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Menashe Kadishman Photo

Menashe Kadishman - Biography and Legacy

Israeli Painter and Sculptor

Born: August 21, 1932 - Tel Aviv, Mandate Palestine (now Israel)
Died: May 8, 2015 - Tel Aviv, Israel

Biography of Menashe Kadishman


Born in Tel Aviv during the British Mandate of Palestine, Menashe Kadishman was the son of two Zionist (supporters of the state of Israel as the Jewish homeland), Bilha and Ben-Zion Kadishman. His father, who immigrated from Ukraine in the 1920s, was a member of the Jewish militia (and later the national army of Israel) and Kadishman was raised in the Zionist spirit of the growing Jewish settlement. At the same time, his home environment fostered creativity: his mother painted, and his father dabbled with sculpture.

At the age of 15 Kadishman lost his father and began working to help support his family. Despite these early familial commitments, Kadishman found time to study painting under Aharon Avni. He then studied under painter and sculptor, and founder of the modernist art group "New Horizons", Moshe Sternschuss, and later with sculptor, printmaker, and wood carver, Rudi Lehmann who was known nationally for his representation of animals.

Early Training and Work

Menashe Kadishman pictured in 1954

In 1950, Kadishman joined the Nahal infantry brigade, a division of the Israeli Defense Force that combined military service with the building of agricultural settlements. As part of his service, he worked for several years as a shepherd in Kibbutz Maayan Baruch and Kibbutz Yizre'el, both on Israel's northern border with Lebanon and Syria. Working as a shepherd, Kadishman came to appreciate the unique characteristics of the local landscape while his time spent living with the herds left such an impact on him it would shape his artistic vision.

By the end of the 1950s, Kadishman decided to complete his training abroad. His chosen destination was England, the home of sculptor Henry Moore, perhaps his greatest influences. On the advice of friend and artist Buky Schwartz, Kadishman enrolled at London's St Martin's School of Arts where he studied between 1959-61. There, he came under the influence of Anthony Caro, leader of the so-called New Generation of British sculptors. As the Israeli author and scholar Gideon Ofrat wrote, Kadishman "began his journey as a sculptor at the end of the 1950s with rough stone sculptures of "altars" [which were] inspired by his work on the archaeological excavations at Tel-Hazor in the Galilee [and] fashioned the altar through the abstract-geometric language he absorbed in the classes of Anthony Caro". In 1962 Kadishman moved to the Slade School of Art, where he was taught by a second prominent English sculptor, Reg Butler.

Although Kadishman was respected and admired by his peers, he struggled as a foreign artist in Britain. Without a British passport, he was not eligible for many official exhibitions, and often felt alienated within his own artistic circles. Still, he gradually built his reputation, and in 1965 held his first solo show at the Grosvenor Gallery in London. As art critic Dalia Manor noted, the curator of the Grosvenor Gallery "Charles S Spencer preferred to link his work to the artist's native land, Israel 'with its harsh, linear landscape, vast deserts (sic!), bare mountain ranges' and to his 'Hebraic attitude'". While in London, Kadishman met Tamara Alferoff, a British psychoanalyst. The pair married in 1965, and subsequently had two children, Ben and Maya. In 1967 Kadishman gained international recognition when he won the first prize for sculpture at the 5th Paris Biennale for young artists and in 1968 when he participated in Documenta 4 in Kassel, Germany.

Kadishman's sixties sculptures were Minimalist in style. They were large structures, composed of geometrical shapes, that appeared to defy gravity. He also gained recognition for combining unexpected materials such as metal and glass in sculptures such as Segments (1969).

Mature Period

At the turn of the 1960s - 1970s, Kadishman travelled to South and North America where he explored the relationship between art and nature. He first worked with trees during the international Sculpture Symposium in Montevideo. The setting was a forest, which led the artist to reassess his whole approach to art. Instead of using the sculpture he had brought to the site, Kadishman nailed yellow steel plates to the forest trees, creating a contrast between the organic and the industrial: "I wanted to work with the forest God had created, the organic forest, and to fit into it a mechanical forest, a man-made forest containing forms that would be a contrast to nature", he said. He was to further develop this Land Art experiment during his stay in New York.

By the time he arrived in New York he was recognized as a rising figure within Land Art movement, and he made friends of Robert Rauschenberg, Andy Warhol, and Christo. As art historian Amnon Barzel says of his Central Park, New York: "The organic forms, the eucalyptus trees and the man-made angular technological forms, intermingled to define 'an artistic space' within the given space of nature. The straight-angled metal plates painted in industrially pigmented yellow seemed as if they had come out of a Mondrian painting in order to hover in three dimensions within the colors of nature".

In 1972, with his international standing on the rise, Kadishman unexpectedly decided to return to Israel (prompted perhaps by the breakdown of his marriage). During this period, he focused on monumental sculpture and public art, which allowed him to explore his fascination more fully with art and nature. He first developed an environmental series called The Forest through which he produced different sculptures of trees and tree silhouettes.

<i>Suspended</i> (1977) at the Storm King Art Center, New York. Kadishman's eye-catching, gravity-defying, geometric shapes are wrapped in a rusted steel patina.

In the mid-1970s he produced his Suspended sculptures. These massive steel-wrapped structures were placed on adjacent hilltops. With no visible evidence of how the "floating" sculptures were made, Kadishman was encouraging his viewer to contemplate the relationship between engineering and nature and what natural forces might exist directly beneath the earth's surface.

In 1978, Kadishman represented Israel at the Venice Biennale, with the exhibition Sheep Project: Nature as Art and Art as Nature. Inspired by his days as a shepherd, Kadishman mediated between art and nature, acting as an artist-cum-shepherd. The Israeli Pavilion was transformed into a wooden pen populated by a flock of live sheep (that Kadishman bought in an Italian town north of Venice). He marked the sheep with patches of blue color like those used to mark ownership. By roaming around the pen, the sheep transformed into "living art", as the blue spots formed different abstract shapes. Kadishman said that he wanted his audience to feel the "visceral" experience of nature: "I want my work to exercise all the senses. Even those abandoned by art. Smell, sounds, touch. Now, in Venice, in the pavilion populated with sheep that move, chew and dung - the spectator exercises all his senses, because I demonstrate a segment of real life".

Kadishman in 1979

The Biennale was a pivotal event in Kadishman's artistic development, leading him to explore new mediums and themes. And the documentary photographs from his performance in Venice inspired him to experiment with color. Initially, Kadishman painted on the photographs to create prints, before transitioning to painting portraits of sheep. His sheep paintings came in many variations: sheep heads reminiscent of traditional portraits, sheep heads inspired by Andy Warhol's Pop Art portraits, large compositions of herds and paintings of shepherds tending to sheep. The sheep will become his ultimate trademark, reproduced in endless variations in both sculpture and painting. At the same time, he was criticized for using sheep as a kind of gimmick. Kadishman rejected this accusation claiming that painting sheep was a liberating experience, and the sheep was a symbol of great personal significance to him.

A decade after his return to Israel, Kadishman experienced a profound personal crisis. In 1982 he lost his beloved mother Bilha, underwent major stomach surgery, and witnessed the breakout of the First Lebanon War with his son, Ben, enlisted to the Israeli Defense Forces. Grappling with his personal difficulties, and the political reality of life at home, Kadishman began to frame the history of Israel around the concept of sacrifice (although thankfully Ben returned home unharmed). This process of self-reflection resulted in a series of works dedicated to the biblical story of the Binding of Isaac. According to the narative, God tested Abraham's faith by commanding him to sacrifice his beloved son Isaac. Because Abraham obeyed, Isaac was spared, and a ram was sacrificed in his place.

Kadishman personally related to the story and identified with the character of Abraham by equating the biblical sacrifice with the sacrifice of sending his own son to war: "The sacrifice of Isaac is not an abstract symbol for me. It is a part and parcel of my own biography and that of my generation, and it may be the biography of my children after me". Kadishman transformed the epic story by viewing it in secular terms, in his version Isaac is not spared and the ram remains a victorious and imposing presence. He initially developed his conception through drawings and paintings, before moving to monumental sculptures. Some versions of the sacrifice included the sheep, which the artist "connected metaphorically to soldiers who fell in wars".

Towards the end of the 1980s, Kadishman produced his Birth series. The series introduced the figure of the "Great Mother"; a woman who comes to symbolize the giving and taking of life and the universal principle of sacrifice. As Kadishman's website describes it: "In his unique treatment of this subject, the artist accords Sarah [Abraham's wife and mother of Isaac], a role of no less importance than of the father Abraham in the intended sacrifice of the son, Isaac. Sarah becomes a modem image of the mother of the fallen Israeli soldier - of all soldiers in all Wars". Similar themes of sacrifice are addressed in works like Pieta (1985), where the protagonist finds no salvation, and Prometheus (1986-87), which questions the value of heroic sacrifice altogether. At the center of all these artworks is Kadishman's humanist message. It is true that his work is centered around the Israeli experience, but it still relates to broader concepts of human existence and the self-destructive tendencies of humankind in general.

Late Period

In 1990 Kadishman received the highest national honor when he was awarded Israel's Dizengoff Prize for sculpture. As he moved into the period of his late career, he continued with some of his existing preoccupations while also expanding his repertoire. Other animals (apart from sheep) like birds, horses and donkeys became a part of his visual lexicon. Meanwhile, one of his most ambitious and well-known projects was the Shoah memorial installation Shalechet (Fallen Leaves) (1997-2001) which was housed at the Jewish Berlin Museum. Artistically, Kadishman also remained true to his fascination with nature and the local environment.

Over the years, the artistic community and the public came to know Kadishman as a vibrant, inviting, and generous individual. His studio in Tel Aviv was always welcoming of colleagues, family, and friends who would often drop by to chat and watch the artist at work. He remained prolific up until his death. Kadishman passed away on May 8, 2015 and was buried in the Kiryat Shaul cemetery in northern Tel-Aviv.

The Legacy of Menashe Kadishman

<i>Pieta</i> in Braunschweig, Germany

With artists Reuven Rubin and Mordecai Ardon, Kadishman ranks as one of Israel's greatest artistic pioneers. He has left a rich and diverse body of work that includes thousands of sculptures, paintings, and drawings, not to mention dozens of illustrated books. Kadishman's most important art is concerned with the natural and urban landscape and the idea of the collective memories and histories of the people of Israel. Several museums, universities, hospitals, parks, and streets throughout the country are adorned with Kadishman's work. The potency of his art was underlined when a newly installed sculpture, Birth (1990), placed in Ramat Gan National Park, was the center of a 2016 national news story when young orthodox women flocked to the sculpture believing it had the power to bestow fertility.

But although he was widely adored by the Israeli public and the Tel Aviv art establishment, Kadishman conceded in an interview with The Forward magazine that his move back to Israel (from New York) probably limited the reach of his fame. He said: "My mistake, if you can call it that, was to come back to Israel. It was [American sculptor] George Segal who told me if I had stayed in New York, I could have become one of the great American artists [but] I really have nothing to kvetch about. When I lived in Chelsea [in the 1970s], I would walk down 23rd Street and maybe get a nod or two. But here in Israel, when I stroll down Dizengoff Street [in Tel Aviv], I'm treated just like an Old Master". One might add that in the gift shops and galleries of Israel, tourists from around the world can take home a piece of Kadishman's art with his colorful sheep reproduced on everything from posters to calendars, to mugs, to computer mousepads.

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Content compiled and written by Naomi Kojen

Edited and published by The Art Story Contributors

"Menashe Kadishman Artist Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. . TheArtStory.org
Content compiled and written by Naomi Kojen
Edited and published by The Art Story Contributors
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First published on 14 Nov 2021. Updated and modified regularly
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