Ilana Goor Museum, Old Jaffa

In the rooftop sculpture garden of the Ilana Goor Museum in Old Jaffa, Israel, crows and doves—sometimes even a pelican or a hawk—perch alongside their bronze counterparts, looking out over the spectacular, deep-blue panorama of the Mediterranean. The juxtaposition is not accidental. The museum merges life and art organically, embodying the philosophy of the internationally renowned 76-year-old Israeli sculptor, designer and art collector who also makes her private home in part of the museum.

Even among artists known for their free spirits, Goor stands out as an innovative, out-of-the-box presence—the native birds an apt symbol of her unfettered creative imagination. The museum, open to the public since 1995, displays over 500 pieces—both Goor’s own bold furniture, jewelry and sculpture as well as her eclectic yet harmonious art collection ranging from Egyptian antiques and found objects to the paintings of young, contemporary Israeli artists she likes to take under her wing. An artistic, architectural and cultural experience rolled into one, the museum is now a top tourist destination in the Tel Aviv area. Naámat named her best woman artist of the year in 1984.

“I teach people not to be afraid. Don’t just copy other people. Learn how to display things in your own home. Think for yourself what you like,” says Goor.  “Good art is anything that moves you and that you don’t get tired of.”

Enter the 18th-century stone building in the heart of Jaffa’s artists’ quarter, and Goor’s esthetic vision becomes immediately apparent.  Photos of the ramshackle, deserted structure as she found it in the late 1970s greet visitors in the foyer. Once an inn for Jewish pilgrims on their way to Jerusalem, then an olive-oil soap factory, a synagogue for Libyan Jews, housing for Balkan immigrants and even a private Arab home, it was abandoned for 30 years. Goor bought part of the building in 1983 as a private residence; she had no idea of its history. As her art collection grew, she decided to open a museum and showroom, a hands-on lesson in art and craft, and purchased the rest of the building. The initial renovation took three years, during which she uncovered its story.

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The museum’s sole curator, Goor chose and hung every piece herself, creating a palpable energy by placing old and new side by side. An antique Middle Eastern door with separate lower and upper entrances for walkers and those who rode animals reaches almost to the ceiling; she balanced the empty space at the top with a web of whimsical, dangling spiders, a few furry ones straight from Ikea. Goor purchased and transported a tile floor from a Catholic school in Bethlehem in order to preserve the building’s authentic character (she sent them new tiles). In the main atrium that fans out around the core of the museum, she added light bulbs alongside candles in a magnificent Islamic chandelier of blue glass tubes etched with verses from the Koran. Round skylights in the ceiling let in natural light and to get to upper floors, visitors can choose between an elevator and a staircase with a bird-decorated iron banister. No glass walls or display cases separate viewers from the art.

“Who would do such a thing except for somebody like me? Somebody with the talent, success, vision and money,” Goor declares unabashedly in an interview after a museum tour, her strong, no-nonsense approach front and center. “And more than that, I do everything myself and I stick to it, every day.” Even with a staff of 17, she doesn’t overlook a thing, reminding an Arab handyman to water the plants. “Every place I live is my sculpture. Every handle, every screw here—it all has my touch. It’s a living museum. I live inside my art. When I’m not here it looks like the soul is missing.”

Her own creations embody simplicity, power and originality. “I love to make something from nothing,” says Goor, who softens and bends crude, strong and rough materials like iron and bronze. “I conquer the material. That’s why I like furniture.” Anything that’s functional is exciting because it doesn’t just collect dust, she says. “I like things that I use. It’s not that a statue is art and a table isn’t.” In 1984, Goor received the prestigious Roscoe Design Award for a rocking chair of leather and curved iron that looks light enough to fly. “I got the idea one morning in New York,” she recalls. “I saw a broken sled thrown on the snow.” The chair is displayed in the Design Room, which features a Goor series of limited-edition contemporary furniture and lighting items both artistic and functional as well as pieces by international designers Frank Gehry, Ingo Maurer, Gerrit Rietveld and Ron Arad.  Goor continuously plays with movement and material, mixing unlikely combinations of wood, fur, metal, plexiglass, leather and fabric.

Born in Tiberias to a Zionist family, Goor lives part-time in Jaffa and part-time in Manhattan (her husband of 55 years, Lenny Lowengrub, is an American businessman who owns the Theatre Refreshments Company of NYC).  But, she emphasizes, “for me Israel is always home. I’m blue and white through and through.”  Three large major works made of rusty tools and old plows, part of Goor’s “Earth” series (exhibited in a show called “Hybrids” at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art in 2006) reflect her connection to the land of Israel. In “The Crown of the Earth,” one of the plows is covered in 22-carat gold leaf and suspended above the harsh metal that Goor has twisted to resemble softer balls of twine, glorifying the earth and the Israel she remembers from her youth.

“The main theme of my work is life. I work parallel to life. This is actually what art is. I’m not competing with life because I can’t paint a tree as beautiful as it is in real life so I go parallel to it in my own eyes.”

“Ilana has no limits but her own,” says Sophia Dekel Caspi, who curated the “Hybrids” show. “She has formed her own language by crossing traditional sculpting materials such as bronze, wood and gold alongside modern materials such as iron, glass and Plexiglas. Her preference and skill at interweaving seemingly incompatible objects is what makes her art so unexpected.”

The atrium features works by other well-known Israeli artists that intersect with some of the “Earth” themes: Yaakov Agam’s gold-coated kinetic sculpture of metal pipes (“Untitled”); Uri Lifshitz’s portrait of Golda Meir—Israel’s earth mother—immediately recognizable though the view is of her back, and Menashe Kadishman’s hybrid sculpture-painting of Goor crossed with a sheep redolent of Israel, iron filaments for hair, spots of color for eyes, and a paintbrush in her right hand.  Goor enjoys how artists see her, and several other portraits of her grace the museum.

Interestingly, Goor is far from the stereotypical flock-follower. “I do what I want,” she says in a documentary about her titled “Out of the Box.” “Ï do everything for myself, for my personal pleasure,” she says. One of her joys is driving a Rolls Royce in Manhattan, its basic, classy shape a delight to her eye. Another is collecting shoes—not spiky Imelda Marcos heels, but “men’s shoes for women” and the short boots she wears summer or winter.  She turns over a Ralph Lauren alligator shoe from the hundreds in her closet. “For me it’s like art,” she says.

Goor’s appearance is as unconventional as her art. She dresses in men’s clothing—comfortable, hand-tailored pants and shirts—her gray hair loose and cascading around her chiseled face, her eyes shielded by round sunglasses. She is respectful, almost reverent, about material, caressing the cottons, linens and silks on the bolt when she chooses them at a designer’s studio. She wears many of her own designs, including a massive gold bracelet embellished with a goat (all the animals she depicts are native to Israel), a leather bracelet with a gold bullet (“we are in war forever and I was born in a war”), and a leather belt with a large metal buckle. “I make things I can’t find, and I don’t like to change,” she explains. “I’ve been wearing this gold bracelet since 1987.” In fact, one of Goor’s first commercial successes grew from a simple, unisex belt buckle she designed for her husband. A Bloomingdales representative spotted him wearing it and asked her to design a line of belts. She sold millions of dollars worth in thousands of upscale shops.

“Ilana is a fearless artist with an innate sense of creativity… Everything [she] designs is an object of desire,” says the designer Donna Karan, a friend who owns some of Goor’s work. “I met her art first, before I met her, and that’s where you see a person.”

Goor’s art inhabits every room in the museum, living side by side with collections from her curiosity-fueled travels around the globe for the past 50 years (the only countries she has not visited are Australia and New Zealand). Each room has its own atmosphere, based on its theme. Off the Atrium, the Monk’s Room shocks with a powerful, disturbing work called “The Morning After” that dominates the room.  Two 300-year-old monks’ tables that Goor found in a monastery in Greece teem with huge bronze cockroaches, ants, insects, reptiles and birds preying on dried skulls and other deteriorating human parts, climbing over utensils and over each other to gnaw at leftover food.  “It’s about the circle of life,” says tour manager Mimi Wiener Mishor. “There was a dinner here, and the people ate the animals. After the people died the animals came to eat the remains of the people.” The turmoil is punctured by table lamps crafted from painted hookahs that burst in lively color.

The African Space, dedicated to tribal ritual and function as art, features childbearing beds, a chief’s throne made of 3000 beads, ceremonial tools and food bowls, masks, statues and utensils of carved wood, raffia, ropes, beads, shells and fruit peels. The connection to Goor’s earth-centric work is obvious, especially when “Humble Bird,” one of her own sculptures made from African hoes and Israeli plows, stands in the midst of the collection. Next door to the African Space, a working kitchen holds a modern stainless fridge, copper pots, old tools, pans from Morocco, samovars from Russia, and oversized bowls from China.

The Christianity Room, filled with olive-wood crucifixes and statuettes, expresses Goor’s respect for other religions. Again, one of her works fits in organically. “Jewish Cross” ingeniously turns a menorah upside down, its branches like roots, its trunk sprouting upward into a crucifix festooned with birds. Jesus is at the very top. Roots of a different variety spread out in the Miniatures Room, which holds small statuettes by Deigo Giacometti, Henry Moore and other artists. Surrounding niches hold jugs—perhaps wombs or burial urns—cracked open by emerging, deformed heads. This is Goor’s “Roots” series. “People try to escape the pots but they are stuck there,” Goor explains.  “All my life I’ve been completely attached to Israel. It takes a few generations to leave your roots.”

Part of the museum’s charm stems from its character, which Goor has chosen to preserve and display as a piece of art itself.  A lacy amphorae ceiling made of ancient clay pitchers vaults beehive-like over the Miniatures Room. In 2010, the cement ceiling began to peel and, during its repair, workers uncovered the amphorae concealed below. The pitchers impressed into the cement not only support the weight of the massive ceiling but also insulate the room from heat and cold since hot or cold air remains inside the pitchers. A similar ceiling was discovered in the kitchen. In the basement, where the museum shop is located, an old limestone oven recalls the production of olive-oil soap and perfume.

Goor loves living side by side with Jaffa’s Arab residents.  “I wouldn’t live anywhere else,” she says, noting that she had Arab nanny. “They are wonderful people. The problem is their leaders. Our group of nuts is any better? Why can’t we live and let live? When they come to me with their problems I help as much as I can.” She describes herself as a good friend to others. “If you can’t share your success, it doesn’t mean anything.”

Arched windows and doorways emphasize the building’s Middle Eastern ambience. The Lattice Space, which displays works that indirectly comment on women and gender, was originally a peeping area for Muslim women who were not allowed to wander the streets freely. They looked out through small lattice windows on the alleyways below for entertainment and communication.  In Goor’s “Seating Set,” bronze cats and birds lounge on and around a table and chairs–perhaps amusements for Western women as the view from the balcony amused Oriental women. “Both the women and the pets were locked inside the house instead of being real and wild in nature,” Mishor offers her interpretation. A chandelier designed in the shape of an open birdcage enables the birds to come and go as they please, to fly, wander away and return if they choose.

Despite the themes of freedom in her work and her own fierce personal independence, Goor vehemently objects to being called a feminist. “If you’re talented—man or woman—you float on top,” she declares, describing herself as a good wife and good mother to two sons—Kenny, an entrepreneur who lives in NY and works in China; Ashley, a jewelry designer and distributor who lives in Los Angeles, and two boxers, Beauty and Joe Joe, whose unconditional love she cherishes. “I’m a regular housewife. I cook and keep a house and I’m not embarrassed. Feminist I’m not.”

Goor comes by her empowerment honestly: her mother, Dr. Rachel Raya Sapir-Goor, the first gynecologist in Tiberias, represents the epitome of the strong, self-made woman. In the 1930s, Tiberias was the French Riviera of Israel, says Goor, and the family lived in a “fantastic Bauhaus building” overlooking the Sea of Galilee. Her mother not only traveled all over the Galilee delivering babies, but also visited her native Switzerland twice a year to buy shoes and clothes, and special-ordered Bauhaus furniture.  Goor has inherited her mother’s innate taste that she has paired with a disregard for conventionality. A hospital operating lamp—a Salvation Army purchase—fits right into her private living room, alongside a glass-topped table with pull-out drawers that she crafted and sofas of iron and wood covered with Kilim rugs. “My mother used to operate so for her the lamp belonged in a hospital. For me it looks terrific in my place.”

Sapir-Goor died of cancer when her daughter was 11.  “My whole world fell down,” Goor says. “Mother Ship,” a sculpture of a sailboat in the Tiberias harbor promenade, honors her mother’s memory.  “Woman Against the Wind,” a dynamic bronze angel representing freedom, faces the Mediterranean in Tel Aviv. “My mother did what she wanted, and I’m doing what I want,” she repeats. “But I see that for other women you have to fight against the wind to win the wind.”

In the library on the museum’s second floor, a gilded 17th-century Austro-Hungarian sofa is encrusted with a symbol of Lady Godiva, another woman who fought the wind, protesting her husband’s unfair tax levy in a dramatic and outspoken way.  The intimate space brings the rest of the Goor family to life. Set up as a European living room, it is dedicated to Goor’s grandfather, Dr. Yosef Sapir, a gynecologist, artist and ardent Zionist (he made aliyah in 1925 from Odessa and distributed Zionist literature throughout the world). Goor has preserved his paintings and sculptures, including bronzes of one-handed Zionist hero, fighter and pioneer Josef Trumpeldor; Zionist leader Menachem Ussishkin, and Sapir’s wife Matilda, a concert pianist who played for the Czar.

Two chairs that belonged to the Goors hang sideways above family portraits and below the ceiling, perhaps symbolic of the skewed world Goor found herself in after her mother’s death. Her father, Andre, found it difficult to raise two children alone, so he left to study in the U.S., became a hydraulic engineer and a professor at Johns Hopkins. Goor was raised in a kibbutz with her brother Danny, today a top cardiac surgeon, and later lived with other relatives. Her dyslexia prevented her from going to school. “I had no framework, nothing, but I did all right—much better than most people. I directed my life,” says Goor. “I believe in following 100 percent your ideas. Everybody has a dream but if you don’t bring it to reality it’s like smoking marijuana. You lose yourself.”

She doesn’t complain much—not even about two painful knee replacements she endured a year ago. Being an 11-year-old without parents taught her how to handle life and unexpected tragedy, she says. I had a son who died when he was less than a year old,” she recounts in “Out of the Box,” wiping away tears. “I can’t talk about him. Kara mah shekara [what happened, happened]. It’s part of life, a blurry memory. It’s always like a wound you try to suppress.”  Time heals, she says. “It teaches us how to get over anything. Life isn’t all about blossoming.”

But Goor did blossom as an artist. She started sewing as a child on a neighbor’s machine. She made toys, slingshots and wooden dolls dressed in pieces of burlap, and laid out her own camping home in her backyard. “I didn’t know anything else. I was always by myself. People belonged to youth groups. Not me. I was always happy alone, busy with my own thoughts and ideas. In a group you can’t create. But I always had lots of people around me. Kids were fascinated with me because I made toys and other things.” She was also a champion swimmer.  “It was a different life,” she says.

The walls of the museum shop and her apartment are papered with photographic collages from her childhood until today, and capture moments with politicians like Shimon Peres and Bill Clinton and celebrities like Michael Jackson, Diana Ross and the Dalai Lama. “The photos remind me of what I went through,” she says. (You can see some on her website, www.ilanagoor.com)

Except for a few months at Bezalel School of Art in Jerusalem, Goor never studied art or design formally. Since her first one-woman exhibition at the California Museum of Science and Industry in Los Angeles, 1972 (she lived in LA for 20 years until she moved to New York in 1981), her art has been exhibited in numerous museums and is installed in public areas in Israel and abroad. “Never Again,” her first large sculpture, is on display outside Yad Vashem. A huge, robust woman looks ahead, carrying the shoes of the dead in her open hands. The place where her face should be resembles a chimney. “I wanted to make something optimistic. This woman, very proud, walks out of the Holocaust with her memory, but she is moving towards a new future. She represents the Jewish people.”

An eagle in the Herzliya marina is one of her favorite works; the “lion of birds” straddles two concrete columns, a standing sentinel looking down on the observer with sadness in its eyes. Not everything she creates is serious. Smiling Whale, a sculpture near the museum, depicts a cheery bronze rubber-ducky whale, appropriate for the port of Jaffa where the prophet Jonah boarded a ship to try to escape his mission. “The only thing that smiles in Israel is my whale,” she jokes caustically. The museum, she says, is her best sculpture of all.

Goor admires artists like Moore and Francis Bacon for their guts and revolutionary ideas—but doesn’t try to emulate them. Disappointed by the commercialized art scene today, she has stopped attending shows and openings. “People are copying each other. I feel like I have seen everything before.” She does enjoy the work of contemporary South African artist Marlene Dumas (“Her pictures are all alive”) and continues to mentor and support younger artists by purchasing their works and arranging shows for them.

Goor does not have a studio. At one time, she intended to build one in the garage of her East Side Manhattan home, a former four-story carriage house that she expanded to six floors, but she found she could only work in Israel. She collaborates extensively with the Jaffa-based craftsmen and welders who execute her designs—all of which are for sale.  “I don’t start with a finished design. It comes as I work.”  The process is almost intuitive, and she experiments until she gets it right. Once a chair is finished, she takes it home and lives with it a month. If it’s not perfect, she returns to the craftsman’s shop. “When I start I don’t know which direction I’m going in, and when done the piece it moves me, but not forever. You have to go from one project to the next. The excitement is in the doing.” An upcoming furniture show is scheduled for the Punta della Dogana, Venice’s modern art museum.

She reacts with incredulity when asked if she has other hobbies. “You’re kidding me. How much can a person do? My life is my hobby. My goal is to continue to create, and to create better.”

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