“I’m still alive, alive to learn from your eyes
that I am become your veil and I am all you see”
— Agha Shahid Ali, “The Veiled Suite”
NORTH ADAMS — Sitting over a cup of rice-and-lemon soup in the cafe at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art, Izhar Patkin is describing the car accident he’d had a few weeks prior. Headed back to North Adams to finish installing his massive new survey show at the museum after a Thanksgiving respite, the Israeli-born painter and sculptor flipped over his car on the icy Taconic State Parkway, totaling it.
“I thought I was going to die, and I had two thoughts,” he recounts. “I was glad I was alone. Death is personal. It’s nobody else’s business — like going to the bathroom. Then I had the petty thought: They’re going to have to finish writing those wall panels without me.”
Izhar Patkin: The Wandering Veil
For Patkin, musings on eternity mix easily with talk of his show’s details. And his thoughtful, even brooding exterior can lighten quickly for a sarcastic aside or a quick burst of self-consciousness. It fits that his recent work displays an ever-present awareness of death, tinged with darkly cheeky gestures. Patkin appears to have taken his experience in stride, and he has a dramatic new tale to tell.
“Izhar Patkin: The Wandering Veil,” on view through Sept. 1 at Mass MoCA, caps a return from the shadows for this artist, whose early breakthroughs included a full gallery devoted to his attention-grabbing paintings on black neoprene curtains at the 1987 Whitney Biennial.
This is not only the largest exhibition yet assembled from Patkin’s flamboyantly eclectic mixed media works. (A co-presentation with the Tel Aviv Museum of Art and the Open Museum in Tefen, Israel, it appeared overseas in bifurcated form in 2012.) It’s also the public’s first extended look at the work Patkin, 58, has quietly created throughout a decade of relative silence.
He’d been a busy art-maker on the rise after moving to the United States in 1977, seeing his work collected by the Whitney, New York’s Museum of Modern Art, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, and other resume-sweetening institutions.
But shortly after the 9/11 attacks, he was stunned by the deaths of several people close to him, all within a year: his father, his best friend and her husband, his longtime art dealer and confidante Holly Solomon, and the Kashmiri-American poet Agha Shahid Ali, with whom he’d struck up a deep friendship and creative collaboration. Patkin quietly dropped out of the art scene, retreating to the sanctuary of his rambling East Village apartment and studio, an urban oasis hewed from a former vocational school.
“It wasn’t a decision,” he says of his inward move. “I just sat in the garden and started taking to the ghosts.”
Now he’s emerging. And he’s been busy.
The centerpiece of the exhibition at Mass MoCA is a suite of new works — five “rooms,” each formed by four hanging sheets of bridal illusion fabric, the stuff of wedding veils. Up to 25 feet long, each is a panel in a wrap-around mural inspired by the poetry of Ali, who was a finalist for the National Book Award in poetry the year of his death. (Ali is buried in Northampton; in his final years, he was director of the MFA program in creative writing at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, among other academic posts.)
The show also samples generously from Patkin’s earlier work, including startling mixed-media essays that seem to overflow with intertextual references. There’s his colorful blown-glass sculpture of the Hindu goddess Shiva, laced with visual nods to Josephine Baker and Carmen Miranda. (The piece is on loan from the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum’s collection.) There’s a barn wall with a window to nowhere, adorned by a painted scene inspired by both a Franz Kafka story and Pennsylvania Dutch folk art. An oil portrait of a childless Madonna is rendered on wire mesh, its paint casting a shadow on the wall behind.
“There’s an amazing list of materials he uses — anodized aluminum, shadow puppets, video, wax, porcelain,” observes Mass MoCA director Joseph Thompson. “But his subject matter doesn't move all that much, even though the materials change a lot. I think the nature of fiction and how we represent ideas is really his core interest.”
The new works, collected under the title “Veiled Threats,” are fantasias inspired by Ali’s poetry, as well as by Patkin’s family history and the history of Israel. The artist refers to them as paintings, though he commissioned the invention of a special printer to fashion the images in ink from digital collages.
“It was simply breathtaking, and I think I was mesmerized because I kept on going ’round and ’round and I couldn't leave the room,” says the late poet’s brother Agha Iqbal Ali, who brought his father and a sister to see Patkin’s take on the poem “The Veiled Suite” in Patkin’s studio shortly after it was finished. He recalls the visit over the phone from a Qatar hotel. “The emotional thing for me is that Shahid died much too young. So when I see this kind of work, I say: What would not have been possible if Shahid had not died?” he remarks, paraphrasing a line of his brother’s poetry.
The veil pieces are crowded with shadowy figures. A magician conjures a flock of pigeons. The crucified Jesus, in a sort of cosmic duet with a ballerina, appears lain across train tracks. “Arik Patkin WTC” includes a photograph of the artist’s father in front of the World Trade Center, taken in August 2001; the bench on which he sits hovers mysteriously.
A sense of the uncanny is heightened by the medium of the veils; the images seem to break apart, or come into better focus, as the viewer moves around the room. The essence always seems suspended between two states. The ghosts are present.
“The dead are very persistent. They don’t leave so easily,” Patkin says, sitting on a stool in his kitchen at home. The shelves there still hold spices that Ali requested Patkin buy, for vindaloo dishes he’d cook as the two got to know each other, exploring a collaboration suggested by a book publisher.
A few feet away lies the courtyard garden where Patkin later made a daily custom of sitting alone, addressing his departed friends and family. At that time he mused deeply on the relationship between reality and illusion, and the notion that unresolved emotions become ghosts — perhaps literally.
“Before I made the veils, I had a deep trepidation,” he says. “I thought, I'm going to make these veils and they’re going to become so material and be so ghostly that once I make them there will be no way back. And I actually thought I will go crazy once they are made.”
He’s been spared that fate; he says the launch of this exhibition instead allowed him finally to let go of this body of work, over which he brooded for so long.
Though “The Wandering Veil” was prefaced by much more modest shows at the Jewish Museum in New York and the Shoshana Wayne Gallery in Los Angeles in 2012-13, it arrives now as an emphatic reintroduction of Patkin to a public that may have lost sight of him for a while.
“I think what would be so important about the show in North Adams is people in the States will see what he’s been up to,” says Nancy Spector, chief curator at the Guggenheim and a longtime friend and advocate of Patkin. “In Israel he’s a kind of national treasure in a sense, but it’s great for people here to know him, and certainly a younger generation that wasn’t going to galleries in the ’80s, didn’t see the  Whitney Biennial, didn’t know what he was doing in the East Village. I think it’s a great occasion.”