Itzchak Tarkay is considered to be a key figure in the modern figurative movement. Artworks by the Israeli artist are instantly recognizable—perceptive studies on people and places in a timeless world, captured in image by female socialites, parlors, terraces, and quiet cafés.
His art has been featured in more than 50 exhibitions around the world. Tarkay passed away in 2012, leaving behind a legacy that not only represents a great artist, but a great man.
Tarkay was born in 1935 in Subotica on the Yugoslav-Hungarian border. In 1944, at the age of 9, Tarkay and his family were sent to the Mauthausen-Gusen concentration camp by the Nazis. They remained there until the Allied Forces liberated the camp in 1945. When his family returned to Subotica, he developed an interest in art. Tarkay won his first award for excellence in painting while in school.
In 1949, his family immigrated to Israel, where they were sent to a transit camp for new arrivals at Be’er Ya’akov. They lived in a kibbutz for several years. In 1951, Tarkay received a scholarship to the Bezalel Academy of Art and Design in Jerusalem. After a year, Tarkay left the school due to financial circumstances at home. To continue his education, he studied under Yosef Schwartzman, a well-known art teacher, until his mobilization into the Israeli Army.
After Tarkay’s military service ended, he traveled to Tel Aviv and enrolled in the prestigious Avni Institute of Art and Design. At the academy, Tarkay worked under important Israeli artists of the time, such as Moshe Mokady, Marcel Janko, Yehezkel Streichman, and Avigdor Stematsky. He graduated in 1956, and the results of his studies culminated in his first exhibition at the age of 26.
Despite his initial success, Tarkay withdrew from painting. He rarely picked up a brush for the next 15 years, waiting for what he called “the opportune moment to begin again.” After receiving acclaim for a one-man exhibition in Tel Aviv in 1975, he decided to take up painting again. In 1977, Tarkay sought out mentorship from fellow Israeli artist Moshe Rosenthalis. He painted with Rosenthalis for three years, and his distinct style evolved during this time.
Tarkay received worldwide recognition during the International Artexpo of New York in 1986. Here, the artist met Park West Gallery Founder and CEO Albert Scaglione. Their fateful encounter eventually led to an exclusive partnership between Tarkay and Park West. Following the artist’s death, Park West Gallery acts as his official estate.
Tarkay often expressed how much he enjoyed meeting his collectors and working with other artists. In the later years, he shared his gift by mentoring younger Israeli artists, including David Najar, Yuval Wolfson, and Mark Kanovich. They often visited Tarkay’s studio, working alongside him and benefitting from his critiques.
Tarkay died at the age of 77 on June 3, 2012, after emergency heart surgery. The Israeli artist was visiting Detroit as a featured guest of Park West Gallery. He shared his last moments with Park West Gallery friends, including artist Tim Yanke, who was among those present when Tarkay passed away.
Tarkay is recognized as a leading representative of a new generation of figurative artists. The inspiration for his work lies with French Impressionism and Post-Impressionism. He held artists such as Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Paul Cézanne, Camille Pissarro, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, and Henri Matisse in high regard. As a result, one can see the color sophistication of Matisse and drawing style of Toulouse-Lautrec in Tarkay’s body of work.
Tarkay believed in beauty, and let aesthetics and human psychology drive his art. As a result, the artist created visual poetry from the aura of his city cafés and intimate settings. He enjoyed the juxtaposition of surface planes, patterns, and materials. Instead of focusing on minute details, his expressive paintings allow the color, plane and line to become emotional and establish mood.
Despite his traumatic past, Tarkay’s art never depicted anguish or pessimism. Instead, his female figures interacting with their surroundings invoke joy, mystery, and repose. According to the artist: “Everything we want and need can be found in a female form.”
When asked about his technique, Tarkay called it impossible to describe:
“Can you explain your own handwriting?”
He had similar sentiments about his color palette, saying he used his instinct to choose his colors.
“The color is coming,” he said. “When it’s finished, sometimes I’ll change the colors. It’s not something I think about.”
Though Tarkay attributed most of his artistic choices to instinct, he often found inspiration from his surroundings—the music he listened to, the places he traveled, and nature. He spent five to six hours a day in the studio, six days a week, but also enjoyed painting en plein air, often bringing his sketchbook outdoors. As it grew dark, he would take a series of photographs and finish the work back in his studio.
Tarkay said the most difficult part of painting was realizing when a work was complete. He once attended an exhibition of his own after he had not seen his paintings in nearly three months and recalled having the urge to re-touch each work.
Art historian and critic Joseph Jacobs said the following about Tarkay:
“In a world so preoccupied with being politically correct, with dealing with social issues, with making art that is anything but painting, Tarkay holds onto timeless, universal values–to values that have staying power and do not simply ride the tide of fashion. In contrast to the work of so many of his contemporaries, it will be impossible to look back on his work in the twenty-first century and describe it as dated.”