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Jacob El Hanani

1947    Born Casablanca, Morocco


1969    Avni School of Fine Arts, Tel Aviv, Israel

1970    École des Beaux-Arts, Paris, France

Solo Exhibitions

2015    Jacob El Hanani Drawings, Acquavella Galleries, NY

2014    The Art of the Line, Sammer Gallery LLC, Miami, FL

2012    Linear Landscape: Ink Drawings, Holly Johnson Gallery, Dallas, TX

2008    Recent Work, Steven Zevitas Gallery, Boston, MA

2005    Drawing 1978-2005, Mills College, Oakland, CA

2004    Jacob El Hanani Drawings 1971-1987, Gallery Schlesinger, New York, NY

2003    OSP Gallery, Boston, MA

2002    Nicole Klagsbrun Gallery, New York, NY

            Gallery Joe, Philadelphia, PA

2000    Mark Moore Gallery, Santa Monica, CA

            Nicole Klagsbrun Gallery, New York, NY

            Gallery Joe, Philadelphia, PA

1999    Miller/Block Gallery, Boston, MA

1998    Todd Hosfelt Gallery, San Francisco, CA

1995    Yoshii Gallery, New York, NY

1993    Galerie Renee Ziegler, Zurich

1988    Galerie Gilbert Brownstone, Paris

1978    Galerie Denise René, Paris

1977    Galerie Denise René, New York, NY

1975    Galerie Denise René, Paris

Selected Collections, in order of Acquisition

The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York

The Museum of Modern Art, New York

The Jewish Museum, New York

The Brooklyn Museum, New York

Musée National d’Art Moderne, Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris

The Israel Museum, Jerusalem

Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto

The Menil Collection, Houston

The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

The Philadelphia Museum of Art

The Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.

The Art Institute of Chicago

Walker Art Center, Minneapolis

The Tel-Aviv Museum of Art, Israel

The National Gallery of Art, Washington

Museo de Arte Contemporáneo de Caracas, Venezuela

The Rose Art Museum, Brandeis University, Waltham, MA

Minneapolis Institute of Arts, MN

Yale University Art Gallery, New Haven, CT

The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston

The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

The Fogg Art Museum, Harvard University Art Museums, Cambridge, MA

Weatherspoon Art Museum, University of North Carolina at Greensboro, NC

Neuberger Museum of Art, Purchase College State University of New York

The British Museum, London

The Whitney Museum of American Art, New York

The Morgan Library & Museum, New York


Photo of Jacob El Hanani working in his studio
For the grandfather of micro-drawing, it’s truly a small world after all June 3, 2021
Detail of Jacob El Hanani, Without Form and Void (Tohu Wa-bohu), 2019
The Brooklyn Rail
Jacob El Hanani: Recent Works on Canvas June 3, 2021
El Hanani, Untitled (Mondrian Series)
Critics' Picks: Jacob El Hanani October 2017

By Kaelen Wilson-Goldie


Jacob El Hanani makes minutely detailed, dazzlingly obsessive drawings without the aid of a magnifying glass. Now seventy, he works in ten-minute bursts to avoid damaging his eyes. He spends months, even years, on a single composition. He uses ink on paper or a quill on gessoed canvas. These, at least, are the stable facts of El Hanani’s practice. Everything else about his art dwells in lush and disorienting ambiguity.

Most obvious is the question of where the viewer is meant to stand in relation to El Hanani’s drawings. His second exhibition here covers four decades. The drawings are so faint that they seem like shy living things, lingering between visibility and invisibility, reluctant to fully appear. Thirteen works on canvas line the front gallery. Fifteen smaller works on paper fill the back gallery, all behind glass. You almost have to mash your face into them to understand the extreme precision of El Hanani’s marks.

Drawings such as Untitled (from the Mondrian Series), 2011, and Linescape (from the J.W. Turner Series), 2014–15, demand you do a little dance before them—a few steps back to see formless abstractions, a few steps forward to decipher elaborate city grids and oceanic textures. Born in Casablanca, raised in Tel Aviv, and based in New York since the early 1970s, El Hanani is deeply indebted to the Jewish tradition of micrography. But as his titles suggest, he is also clearly invested in questions of modernism, urban rhythm, and the natural sublime. The best piece in the show, Alhambra, 2016, gives Islamic geometry a minimalist spin. What begins as a question of pure form—the endless possibilities of a steady, hand-drawn line—ends in a dense, fascinating matrix of mixed-up histories, geographies, and cultural movements.

El Hanani, Silver Grey
Art Critical
Review of Jacob El Hanani Linescape: Four Decades at Acquavella Galleries October 2, 2017

By David Cohen

Scriptural injunctions against graven images and puritanical disdain for decoration or ornament for their own sake engendered an ingenious work around from medieval artists: micrography. Miniscule but nonetheless legible script is arranged into otherwise prohibited or discouraged forms, sometimes whimsical, sometimes expressive of the text itself. Fast forward to minimal art and its inherent iconoclasm and Casablanca-born, Israel-raised, Paris-educated, New York-based Jacob El Hanani pulls from his “portable ark of the covenant” (in R. B. Kitaj’s phrase, from First Diasporist Manifesto) the mind bogglingly ethereal feat that is his application of this ancestral technique to a contemporary abstract idiom. These days, however, there is a relative loosening-up of his approach, as the artist acknowledges in titles that evoke landscapes by Turner and cityscapes by Mondrian. As El Hanani explains, “For many decades, I was working under a self-imposed austerity, but many artists, as they get older, release themselves and tend to embrace a freer, more lyrical style.”

El Hanani, Alhambra
Wall Street Journal Magazine
Jacob El Hanani's Drawings Reveal Themselves Like Secrets October 2, 2017

By Lane Florsheim

The artist's new show 'Linescape' opens October 2 at Acquavella Gallery in New York.

Jacob El Hanani's studio is immaculate. The hardwood floors gleam and neat rows of books are stacked along shelves against walls near the entrance. During my visit, he takes out various binders, exhibition catalogs and drawings before returning each to its exact place in a filing cabinet or drawer below one of the two tables where he draws. "It's always like this," he says.

In the context of his work, El Hanani's neatness coheres. From a distance, his pieces look abstract: a hazy gray square on canvas, a roiling atmospheric formation, a collection of intersecting lines. But standing closer one notices that each shape is in turn composed of thousands of tiny lines, made with a quill or a Rapidograph techinical pen. Sometimes El Hanani, who has been called the grandfater of micro-drawing, draws miniscule characters from the Hebrew alphabet, referencing the Judaic tradition of micrography. "Usually, I don't get the 'Wow.' I get the, 'How?'" he explains as I inspect one. It would be easy enough to pass a drawing of his by without noticing the innumerable marks -- they unfold to the viewer like a secret. 

For decades, El Hanani has been driven by the desire to bring drawing to this extreme in an attempt to break the notion that miniature is a small-scale work. "When I moved to New York in the '70s, everything was, My car is bigger than your car and my apartment is bigger than your apartment," he says. "Now it's, My cell phone is smaller than yours. My gadget is smaller than yours. So, the miniaturization of the planet..." he considers. "Well, the Japanese already started that 400 years ago."

The number of hours it takes to achieve the precision found in every centimeter of his work defies today's ethos of efficiency and reverence of technology. Younger viewers, he says, often don't believe the pieces are by hand, or done without the help of an assistant. Later, he mentions he hasn't accomplished all he wants to do, like spending a whole year, uninterrupted, on only one piece. Even though some of his works have taken years, he is always working on a number of drawings.

El Hanani's new show Linescape opens October 2 at Acquavella Galleries in New York and covers nearly forty years of his practice. "I would call myself a line-maker," he says of the show title. "When people say to me, 'What do you do for a living?' I say, 'I make lines' ... Is a line-maker something in football?" he adds, seeming sincere. He categorizes his earlier work as more austere, in keeping with minimalism's de rigeur opposition to figuration in the '70s. He sees his recent pieces, some of which reference Piet Mondrian's grid paintings and J.M.W. Turner's vivid landscapes, as freer.

El Hanani was born in Casablanca and moved to Israel when he was seven, where he was "the artist of the kids," copying the drawings of Albrecht Dürer and Giorgio Morandi. He spent two years at the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris in his twenties before moving to New York City "for the space." A tthe time, he explains, artists could only get 200 or 300 square feet in Paris for the price of 3,000 in New York. Once in New York City, he eliminated every trace of figuration from his work in 1972 and found his new process demanded 12 hours a day. He worked constantly. "I was able to survive without having a day job. If I sold a drawing, I paid my rent. That generation was really supportive of artist and art."

El Hanani's work develops organically, without subjects in mind, but sometimes he finds personal or historical meaning in a piece after it is complete. He once made a series of drawings that turned out to be gauze fabric and then learned that Gaza is thought to be the origin of gauze. "Gaza was important to me because when I was in the Israeli army, we occupied the West Bank. I've been twice in Gaza," he says. "Unconsciously, I figure, I ended up drawing gauze."

During my visit, El Hanani also shows me the darwings he doesn't exhibit: the sheets he fills with figurative doodles (eight favorites are framed and displayed on the wall) and a binder of his cartoons, explaining that, like Michael Jordan playing golf to unwind, artists relax by making different kinds of art. "My case was being a paparazzi cartoonist quietly in a cocktail when nobody could see me," he says. He shows me the likenesses of Norman Mailer, Henry Kissinger and a young Donald Trump along with many others.

When he opens the drawer to one of his cabinets, revealing a charcoal sketch of a nude model sitting on her knees, he says quickly, "It's not important. Hundreds of artists do that in art school." But then he adds: "However, sixty years from now, my son will be 74. And I'm dead, and if someone says, 'Oh you have a drawing of your father's from 100 years ago?' Suddenly it becomes important for a collector."

"All that we can do is leave the pile slightly higher than what it was. I'll be known for making little, tiny lines," he says. "Period. You cannot achieve a lot in art. You have to make your own contribution." 

2016 New Yorker Article
The New Yorker
"Seeing and Believing" by Peter Schjeldahl January 26, 2016

Review of "Wordplay" exhibition on view at The Metropolitan Museum of Art through April 11, 2016.  The show features three drawings by Jacob El Hanani from the museum's permanent collection.

Jacob El Hanani Linescape (detail)
The Brooklyn Rail
Jacob El Hanani Drawings by Taney Honiger July 13, 2015

What do the likes of Sir Edmund Hillary, the famed mountaineer credited with the first conquest of Everest, and the scribal mystics of medieval Judaism have in common? Nothing, it would seem—except that they meet in the extraordinary work of Jacob El Hanani. With all the quiet intensity of a monk absorbed in selfless devotion to the word of God, and a considerable dose of climber’s hubris, El Hanani has made a career out of testing the limits of human endurance. Armed with only a fine-point pen and the discipline of a military general, this artist has brought drawing to places few of us might care to go. But experienced from the armchair of viewership, the work is as breathtaking in its beauty as it is profound in its implications about the human urge toward—and need for—self-transcendence.

With this show, the Israeli artist’s first New York solo in over a decade, we have a rare opportunity to see a range of drawings created in the last eight years. Acquavella’s cavernous interior is an apt setting for the thirteen modest- to mid-sized pieces on view; both stately and austere, it echoes the work’s curiously dual nature. Bright, open, and largely devoid of sensory distractions, the space encourages exactly the kind of viewing demanded here: close, concentrated, and sustained.


The emphasis is on close, for it is by no bit of admirer’s hyperbole that El Hanani is known as the “grandfather of micro-drawing.” Indeed, from the conventional viewing distance, one sees only soft rectangles of atmospheric haze surrounded by generous margins of untouched paper. But at nose distance, innumerable discrete marks emerge—some no larger than a particle of dust—whose dense accretions coalesce into the shimmering fields we see from a few steps back. While the marks vary from tiny linear strokes to long hair-like strands to letters from the Hebrew alphabet, the abstract images they form evoke landscapes, ambiguous cartographies, or, most overtly, textiles. But as Arthur Danto suggested in the show’s catalogue essay, the images are epiphenomenal to the work’s primary focus: the marks themselves. That the latter are hand-drawn—a fact crucial to the work’s appreciation—is evident within every inch of drawn surface: wobbly, irregular, and subtly varied in weight and density, the lines exude human presence. 

While the unfathomable labor-intensiveness of the artist’s practice—what we might call its “wow factor”—announces itself with much volume, the work is rooted in a tradition born of devotional silence. An element of kabbalic exegesis, the scribal art of micro-calligraphy, in which minuscule Hebrew letters are used to compose images adorning sacred texts, dates back some thousand years. The sanctity of the Hebrew alphabet being a fundamental tenet of the kabbalah, one can imagine the impulse that gave rise to this practice. If the letters were thought to be the means by which God brought the world into being, intimate and prolonged contact with them brought the artist-scribe into Divine communion. Like chant or incantation, it is a meditative practice whose use of language transcends the latter’s rational dimension, transforming it into a vehicle for ecstatic experience. 

While allusions to sacred writing are implicit throughout, some of the drawings bear their origins more conspicuously than others. The Hebrew Barbed Wire(2013) is one of the most explicit in this regard. Here, undulating threads of Hebrew text crisscross an expansive horizontal field. The reader of Hebrew might wish for a magnifying glass, but ultimately the work’s appeal lies not in what it says but in the intensity of the process by which it was brought into being. In other drawings, such as those in the particularly beautiful “Linescape”series (2012), letters give way to loose parallel hatches whose irregular swirls suggest tempests (indeed, the series’s subtitle gives a nod to J.M.W. Turner). In the show’s densest piece, Crosshatched (1999), the pockets of negative space that punctuate the other drawings are all but abandoned. Here, microscopic clusters of crosshatched lines create an allover field so vibratory and alive it is virtually palpable. The effect is one of an unusually acute—and largely ineffable—attunement with Being. 

Perhaps it is in this awakening of our subtler senses that the work achieves its greatness. If so, it is an experience that can arise only after one’s awe over the work’s facture has settled—or, otherwise put, once the artist himself has receded from the picture. And herein lies the work’s central paradox: for all its strenuous asceticism, there is an element of egotism in El Hanani’s practice. After the initial “Wow,” it is difficult not to dwell on the question of “How,” which can hinder deeper, more substantial contemplation. The sheer feat that each piece represents can be a distraction. It is a danger that plagues much “endurance art,” not unlike that which can threaten to turn work of monumental scale into mere spectacle.

But perhaps there is another way of understanding the work’s allure. The urge toward self-transcendence, which is the impulse behind all ecstatic disciplines, would not exist were the self not conflicted. Twofold always—with longings for both singularity and identification with a larger whole—we are all, in this sense, a problem to ourselves. With equal parts hubris and humility, El Hanani’s work is a powerful testament to a human pathos that reaches in both directions. And just as Edmund Hillary was less singular in his accomplishment than he might have liked us to believe (we now know he was accompanied by Tenzing Norgay, an intrepid Sherpa), El Hanani is preceded by many an equally possessed mind striving for self-conquest. But in the realm of contemporary drawing, he stands on that mountain alone.

El Hanani The Hebrew Barbed Wire (detail)
Art News
Review of Jacob El Hanani Drawings by Alfred MacAdam June 2015

Jacob El Hanani's splendid drawings suggest that all art is autobiographical and that abstraction is a part of human nature.  Potentially paradoxical, these cojoined ideas are also linked to another contradictory pair: our simultaneous need to reveal and cocneal ourselves.  El Hanani's meticulous pen-and-ink (his only medium) drawings are encoded self-expression, an aesthetic of secrecy.

For example, The Hebrew Barbed Wire (2013) appears at a distance to be a mass of loosely woven barbed wire.  We see the wire, and we see through the tangle.  Inspected at close range the barbed wire turns into the letters of the Hebrew alphabet.  To inscribe those letters is to evoke a millenial tradition; to run them into barbed wire is to allude to past horros and current restraints.  The alphabet simultaneously protecs and imprisons.  At the same time, the drawing floats before us, visually divorced both from barbed wire and Hebrew, a beautiful object.

Less obviously related to El Hanani's personal past is Gauze (2011), a drawing of a piece of textile.  Certainly the relationship between text and textile comes to the point of this superb piece, but gauze is the sheer fabric we use to bind wounds and is thought to get its name from Gaza, where it was made.  An excellent catalogue essay by the late Arthur Danto accompanies the exhibition.