Collector donates Israeli art to AU’s Katzen Center

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“What I knew about Israeli art was what I saw at synagogue auctions,” retired cardiologist and long-time art collector Donald Rothfeld said recently. “I saw dancing rabbis, bar mitzvah boys and ladies bentsching licht.” The Newark, N.J., native became enamored of the American contemporary art scene and began collecting in 1970 as a young doctor at Newark’s Beth Israel Medical Center.

Shay Kun, “Sole Survivor,” 2008 — Oil on canvas. 60 inches by 60 inches. All art is gift of Donald Rothfeld
Shay Kun, “Sole Survivor,” 2008 — Oil on canvas. 60 inches by 60 inches.
All art is gift of Donald Rothfeld

On Saturday, the Rothfeld Collection of Contemporary Art was inaugurated at American University’s Katzen Arts Center. Rothfeld gifted the university art museum with his entire collection of 151 pieces — paintings, photography, sculpture, video, installations — of art, most created over the past two decades.

The gift to AU also honors Rothfeld’s longtime friend, Israeli Ambassador to the U.S. Michael Oren, who will be leaving his post after nearly five years in Washington. Rothfeld said that Oren’s father was the executive director of the medical school and hospital where the cardiologist trained and spent the bulk of his career.

“We go back a very long way,” Rothfeld said.

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Gilad Ophir, “Radar,” 1998 — Photograph. 22.05 inches by 18.11 inches
Gilad Ophir, “Radar,” 1998 — Photograph. 22.05 inches by 18.11 inches

Art became central to Rothfeld’s life in the early 1970s. “I became very well versed in [contemporary] art,” he said, befriending many of the rising young artists of the late 20th century working in SoHo in New York city. Painters and sculptures he befriended helped him develop his eye and his understanding of the art world. So when he stumbled on an eye-opening show of Israeli contemporary artists at the Bertha Urdang gallery in Manhattan, he was blown away. “I was astonished to see artists from this little country doing exactly what American and Western European artists were doing. I was amazed.”

During the past two and a half decades, including annual art-buying trips to Israel, Rothfeld built a notable collection that spanned Israeli artists of all genres and stripes across multiple media. “The general question, ‘What is Israeli art?’ That’s impossible to answer,” the avid collector said. “If it’s made in Israel and it’s a picture of a military site in Israel that’s Israeli art … we understand that. But when Israeli artists start dealing with issues other artists of the world are dealing with, [the definition] gets very hazy. Why is that piece Israeli? I really can’t answer that.”

But when Rothfeld sees something he likes, he doesn’t hesitate. The works in his collection are challenging, thought-provoking and frequently have a decidedly political point of view.

A pair of black and white photographs depicting what appear to be Israeli chalutzim — pioneers — opens the show. The works are among AU museum curator Jack Rasmussen’s favorites. “The artist is basically presenting two photographs as if they were young Israelis in the desert. The guy has a hoe and you can see he’s going to turn that desert into a garden. And here you have a woman who is with a crate of oranges and she’s been working and she’s smiling. It’s a triumph of the Israeli spirit over the land.” But these photos weren’t taken in the 1940s. The artist photographed modern-day Palestinians dressed as Israelis. “Immediately your mind does a little back flip,” Rasmussen said.

A trio of videos featuring Tamy Ben-Tor shows her dressed as a Holocaust survivor, a German bystander and a contemporary American. There’s a bitterness to the irony of these hyper-exaggerated stereotypes that pushes the idea of memorialization into a harsher realm. There are artists working in traditional Jewish media like Jacob El-Hanan, who uses micrography — tiny Hebrew letters — to create abstract images.

Rothfeld cites Moshe Kupferman among his favorite Israeli artists. “His work deals with the building of Israel and he comes from a kibbutz that he built with other survivors. It’s all about construction, you see a lot of architectural elements in the work.”

While Rothfeld acknowledges that his political leanings are toward the fiscal conservatives, he notes that the great majority of artistic work — and the artists themselves — in his collection is undeniably liberal. And that’s just as it should be, he said. It is the artist’s job to question, push the envelope, provoke thought, raise questions on issues that may be uncomfortable.

“While I’m kind of right center, I really have a liberal heart,” he said. “Most of the Israeli [artists] are liberal, they are left wing. I never have a conflict with that.”

With this gift to American University, Rothfeld has stopped collecting although he would like to see his collection grow with contributions from others. He hopes, too, that other galleries and museums across the country will provide space for exhibits from this collection. But he can’t deny that he selected American for his prime location in Washington, D.C., along with its growing Israel studies program.

And finally, he added: “I would like other ethnic groups to start something there — Arab groups, Palestinians. It would be wonderful to have their art there, to have a dialogue with the Israeli art. That would be my hope.”

The Donald Rothfeld Collection of Contemporary Israeli Art is on display through Oct. 20, American University Museum at the Katzen Arts Center in the District Tues.-Sun. 11 a.m.-4:00 p.m. Visit http://www.american.edu/cas/museum/index.cfm for information.

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