When artist Sharon Lockhart traveled to Israel in 2008, she wasn’t searching for Noa Eshkol. The Israeli dance composer and textile artist was not well-known outside her own country. In fact, Eshkol isn’t terribly well-known within Israel, where companies like Batsheva, Inbal, Bat Dor and the Israel Ballet hold far more cachet than Eshkol’s humble troupe. Lockhart came across Eshkol’s work on her journey, and now she’s brought the art of this somewhat obscure but undeniably brilliant, late choreographer to Los Angeles in a new collaborative exhibition at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA).
The curators behind the Lockhart-Eshkol collaboration are Stephanie Barron, LACMA’s chief curator of modern and contemporary art, and Britt Salvesen, the museum’s curator of photography. “Sharon is a Los Angeles artist who the museum has long been interested in, both in terms of acquiring work and showing work,” Barron said in a recent interview with the two curators at Barron’s office. “And this was an opportunity to show, for the first time in the U.S., a new body of work which was created in Israel.”
Surprisingly, this is also the first collaboration between LACMA and the Israel Museum, where Lockhart and Eshkol’s exhibition was shown last year. “We share an interesting history in that both institutions ... opened within a month of each other in 1965,” Barron said. “We’re both encyclopedic institutions; we often share some significant donors ... so it’s a really nice opportunity for us to collaborate.”
As curator of photography, Salvesen was intimately familiar with Lockhart’s work. Lockhart, known for both her films and her still photography, has had solo exhibitions at the Walker Art Center; the Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art in Kansas City, Mo.; and Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art, among others, and her work has been seen locally at MOCA and the Hammer Museum. Lockhart is known for her ability to infiltrate closed communities and provide an up-close look at their culture. Eshkol, who was born in 1924 and died in 2007, was best-known as a co-creator of the Eshkol-Wachman Movement Notation (EWMN) system, a system that attempted to define the motion of limbs around their joints, and her choreography was rooted in this systemic approach. The installation at LACMA includes Lockhart’s films of Eshkol’s dancers performing the work, as well as other archival materials.
In exploring Eshkol’s work, Lockhart conducted lengthy interviews with many of Eshkol’s former dancers, who remain devoted to their leader.
“The idea of an artist as a historian of sorts was also interesting to us,” Salvesen said. Barron added: “This was really the first time that Sharon, in a certain respect, was collaborating with an artist that was no longer alive.”
At a press preview for the exhibition, Lockhart said Eshkol “had a very strong opinion and saw things her way” and admitted that she might not have approved of this show, were she still alive.
But the luxury of Eshkol’s approval was not something available to Lockhart, as she told LACMA’s Sabine Eckmann in an interview that appears in the exhibition’s catalog. “I was trying to be as true to her process as I could. I recognize that I was drawn to her by historical precedents with which I identified ... but that the work would function only if I could surpass that history and create something really new.
“My association with Eshkol seemed so natural and personal when I was introduced to her production,” Lockhart continued. “I immediately felt a connection, and it was only later that I came to know the distinction between her creations and those of her collaborators. Bringing up the question of memory and the imagination seems appropriate, because in truth that’s the only way I will ever know her.”
How much one truly knows Eshkol after viewing the exhibition is questionable. Her dancers gesticulate on screen for Lockhart’s cameras, her drawings and notations fill displays, and photos of her works line the walls. She resides like a phantom within the body of her materials, but a full portrait of her remains elusive.
It’s hardly surprising that the woman herself comes into such little focus, considering Eshkol’s company didn’t even perform publicly for much of her later years. The only posters for shows included at LACMA date from the 1950s. This was not a woman who revealed much of herself to the world.
Lockhart stressed that “it was important to me that it was considered a two-person show, with two female artists,” yet it is Lockhart, along with Eshkol’s dancers, who has pulled the earlier artist into the spotlight for a round of perhaps unwanted applause.
All that said, the work, particularly some dazzling wall carpets designed by Eshkol and her dancers, is stunning. And, as Salvesen points out, “Not only did Sharon want to bring to light someone whom she felt was under-recognized as an innovator in modern dance, but to do so in such a way that she points out how this kind of simplicity and purism are radical. ... I think she recognized Eshkol as a kind of kindred spirit.”
For her part, Barron sees in the work a new horizon in the art world. “The expansion of dance within contemporary visual art is increasing,” she said. “The Whitney Biennial, which just closed, had on the top floor a space devoted 100 percent to a sequence of different dance performances. ... It’s a kind of zeitgest.”
Sharon Lockhart | Noa Eshkol is on display on the second floor of LACMA’s Broad Contemporary Art Museum through Sept. 9. For more information, visit lacma.org.