joshua neustein texts
Bertha Is Dead
Bertha Urdang was Joshua Neustein's dealer for thirty years and was involved in the development and dissemination of his work. This text was written and published by the artist in Studio Magazine, Tel Aviv, August 16, 2001.

The Legs feel more like logs arranged for fire. Bertha Urdang died yesterday Feb 22 in the midst of conversation in the Bialik Street Bet Hakerem apartment gallery. I received a phone call from Rina Sugarman and then spoke to Miri Urdang Laufer, her daughters. "Bertha will be buried in Sanhedria on Sunday". An eerie sequence of events followed. Almost immediately, for the rest of the afternoon and evening thousands of miles away and totally unconnected to Bertha's death, except the way it reflected my view and mental state, a soft, constant snow fell. I watched it out of my studio window on Howard Street in Soho, N.Y. The world went minimal, just the way Bertha liked her art. In the white powder, nearly a foot deep, silhouetted pedestrians search for solid footing, that winter gait, the way they search the ground and amble cautiously on the covered sidewalks. In the thirty five years that she dealt with my art and was my friend, I wanted to kill her at least 20 times. In the years of my dialogue arguments & reconciliation with her, ideas were always more important than credibility. I witnessed soaring wonders, a fierce attack on the commonplace, I witnessed some of the most devastating destructions left in the wake of her passion. She was the mad hatter that brought Israeli art to the world forum, who made a pact with her vocation, she would "labor for Israeli art, not if it is as good as, but only if it is better than done anywhere in the world". She pronounced and lived this dictum in a fever pitch. She battled for the art, against kitsch and against folklore. She battled daemons, her perceived enemies and who she thought might be potential traitors. She never apologized or doubted the art she represented. She had so much energy it seemed unnatural that it could be extinguished and contained in a coffin.

The unforgettable presence which in a sense lingers on in the shape of a hundred anecdotes from the lips of friends and foes alike. I was both -a necessary impediment, and one of her 'causes' -one of the artists she "owned" and when Bertha owned, you were a conquered province. She also adored and worshipped and her greatest commitment was to create something grand, something universal for Israeli culture.

She was a ...mixture of the 'English lady, polite, defensive and the pioneer, always ready for a spat, like a cat with a permanently arched back... When a dinner invitation wasn't as forthcoming as she felt it should be Bertha exploded and abruptly became the lonely war widow who'd sacrificed everything for her nation, her people, ideals and who nobody cared about...She thought everyone should share her awe and dedication to art and had no patience with people who didn't quite measure up. Berated those who came to her gallery with what she perceived as the wrong attitude and informed them that "she wasn't selling vegetables" and they might lower their voices and open their eyes and minds.

Bertha Urdang was born in England at an undisclosed date at the beginning of the 20th Century. She went to school at North London Collegiate and grew up as a Fabian socialist and a Zionist, which at that time was not contradictory. She studied at the University of Manchester and the Sorbonne. She came to Israel, married, and settled in Bet Hakerem, a peripheral neighborhood of Jerusalem.

In 1948, her husband died, leaving her a widow, the mother of three daughters, Rina, Daphna, and Miri. She plunged into, the promotion of Israeli art. Bertha's art dealings, exploits and failures reached folklore proportions. "Rina" was the name of her first gallery on Shlom Zion Hamalka Street, near the Central Post Office in Jerusalem, which she managed with a partner, and took two months a year to go to America to spread the word and sell the work. In 1966 she separated from her partner over an ideological difference: "He loved money, I loved art," is how she summed it up.

She moved her art activity to her own home in Bet Hakerem where she mounted annual "Collector's Choice" group shows. In those days, Jerusalem was the center of Israeli art, and Tel Avivis would come to her gallery to see what was happening on the scene. Her exhibitions were not so much innovative as an extraordinary taste and quality. In the Duveen tradition Bertha's Michael Gross or Zaritzki was better than anyone else's Gross or Zaritzki. A studio visit from her was an existential experience. She gave me my first solo show in Israel. From then on, she "owned" me, when I worked with other people she considered it a violation of a fundamental ethic. The energy in the gallery was always at a crescendo. Bertha had her favorites; Oh my God, did she have favorites, and she played the artists and the collectors off each other. Bertha understood jealousy: she shaped it, she cultivated it, and she suffered from it. She knew it was an irresistible force of human nature. In the early late 50's early 60's, she was battling to include Arie Aroch in the first Israeli exhibition at the MoMA. He was a marginal choice at the time. Later, she fought with the same ferocity for Ullmann, Pinhas CohenGan, Beni Efrat, Gitlin, Margalit Mannor, Tevet, Gross, and Kupferman.

In 1972 she opened a New York Branch of her gallery across the street from the Whitney Museum and that became her residence and show place for twenty years. She negotiated museum exhibitions, 'read' her artists paintings into American collections, and promoted drawing and photographs on the world arena. For her, Israeli abstraction was unlike any work done by artists from other countries, because Israeli abstraction did not develop from a synthesis of figuration, but from the fact of a non-imagistic God - it did not matter whether the facts did not corroborate the theory. But no-where was minimalism more of a presence than in her vision. Her aesthetic - no, it was not an aesthetic, it was absolutely, unqualifiedly, a religion - was abstraction. She occasionally showed non -Israeli artists like Tuttle, Joel Shapiro, Heidi Glück , Gerry Marx, Zeinstra, Jeremy Gilbert Rolfe.

Her passion for art steamrolled over decency, manners, reason. She desperately wanted Israeli minimalists to succeed in the world at large, because that aesthetic would truly resonate the heroic values. "It's the only art without sentiments, and corroborates the Invisible God" she would say. It was an charismatic all consuming life: That was her path of blood and guts mind. Art was her first testament. "The day I stop loving art will be the day I close my eyes and die."