Schwebel's paintings depict King David and other characters from the biblical books of Samuel and Kings in the contemporary settings of Jerusalem and New York City. Paintings from Schwebel's David series are the subject of a book called David the King. These paintings will be featured in an exhibition opening on June 15, 2000, at the new Center for Jewish History in New York. interviewed with the American-Israeli artist Schwebel in December 1999.
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JHOM: Please tell us briefly about your upbringing and your life before moving to Israel.

Schwebel: I was born in West Virginia and moved to New York City at age 6, where I was raised in the Bronx. I did a stint in the US Army and worked several jobs before I entered New York University to study art history. Just before receiving my masters, I left the country, went to Europe for a year, and then ended up in Israel. That was in 1963.

JHOM: When did you start painting?

Schwebel: I've been painting since I was a GI in Japan, but the real fruit of my labors came in Israel.

JHOM: Who are your mentors?

Schwebel: My training is art history, so almost all of my mentors are long dead — hundreds of years dead: Rembrandt, Velasquez, Goya, Picasso. Also, I was befriended by abstract expressionists — Phillip Guston and the sculptor Rube Kadish. They befriended me but they left me free to be what I wanted to be. I was never and would never have become a third-generation abstract expressionist. That movement is still happening here, and certainly in Israel, but don't pay attention to it. I must admit that I'm a recluse. I'm not proud of it, but that's the way I've developed. By this time there's no way out.

JHOM: Are you a religious person?

Schwebel: You mean, Do I believe in God? I refuse to answer that. But I have a profound sense of ethics, whatever the source. What difference does it make what the source is?

JHOM: Can you tell us a little about the models you use in your paintings?

Schwebel: My studio is very isolated, in the hills of Judea, and models are not practical there, so I use photographs as models, or the mirror. I draw from photographs, but reinterpret them. I use tons of these photograph models — I have a collection of old film books, frames from movies. So the source of my models is quite vast.

Schwebel: My new Avishag is Ingrid Bergman. In my work on David and Bathsheba, I used a photograph of Marilyn Monroe. The photographs are only a stimulant — few people realize who the model is. But I actually enjoy people recognizing the faces in my paintings, though I don't think I did years ago.

JHOM: I notice that the faces of the characters of Saul and David change from painting to painting. You even used an Israeli soldier in one case.

That's a photograph by the great war photographer Robert Capa. He came to Israel for several years and photographed new immigrants. One of the paintings in David the King uses new immigrants from a Capa photograph to depict the Israeli people who demand a king from Samuel. As for the figure of David, I used to be the David in my paintings. Now I'm playing the part of Saul. I pull the mirror up to myself and I paint myself in a state of fury.

JHOM: Who plays David now?

Schwebel: Sometimes my son. I also have a little head by Nicholas Paisano and sometimes I use that for David.

JHOM: The David paintings in the upcoming exhibition combine scenes of figures from the bible with contemporary cityscapes and scenes also from the Nazi Death camps. How long have you used this style of juxtaposition?

Schwebel: I've been working on the books of Samuel, painting in this style, for 20 years. Reading the books of Samuel and seeing the powerful imagery and honest reporting, I felt there were strong parallels with the political and social scene in Israel. This body work is a sort of answer to the question, What is Israel? and more specifically, What is Jerusalem?

JHOM: How do you create these paintings?

Schwebel: The technical thing is based on a deep love for fresco, and the fact that I'm not doing fresco. So I create a ground that has a smoothness not unlike a plaster, and on that I draw an initial element-a figure or a street scene-to kick off the game.

I often don't know what is going to happen on a street. I wait until some element in the book of Samuel takes place on that street, as a kind of a natural flow. In doing this I can ensure that I don't only draw from the inside but respond to the outside world, which is very important in my work — it's a kind of anti-masturbatory act. Once the response is solid, once the force vector is laid, then I can play with my imagination. Thus does David, when he dances, have robes of great color; thus is the ark of the covenant sheer color-that's my imagination. But the background of it is Jerusalem or New York city-or, more recently, the Williamsburg bridge.

JHOM: Can you say more about where you get the inspiration for your painting?

Schwebel: We haven't talked about the social-political aspect yet. The book of Samuel has an energy that parallels all of the political troubles, some of them very negative, within the state of Israel. And that energy travels to America very easily. It's a statement of the energy of life, positive and negative, that I see. This energy works in New York, it works in Israel, and probably everywhere.

The contradictions of David certainly are very easy to reflect upon. He loves and he murders. He absolves himself of punishing his sons and is punished in return. He is a complex figure and that complexity very much reflects almost everybody's life I know. And I like that. And I like the story. I like a good story.

JHOM: What does the David figure in your work represent when he comes into these contemporary scenes?

Schwebel: He crosses oceans. Almost anybody in the modern world can identify with him. He conquers Jerusalem and brings the ark of the covenant and whirls with this mighty conquest of his. Two things are taking place, political acumen and religious fervor, all at the same time. I mean, he's saying simultaneously, 'this is a holy moment' and 'vote for me.' The bible doesn't hide this in the books of Samuel. In later books of the bible they're not interested in that. But the books of Samuel are volatile.

JHOM: Considering that the Jewish concept of the messiah involves the establishment of a Jewish homeland, what is the significance of bringing David to New York?

Schwebel: I don't think the messiah involves only the Jewish homeland. It's not limited to Israel. Israel might be a symbol for the coming of the messiah, but in an enlarged way, enlarged beyond the geographic of Israel. In the year 2000 I think Zionism, as the Israelis themselves are saying, is a passé concept that has to be restructured to fit a much larger view of the world.

JHOM: Do you feel there's any such thing as Jewish art?

There has really never been significant Jewish art per se. It has been artisans, mostly, who have done Judaica, skilled silversmiths. The painting that has been done, especially in Holland 200-300 years ago has never been different from what was going on in contemporary art at that time.

JHOM: Do you see yourself as a Jewish artist or as an artist who just happens to be Jewish?

Schwebel: I am an artist who is a Jew who feels compelled to reflect on my own existence, and that is the source of my Jewish art. But my art has no symbolic nature or codified meaning related to my Judaism.

JHOM: What direction do you think your work is taking and will take in the future?

Schwebel: I think my recent David paintings are better than the earlier ones. I think the new work has an emotional depth that the other didn't. Before, there was a clear force in the color and movement, but now the emotional content has become more significant. One element is that the paintings have become 'dirtier,' in terms of the surface effect. That is, the texture belongs more to the emotional content than it does in earlier paintings. I feel when I paint David now that we are so intimate that I can go more deeply into his emotions, or the bible's emotions, or the writer of the book of Samuel's emotions.

Recently I've begun to paint a lot of the nature elements surrounding me in the hills of Judea. And I've even left figures out of the paintings. But I've felt something was missing-a story was missing. I need a good story. Surely I'll find one, because my survival depends on it. I've painted a lot of New York paintings using the stickball figures of my youth; I've painted Houdini hanging upside down in New York City. Maybe it will be the bible. Maybe, as Everett Fox suggests, it will be Samson.

Copyright 1999 Jewish Heritage Online Magazine. Please accompany all quotes from this interview with the following: "Used permission of the Jewish Heritage Online Magazine,"

Click here for commentary about Schwebel's art and the Bible.

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