"Two Work Tools," 2005 by Rina Kimche (Photo/Courtesy BAMPFA)
"Two Work Tools," 2005 by Rina Kimche (Photo/Courtesy BAMPFA)

Archaeology-inspired Israeli ceramicist Rina Kimche gets first U.S. solo show in Berkeley

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One piece resembles an ancient irrigation channel, another a vessel for buried bones, and yet another looks like a set of Bronze Age hand tools for working the land. Rare finds from an archeological dig in the Negev? No. They are all creations by contemporary Israeli artist Rina Kimche.

For decades, the 88-year-old Kimche has been one of Israel’s most celebrated ceramicists. Yet she has never had a solo show in the United States — until now.

The UC Berkeley Art Museum & Pacific Film Archive is currently showing an exhibition of 17 of her pieces, including several that have never before been publicly displayed. The exhibit will be up through March 26.

“I think the work is major and marvelous, and certainly worthy of being shown,” said the exhibit’s curator, Lawrence Rinder, a former director of BAMPFA. “The exhibition is focused on the archaeological-inspired works.”

Most of those pieces boast muted dirt-and-rust-colored glazes, as if they had just been unburied from the time-obscuring earth (though some pop with bright colors).

“She started to become open to color and reflective glazes instead of the matte glazes,” said Rinder, who will give a lecture on Kimche at BAMPFA on Jan. 28. “We have a work tool in crimson red, which really stands out, and a few that have this fantastic azure blue that she used on interior surfaces, a cosmic blue [that is] obviously an allusion to water.”

Born in Jerusalem in pre-state Israel in 1934, Kimche spent much of her youth on her family’s farm on a kibbutz in Northern Israel, where tools such as shovels, pitchforks and rakes proved to be fodder for her future artwork.

Her interest in art developed early on, and her formal training commenced at the Academy of Art and Design in Amsterdam when she was 22. She also studied at Israel’s famed Bezalel Academy of Art and Design in Jerusalem and at the Haystack Mountain School of Crafts in Deer Isle, Maine. Kimche also spent time in parts of West Africa and Japan, two regions that proved influential in the aesthetics of the budding artist.

But her native Israel, indeed the whole Middle East, proved most influential of all, especially thanks to her teacher and mentor, artist Hedwig Grossman (1902-1995), a pioneer in Israeli postmodernism.

Kimche made a living teaching art at the University of Haifa, Tel-Hai College in Northern Israel and other Israeli institutions. Her studio in her hometown of Kiryat Tiv’on near Haifa became a laboratory where she reanimated ancient quotidian forms with a touch of modern panache. And to top it off, she made her art out of the same clay her ancestors had harvested in the reeds and wadis of ancient Israel.

“While she obviously has a connection to Israel and the ancient history of the Middle East, there’s also a resonance to contemporary abstraction,” said Rinder, who also suggested the artist was influenced by an art movement that thrived in pre-state Israel: Canaanism, which embodied a kind of pan-Semitic appreciation for the arts and crafts of the region going back to biblical times.

The work is very much about the land, the soil, the cultures of the Middle East, and at the same time she reveals global influences.

Though the two have never met, Rinder has been in touch with the artist for years, as many of Kimche’s works are part of BAMPFA’s permanent collection. The current exhibition was first planned several years ago, but the pandemic forestalled the opening. Many of the pieces came to BAMPFA through a bequest from Bay Area art scholar and collector Cathryn Cootner, who died in 2021 not long after befriending Kimche.

If Kimche’s unusual surname rings a bell, that’s because she was for a time married to the now-deceased David Kimche, a member of Mossad from 1953 to 1980 who eventually served as the intelligence agency’s deputy director, then became director-general of Israel’s Foreign Affairs Ministry. The marriage ended decades ago, but the artist retained the last name.

Today, Rina Kimche is in declining health and unable to travel, according to Rinder, but he did say the artist is aware that 17 of her pieces are on exhibit in Berkeley and she is excited about it.

So is Rinder.

“The work is very much about the land, the soil, the cultures of the Middle East, and at the same time she reveals global influences,” he said. “In a way, it is art for art’s sake, but she never lost sight of her roots.”

Rina Kimche

Jan. 11 through March 26 at UC Berkeley Art Museum & Pacific Film Archive, 2155 Center St., Berkeley. Open 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Wednesdays through Sundays. $12-$14, free for members and others. bampfa.org/program/rina-kimche

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.