Chagall Torahs and Lichtenstein prints brighten Tel Aviv

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In the spacious entrance hall of the Tel Aviv Museum of Art, visitors are admiring the unusual wall sculpture by Yaacov Agam.

When they stand to one side, they see an entirely different design of small, intricate colors.

And when it's viewed from the center, "Pace of Time" changes into yet another pattern of shapes and colors.

This ingenious work is just one highlight of the Tel Aviv Museum of Art. Founded in 1932 and now housed in a strikingly modern building, it is one of the city's top cultural attractions.

"It bears a blessing and is destined to become an honor and a credit to our city," predicted Meir Dizengoff, the first mayor of Tel Aviv and founder of the museum.

His was right. The largest art museum in central Israel now draws more than 450,000 visitors a year.

The building itself is impressive: a boldly modern structure designed by Tel Aviv architects Itzhak Yashar and Dan Eytan, whose design won a national competition.

It is set back from a wide plaza where Henry Moore's gleaming "Reclining Figure" is a focus, and other sculptures dot the outdoor plaza.

Inside, visitors find a wealth of art — paintings, sculptures, drawings, photographs — much of it Israeli and Jewish art.

"Tourists are often surprised and impressed when they see our collections," says the museum's Tamar Atzmon. "And many of them are especially interested in the Israeli art."

One permanent collection is devoted to Israeli art. Another includes international Jewish artists. And the museum's special exhibits often feature Israeli artists.

The Joseph and Rebecca Meyerhoff Pavilion was the venue for a recent exhibition of young Israeli artists, all of them born in the 1950s.

The Mayer collection offers works by such major Jewish artists as Marc Chagall. "Jew with Torah" is a close up of a solemn man holding a Torah with a red scroll. "Loneliness," his 1953 gift, shows a man wearing a tallit, holding a scroll. In the background are a violin and a cow.

There are works by other modern masters throughout the museum — paintings by Picasso, Matisse, Miro, van Gogh, Gauguin, Monet, Renoir, Pissarro.

But the museum reveals a trove of Jewish works. There is "Purim Spiel" by Polish artist Jankel Adler and "Warehouses on the Waterfront" by Romanian Arthur Segal.

In another gallery hangs Mauryce Gottlieb's "Jews Praying in the Synagogue on Yom Kippur." Painted in 1878, it is a beautifully detailed work showing Jews huddled together in prayer. It covers an entire wall.

The museum is also a culture center that offers concerts, movies, dance and theater performances and lectures year-round.

In the museum, one can marvel at the more than 30 sculptures by Alexander Archipenko. Although much of his early work was destroyed, the museum's outstanding collection — the largest anywhere — includes figures that were saved and shipped from Berlin to Tel Aviv in 1933.

Atzmon guides me into a gallery displaying these unusual sculpto-paintings, in bronze, wood, terra cotta, bronze, and plaster. Many are the forms of women, including "Woman at her Toilet," "Woman with a Fan," and "Kneeling Woman."

Back in the entrance hall is Roy Lichtenstein's "Tel Aviv Museum Mural," which the artist created for the museum in 1989.

With its vivid colors and bold style, the two-part mural is spread across the upper wall of the entrance hall. One side is the artist's representation of the shape of the building itself. The other side shows images from paintings the museum owns, including details from works by Chagall and Andy Warhol.

The museum has fulfilled its founders' dreams. Wrote Israeli author Yoram Kaniuk once about growing up in Tel Aviv: "It was a strange village with a museum, two theaters, an opera, a very big library. It was still sand — and there was a museum!"