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Modernity Sui Generis: Notes “Up-On” the

Painterly Sculptures of Yaara Zach

Nicola Trezzi

From the time of Benedetto Varchi’s famous 16th-century question concerning the paragone, or comparison, between painting and sculpture,[i] to the establishment of the Museum of Modern Art in New York and its department of “Painting and Sculpture” in 1929, visual art was consistently concerned with this medium-focused dichotomy. Indeed, until the birth of the art movements of the 1960s and 1970s – Conceptual Art, Minimal Art, Land Art, Performance Art, Pop Art,[ii] and Arte Povera – art seemed to be centered on the relationship, or conflict, between the three-dimensional and the two-dimensional, color and volume, reality and illusion. 


Yet even if today this binary system has been replaced by an exciting and overwhelming multiplicity, some artists are still preoccupied with these questions, which they are now free to examine without having to succumb to the pressure of a definitive answer, while exploring a range of contemporary concerns. These artists have been busy with a range of issues,[iii] many of which were of no concern to the Florentine artists of Varchi’s milieu in the 16th century, or to the artists championed by the Museum of Modern Art in New York.


Yaara Zach is clearly one of these “modern” artists. Nevertheless, her work, as the title of this essay indicates, is sui generis[iv] – a Latin term meaning “beyond all genres.” In the context of Zach’s practice, this term serves a double function that is connected both to the meaning and to the etymology of this idiom, which are deeply connected yet not equal.


In examining the meaning of sui generis in connection to Zach’s work, it is easy to see how her oeuvre behaves in relation to the short history of Israeli art. On the one hand, her work is truly Israeli, rooted in the figure of the modern artist working in the studio, far from the postmodern and this time, which is so so contemporary, contemporary, contemporary.[v] This time, our time, which is perennially contemporary, the so-called “forever Now,”[vi]  is a time in which artists are rather preoccupied with the dematerialization of their works and the frontier of digital technology, charging their persona with artistic value,[vii] working under fictional names, in multiplicity, through agencies,[viii]outsourcing, appropriating and acting as archivists,[ix] entertainers, and sociologists.


Zach’s work distinguishes itself from the mainstream concerns of contemporary Israeli art, and especially from its currency of video art, political art, and research-based art that is charged by the context and reality of “this place.”[x] With a few exceptions[xi] and the acknowledgement of two “father figures,”[xii] her work is indeed unique in its going beyond all genres: it is too connected to pop culture and to color compositions to be associated with the strain of Israeli art-making that explores the “Want of Matter”; too formalistic and abstract (or concrete)[xiii] to be associated with so-called “political art,” which mostly consists of video and photography; and too sculptural to fit the term “installation,” which is a very dear to the Israeli art community and a key word for understanding the birth of contemporary Israeli art.[xiv]  In other words, her work does not fit any obvious, predictable logic or genre, unless we draw a parabolic connection between her use of materials, shapes and colors, and the history of contemporary art at large, beyond generational or regional connections.


If we embark on this path, we can compare some of Zach’s wall fabric hangings to the iconic felt pieces created by Robert Morris; here gravity is used to transform a two-dimensional object, a piece of fabric, into a sculptural element, echoing Morris while at the same time going back to how Renaissance painters, most notably Michelangelo, used the chiaroscuro and cangiante techniques to render drapery, transforming painting, fabric, and canvas into a frieze or a relief,  and ultimately into a sculpture. Continuing along this path, we can also connect Zach’s floor pieces to Richard Tuttle’s work.  His use of materials ranging from fabric to Styrofoam, and their arrangement on the floor or on the wall in order to create a perfect color composition and harmony (see, for instance, True Love,

2010), should be taken into consideration when we analyze Zach’s numerous stunning floor works, such as Not a Morning Person and Sunrise Yellow (both 2011). In these works, very simple materials that are not “poor” materials, but rather ones associated with the world of industry, consumerism, capitalism and its related abundance, are displayed after being subjected to small yet pivotal alterations. Once again, although these works speak the language of sculpture, one could just as well describe them as paintings. These painterly sculptures or sculptural paintings are three-dimensional objects whose primal forms (spiral, circle), orientations (verticality, horizontality), and primary colors (yellow, black, red) attempt to resolve the dilemma of painting through sculpture, while enhancing sculptural values by means of color (see, for instance, the work Untitled from the series “Dancers,” 2016).


When we examine the etymology of the term sui generis in connection to Zach’s work, things get even more complex, obliging the attentive observer to “read between the lines” in the literal, formalist sense of this idiom – that is, between the straight and curved lines of Zach’s works, in order to arrive at their symbolic charge, which lies between what is clearly apparent, assumed, or taken for granted. The Latin term generis has undergone several transformations over time, and in English, the most pragmatic among Latin-influenced languages, generis can be translated as “genres,” but also as “genders.” In other words, if we consider the idiom sui generis through the prism of etymology, we can interpret it as an attempt to define something that goes beyond genres but also beyond genders – beyond male or female, masculine or feminine.


Further pursuing the twists and turns of this path, on which language serves as a guide to a destination hidden within the history of Western art, we can locate Zach’s work in the company of several woman artists, who used sculpture to playfully engage with clichés that are typical of a male-dominated reading of history, and more specifically of art history. In this utopian space, a shrine or museum located in an imaginary forest populated by talented Amazons,[xv] we will find works by Anne Truitt, Lynda Benglis, Nancy Rubin,[xvi] Mierle Laderman Ukeles,[xvii] Jessica Stockholder, Katharina Fritsch, Katharina Grosse, Monica Bonvicini,[xviii] Rachel Harrison, Monika Sosnowska, Tatiana Trouvé, [xix] Esther Kläs, and as well as by Yaara Zach.


Whether minimal or colorful, monumental or immersive, their works seem to question what it means to be a woman artist. Avoiding clearcut and banal political agendas, and exhibiting no desire to provide simple answers, these artists deconstruct existing assumptions while refusing to replace them with new ones, acting not “against the law” but rather “before the law.”[xx] 


Zach’s work and presence[xxi] adhere to this credo, clearly demonstrating her belonging to this tribe. Her most iconic work in this regard is probably Plan B (2011), in which kitchen utensils are transformed into sculptural elements, minimal shapes that are arranged together and affixed to the floor and to the wall to create a unique form of tension. Her recent works, which seem to anticipate the new body works presented at the Petach Tikva Museum of Art, take the conception of artworks as generators of performative space to a new level: leather details, combined with crutches and metal extensions created by the artist, are the formative elements of a totally black set of sculptures open to multiple interpretations, and ranging from anthropomorphic silhouettes[xxii] to sex toys; from a constellation of objects divorced from their functions[xxiii] to a family of wonderful creations. Suspended between the floor and the wall, too three-dimensional to be paintings and too two-dimensional to be sculptures, these works, all Untitled (2017), confirm the artist’s desire to “stand” between sculpture and painting, between formalist and volumetric accomplishments, between strength and delicacy, beyond all genres and genders.



[1] “Despite the enthusiasm and subtlety with which the cognoscenti argued the relative merits of painting and sculpture in sixteenth-century Italy, their theoretical fencing seems to have had little practical impact on the visual art themselves. True, eight prominent artists took the trouble to respond when Benedetto Varchi canvassed them on the question in 1546, but the main impression left by their letters is that they were genteel, skilled in the use of the pen, and well versed in the classic arguments on either side. This is further proof, were any still needed, that artists were no longer humble craftsmen but cultivated letterati whose opinions were worth having. Castiglione had already shown this in his Cortegiano, when he gave the sculptor Romano the opportunity to air his views on the subject. Vasari relates how he himself had taken part in such conversation at the Court of Cardinal Farnese. The replies to Varchi were predictable; the painters proclaimed the primacy of painting, while the sculptors declared sculpture supreme. Only Michelangelo, eminently qualified in both fields, seems a little irritated by the question. He stated that he had always considered sculpture to be superior, but that he could also agree with Varchi’s own elegant standpoint that arts which share a common goal are in fact of equal merit. Beyond that, his rather cursory letter suggests that he cared little one way or the other.” See Peter Hecht, “The Paragone Debate: Ten Illustrations and a Comment,” Simiolus: Netherlands Quarterly for the History of Art (Vol. 14, No. 2, 1984): 125.


[1] The association of pop art with the other art movements of the 1960s and 1970s can be considered slightly acrobatic, especially if we follow the theory according to which the primary achievement of these movements was to finally go beyond the dichotomy “painting versus sculpture” in order to embrace a more expanded understanding of the language (or languages) of art, including concepts and ideas (conceptual art), interventions outdoor (land art), actions on the body and by the body (performance art), and non-artistic materials, from organic materials (Art Povera) to industrial ones (Minimalism). If we look at Pop Art, we will still find a strong presence of painting and sculpture. Especially on the American scene, which is usually considered the canon, we can find artists such as Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg whose work is deeply connected to Abstract Expressionism, and the specific timeline of pop art actually precedes the 1960s. Yet despite all of these arguments, Pop Art should and must be linked to these movements due to the fact that its protagonists, just like the artists engaged with Conceptual Art, Minimal Art, Land Art, Performance Art, and Arte Povera, were deeply invested in redefining the role of the artist, the DNA of the artwork, and the power of art. From Robert Rauschenberg’s 1953 Erased de Kooning Drawing, to Richard Hamilton’s 1965–66 reconstruction of Marcel Duchamp’s Large Glass, and from George Segal’s Portrait of Sidney Janis with Mondrian Painting (1967) to Claes Oldenburg’s Mouse Museum (1965–77), Pop artists’ break with the tradition is deeply sophisticated, and therefore unapparent at first sight. Even the very painterly work of Andy Warhol can be associated with this strategy due to the use of the silkscreen process. It can be linked to Yaara Zach’s use of industrial velvet in many of her sculptures, and even to the new body of work presented at the Petach Tikva Museum of Art.


[1]  Recently, the most discussed frontier has been digital technology, as showcased in exhibitions such as “Speculations on Anonymous Materials,” curated by Susanne Pfeffer at Fridericianum in Kassel in 2013; “Fear of Content,” the Ninth Berlin Biennale curated by DIS in 2016; “Art Post-Internet,” curated by Karen Archey and Robin Peckham at UCCA in Beijing; and “Art in the Age of the Internet, 1989 to Today,” curated by Eva Respini with Jeffrey De Blois, at the ICA in Boston.


[1] According to Wikipedia, sui generis is a Latin phrase meaning “of its (his, her, or their) own kind; in a class by itself; unique.” The term is widely used to refer to more esoteric entities in a number of disciplines, including: Biology (for species that do not fit into a genus which includes other species); creative arts (for artistic works that go beyond conventional genre boundaries); law (when a special and unique interpretation of a case or authority is found to be necessary; intellectual property rights (where there is no defining characteristic); philosophy (to indicate an idea, an entity, or a reality which cannot be reduced to a lower concept or included in a higher concept); politics and societal norms (as above for biological classification or where there is no real authority perceived). See The choice of the preposition “upon,” rather than just “on,” and the choice of presenting it split into “up-on,” is again connected to Zach’s work, situated as it is in a gray zone between painting and sculpture. In this specific case, the focus is on the display: neither “up on the wall,” (painting) nor “on the floor” (sculpture), but both simultaneously.


[1]  This is an ode to Tino Sehgal’s This is so contemporary (2004), which was presented, alongside “modern works” by Thomas Scheibitz, at the German Pavilion of the 2005 Venice Biennale, curated by Julian Heynen.


[1] “Forever Now: Contemporary Painting in an A-temporal World,” is the title of much-criticized exhibition organized by Laura Hoptman, a curator at the Department of Painting and Sculpture of the Museum of Modern Art in New York, in 2014.


[1] “How does one account for the persona of an artist? Outside the entertainment value of good biography, what importance does persona play in the understanding of an artist’s practice?  . . . Le Vite de’ più eccellenti artichitetti, pittori, et scultori italiani, written in the sixteenth century by historian and artist Giorgio Vasari, is considered the first proper art historical treatise.” See Alison M. Gingeras, “The Birth of Crass: The Artist’s Persona in the Age of Advanced Capitalism,” in Jeffrey Deitch (ed.), Monument to Now (exh. cat., Athens: Deste Foundation, 2004): 81.


[1] Reena Spaulings, Bernadette Corporation, Claire Fontaine, Slavs and Tatars, Public Movement, Société Réaliste, and GCC (Gulf Cooperation Council) are just some examples of artists who are employing pseudonyms or fictional names, working through agencies, and moving from individuality to multiplicity.


[1]  The artist as archivist is a very Middle-Eastern evolution of appropriation art. The most notable examples are Akram Zaatari’s Arab Image Foundation (AIF) and Dor Guez’s Christian-Palestinian Archive (CPA).


[1]  “This Place” is a project initiated by Frédéric Brenner, who believes “that only through the eyes of great artists can we begin to understand the complexities of Israel – its history, its geography, its inhabitants, its daily life – and the resonance it has for people around the world.” In addition to art being generated according to its social and political context, in “This Place” the artist is invited to work with these elements. See:



[1] Few Israeli artists have “escaped” the temptation to make art about the current situation. Among these artists, Reuven Israel is definitely the closest to Zach, in terms of both their generational affiliation and the nature of their respective oeuvres.


[1] Nahum Tevet, a sculptor whose work often verges on painterly compositions, and Ido Bar-El, a painter intrigued by found objects, can be considered Zach’s father figures. Supporting this thesis is the fact that during the period of Yaara Zach’s studies at the Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design, Jerusalem, Bar-El was the director of the academy’s BFA program, while Tevet was the director of its MFA program. Inspired by Zach’s work, the exhibition I organized in 2015 at Bezalel’s MFA gallery, which was titled “Carpets: The Territory of Painting,” also included also works by Tevet and Bar-El.


[1] As the modernist painter Theo van Doesberg famously stated, “We speak of concrete and not abstract painting because nothing is more concrete, more real than a line, a color, a surface.” Piet Mondrian, meanwhile, echoed him by saying “Abstract art is the most concrete art can be.”


[1] Israeli art emerged in the early 20th century, with the immigration to the country of Jewish artists largely inspired by Zionism. However, with the exception of sporadic appearances in the 1970s (Nahum Tevet) and 1980s (Ido Bar-El), it might be more appropriate to speak about a true “Israeli art scene” only since the mid-to-late 1990s, when a generation of Israeli artists emerged in the international arena with a strong emphasis on installation art – the medium of that decade – and video installations. With the exception of video artists such as Guy Ben-Ner and Yael Bartana, most of these artists had been students of Tevet at Bezalel: Sigalit Landau, Yehudit Sasportas, Avner Ben-Gal, Ohad Meromi, Gil Marco Shani, and Michal Helfman.


[1] In Greek mythology, the Amazons were a tribe of women warriors related to the Scythians and Sarmatians. Apollonius Rhodius, at Argonautica, mentions that Amazons were the daughters of Ares (the Greek god of war) and Harmonia (a nymph of the Akmonian Wood).


[1] “Meanwhile, back on earth, she helped break a few glass ceilings. Asked whether being a female artist based on the West Coast and working on a big scale presented obstacles after she graduated with an MFA from the University of California, Davis, in 1976, she deadpans: ‘Richard Serra is only half an inch taller than me, know what I mean? Why let it stop you?’” See Javier Pes, “Nancy Rubins Makes Her London Debut in the Heavyweight Division; The Los Angeles-based artist says that being a half an inch shorter than Richard Serra was never going to stop her from making her mark as a sculptor in metal,” in artnet news, January 29, 2018, (last accessed February 24, 2018).


[1] Mierle Laderman Ukeles and Zach both participated in a conference on the occasion of the exhibition “No Place Like Home” at the Israel Museum, Jerusalem (curator: Adina Kamien-Kashtan). Laderman Ukeles, who defines herself a sculptor (whose sculptures are the garbage trucks), was impressed by Zach’s work.


[1] Zach’s latest two series, presented in Artport’s “Non Finito” exhibition (2017) and at the Petach Tikva Museum of Art (2018), have much in common with the work of Monica Bonvicini: “Feminine and yet physically heavy, close to the power of materials and yet completely conceptual, the work of Yaara Zach is conceived in order to make our body react, physically and mentally. The artist often speaks about her oeuvres as generators of performative space between themselves and the viewer, who she sees as an active agent, an actor, rather than just a passive spectator. Through the appropriation of very common objects, such as sleeping bags (Babel, 2010); belts (Untitled, 2016); a folding table, ironing board, stainless steel sink, pole, and bowls, and a threaded rod and nut (Plan B, 2011); zips (Not a Morning Person, 2011); and various kinds of fabric, the artist take the legacy of Duchamp’s rectified ready made to new and unexpected horizons, letting the materials speak before anything else. While all her works appear at first as sculptures, as three-dimensional objects, a closer look reveals a strong connection to the medium of painting, which foundations – color and composition –the artist applies to materials that become her very special palette. Within this discourse, this ode of ‘painting in the expanded field,’ her project for ‘Nonfinito’ appears as exceptional, a position –more similar to a zigzag than to a straight line – the artist enjoys. Therefore, this new body of work takes the aforementioned belief of artworks as generators of performative space to a new level. Leather whips, combined with crutches and metal extensions especially created by the artists are the formative elements of a total-black set of sculptures that again are open to multiple interpretations: from anthropomorphic silhouettes to medical (or sexual?) tools; from a constellation of objects ‘disgraced’ from their functions – you can lean on them but they won’t give you stability anymore – to a family of wonderful creations. Bizarre, standing between the floor and the wall, not enough three-dimensional to be sculptures, not enough bi-dimensional to be painting, these works– all Untitled (2017) –represent a new chapter of Yaara Zach’s modus operandi, a unique balance between the familiar and the uncanny.” See Nicola Trezzi, “Yaara Zach,” in Vardit Gross (ed.), Non Finito (exh. cat., Tel Aviv: Artport, 2017): non-paginated.



[1] Zach’s new body of work is being exhibited at the Petach Tikva Museum of Art as part of a larger project curated by Hadas Maor, which also includes a solo exhibition by Tatiana Trouvé, whose work has many affinities with Zach’s work.


[1] “Before the Law,” a parable contained in Franz Kafka’s novel The Trial, was originally published in the 1915 New Year’s edition of the independent Jewish weekly Selbstwehr, and subsequently published in 1919 as part of the collection Ein Landarzt [A Country Doctor].


[1] Zach’s physical presence can be a very interesting detail within a deep analysis of her practice. In this regard, she shares a specific presence with other artists, from Esther Kläs, whose sculptures almost always contain her body size, to Mierle Laderman Ukeles. 


[1] A silhouette – that is, an illustrated outline filled in with a solid color, usually only black, and intended to represent the shape of an object without revealing any other visual details, is another word that brings together painting and sculpture.


[1] Most of Zach’s works have originated from functional objects such as belts, crutches, sleeping bags, fishermen’s floats, punching bags, zippers, and caps.

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