February 26, 2020

Barry Frydlender: from camera obscurity to MOMA

Barry Frydlender greets a reporter at his apartment in southern Tel Aviv with gentility and reticence. In his spacious living room, a sofa set rests on old, cracked, Arab-style tiles that block a studio nook containing a computer set-up. A window overlooks the Tel Aviv beach promenade, where the 52-year-old Israeli photographer meets friends every morning. All around his living space are slices of Israeli life in the form of mural-sized photographs pinned up on the walls.

For his visitor, Frydlender hangs more of his photos on a wall, using old bits of masking tape, and looks at each for a few seconds before speaking.

It becomes clear only on close observation that these mural-sized works are digital assemblages, each created from dozens of photographs. Using the brush of Photoshop, a program he taught himself, Frydlender weaves together images of the same figures, shot in different positions and at different times of day, to create a narrative with layers of interaction, perspective, and communication within what appears to be a single scene.

In “Shirat HaYam,” 2005, he shows a view of the Disengagement — a repeating row of Israel Defense Forces (IDF) soldiers — at the beachside settlement of Shirat HaYam in Gush Katif. His technique allows him to develop, as he puts it, “a representation of all the elements involved in the event.” In the foreground, an orange-clad settler holding a baby implores the still soldiers. She reappears, walking away toward the background, where settlers sing on caravan roofs.

Frydlender points to the English on the military uniforms — a hint of the “show” to the foreign media. While he supported the Disengagement, he says, no political statement is evident in the work, and his elaborations are terse.
“I don’t interpret my work,” he says. “You can understand it like this. It’s not a poster.”

He admits his reluctance to elaborate on the works’ meanings,
“I focus on my work,” he says, when asked if his hesitancy reflects his feelings about being interviewed by the press. He adds that he hasn’t yet returned the calls of two Israeli reporters, who have good reason to chase him: “Barry Frydlender: Pictures 1994-2006” opens March 23 at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art, and on May 17, Frydlender will be the first Israeli to be honored with a solo exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. He will be in Los Angeles this summer as part of “A Year of Israeli Art — A Decade of The Jewish Federation’s Tel Aviv/Los Angeles Partnership.”

“Shirat HaYam,” 2005, is one of Frydlender’s more politically charged pieces, but he also represents other aspects of Israeli society in his works. Within the image of a well-stocked Israel kiosk in “Pitzoziya,” 2002, a blonde Russian clerk works among the Israeli brands of drinks and snacks, while a dark Sephardic woman stands near the nut trays at the entrance — a picture of the diversity within Israeli society.

“The Flood,” 2003, which was acquired by MOMA, shows Israeli teenagers — future soldiers — playfully splashing in a sidewalk puddle and then walking into the entrance of an IDF museum. The assemblage appears to hint at the transition from the carefree life of teens to the rite of passage into Israeli adulthood, but for this work, too, Frydlender doesn’t elaborate much on the message of the work.

Perhaps his apparent indifference to publicity explains why he is not well-known among mainstream audiences. That, and the fact that his work is rarely seen in his native country.

Frydlender hasn’t had a solo show in Israel for more than two decades, to which his comment is, simply, “I don’t know, that’s how it happened.”

His work has also never been shown in private galleries in Israel. Which is not to say that he hasn’t had his fair share of honors. At 28, he mounted his first solo exhibit at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem — a photographic series on Café Kassit, which was the center of Israel’s bohemian culture in the 1980s. His works have appeared in museums and galleries in the United States and Europe, but he has remained, as Haaretz art critic Smadar Sheffi put it, “an artist’s artist.”

Andrea Meislin, who worked as an associate curator of photography at the Israel Museum from 2000 to 2002, was instrumental in bringing Frydlender’s works to light.

“I saw someone working at a great level,” Meislin said, speaking from her epynomous gallery in New York, “not only on a technological level, but there was great substance, and the visual was very impressive.”

Meislin invited Frydlender to participate in ARTIS 2004, an exhibition of Israeli photography sponsored by Sotheby’s, which garnered an enthusiastic response. When she launched her own New York gallery dedicated to Israeli photography, her first show was of Frydlender’s work. The exhibit attracted the notice of MOMA’s Peter Galassi, chief curator of photography at MOMA, who is responsible for bringing the artist’s work to the museum.

Regarding the significance of an Israeli exhibiting solo for the first time at the MOMA, Sheffi said, “People are very excited about it. He defeated a kind of glass ceiling.”

Frydlender grins, with a glimmer of pride and self-satisfaction, when asked if he ever imagined he’d reach the coveted venue: “I think I had a moment, about 10 years ago, when I thought I would, but I forgot about it.”

Frydlender will be artist-in-residence in Los Angeles this summer as part of “A Year of Israeli Art — A Decade of The Jewish Federation’s Tel Aviv/Los Angeles Partnership.”