Contemporary Art

The Aviva and Jacob Baal-Teshuva Collection

By Robert C. Morgan, Ph.D.

M y first meeting with Aviva and Jacob Baal-Teshuva occurred one evening in Paris at Le Cupole. I remember it as being in the autumn of 1989, possibly November. The key figure in bringing us together was the legendary French critic Pierre Restany with whom Jacob had maintained a close friendship for many years. The other invited guests included Restany’s Belgian wife, Jo Jo, and the prominent media artist, Antonio Muntadas, from Barcelona. The dinner that evening was an intensely vital, brilliantly intuitive, and exuberant occasion, filled with interventions of profound, often humorous diatribes, usually instigated by Restany. After our soiree in Paris, there would be numerous other events in the years that followed. The festive exuberance of joining my vivacious friends at various exhibitions, biennials, panels, and dinner parties of one kind or another was something I relished. The ongoing joie de vivre became the ground of art, or maybe, the other way around. Either way, it never seemed to matter. We were always in the present.


As in their exemplary manner of life, where diversity and curiosity always sprang forth, the works in the collection of Aviva and Jacob Baal-Teshuva continued to resonate with the joy initially felt upon their discovery. This joy could be easily felt if one spent any time with them. I don’t think of their collection as consisting of large, pompous-scale works. In fact, it is quite the opposite. As collectors, Aviva and Jacob chose works that were easily accessible and would welcome anyone they believed had a genuine interest in viewing their acquisitions in their uniquely ecstatic domain on the Upper East Side. Contrary to the clean white walls that many collectors believe should be a prerequisite for collecting art, the Baal-Teshuvas chose works that felt comfortable to them, always with their domicile in mind. They intended their paintings to be seen amid Eames chairs, a Saarinen dining room set, Bauhaus tableware, woven carpeting, and soft window-light – all accompanied by a plethora of rare books, catalogs, and antiques. Their home was a gathering of international masterworks. While heavily given to L’Ecole de Paris, there are modern paintings and sculpture from major artists in Italy, Spain, Israel, the United States, among others. It constitutes not only a collection, but also a magnificent exhibition – a stunning work of “total art.”

 Born in Jerusalem in 1929, Jacob Baal-Teshuva, in the course of his career, has become one of the most distinguished international editors and appraisers of modern and contemporary art. His studies in art history and international affairs began at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem and later at New York University. Following his studies, Baal-Teshuva would eventually establish his credentials as a leading independent and international curator and freelance critic of art. Upon his arrival in New York in 1954, Baal-Teshuva began working as a freelance correspondent at the United Nations. At the same time, he was a full-time graduate student at New York University. Shortly after, he served for eight years as Editor-in-Chief of The Appraiser, the monthly publication of the Appraisers Association of America and eventually became a member of its Board of Directors. This was followed by his appointment on the editorial board for the Art Economist. For several years, he was the American correspondent for the major French magazine, Galerie Jardin des Arts, in Paris. Years later, he eventually became the United States Bureau Chief for Cimaise, what many consider the oldest and most distinguished art magazine in France.


In recent years, he was inducted into the American Section of the International Association of Art Critics (AICA). Most of this work as an editor and writer was done after he became an American citizen, residing on the Upper East Side for more than four decades. During this time, he has written and edited numerous monographic studies on artists, while functioning as a consultant and appraiser for other eminent collectors and institutions, The Jewish Museum, New York; the Tel Aviv Museum of Art; The Israel Museum, Jerusalem, and artists including Robert Rauschenberg, James Rosenquist, and Richard Anuszkiewicz.

Baal-Teshuva’s career as a writer began with books focused on both the United Nations and his homeland, including The Mission of Israel (1964), Towards World Peace (1965), and Art Treasures of the United Nations (1963). Eventually, this orientation to art would shift in the direction of modern and contemporary artists. This would include Andy Warhol, 1928–1987 and Christo: The Reichstag and Urban Projects, both published by Prestel. Other major publications include Christo and Jeanne-Claude, published by Taschen (1995), Alexander Calder, Taschen (1998), Chagall Tapestries, Taschen (1999) and Marc Chagall: A Biography, Taschen (1998), Jean-Michel Basquiat, Kunst Haus Wien (1999), and Tapestries of Twentieth Century Masters, Kunst Haus Wien (2000). In addition, Mr. Baal-Teshuva has books forthcoming on the COBRA movement in Europe and The New Realists in France. In addition to his roles as a writer, editor, and appraiser – along with his artist-wife, Aviva, a devout collector of modern and contemporary art – Jacob Baal-Teshuva has worked as an independent curator. These would include his exhibition of paintings by Marc Chagall in New York, honouring the artist’s 80th birthday (1967).


In addition, he has curated a retrospective exhibition on the French “fauve” artist, Charles Camoin, whose work was seen by many for the first time in New York. This was following in 1976 by an exhibition of paintings by Willem De Kooning at the Fuji Gallery, Tokyo. His memorial exhibition, Andy Warhol 1928 - 1987, was inaugurated in Japan, and traveled to the eight venues, including the Tel-Aviv Museum of Art; the Kunst Haus Wien; the Museums of Fine Arts in Athens and Thessaloniki (Greece); the Museums of Fine Art in Orlando and Fort Lauderdale (Florida); the Taipei Fine Arts Museum in Taiwan; and concluding at the Fondazione Mazzotta, Milan (1996). In 1994, Baal-Teshuva curated Christo: The Reichstag and Urban Projects at the Kunst Haus Wien, which traveled to the Villa Stuck Museum, Munich (1994) and The Ludwig Museum, Aachen in 1995.

Certainly one important factor that made these diverse, interrelated projects possible for Jacob was the energy and devotion of his wife, Aviva, who, being an artist herself, had exceptional insight and foresight. This was especially true in guiding their collection to the point where its originality and connoisseurship became fully revealed. Aviva Baal-Teshuva (1940- 2016) was born Heilvig Hilde Schmidt in Germany, during the Second World War, where she was one of three sisters. Trained as an architect, Aviva was also a painter. Her abstract compositions were shown in Europe, Israel, Russia, and New York. Her meeting with Jacob began at Sabra, a former Israeli club on 72nd Street in 1967. The attraction was apparently a strong one. Within three months, they were married at the home of a lifelong friend, Charlotte Bergman. In addition to their upbeat, sharply refined interest in art, the Baal-Teshuvas also shared a linguistic ability and spoke several languages between them. Once together in their apartment, Aviva developed the idea for showing their collection in relation to the design-based furnishings. Over the years, they attracted the attention of many artists. Those to whom they were particularly close were Christo and Jeanne- Claude, Sonia Delauney, and Menashe Kadishman.


A word about the paintings of Aviva Baal-Teshuva would seem appropriate. In 2002, she asked if I would be so kind to write her catalog essay for an important exhibition later that year at the Russian State Museum in St. Petersburg. I am not entirely certain where the cosmic theme emerged in her work, but it was clearly a dominant theme in the paintings she selected to be shown. They contained many planetary circular forms, small and large. Often she used a pointillist style in these paintings that gave the surface an optical effect, as in Cosmos No. 8 (2001), but without an illusionist disorientation. Occasionally, these dots of light would stream through the surface of a planetary form or trail across the surface horizontally shown in Cosmos No. 14 (2001), weaving their way in a free-hand manner with considerable balance, focus, and elegance. Although I agree with most of what I wrote about Aviva’s paintings at the time, I would have written it differently in the present. Initially I claimed the paintings were not metaphysical, but upon a second consideration I believe they are. Today, fourteen years later, I would say this aspect of her form, color, and space is very much a cohesive presence in her work.

Returning to the juncture or overlap between Aviva’s paintings and the Baal-Teshuva Collection, there is a feeling of connectedness between the two. What carried a certain intimacy within the domicile of the Baal-Teshuva apartment where the paintings and sculptures were placed in a site specific relationship to the tables, chairs, and woven rugs, was not a foreign idea insofar as the structure of Aviva’s painting are concerned. By this, I refer to the way in which her forms and colours reciprocate one against another and the manner in which they deliberately fit together without losing the sense of a relaxed openness within the frame. This was also true of how she organized the Collection within their apartment, which is why I chose to call it, for better or worse, a form of “total art.”

HANS HARTUNG, P1960-9, 1960. ESTIMATE $20,000–30,000.

As mentioned earlier, the scale of the various works included in the Baal-Teshuva Collection are, for the most part, not large. This definitely was neither their style nor their taste. The intimate relationship of one work to another was essentially what Aviva wanted, what she was searching for, a kind of constellation of art works seen together as if gazing at the stars on a clear winter’s night.

This suggests a few words to why I regard this collection as important. Given a perspective on what Americans call Modernist painting and sculpture from a more or less European sensibility has much to offer us, namely that it is difficult for one idea of Modernism to be completed absorbed by another. How we regard a gouache by Sonia Delauney from 1967 reads differently from how we might read an Agnes Martin painting from the same year. The Delauney is smaller by comparison, yet the configuration of colour blocks or segments is differently conceived and organized in comparison with Martin’s relatively large-scale acrylic and graphite grids. Hans Hartung’s pastel from 1960 has a different feel to it when compared with an abstract drawing by Franz Kline or a watercolor by Joan Mitchell, such as the Untitled work in the Baal-Teshuva Collection.


Tom Wesselmann, the noted American Pop artist, has two works from his Open Ended Nude (Variable Edition), Nos. 55 and 66 in the Collection. The artist’s systemic approach to the female nude (in these works) is very different from that of a Modigliani nude. The cast sculpture by Yves Klein, Victoire de Samothrace (1962), produced in an edition of 175, with dry pigment and synthetic resin on plaster with metal and stone, implies an aura or “new realist” affect that would most likely find a cynical reception in on western shores. For Baal-Teshuva, who was introduced to the work of Klein through the critic Restany, this work holds considerable value. To understand or come to terms with this value would require researching Restany’s intimate relationship to Klein and to other members of the important “new realist’ movement in southern France in the early 1960s. On another note, it is refreshing to see works by artists not often shown in the United States, such as an early Corneille of a reclining nude. Corneille was a Dutch artist primarily known for his raucous expressionist paintings, along with Karel Appel, who were associated with the COBRA movement, also in the 1960s. Both artists are part of the Collection.

It is important to separate the Aviva and Jacob Baal-Yeshuva Collection from the more typical uniform collections that essentially reflect the maneuverings of taste through channels that emphasize conformity over originality. What keeps this Collection apart from others is the latter. From a critical perspective, the Collection should hold forth in terms of its original works. Even, if small or seemingly ephemeral, many of these works are gems. There is a rare beauty in works that hold a qualitative distinction removed from the usual glamour. This is the true benefit that this Collection offers, a reminder not so much of the past as of values in art that need to be revived in the present.

Robert C. Morgan holds both a Master of Fine Arts and a Ph.D. in art history and aesthetics. He is Professor Emeritus at the Rochester Institute of Technology and currently teaches seminars in the Graduate Fine Arts Department at Pratt Institute. He is primarily known as an art critic and is author of numerous books, hundreds of essays, and is translated in twenty languages, including books in Chinese, Farsi, and Korean. He is an artist and an exhibiting painter.

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