Lecture and Exhibition: The Life and Work of Israel Levitan – Mid Century Sculptor
Join Tucson Modernism Week and Gallery 2Sun for a presentation by collector Randolph Maxted on the legacy of the accomplished and renowned Mid-century sculptor, American abstract expressionist Israel Levitan . The art critics of ARTnews selected Levitan’s 1959 exhibition at the Barone Gallery in New York as one of the 10 best one-man exhibitions of the year along with Pablo Picasso, Hans Hofmann and Willem de Kooning. This talk coincides with a retrospective exhibit of the artist’s works at the The Gallery 2 Sun. Tucson’s own Maxted, who holds the largest collection of the work, has researched it’s significance extensively. In tandem the gallery will show over 15 of his major pieces curated with sketches and photos.
“The aim is to produce sculpture of such simplicity that it hardly seems carved or modeled, but rather to have always so endured.”An American abstract expressionist sculptor, Israel Levitan (1912 - 1982) was born in Lawrence, MA, the grandson of a rabbi, left home in his very early teens to travel. Eventually he lived for a year with the Blackfoot Indians in Montana and became blood brother to a chief and was given the name “Little Rock.” He then settled in Detroit, where he worked on the assembly line for the Chrysler Plant, and under the company’s sponsorship, became the Amateur Athletic Union Welterweight Boxing Champion. After taking classes at both Cass Tech and the Arts and Crafts School in Detroit, he was awarded a summer studies scholarship to attend the Art Institute of Chicago. His studies were interrupted by World War II. He joined the U.S. Navy (Marines) as a medical corpsman, where he traveled to the South Pacific. As well as becoming involved in physical therapy and rehabilitation, he drew many sketches of the surroundings and his Navy buddies, and also was requested by his superiors to make anatomical sketches which were published and used by the Navy. As a result of his naval training and experience, Levitan became a qualified physiotherapist. He obtained a license to practice massage which he did for the rest of his life. After the war, Levitan moved to New York City. He first studied with Amédée Ozenfant, and then enrolled in Hans Hofmann’s school, where he met his wife, Idee, a painter and designer (and former student of Marcel Duchamp). At Hofmann’s suggestion (who told him his drawings were “popping off the page”), Levitan went to Paris, France, to study sculpture with Russian émigré Ossip Zadkine (1950-51). Before returning to New York, Levitan participated in a group show at the Musee des Beaux Arts in Paris. Back in New York, he set up studio on E. Ninth Street, and was quickly assimilated into the New York School avantgarde art scene. Before long he moved his studio to Tenth Street, where many cooperative galleries were and where many of the artists who showed in them lived. Levitan exhibited his work in several of these galleries, such as the Tanager, the Barone and others, along with such contemporaries as Gabriel Kohn, Raoul Hague, Sidney Geist, and Louise Nevelson. His method as a sculptor, commonly known as “direct carving,” had as its central philosophy “truth to materials.” In other words, using only tools powered by hand and creating works that maintain the organic and visual integrity of the material worked on. In Levitan’s case primarily wood, although he did execute a large number of works in other mediums, such as metal, stone, terra cotta, bronze, concrete, and lead solder. Explaining his method, he said in the lecture quoted from above, unconsciously evoking Michelangelo, “I remove the fat and let the muscle exist. A piece of wood is similar to a hand, with muscle. good bone structure, nervous system, a life quality. In carving I find the abstract form in wood or stone and try to expand the vision of that form to emphasize the natural qualities it has.” He became a vice president of Abstract American Artists, and was part of a group show sponsored by them that in 1955 toured from NYC to Tokyo to Hawaii to San Francisco. Although Levitan worked in a range of materials, such as plaster, stone, and metal, he executed most of his work in wood. The very nature of the material suited Levitan’s interest in combining geometric formalism with a more organic naturalism. Levitan usually used found wood, preferring the visual character that it had acquired in its previous use. Cubism, Constructivism, and the work of Constantin Brancusi as well as Henry Moore (and of course his teacher Zadkine) all served as important sources for formal ideas explored in sculpture during the 1950s. At the same time, interest in the irrational and the subconscious promoted by Dada and Surrealism encouraged artists toward an intuitive process and response to their materials. This range of influences is evident in Israel Levitan’s sculpture. Levitan’s output spans the two decades of the fifties and sixties. He had six one-man shows in that period, his first being in 1952 at the Artist’s Gallery, NYC. Among other solo exhibitions were Weyhe Gallery (1953); Barone Gallery, NYC (1957, 1959, 1960; Philadelphia Museum of Art (1963); Grand Central Moderns (1964); and Artist Market Gallery, Clearwater, Florida (1978). He was included in over 30 group shows. In 1956 he received a fellowship to attend the McDowell Colony in New Hampshire. Here he carved the sculpture Serenity, from a bedpost that belong to the late Mr. McDowell, whose widow had set up the art colony, and where many famous American artists and writers of the era interned. The art critics of ARTnews selected his 1959 exhibition at the Barone Gallery in New York City, as one of the 10 best one-man exhibitions of the year along with Pablo Picasso, Hans Hofmann and Willem de Kooning. Levitan taught at Cooper Union, New York (1955); the Brooklyn Museum School (1956-60); University of California, Berkley (1962); and the Philadelphia Museum School (1962-63), among others. He received a variety of commissions, one of which was the Interchurch Center on Riverside Drive in NYC (he created the ceiling of the narthex), dedicated by President Eisenhower, It was a 45 foot abstract sculptured ceiling of carved plaster featuring 1,000 lucite disks through which light is projected thus providing a night canopy appearance. Additionally there were works commissioned by impresario, author, book designer, Life editor, and art collector Merle Armitage (whose papers are held at the University of Arizona, Tucson). Beyond receiving many awards for his sculpture, he has been widely collected, both publicly and privately, throughout the country. Since his death in 1982, a month before his 70th birthday, Levitan’s work has been in a group show in Philadelphia (Philadelphia Arts Alliance, 1985) and a 1990 solo show at the Museum of Art in Santa Barbara, where his widow was then living. In 1993 she donated two of his sculptures to the SBMA. Upon her death in 1997 the remainder of her personal collection (about 75 pieces) went to Randolph Maxted, her husband for the last three and a half years of her life. Maxted currently lives in Tucson, Arizona and is an ardent student of abstract expressionism and mid-century art. Lecture: Thursday, October 10 at 6:30PM. Exhibition Hours: October 5 -13th 1:00PM - 6:00PM. This event is Sponsored by Benjamin Supply