THE ARTISTIC CAREER OF ALFRED LEVITT
Growth and Fruition, 1951
"There are places and times in American art history endowed with a peculiar aura of their own. One was Gloucester, Massachusetts, in the 1940s when a group of young modernists made it their summer painting ground.... Of these painters Alfred Levitt has perhaps been the most unjustly neglected." So wrote John I. H. Baur, scholar and former director of the Whitney Museum of American Art, in 1983.
Street in Gloucester,1945
Levitt's career is unusually interesting, and illuminates the situations of those talented painters In every generation who do not gain fame. Of the artists who spent summers in Gloucester in the 40s, Milton Avery, Stuart Davis, and Adolph Gottlieb are now among the best-known American painters of the twentieth century. But what of the others, equally serious and equally dedicated to their art, like Alfred Levitt-what do we know of them? May we not still draw satisfaction from their artworks and learn important lessons from their lives?
Alfred Levitt was born one hundred years ago in a small town in Ukraine. He was one of fourteen children, and though their father ,received sporadic orders for his work as a builder and painter of carriages, Levitt remembers privation and constant uncertainty. There was also rough treatment and anti-Semitic antagonism from neighbors and officials. In 1911 the family fled to New York City, settling, along with many other Eastern European immigrants, in east Harlem.
Life in their new homeland was still a struggle for many of these immigrants, and the neighborhood around Madison Avenue at 110th Street where the Levitt family lived bred considerable radical, even anarchist, thinking. Levitt recalls how, in his late teens and early twenties, a series of events led to his simultaneously setting out on an artistic career and meeting some of the leading radical intellectuals of the period. A friend of his was taking a course in life drawing with the noted painter Robert Henri, and one day invited Levitt to accompany him to class. Henri was a bit irritated because the model had not shown up. Levitt offered to help, and on learning what was required of a model, "took off his pants right away," and struck a pose. Later Levitt was a allowed to join the class in exchange for modeling.
Henri, who was sympathetic to philosophical anarchism, taught at the famous Ferrer School, located, from 1912 to 1918, a few blocks from Levitt's home. Francisco Ferrer was a Spanish freethinker and educational reformer whose execution in 1909 on trumped up charges caused worldwide indignation. His ideas were carried forward in New York when a group including the crusading journalist Leonard Abbott and the big-hearted anarchist Emma Goldman established the Ferrer "Modern School." Through the school Levitt remembers meeting not only Abbott and Goldman, but also the novelist Jack London, the historian Will Durant, and the poet and art historian Sadakichi Hartmann. Another of his new acquaintances, the political cartoonist Art Young, later wrote, "Many of the best artists and writers of that period thought of themselves as Anarchists.... They wanted to be at liberty to act as individuals without the restrictions of government, Mrs. Grundy's opinion, or any other frustrating element."
Poor as he was, Levitt had little opportunity for formal education. He remembers Leonard Abbott's saying to him, "Alfred, I advise you: go to the library on Forty-Second Street and make it your college. You don't have to buy books; there you'll find all the books in the world." The young man spent many an hour at the New York Public Library, studying and reading widely. He came to be able to hold his own in any discussion, and to cite Darwin or Nietzsche or John Dewey as needed.
Thus Levitt reached adulthood having introduced himself to the world of history and ideas at the Library, having learned the basics of art from Henri, having raised his social consciousness with Goldman and her circle, and having had reinforced at the Ferrer School his independence, rationalism, and skepticism of the conventional.
By the late 1930s Levitt had studied painting at the Art Students League and with Hans Hofmann, perhaps the most influential teacher of the generation. Levitt worked in various realist styles, apparently not being interested in experiments in abstraction like some New York artists of the day. His subjects ranged from the intimately personal, as in a 1936 portrait of his wife Jerry, to the politically impassioned, as in two paintings of 1937 referring to recent violence in the Spanish Civil War.
Just as Levitt's artistic career picked up speed and his works began to be exhibited, the country was becoming more and more preoccupied with World War II and the struggle against fascism. Like many artists of the time he continued to work in several modes. There were cheerful beach scenes, but also a vehement poster called The Four Freedoms-The People Are on the March showing Americans of all races and religions trampling Nazis. In 1943 the leftist Artists League of America's "This Is Our War" exhibition included a Levitt work titled Fascist Manna.
By now new influences had begun to make themselves felt in the Levitts' immediate environment. In Hans Hofmann's art class Levitt had made friends with another talented painter, Margaret Sutton. In 1939 Sutton moved in to share the Levitts' apartment, and Levitt, his wife, and Sutton stayed together for fifty years. They visited art galleries together, and in the evenings would discuss art, literature, and the news of the day. Levitt and Sutton sometimes also painted in the same studio, but how much they influenced each other is not clear. Sutton's works are seldom directly politically engaged like some of Levitt's, while his seldom pursue the investigations of dreams and the unconscious so characteristic of hers.
Another, much more distant, newcomer arrived in 1943. Into a nearby apartment in their small building at 210 West 14th Street in Greenwich Village moved one of the most important artists of the twentieth century, the French dadaist Marcel Duchamp. He and they continued to live in that building for more than twenty years. They chatted in the elevator and occasionally exchanged visits or shared meals. Levitt recalls once or twice playing chess with Duchamp, and in 1959 Duchamp wrote letters of introduction for Levitt to acquaintances in France.
There is no suggestion of influence of Duchamp on Levitt-their artistic concerns and methods were unrelated. However, we may see Duchamp's moving into the Levitts' and Sutton's building as a symbol of a larger trend. In the late 30s and early 40s many European artists and intellectuals fled to the US to escape the war and the persecution of the Jews and other minorities. Many lived in New York, fertilizing an already flourishing artistic field with new ideas and visions.
In the mid 1940s Levitt's style and range of subject matter seemed to change. He spent the summers in Gloucester and often painted its streets, sunsets, or fisherfolk. Many of the works shown in 1945 and 1946 in his first solo exhibitions (at Babcock Galleries in New York) depict such scenes with an apparently new freedom and spontaneity of brush work. A contemporary reviewer was reminded of the works of the great American watercolorist John Marin (1870-1953) commenting that Levitt's paintings had "a delicate, semi-abstract manner akin to Marin. Cool diluted color and gently angular design are the mainstays of this very charming work."
As the word "charming" suggests, Levitt's' paintings were not in what would later be seen as the vanguard style of the period, the nascent abstract expressionism. This was a matter of choice on Levitt's part. He was familiar with the new trend, for instance having exhibited with Avery and Gottlieb at the Jewish Community Center of Manchester, New Hampshire, in 1945 (and having given the opening lecture titled "Modern Art and You") but preferred to move in his own direction at his own pace.
Toward the end of the decade Levitt's works become more stylized. While representing the Gloucester scene in a recognizable way continued to be important, Levitt increasingly turned to patterning and use of heavy angular or curved lines to divide the surface into flat, or only slightly shaded, areas of color. Knowing, as we now do, what Levitt's paintings of several years later would look like, we can see the developments of the late 40s as prefiguring his abstract, strongly patterned works of the mid 50s.
Titles, too, move away from the literal. Ones like Boats at Anchor and Rocks and Sea of 1945 become less frequent, supplanted by one like Kinetic Space and Sound Spirals of 1947.We sense an increasing interest in poetic imagery or even allegory.
The Lighthouse, 1947
These evolutions of both style and theme can be seen by comparing The Lighthouse of 1947 with an untitled abstraction and Submerged Love Letters of the early 1950s. In the former, the central lighthouse and its supporting structure are framed in a heavy arch. The causeway leading to the structure is patterned with squares and parallelograms, while what are presumably the surrounding rocks appear as angular, flattened flakes. The horizon line divides the work into a darker and a lighter zone. In the later abstraction we again find the arch, the darker and lighter zones, and the flake-like forms below, but in addition there are in the "sky" configurations that remind us of stars or constellations. The central area holds overlapping beam-like forms that we might relate to the posts and beams of the lighthouse structure, but that begin also to suggest human figures in motion. These beam-like forms are identically arranged in Submerged Love Letters, but there are more "constellations," and the "flakes" are covered with ciphers suggesting writing-the messages of the love letters.
Untitled abstraction from the artist's personal collection early 1950s
Important events, strongly affecting Levitt's artistic outlook, had taken place in his life between these earlier and later works. In 1949 Levitt and his wife embarked on the first of many extended trips to France, living for more than a year in the town of St. Rémy in Provence. He was attracted to this area in part because Van Gogh had worked there. Levitt not only visited museums and studied the natural landscape and the light and atmosphere, but also conducted informal classes for art students. He also began a two-decade investigation of the prehistoric cave paintings of sites like Lascaux, sometimes even gaining permission to sleep in the caves.
Submerged Love Letters,early 1950s
Cave painting had been of great interest to modern artists for some years. The Museum of Modern Art, in 1937, had exhibited replicas of such paintings, and had published Prehistoric Rock Pictures in Europe and Africa. The discovery of the Lascaux paintings in 1940 had caused a sensation. Prehistoric art became an abiding passion of Levitt's, to the degree that the French government later recognized his research and lecturing on the subject by naming him a Chevalier of the Order of Arts and Letters. While Levitt believes that his own painting was never influenced by his admiration for that of his primeval ancestors, we may sometimes imagine in the heavy outlining or overall organization of some of his works of the 1950s a reminiscence of cave painting.
Levitt returned from France inspired and, it seems, a bit shaken. He had gone with the "intention to search and study their latest experimental plastic theories . . . no matter how remote or fantastic," but had been disappointed with the contemporary French art scene. In an Art Digest article in 1951 he expressed this disappointment saying "most of their experiments are cries in the wilderness expressed in a meaningless shorthand of smudges.... Paris is an aesthetic jungle." He concluded with a judgment that, though it became the accepted wisdom later, was at the time controversial: "It is my opinion that the artistic hub has now been transferred to the United States."
Paysage Provençal probably 1950
Nevertheless, France's landscape and its artistic heritage moved him deeply. He wrote to a friend, "I have hiked the fields and forests where Cezanne and Van Gogh have found their inspirations. I faced the same mountains and sat under the same cypress trees, all in order to glean, perchance, the elusive qualities that made those men mad with creative urge.... The final result of my stay here may not evidence itself for some years. Who knows?"
Levitt did not revisit Gloucester, and his works never returned to representation. At first glance they appear entirely abstract, but the world of mountains and cypress trees is never entirely out of the picture. Levitt wrote in 1954, "my approach to painting at the present time is in the abstract field with nature as the source of motivation. It is the result of a disciplined evolution from realism."
His watercolor Growth and Fruition, exhibited in the Whitney's Annual Exhibition of Contemporary Sculpture, Watercolors, and Drawings in 1952, epitomizes Levitt's style of the period. Recessive, subtly-graded blues and bluish-greens in the background create a sense of space in which beam-like elements similar to those of Submerged Love Letters float. The sense of space is strengthened by the beams' thrusts and counter thrusts and their complex overlapping, as well as by the planes of warm oranges and reds that underlie some of them. Also floating in the amorphous space are what may be seen as twigs, their tips formed into buds, flowers, and young fruits. In this painting the layering of opaque and transparent colors, solids and voids, the organic and the geometric, and things natural and human-made suggests a realm of limitless potentiality-of growth and fruition.
Untitled abstraction with yellow ground,1955
Paintings of Levitt's were exhibited with some regularity at the Whitney and the Brooklyn Museum through the 1950s. In 1956 he was recognized with a fellowship at the MacDowell Colony in Peterborough, New Hampshire, a center for writers, artists, and musicians. In 1959 through 1962 he and his wife again lived in France, and Levitt founded and taught at the School of Modern Painting in St. Rely. After this period he painted less and less, turning his energies to his studies and lecturing on cave art. His most recent solo exhibition, devoted to works of his Gloucester period, was held at Terry Dintenfass Gallery in New York in 1983. In the same year his wife of almost sixty years died. In the late 1980s Levitt was also faced with the grave illness and lingering death of Margaret Sutton. Now, as he turns 100, he is working to see that his, his wife's, and Margaret Sutton's lifelong accumulations of books, documents, modest funds, and rich artworks are preserved and put to good use.
Levitt's paintings of the later 1950s became more and more thoroughly abstract, hard-edged, and patterned, sometimes even assuming bilateral symmetry. They seem primarily to investigate challenging questions of artistic form and organization. But the latest paintings, mostly of the 1960s, echo styles and concerns of Levitt's earlier years. The 1960 watercolor Disaster of Agadir, for instance, resumes and carries forward the spontaneous brushwork of the 1940s, now making full use of the medium's special capacity for diluted color washes, controlled drips, and wet-on-wet effects. What is more, this work is topical in a way not seen since the early 40s. In March of 1960 the Moroccan town of Agadir was hit by massive earthquakes and tidal waves. Thousands of people, including almost three-quarters of the sizable Jewish population, were wiped out. A survivor was quoted in the press as saying, "'This was a prosperous city, and we had a future. We worked and behaved ourselves. What in God's name do you suppose we did wrong?'" Hearing this cry and this existential question from Agadir, Alfred Levitt returned to his youthful aim of using painting to respond explicitly to the human dilemmas of the day.
Disaster of Agadir, 1960
Forrest McGill, director (Mary Washington College Galleries, Fredericksburg, Virginia)
This essay is based on extensive interviews with Alfred Levitt in 1993,as well as on documents supplied by Levitt or by the Levitt collection of the Archives of American Art.