The Hands of Israel Levitan
bu Randolph Maxted
“The aim is to produce sculpture of such simplicity that it hardly seems carved or modeled, but rather to have always so endured.” Thus spake internationally recognized American sculptor Israel Levitan four years before his death at a lecture he gave at St. Petersburg, Florida’s Eckerd College. An artist whose deep spirituality was at one with his work, the seeds of that spirituality had been sewn when he lived for a spell at age 17 (having left home at 13) with a tribe of Blackfoot Indians in Montana, even becoming blood brother to the chief and being given the name “Little Rock.” A moniker well suited to the future welterweight boxing champion, for he stood only five foot six but was solid muscle—which even later he was to project onto his equally muscular sculpture, but not without simultaneously infusing it with the lyrical grace that grounded his spirituality.
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.”
Israel (Jack) Levitan was the grandson of a Russian rabbi. His parents were first generation diaspora Jews who settled in Lawrence, Massachusetts, where in 1912 Israel, the second youngest of seven children, was born. He left home at 13 to roam the North American continent—hopping freight trains in the bargain—until settling at age 17 (the year the stock market crashed) with the Blackfoot tribe whose chief he became blood brother to. He said it wasn’t until years later he realized that his experience with the Indians was “the beginning of a spiral of evolvement for me toward a spiritual unity of body, mind, and spirit.” Following this he settled in Detroit to work for Chrysler Motors. While there he took up boxing, going on to win the Golden Gloves award in the Amateur Athletic Union Welterweight Championship. (He boxed under the pseudonym “Jackie Meyers.”) In 1938, on a dare from a friend to whom he joshed, upon seeing a piece of public art, “I could draw as good as that,” he enrolled at Cass Technical School. The next year he left Detroit to attend the Chicago Art Institute on a summer scholarship. When the United States entered the war in 1941, he joined the Marines, specializing in physical therapy, massage, stitching up wounds, and other healing duties (the U.S. Navy at that time being short of doctors). In light of his art training and talent as a draughtsman, he was called upon to do illustrations for Navy medical journals, and in this found success as his drawings were highly recommended and put to good use. Not surprisingly, his intimate knowledge of anatomy would eventually stand him in good stead as a sculptor, and that no less for the fact his work would be of the abstract mold. Staying with the Navy beyond the end of the war, Levitan was honorably discharged (having achieved the rank of Chief Petty Officer) in 1946. He was a qualified physiotherapy technician, and in that capacity went on to pursue a professional massage practice that lasted almost until his death in 1982, just a month shy of his 70th birthday.
In time, after settling in New York and becoming part of what was known as the New York School, he would massage Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning. But perhaps more importantly, his work as a masseur had an obvious bearing upon his career as a sculptor (use of the hands, a lifelong theme) and the aspect of healing as a spiritual practice, through therapy and art. It is both ironic and touching that the war gave Levitan his life calling as a healer (as opposed to a pugilist) and he so seamlessly melded healing and art in his professional career. Levitan studied under Amédée Ozenfant at the latter’s New York School of Fine Arts, eventually going on to study with Hans Hofmann, of whom art critic Irving Sandler wrote, “Everybody knew that he was the greatest teacher anywhere (and they were right).” Hofmann suggested Levitan take up sculpture as his drawings were “popping off the page.” Levitan wisely took up Hofmann’s suggestion. He would later claim he could not even dream in two dimensions and that his perception of the world was three dimensional—as Hofmann had recognized. So it was quite natural for him to evolve from the two dimensions of the flat plane (though he continued to produce sketches preparatory to carving) to the three dimensions of sculpting; it only took Hoffmann’s prescience and role of “teacher as guiding angel” to precipitate the switch from painter to sculptor. It was at Hofmann’s school that Levitan would meet his wife, Idee. She was also an artist and student both of Hofmann and, earlier, of Marcel Duchamp, and close friend of Katherine Dreier who, with Duchamp, started the Société Anonyme which would introduce abstract and nonobjective art—Wassily Kandinsky being one of the first and most important—to an American art public just beginning to feel the exciting tremors of a homegrown avantgarde, which would in time come to full flower in the art of Abstract Expressionism.
To put Israel Levitan in historical perspective, he was a second generation Abstract Expressionist and thus, according to Irving Sandler, be counted in the ranks of avant-garde artists. It is possible this term carried more weight in those heady days of truly new beginnings than it does today when it feels like everything that could conceivably be original has been done. Indeed, to our ears the term has the ring of the historical. Not so in the years of the New York School, a ferment of truly cutting edge creativity, when neither designation was a cliché. And sculpture was as much a part of it as painting. Jack and Idee—so they came to be known in New York’s art circles, becoming something of a legend as they rode around town on his scooter, Idee’s crutches tied to its sides, she holding perhaps a sculpture or bag of groceries while holding onto Jack at the same time—married and, on the GI bill, spent a year in Paris (1950-51) where Levitan studied under Russian émigré sculptor Ossip Zadkine. This training dovetailed into an immediate professional career as a sculptor, Levitan exhibiting at the Musee des Beaux-Arts in Paris before returning to New York where he showed both in group and solo exhibitions at several galleries including the Whitney, Grand Central Moderns, and more often at the numerous cooperative galleries on Tenth Street which were more keen than the uptown galleries to show the avant-garde work being produced by the area’s painters and sculptors.
The bulk of Levitan’s output spans two decades, the fifties and sixties. During this time he had many teaching positions, such as at Cooper Union, N.Y, the Brooklyn Museum, University of Califorian, Berkeley, Philadelphia Museum School. He received several commissions, two being from the California author, book designer, impresario, Life editor, and art collector Merle Armitage (whose papers are at the University of Arizona), another for the narthex ceiling of the Interchurch Center on Riverside Drive in New York, dedicated by President Eisenhower. His first solo exhibition was in 1952 at the Artist’s Gallery, NY, and among other exhibitions were Weyhe Gallery, Grand Central Moderns, the Whitney, Tanager Gallery, Stable Gallery, Barone Gallery. His one-man show of 1959 at the Barone was voted by Artnews as one of the ten best for that year in New York City. Levitan became a vice president of American Abstract Artists. In 1955 he exhibited with this group in a traveling show that went from NYC to Tokyo to Hawaii to San Francisco. In 1960 he again exhibited in Paris at the prestigious Galerie Claude Bernard; the piece exhibited there was reproduced in the magazine Das Kunstwerk. Over the two decades of his greatest output his work was reproduced in several art periodicals, including Art News, Life, It is, Harper’s Bazaar (an ad); and in books such as Michel Seuphor’s “The Sculpture of this Century,” Wayne Anderson’s “American Sculpture in Process: 1930-1970,” “The World of Abstract Art,” edited by American Abstract Artists. He was included in Fred McDarrah’s “The Artist’s World,” one of if not the definitive photographic records of the era’s leading New York artists. (Sandler called McDarrah, the “visual chronicler of the avant-garde.”) In 1956 Levitan received a scholarship to attend the McDowell Colony in New Hampshire (where many well-known artists and writers of the era interned), and while there executed a sculpture from the a bedpost that belonged to the late Mr. McDowell whose widow had set up the art colony. By the time the 70s rolled around, Levitan and his wife had been contemplating, indeed had begun to pursue a spiritual path that both diverged from and perhaps was an outgrowth of the one they’d been on for the past two decades. On a more mundane level, artistic tastes had simply changed and were giving way to movements such as pop art and a return to representational, so-called realistic art (even if with a decidedly postmodern flavor). But along with that the climate of the New York art world had morphed to favor not just greater but more cut-throat competition and a more crass materialism accompanied by nastier egos. Infighting among artists, dealers and critics (which had always existed to some extent) became more tiresome, and there seemed less or no concern for “truth to materials (which term had almost become a joke). Despite the free-spirited bohemianism of the fifties and hippiedom of the sixties (which admittedly continued into the seventies and which, labels and definitions aside, had always somewhat characterized Jack and Idee anyway), capitalism was gearing up for yet another rogue phase which would hit America full force in the eighties. It is the economist’s or social commentator’s and not the art historian’s task to analyze and enumerate the depredation of such a process, but its ugliness, tied at the hip to big urban centers like New York, was not lost on the Levitans. Certainly not for that reason alone, but it was a major one that in the early 70s the Levitans decided it was time to leave New York and move to Florida where they would pursue their interests in Eastern spirituality, a phenomenon just burgeoning at that time in the United States thanks to the likes of Buddhism (especially Zen Buddhism) and Yoga (not calisthenics, as it’s largely practiced today, but as a spiritual discipline). This last was the path the Levitans elected to follow. However, until 1975 they kept their residency in New York, traveling back and forth. Namely the house in East Hampton which that year they sold to Idee’s friend, Elaine de Kooning. Levitan continued to teach, do healing work, and sculpt, his last work being a bust of the Indian philosopher Krishnamurti. But while he continued to offer his work for sale he never again sold through galleries. This was not an act of judgment or censure of those who did but a revaluation of personal priorities and perhaps a tacit acknowledgement that one often evolves as artist and human being to where the two coalesce, and their life circumstances, if the material they are to be true to first and foremost is themselves, are going to reflect that evolution of spirit. The case can be stated as simply as this: the furtherance of Levitan’s spiritual interests—or career if the spirit is allowed to have one—was apparently no longer able to include or assimilate the highly competitive, ego-twisting art gallery scene that it had become by the late 60s in New York. One could pragmatically conclude that his decision to opt out of that scene may have made him a better man but not a more successful artist. As for the question of which is more important, or rather, since the answer to that is obvious, what it means for the future relevance of his art, I will quote one last time from his lecture given at Eckerd College, whose full title is Beyond the Ego: Discovery of the Self through the Creative Arts! (sic): “Nations can fall, presidents and dictators can come and go, while a true work of art becomes more and more valuable with the passage of time.” If Israel Levitan’s are not true works of art (according to his own fluid but implacable definition) then time itself has no meaning.
Levitan’s sculpture is in numerous public and private collections throughout the country, acquisitions made both before and since his death. Three years after he died his work was exhibited in a group show at the Philadelphia Arts Alliance (1985), and a solo show called A Way with Wood was mounted in 1990 at the Santa Barbara Museum of Art. In 1993, the SBMA acquired two of his sculptures, donated by his widow. Since her death in 1997, the remaining collection (which numbers some 40 pieces, plus a handful of charcoal sketches and drawings) has been in the collection of Randolph Maxted who was married to Idee for the last three and a half years of her life, and resides in Tucson, Arizona.
1. Irving Sandler: “A Sweeper-Up After Artists” (Thames & Hudson, 2003)
2. Evergreen Review, Vol. 2, No. 8, spring 1959 (article: “American Construction Sculpture,” by Irving Sandler)
3. Israel Levitan: “Beyond the Ego: Discovery of the Cosmic Self through the Creative Arts! (lecture delivered at Eckerd College, St. Petersburg, Florida, 1978)
4. Michel Seuphor: “Sculpture of this Century” (George Braziller, NY, 1960)
5. Carole Gold Calo: “Aspects of Wood Sculpture in America During the 1950s” (dissertation for M.A.T. , Tufts University, 1973)
6. Idee Levitan: conversations with the artist’s widow, 1985-97