D.C., in order to influence U.S. strategy in that region.

Saban has always been unequivocal about his motives: “I’m a one-issue guy, and my issue is Israel,” he famously told The New Yorker. Israel is his metaphorical mother, the place that welcomed his family after they were forced to flee Egypt, and he served in the Israel Defense Forces, which he continues to support as a primary philanthropic commitment. 

Saban’s involvement in American politics has also coincided with his connection to the Clintons, a relationship that has grown and strengthened over the years. Saban served on the President’s Export Council during Bill Clinton’s administration, advising the White House on trade issues, and reportedly even spent a few nights sleeping there. In 2008, he supported Hillary Clinton’s first bid for the White House, over Barack Obama, though he has since become a vociferous defender of Obama’s record on Israel. (He called Obama’s support for Israel at the United Nations Security Council “unprecedented.”) 

When I first interviewed Saban in 2010, he spoke admiringly of both Clintons, describing them as “inspiring leaders” — but it was clear he had special affection for Hillary. He told me he was “devastated” when she lost her first run for president, and he was clearly impressed with her continued devotion to public office. 

“Look at her,” he said. “She ran for president, she didn’t get it, she could have said, ‘OK, time for me to either go back to the Senate, or I’m just gonna go have fun.’ And instead, she takes on this job [secretary of state] that is a grind like no other … 

“These are people that were born to serve and to lead.” 

According to a list the Clintons released to The New York Times, Saban has contributed between $5 million and $10 million to the Clinton Foundation, and since last June, according to the Federal Election Commission, he and his wife, Cheryl, have contributed $7 million to Priorities USA, a political action committee supporting Hillary Clinton.

His financial contributions suggest a robust confidence in her leadership, but in the weeks since the MOCA gala, her campaign has been challenged by an unending onslaught of obstacles: in the press, headlines on the “stigma” of supporting her; on television, presumptive Republican nominee Donald Trump accusing Bill Clinton of “rape”; and then the State Department’s inspector general formally condemning Hillary’s use of a private email server while serving as secretary of state — all of which have contributed to a precipitous decline in her popularity, according to polling data from March up through now. 

Public appetite for delving into Clintonian drama never seems to abate, and the so-called “negatives” might seem enough to sink even the hardiest candidate. It has taken a lot less than Hillary has already endured to end previous presidential runs: You might recall George H.W. Bush’s famous last words, “Read my lips, no new taxes”; or when Michael Dukakis got dwarfed by a tank; or how Democratic candidate Howard Dean’s primal scream spelled presidential doom in 2004. 

Hillary Clinton, by contrast, has shown a remarkable, almost robotic resilience to challenges, which should give even her most ardent detractors some level of confidence in her implacable ability to lead — even under duress. And yet, when it comes to her campaign, she’s likely to have to fight an increasingly uphill battle against a reckless renegade real estate tycoon — all the way to Election Day. 

So, I called Saban at his office last week to ask why he believes Clinton will win.

“Well,” he began, “it comes from my faith in the American people. I believe that, at the end of the day, the American people are going to do the right thing for America and for the world.” 

But, I countered, isn’t it true that many of the American people he speaks of are the very ones empowering and emboldening Donald Trump?  

“Donald Trump is a disaster,” Saban retorted. “He is a bully who doesn’t have the curiosity to understand the issues; he contradicts himself repeatedly; his views of the world are an unmitigated disaster for America and for the American people, and I believe that all of this will become clearer with time.”

Saban pointed out that Clinton has, in fact, amassed several million more primary votes than either Bernie Sanders or Donald Trump. “That is very indicative of where the American people are,” he said. “Hillary Clinton is a person who has been committed to public service from the very first day she got out of law school until this very day; she has never, ever deviated from being a committed public servant and her history speaks for itself.” 

Overall, Saban seemed less concerned with the need to reiterate Clinton’s credentials than the need to obliterate Trump’s. In just under 30 minutes, he managed to call Trump just about every name in the book: buffoon, bully, clown, fraud, pathological liar and, finally, “a cynical, self-serving, self-centered egomaniac.” 

“He’s not a successful businessman; he is not a billionaire; this is a guy, who, I promise you, doesn’t pay taxes … and he is an oppressor of the weak,” Saban said. He illustrated his critique with a personal anecdote: “He claims that he ‘never settles’ — well, all I can tell you as chairman of Univision is that he sued us and he settled.” 

At this point, one of Saban’s PR reps, who was also on the phone, sensed that Saban was getting a little excited and requested that the details of the settlement not be disclosed in my article. “To be honest with you, I want my opinion of Trump out there,” Saban insisted. “I think that he is a danger to America.”

Saban is equally concerned that Trump would be a danger to Israel: 

“One day he says he’s going to be neutral on the issue of the Israeli-Palestinian problem, and the next day — I guess after he gets some Republicans to give him a lot of money — he says, ‘Yes, Israel should build in the settlements.’ The danger here is that he doesn’t understand the conflict between those two statements; he just doesn’t get it. He is an improviser on every single issue. There is not one issue that he has studied enough to be able to speak about it in a way that makes sense. And then he goes back on everything he says: One day, he says he’s gonna block the Muslims, and the next day he says, ‘Well it was just a suggestion.’ What a candidate says … these words carry weight. We cannot just dismiss the fact that he keeps contradicting himself. We don’t know what he stands for.”

Of course, Clinton’s critics also claim that she cannot be trusted, citing her use of the private email server, the transcripts of her speeches to Wall Street that she refuses to release, and the potentially problematic donations from foreign powers to the Clinton Foundation. I ask Saban why he trusts her.

“Because I know her personally, and I know what her beliefs are. I know that she wants what’s good for the American people, and she wants what’s good for [the] U.S.-Israel relationship. For me, that’s enough,” he said. “And then you add to that, that no one has run for office over the last 30 years with her kind of experience, [and with the] relationships and respect that she has with leaders around the world. And when you compare the relationship [world leaders] have with Hillary versus Trump — who says about our staunchest ally throughout all times, the UK, that he’s not gonna get along with [British Prime Minister David] Cameron, this is an outrage that’s beyond comprehension! Who in the world does he think he is?”

With all the focus on Trump, it is clear Saban isn’t worried about Bernie Sanders pulling off a major victory in California next week. But it must give him pause that Sanders’ performance during this campaign earned him a coveted five appointments to the Democratic Party Platform Committee, to which Sanders included Arab American Institute founder James Zogby and leftist philosopher Cornel West, both vocal critics of Israel and Israeli policy, who wish to see fundamental changes made to the U.S. relationship with Israel. 

Saban was reluctant to speculate about the outcome of those appointments or the potential influence they might have on the future of the Democratic Party, but he did sum up Bernie Sanders as “an anti-Israel person,” claiming the appointments are consistent with “who he has been for 25 years.” 

“There’s no surprise there,” Saban said. 

Later in the day, Saban’s team reached out to me about scheduling a second interview because something was weighing on him that he felt was important to add to our conversation. The next morning, he painted a portrait of a plausible future scenario:

Let’s say the prime minister of Israel disagrees with the president of the United States on an issue like, say, the Iran Deal.  And let’s say the Israeli prime minister is so concerned about the deal’s ramifications for his country’s security, he travels to the United States to make a personal plea to the U.S. Congress not to support the president’s legislation. 

“If, God forbid, Donald Trump makes it to the Oval [Office] and something similar to what happened with the Iran Deal [were to occur], I believe that he would most probably take action that would cause irreparable damage to this important relationship to both countries. 

“Between friends,” Saban added, “there is room for disagreement. But you do not disagree with Donald Trump.”

Remember secretary Clinton’s infamous phone call with Bibi Netanyahu, when she reportedly lectured him for nearly 45 minutes? “I learned that Bibi would fight if he felt he was being cornered, but if you connected with him as a friend, there was a chance you could get something done together,” Clinton later wrote in her State Department memoir.

If anyone is unclear on the candidates’ very different approaches to Israel, Saban offered the following comparison: 

“The difference between the two is: One has marched as the grand marshal in support of Israel in the streets of New York, and one has, for 25 years, had a policy for protecting Israel from all the threats around it. One has negotiated a truce with Egypt’s help and a cease-fire with Hamas, and one has marched down the streets of New York… 

“You decide who would be more appropriate to safeguard that relationship.”

Danielle Berrin is a senior writer and columnist at the Jewish Journal. Follow her on Twitter @hollywoodjew

The Broad Museum’s long-awaited opening

For those who live and work in downtown Los Angeles, it often seemed the day would never come. For four years, construction of the new Broad museum unfolded on Grand Avenue next to the Walt Disney Concert Hall. Now, finally, the scaffolding has come down and The Broad, designed by Diller Scofidio + Renfro architects, will open to the public on Sept. 20. It is the most anticipated contemporary art event of the season.

Back in 2011, Eli Broad addressed a crowd of journalists gathered at Disney Hall about his planned namesake art museum. “I’m convinced that Los Angeles has become the contemporary art capital of the world,” he said to a round of applause, referencing the city’s wealth of artists, art schools, museums and galleries. Now, four years later, The Broad opening follows the many more galleries and art spaces that have opened here, backing up the bravado of his assertion.

An only child of Lithuanian-Jewish immigrants, Broad was born in the Bronx and raised in Detroit and made his fortune building two Fortune 500 companies, the first in real estate with Kaufman & Broad and the second with the retirement savings company SunAmerica. He is now best known as one of the United States’ leading philanthropist in arts, education and medical research. Broad and his wife, Edythe, also have been deeply engaged in the art world and collecting over the last five decades. Their Broad Art Foundation’s collection and their extensive personal collection include more than 2,000 artworks, a portion of which was shown in 2008 at  the Los Angeles County Museum of Art for the opening of the Broad Contemporary Art Museum (BCAM) there. But this is the first time the collection will be displayed in such a comprehensive manner.

“The inaugural installation will be a sweeping, chronological exhibition drawn exclusively from our collection, featuring more than 250 artworks dating from the 1950s to the present,” Joanne Heyler, founding director of The Broad and director and chief curator of The Broad Art Foundation, said in an email interview.

The installation begins on the museum’s third floor, with works by major artists who emerged in the 1950s, including Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg and Cy Twombly. The Pop Art movement of the 1960s is represented through works by Roy Lichtenstein, Ed Ruscha and Andy Warhol, among others. Moving into the 1980s, the installation presents multiple works by artists the Broads have focused on in depth, among them Jean-Michel Basquiat, Cindy Sherman, Keith Haring, Barbara Kruger and Jeff Koons. 

The installation continues through the present on the first floor, including with a monumental, immersive, nine-screen video piece, “The Visitors,” by Icelandic performance artist Ragnar Kjartansson, and an 82-foot-long mural-sized painting by the Japanese artist Takashi Murakami.

Earlier this year, The Broad offered a sneak peek at its 35,000-square-foot third-floor space to members of the media and public. As natural light flooded in through the distinctive honeycomb exterior, or “veil,” of the building, which also includes 318 skylights, Broad himself sat on a stool amid the throng of visitors admiring the space.

“It’s a dream come true,” Broad, 82, said. “I feel very good about the building. It’s taken a little longer than we would’ve liked, but it sure was worth waiting for.”

The $140 million, 120,000-square-foot museum was scheduled to open in 2014, but a legal dispute with a subcontractor, Seele Inc., hired to create the exterior, delayed the opening to this fall.

Moving a collection of 2,000 works in all types of media into a brand-new building also has been a major challenge. In addition to the work installed in the galleries, the collection fills 21,000 square feet of storage areas. And although Heyler is very familiar with the plans and construction of the building, installing the inaugural exhibition in a new space proved to be tricky, she said. Moving from the “curator’s dollhouse” —  the small-scale model she has been working with for a few years — to the actual museum building inevitably comes with surprises.

“Sometimes a work just looks different when hung in the actual space, depending on how it relates to things like scale of the space or the skylights in our third-floor gallery,” Heyler said. “Many spaces have turned out just as planned, but let’s just say that we’ve hung and then moved more than one work in the past few months.”

The building includes an anvil-shaped inner sanctum dubbed the “vault.” Its carved underside defines the lobby’s walls and ceiling, its center contains the collection’s storage areas, and its ceiling serves as the floor of the museum’s third-floor galleries. The architect placed windows at two landings in the central staircase to allow visitors to see inside the painting storage room, to watch staff at work, moving artworks back and forth. The inclusion of the vault allows the Broad to keep nearly all of its collection on-site, although a few pieces are too large to be stored at the museum, such as Charles Ray’s 47-foot-long replica of a toy fire truck.

For decades, Broad has been the chief advocate for reinvigorating downtown’s Grand Avenue. He was the founding chairman of the Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA), whose building, designed by Arata Isozaki, stands across the street from The Broad, and in the late 1990s, he led the fundraising campaign to build the Frank Gehry-designed Disney Hall; he also secured the financing for Grand Park at the Civic Center.

The Broad Art Foundation, which is moving from a space in Santa Monica that was not open to the public to be headquartered in the new museum, already has made more than 8,000 loans to more than 500 museums. Some of the collection is housed at BCAM, designed by architect Renzo Piano and completed in 2008, which at that time had been expected to be a permanent home to the collection, before Broad announced he would build his own museum.

The Broad will be open to the public free of charge, thanks to a sizable endowment from Eli and Edythe Broad, but it will charge for tickets to temporary special exhibitions. Although the free admission is sure to attract visitors who might not otherwise come, some fear it could also hurt attendance at MOCA across the street, which charges $12 for general admission and $7 for students and seniors. Broad, who remains a life trustee of MOCA, downplayed the competitive angle.

“It’s so complementary,” he said. “Our work is the last 40 years. MOCA’s work begins at the end of World War II, starting with [Piet] Mondrian, and so on. If people want to see the best artwork from the end of World War II to the present time, I can think of no better place than The Broad and MOCA.”

Philippe Vergne, MOCA’s new director, said the staff of both institutions are working “to really make sure that this entire street is perceived as a campus.” In addition to Disney Hall, the nearby cultural landmarks also include the Music Center, the Colburn School and the Rafael Moneo-designed Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels.

Besides building an extensive collection of postwar and contemporary art, the Broads also have poured their finances into biomedical research with the Broad Institute, which funds stem cell research and genomics. The Broad Foundation also has focused on improving urban public education with the goal of making schools in the U.S. more competitive on the global stage.

“The arts are important to improve the human condition in a very different way, especially during these troubled times, when people worry about terrorism and all the other problems of the world,” Broad said. “So, I think art gets people stimulated, makes them feel better, gets them away from the day-to-day issues in their lives and the world.

“Today, it’s about the architecture. When it opens to the public on Sept. 20, it’ll be about the art,” Broad said.

This article was made possible with support from Cal Humanities, a nonprofit partner of the National Endowment for the Humanities. Visit ” target=”_blank”>thebroad.org.

A sneak peek inside the Broad museum

A throng of art-world insiders, media and members of the public swirled around the top-floor gallery of The Broad for a sneak peak at Los Angeles’ newest art museum … before the art was installed. At the center of the storm, the new museum’s benefactor and namesake, Eli Broad, sat calmly perched on a stool, taking in the spectacle.

“It’s a dream come true,” said Broad, 81, whose money comes from real estate, though he is now best known as a philanthropist in arts and education. “I feel very good about the building. It’s taken a little longer than we would’ve liked, but it sure was worth waiting for.”

The $140 million, 120,000-square-foot museum designed by Diller Scofidio + Renfro had been scheduled to open in 2014, but a legal dispute with a subcontractor, Seele Inc., hired to create the honeycomb exterior, delayed the opening to Sept. 20 of this year. 

On Feb. 15, the museum opened its doors to more than 3,500 people, allowing them to take the freight elevator up to the vast, column-free third-floor gallery. The 35,000-square-foot space (nearly a full acre) had not yet been divided by partition walls, allowing a clear view of the architecture. The $10 tickets for the day sold out within minutes.

“I came up to the third floor, which is the exhibition floor, and I thought I’d gone into heaven. It was a science fiction movie, or something like that,” former L.A. Mayor Richard Riordan, a friend of Broad, said.

The event also featured two temporary installations: an “abstract soundscape of downtown Los Angeles” by BJ Nilsen and an “immersive sound and light environment” created by Yann Novak.

The building includes an anvil-shaped inner sanctum and the distinctive exterior or “veil” of the building, a porous structure that allows natural light to flood in.

“It does challenge perception,” said Joanne Heyler, founding director of The Broad. “It challenges traditional ways of thinking about museum buildings. And that’s what we love about it.”

“You know, we had a challenge, being next door to Walt Disney Concert Hall,” Broad added. “You didn’t want to clash with it, but you didn’t want to be anonymous, either. So I think we’ve got a building that is iconic but doesn’t clash with the concert hall.”

Broad has long been a prime advocate for rethinking and reinvigorating Grand Avenue in downtown. He was the founding chairman of the Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA), located in a building designed by Arata Isozaki across the street from his new museum, and he led the fundraising campaign to build the Frank Gehry-designed Disney Hall; he also secured the financing for Grand Park at the Civic Center.

The Broad Art Foundation’s collection and the Broads’ extensive personal art collection include more than 2,000 artworks. The Broad will open with a mostly chronological selection of 250 to 300 pieces, beginning with works from the 1950s by Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg and Cy Twombly and pop art of the 1960s by Roy Lichtenstein, Ed Ruscha and Andy Warhol. Artists represented in depth from the 1980s, the decade when The Broad Art Foundation was established, include Jean-Michel Basquiat, Cindy Sherman, Jenny Holzer, Barbara Kruger and Jeff Koons. The museum’s installation will continue through to works from the present, with pieces by Kara Walker and a monumental, immersive, eight-screen video piece, “The Visitors,” by Icelandic artist Ragnar Kjartansson, and other recent acquisitions.

The Broad Foundation, which will be headquartered in the new museum, has already made more than 8,000 loans to more than 500 museums, mostly from its previous home in Santa Monica, which was not public. Some of the art is housed at the Broad Contemporary Art Museum at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), designed by architect Renzo Piano and built in 2008, to which Broad lent his collection for a survey exhibition. The LACMA collection includes work by James Turrell, Richard Serra, Gerhard Richter, Nam June Paik and others. It’s unclear how much of the LACMA collection will be moved to The Broad.

The Broad will be open to the public free of charge, made possible by a sizeable endowment from Eli and Edythe Broad, but will charge for temporary special exhibitions. While the free admission is sure to attract many visitors who might not otherwise come, some fear it could also hurt attendance at MOCA across the street, which charges $12 for general admission and $7 for students and seniors. Broad, who remains a life trustee of MOCA, downplayed the competitive angle.

“It’s so complementary,” Broad said. “Our work is the last 40 years. MOCA’s work begins at the end of World War II, starting with Mondrian and so on. If people want to see the best artwork from the end of World War II to the present time, I can think of no better place than The Broad and MOCA.”

Philippe Vergne, MOCA’s new director, said the staff of both institutions are working “to really make sure that this entire street is perceived as a campus.” That also includes the Music Center, the Colburn School and the Rafael Moneo-designed Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels.

“So not only do you have fantastic institutions for music, for opera, for art, but you also have permanently installed on the block an exhibition of architecture with some of the most important architects in the world,” Vergne said. “I don’t see many cities that can actually claim, in terms of cultural commitment and architectural achievement, what’s happening here.”

The Broad’s emergence shows just how much downtown Los Angeles is changing. With every gastropub, chic boutique and organic supermarket that sets down stakes in the neighborhood, the long-held image of a crime-infested urban core continues to fade. It’s a little ironic that Broad, who built his fortune constructing suburban developments, is now breathing life back into downtown.

“I think the population of downtown is going to at least triple,” Broad said. “Between what’s happening on Grand Avenue, what’s happening near L.A. Live, and of course the new Arts District. And I think it’s starting to accelerate, and you’re going to see downtown Los Angeles a very different place. It’s going to be 24/7. It’s not going to be like the old days, when you rolled up the sidewalks at 8 o’clock at night.”

Besides building an extensive collection of postwar and contemporary art, the Broads have also poured their finances into biomedical research with the Broad Institute, which funds stem cell research and genomics. The Broad Foundation is also focused on improving urban public education to make U.S. schools more competitive on the global stage.

“The arts are important to improve the human condition in a very different way, especially during these troubled times, when people worry about terrorism and all the other problems of the world,” Broad said. “So I think art gets people stimulated, makes them feel better, gets them away from the day-to-day issues in their lives and the world.

“Today it’s about the architecture. When it opens to the public on Sept. 20, it’ll be about the art,” Broad added.

Watch the live construction of the Broad museum

At MOCA, Land Art speaks softly, carries a big stick

The Museum of Contemporary Art’s (MOCA) newest exhibition, “Ends of the Earth: Land Art to 1974,” on view through Sept. 3 at the Geffen Contemporary, raises one important question: Just what is Land Art? If you think it is easily answered, you are probably wrong. When it comes to the art of ideas and the Earth, very little is set in stone — unless, of course, it’s set in stone.

“Land Art simply uses the whole world as an easel,” artist Joshua Neustein, whose work is included in the exhibition, said during a recent phone interview from his studio in New York City. “It’s still pictorial, it’s still, in a sense, painting or drawing, but your palette is unusual materials, and your canvas is a bit like stone-age art.”

Neustein — who in his 70s remains as mischievous and provocative as ever — was around at the beginning of the so-called Land Art movement in the late 1960s. Born in Poland in 1940 and on the move ever since, Neustein always has considered himself a man without a home. “Almost everything I do can be put on wheels. Is that part of my cultural trope? Inclination? Probably,” he said, laughing.

In the sense that he’s a nomad, wandering a world whose artificial borders have robbed him of any sense of dwelling, Neustein shares much with the men and women to whom he traces Land Art’s beginning: “Stone-age people, probably pre-literate people, drawing animals on the caves … they didn’t have art materials in a shop. Just lighting those caves must have been difficult.

“It was art for mythical, religious reasons,” Neustein said. “You captured the soul of the bison, or the mammoth that you drew, or the antelope. In many ways, Land Art is a return to that time … to the beginning, Bereshit.

“What is home? What is language?” Neustein asked. “What does it mean to belong to a place? Land Art has a lot to do with this issue of transient and permanent.”

Neustein’s own early Land Art work made in Israel reflects his fascination with maps and borders, tropes that recur frequently in his work. “My first piece in Israel, in Jerusalem, was the Jerusalem River Project, which was a sound river,” he said. “If you look at medieval maps … of Jerusalem … you’ll see that they put a river around the city. Of course, Jerusalem does not have a river.”

This galled Neustein and his collaborators, Gerry Marx and Georgette Batlle.  “What self-respecting city doesn’t have a river?  Even Los Angeles has one,” Neustein said. “We taped various sources of water in Israel … springs and waterfalls in the extreme north and near the Dead Sea … and we took those waters and matched them to the topography of where we did our fictional river.” The sound of water soon emanated from around the city.

Neustein’s piece in the “Ends of the Earth” exhibition consists of a number of bales of hay that are accompanied by the sounds of traffic and helicopters. “Hay bales are a kind of abbreviated meadow,” Neustein said. While helicopters, to a man who spent many years living in Israel, have come to represent war and danger, that symbolism might be lost on Angelenos, for whom the same noise might represent little more than the less-threatening annoyance of TV news copters or police chases.

Many of the American artists who “started” the Land Art movement in the United States originally saw it as a purely American art form, and the idea of creating Land Art elsewhere actually created something of a controversy in the past. Yet, Neustein refutes the notion that Land Art is uniquely, or even originally, American. “Land Art was being done in many countries, and in certain countries before it was done in America, in spite of what the Americans would like to believe and propagate.”

Mierle Laderman Ukeles, though American by birth, agrees with Neustein that the narrow definition that Land Art once carried needed expansion. “Land Art has been associated mostly with three American artists — Robert Smithson, who did the ‘Spiral Jetty,’ ” Ukeles said on the phone from her office at the New York City Department of Sanitation, where she is the longstanding artist-in-residence, “and then Walter De Maria and Michael Heizer,” the latter of whom created the newly installed “Levitated Mass” at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. “What the two curators [of ‘Ends of the Earth’] have done is they have said, ‘We appreciate those artworks … however, there was a tremendous amount of other work done throughout the whole entire world.’

“I have dealt with the earth from a very, very early time in my work … and then continually up to this day,” said Ukeles, who is perhaps most famous for her Maintenance Art, a name she coined in a 1969 manifesto. “The issue of where do I belong, where’s my earth, is actually a universal question. … In the Bible, it says, ‘Choose life,’ but that also means you can choose death.”

Ukeles came of age at a time when the notion of Earth as the mother of us all was very in vogue. But, as she points out, “Those were also the days of Vietnam.” According to Ukeles, the Western view of the Earth was often less motherly and more, “What are the resources all over the world that we want here?”

Ukeles was born and raised in Denver, where her father was a rabbi for more than 40 years. Her brother followed their father into the rabbinate and served as the Hillel director at UC Berkeley in what Ukeles called “the exciting days.” But, in 1973, Ukeles’ brother made aliyah with his wife and their son, moving to Israel.

“When they moved to Israel, I felt like this one little nuclear family hit a fork in the road, and one branch went this way, and one branch went the other way,” she said. When she visited Israel for her nephew’s bar mitzvah, she decided to do a piece at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem. She had her mother bring a jar of earth from Denver, and she brought along a jar of earth from Manhattan. She buried the jars of American dirt between the Shrine of the Book and the museum’s sculpture garden. She then took some Jerusalem dirt “ransom” and returned home with it. “If I die outside of Israel,” she said, “that earth will be the earth that I put in my coffin.”

Philipp Kaiser, the show’s organizer, who is about to leave MOCA’s curatorial department to take on the directorship of the Museum Ludwig in Cologne, Germany, later this year, was quick to praise both Neustein and Ukeles, and to put in context why MOCA has such an interest in Land Art. “The whole thing is like a fabric, and we are showing the threads that led to the explosion in the late ’60s,” Kaiser said. “These pieces didn’t fall out of the sky.

“In America, but also in Europe, no one knows about this conceptual moment in Israel in the early ’70s. How strong and how smart these artists were,” he added.

So what is Land Art? Neustein thinks the definition goes beyond what even Kaiser would envision.

“Borders are Land Art for sure,” Neustein said. “Does a map recognize the land it represents? I don’t think so … maps recognize language. Does land recognize language? All of a sudden, God talks another language, right across the border.” 

And that, is art.

The fabric of dance at LACMA

When artist Sharon Lockhart traveled to Israel in 2008, she wasn’t searching for Noa Eshkol. The Israeli dance composer and textile artist was not well-known outside her own country. In fact, Eshkol isn’t terribly well-known within Israel, where companies like Batsheva, Inbal, Bat Dor and the Israel Ballet hold far more cachet than Eshkol’s humble troupe. Lockhart came across Eshkol’s work on her journey, and now she’s brought the art of this somewhat obscure but undeniably brilliant, late choreographer to Los Angeles in a new collaborative exhibition at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA).

The curators behind the Lockhart-Eshkol collaboration are Stephanie Barron, LACMA’s chief curator of modern and contemporary art, and Britt Salvesen, the museum’s curator of photography. “Sharon is a Los Angeles artist who the museum has long been interested in, both in terms of acquiring work and showing work,” Barron said in a recent interview with the two curators at Barron’s office. “And this was an opportunity to show, for the first time in the U.S., a new body of work which was created in Israel.”

Surprisingly, this is also the first collaboration between LACMA and the Israel Museum, where Lockhart and Eshkol’s exhibition was shown last year. “We share an interesting history in that both institutions … opened within a month of each other in 1965,” Barron said. “We’re both encyclopedic institutions; we often share some significant donors … so it’s a really nice opportunity for us to collaborate.”

As curator of photography, Salvesen was intimately familiar with Lockhart’s work.  Lockhart, known for both her films and her still photography, has had solo exhibitions at the Walker Art Center; the Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art in Kansas City, Mo.; and Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art, among others, and her work has been seen locally at MOCA and the Hammer Museum. Lockhart is known for her ability to infiltrate closed communities and provide an up-close look at their culture. Eshkol, who was born in 1924 and died in 2007, was best-known as a co-creator of the Eshkol-Wachman Movement Notation (EWMN) system, a system that attempted to define the motion of limbs around their joints, and her choreography was rooted in this systemic approach. The installation at LACMA includes Lockhart’s films of Eshkol’s dancers performing the work, as well as other archival materials.

In exploring Eshkol’s work, Lockhart conducted lengthy interviews with many of Eshkol’s former dancers, who remain devoted to their leader.

Noa Eshkol, “Umbrella Flower,” 1970s.  Noa Eshkol Foundation for Movement Notation, Holon, Israel.

“The idea of an artist as a historian of sorts was also interesting to us,” Salvesen said. Barron added: “This was really the first time that Sharon, in a certain respect, was collaborating with an artist that was no longer alive.” 

At a press preview for the exhibition, Lockhart said Eshkol “had a very strong opinion and saw things her way” and admitted that she might not have approved of this show, were she still alive.

But the luxury of Eshkol’s approval was not something available to Lockhart, as she told LACMA’s Sabine Eckmann in an interview that appears in the exhibition’s catalog. “I was trying to be as true to her process as I could. I recognize that I was drawn to her by historical precedents with which I identified … but that the work would function only if I could surpass that history and create something really new.

“My association with Eshkol seemed so natural and personal when I was introduced to her production,” Lockhart continued. “I immediately felt a connection, and it was only later that I came to know the distinction between her creations and those of her collaborators. Bringing up the question of memory and the imagination seems appropriate, because in truth that’s the only way I will ever know her.”

How much one truly knows Eshkol after viewing the exhibition is questionable. Her dancers gesticulate on screen for Lockhart’s cameras, her drawings and notations fill displays, and photos of her works line the walls. She resides like a phantom within the body of her materials, but a full portrait of her remains elusive. 

It’s hardly surprising that the woman herself comes into such little focus, considering Eshkol’s company didn’t even perform publicly for much of her later years. The only posters for shows included at LACMA date from the 1950s. This was not a woman who revealed much of herself to the world.

Lockhart stressed that “it was important to me that it was considered a two-person show, with two female artists,” yet it is Lockhart, along with Eshkol’s dancers, who has pulled the earlier artist into the spotlight for a round of perhaps unwanted applause.

All that said, the work, particularly some dazzling wall carpets designed by Eshkol and her dancers, is stunning. And, as Salvesen points out, “Not only did Sharon want to bring to light someone whom she felt was under-recognized as an innovator in modern dance, but to do so in such a way that she points out how this kind of simplicity and purism are radical. … I think she recognized Eshkol as a kind of kindred spirit.”

For her part, Barron sees in the work a new horizon in the art world. “The expansion of dance within contemporary visual art is increasing,” she said. “The Whitney Biennial, which just closed, had on the top floor a space devoted 100 percent to a sequence of different dance performances. … It’s a kind of zeitgest.”

Sharon Lockhart | Noa Eshkol is on display on the second floor of LACMA’s Broad Contemporary Art Museum through Sept. 9. For more information, visit lacma.org.

MOCA’s latest exhibition reveals the early years of the ‘Feminist Revolution’

That women corporate executives are now indicted for malfeasance reminds me of the old Zionist litany that: “We won’t have a normal Jewish state until it includes gangsters and whores.”

If the glass ceiling hasn’t exactly been shattered, it does show a bit of leakage, although it’s still difficult to determine comfort levels about a woman being third in line for the presidency — or even a viable candidate.

Does this move toward egalitarianism now constitute a state of normalcy?

These are just some of the questions that make it worth contemplating the significance of the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art’s bold look back at a pivotal period for women in art in “WACK! Art and the Feminist Revolution,” an exhibition that opens March 4 at The Geffen Contemporary and runs through July 16, 2007.

Women now make up about 30 percent of the membership of the Association of Art Museum Directors; that’s a huge difference from the early 1970s, when I first became a member and there were only a few women included.

Revisiting the once hot topic of feminism ought to be more than a nostalgic trip down memory lane, and the inclusiveness of MOCA’s exhibition — curated by former MOCA curator Connie Butler, currently at the Museum of Modern Art in New York — suggests a new level of seriousness that ought to be of special interest to Jewish viewers.

We, too, have seen a shift in the way Jews are viewed in the society.

We’re now a long way from the anti-Semitism of the 1930s and 1940s, when fears of “special pleading” kept many Jews from boldly protesting events in Europe that we subsequently came to call the Holocaust. But that doesn’t mean we should shun the topic of anti-Semitism, how it shaped the role of Jews in American society, and how it once gave us a special sensitivity to the plight of other groups subject to prejudice and indignity.

The MOCA exhibition “will highlight the crucial 15-year period between 1965 and 1980 during which feminism became a cultural force, and the discourse of feminism intersected with the practices of artists around the world.” This exhibition is not about a particular style, but about attitude and about artists positioning themselves in relation to the art world: As women, as feminists and, foremost, as artists. And that should make for an engaging experience of our perception of this art. And once again, Jewish analogies abound, since there has long been discussion about whether there is any such thing as Jewish art” or whether there are “Jewish artists.”

Regarding either Jewish or feminist art, we may ultimately be stuck with Justice Potter Stewart’s comment about pornography, “I know it when I see it.” And perhaps that will be the most valuable contribution of this exhibition.

Just as I have known artists who didn’t want to be seen in a Jewish context, fearing it might diminish some larger connotations of their work, I have known women artists who wouldn’t want to be shown in Washington’s Museum for Women in the Arts. Strange, since the artist never knows how she will be absorbed by the viewer.

Do we know what people are thinking when they look at Chagall’s painting of a Jew wearing tefillin at the Art Institute of Chicago?

Do people looking at the abstract color-field paintings of Helen Frankenthaler or the sculptures of Louise Nevelson — two women, artists, and Jews — make associations to specific gender or ethnic issues?

Probably not, since they are among the handful of successful women artists who overcame typecasting to make it to the mainstream prior to the advent of feminism, which may suggest why they are not included in this exhibition.

Using scholar Peggy Phelan’s definition, as stated in the show’s advance materials, that “feminism is the conviction that gender has been, and continues to be, a fundamental category for the organization of culture” and that “the pattern of that organization favors men over women,” the exhibition suggests an enormous diversity both in the range of work and in the range of attitudes about what feminism means to women artists (presumably men aren’t capable of expressing ideas about feminism in their work).

Again, Jewish analogies abound, since there is surely no Jewish style, but various Jews have expressed themselves Jewishly in their art, while others have emphatically eschewed such an approach. And what about artists embracing issues that don’t “belong” to them? For example, artists using the Holocaust or racism as a theme, even if they themselves have no personal relation to either issue.

As with any interesting and provocative exhibition, “WACK” promises to raise more questions than it likely will be able to answer. Which may well be all to the good, since we surely need thoughtful questions more than we need simplistic answers. Jewish viewers might approach this work by considering whether there’s any connection between feminism and Jewishness in the work of the many Jewish women in this exhibition (indeed, so many they can’t all be listed here).

Is it fair to suggest that in the 1970s Jews were still in the forefront of what might be thought liberal politics, and that this explains Jewish women embracing feminism? Or did Jewish women feel a special need for stridency, considering the long tradition of male domination in traditional Jewish religious practice. (Yes, I know, women have “special” obligations, such as lighting Shabbat candles; but let’s admit that the Jewish tradition has relegated women to the back of the bus. Indeed, even today’s gender-sensitive liturgies, citing the four so-called matriarchs, omit the two poor handmaidens who went through the pains of childbirth to help make that full dozen of Jacob’s boys!)

There’s no question that such issues inform the work of Chicago — one of feminist art’s most vocal and visible presences. But Jewish questions also enrich the work of Eleanor Antin, Mierle Laderman Ukeles and Hél?ne Aylon (the latter, strangely, missing from this show), and it will be worth pondering, in the presence of the work, in what way they do or don’t feel evident in the work of Eva Hesse, Miriam Schapiro and others.