NEW YORK FOLK
Lawrence Lebduska, Abraham Levin, Isreal Litwak
Two years ago, the Galerie St. Etienne mounted an exhibition titled “The Forgotten Folk Art of the 1940s.” One in a series of shows of self-taught artists we have been organizing annually to coincide with the Outsider Art Fair (where the gallery exhibits a broader array of non-academic material), “Forgotten Folk Art” focused on the watershed generation which, in the 1940s, initially established contemporary American self-taught art as a viable genre. The present exhibition, “New York Folk,” highlights three artists from that same generation: Lawrence Lebduska, Israel Litwak and Abraham Levin. Although New York City has long been the center of the American (and indeed, international) art world, folk art has, almost by definition, always been more diffuse, emerging from far-flung corners of the country. Lebduska, Litwak and Levin, on the other hand, are of interest in part because they were New Yorkers working in that city at the very moment when the entire self-taught field was first coalescing and being defined there.
The apotheosis of the self-taught artist into the modernist canon can be traced to the gala (if somewhat mocking) banquet that Picasso gave for Henri Rousseau in 1908, but it was not until 1927, when John Kane was admitted to the Carnegie International, that the genre received an official stamp of approval in America. The now legendary initial American exhibitions of folk art had featured pre-twentieth-century material, but in the late 1930s Alfred Barr at the fledgling Museum of Modern Art began legitimizing more contemporary work. MOMA hosted the first survey exhibition of twentieth-century non-academic art, “Masters of Popular Painting,” in 1938; Rousseau was given a one-man show at the museum in 1942, Morris Hirshfield in 1943. Establishing a pattern that has continued to characterize the field, many of the earliest collectors of contemporary self-taught work, such as Duncan Phillips, bought directly from the artists--at least in part because there were few dealers interested in that market. However, by 1940 a number of commercial galleries had entered the arena, and the ground was ripe for the first “boom” in contemporary non-academic art.
The beneficiaries of that first folk art boom, unlike all who came after, initially had no possible hope or expectations of ever succeeding as fine artists, for the field of self-taught art literally did not exist during their formative years. Lebduska, Litwak and Levin were part of the wave of Eastern and Central European immigration which flooded the less prosperous neighborhoods of New York City in the first decades of the twentieth century. Litwak and Levin came from Russia; Lebduska, though born in Baltimore, spent most of his childhood in Leipzig and his family’s native Bohemia, returning to the United States only in 1912. Undoubtedly their European backgrounds helped shape their aesthetic instincts, but none of the three men possessed the economic wherewithal to pursue an artistic career. Instead, they each earned their living at tasks that required a degree of manual dexterity, if not outright creative skill. Their artistic ambitions were nurtured primarily by the democratization of culture that accompanied the American industrial revolution. Museums, not yet hosts to blockbuster exhibitions, had been constructed as temples of culture for the masses. Free libraries--an additional resource that was used by many first-generation self-taught artists--performed a similar function. These trends were augmented by the proto-socialist tendencies of the Roosevelt era: both Lebduska and Levin found succor with the W.P.A., and Levin was also supported by his union, the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America. It took only a little further encouragement on the part of the art world for Lebduska, Litwak and Levin to blossom forth as painters: they were simply in the right place at the right time.
Given Lawrence Lebduska’s seminal role in the history of twentieth-century American self-taught art, it is surprising that he is not better remembered. It would appear that Lebduska was the first such artist, after Kane, to come to the attention of the New York establishment. Already in the late 1920s, Lebduska was exhibiting at the Opportunity Gallery of the Art Centre on 56th Street, where his work caught the attention of the noted violinist Louis Kaufman. Lebduska’s first big success, however, seems to have been a near sell-out show in 1936 at the Contemporary Art Galleries. The few surviving works from this early period make it possible to trace the artist’s development: from fairy-tale scenes that still strongly bespeak his Czech origins (checklist #1), to brighter, more lyrical compositions that are tied to personal fantasy rather than to a specific narrative (checklist #s 2-4). Robert Bishop, the late director of the Museum of American Folk Art, credited Lebduska with having inspired Abby Aldrich Rockefeller to begin her landmark collection of American folk art (now housed in the eponymous museum at Williamsburg, Virginia). Lebduska was featured in the 1938 MOMA show, and in Sidney Janis’s groundbreaking 1942 book, They Taught Themselves (which in turn spawned an ancillary exhibition at the Marie Harriman Gallery). The folk art boom really took off with the discovery of Grandma Moses in 1940, but Lebduska, though continuing for a while to exhibit, appears already to have been fading. When he reemerged publicly in the 1960s, shortly before his death, mention was made of an artistic hiatus caused by protracted illness, and some have alluded to a chronic drinking problem. It is unfortunate that so far no more detailed biographical information on Lebduska has been assembled, for this would surely shed much needed light on his creative evolution as well as on the impact of art-world notoriety on someone whose early life and training had left him ill-prepared to cope.
One may speculate that Lebduska, who was employed for a time by the noted interior designer Elsie de Wolfe before going freelance, drifted fairly organically from decorative mural painting into the fine arts. Israel Litwak, on the other hand, belongs with those of his generation (most notably Moses and Hirshfield) who experienced a dramatic change of vocation upon reaching retirement age. Having worked most of his life as a cabinet maker and varnisher of furniture, Litwak turned to art only at the age of 68. His first works--today quite rare--were done in pencil and crayon on board and have an embossed look that Sidney Janis likened to that of tooled leather (checklist #41). By the late 1930s, the art establishment had grown quite receptive to the work of self-taught artists, and thus when Litwak showed his pictures to the staff at the Brooklyn Museum, he was almost immediately offered a show. That 1939 exhibition was only the second one-person presentation ever accorded a self-taught painter by a major metropolitan museum. (The honor of being first again belongs to Kane, who in 1936 was given a memorial retrospective at Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Museum.) In the 1940s, his stature reaffirmed by inclusion in Janis’s book, Litwak was taken in hand by the esteemed dealer J. B. Neumann. Like others who helped put non-academic art on the map during this period, Neumann was known primarily for fostering avant-garde European artists, particularly the German Expressionists. Possibly at Neumann’s urging, Litwak switched from crayon to paint, producing the boldly colored canvases that form the bulk of his surviving oeuvre. If he nonetheless achieved only modest success in the 1940s, it may be because his jarring juxtapositions, distorted sense of scale and clashing color harmonies were incompatible with the increasingly serene and bucolic stereotype of folk art associated with Grandma Moses. Litwak’s sensibilities, by comparison, are far more in line with those of today’s “Outsiders” than they are with his own time.
The self-taught artist, who is often “naive” or unsophisticated only in the sense of being a complete stranger to the ways of the art world, has always been especially handicapped in dealing with the commercial gallery system. Even trained artists are, after all, frequently ill-equipped to handle the vicissitudes of fame, but the sad truth is that, in addition to talent and integrity of vision, it takes almost superhuman strength of character for the untrained artist to transcend the pressures of the marketplace. Kane, Horace Pippin and Hirshfield all grappled with this problem, but each died before experiencing the full brunt of a protracted artistic career. Moses, alone among her generation, enjoyed sustained professional success without compromising her artistic standards. Some of the more noteworthy artists unearthed courtesy of the ongoing “Outsider” phenomenon (for example, Henry Darger, Martin Ramirez and Bill Traylor) sidestepped the whole issue by remaining remote from the art crowd, which only caught on to them posthumously. Abraham Levin, on the other hand, may serve as a case study of how the hothouse climate of the New York art scene in the 1940s brought a genuine talent to accelerated flowering and then, just as quickly, killed it off.
Levin emigrated to the United States from Lithuania at the age of 23 and spent the next 34 years working at sewing kneepants in New York’s garment district, a job he thoroughly despised. A friend suggested he take some of the drawings he had been doing in his spare time to the local W.P.A. art school, and there he was immediately hailed as a great talent. Encouraged to try oils, he quickly produced three dozen canvases, which earned him a show at the Uptown Gallery in 1941. Howard Devree, the art critic for The New York Times, waxed rhapsodic about the exhibition, calling it “a thrilling experience” and the artist “extraordinary. . . . a true original.” The Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America, heartened by the critical acclaim, agreed to purchase 25 paintings on a kind of installment plan, providing Levin with a weekly stipend that allowed him to paint full time. Less than a year later, he had produced a further 25 canvases of sufficient quality that Otto Kallir, founder of the Galerie St. Etienne and discoverer of Grandma Moses, rejiggered his exhibition schedule in order to accommodate another one-man show. Again, Levin was heralded as a “sensation,” the promise of his first exhibition confirmed and fulfilled by the second. Fairly detailed records make it possible to piece together what happened next. The St. Etienne exhibition had not been a financial success, but Levin, bedazzled by the reviews, insisted on raising his prices. He was painting up a storm--almost as though he feared that even a moment’s hesitation would cause his miraculous artistic career to vanish. By 1944, he had enough work for yet another exhibition, but the magic was gone, the show this time a complete failure. By 1946, he was forced to beg for his old garment industry job.
The rise and fall of Lebduska, Litwak and Levin carries lessons that seem especially portentous in the context of today’s frenetic “Outsider” boom. Of 30 artists featured in They Taught Themselves, easily two-thirds are today completely forgotten; only a handful (Hirshfield, Kane, Moses, Pippin and perhaps Joseph Pickett) remain really well known. Between the folk art craze of the 1940s and the gradual resurgence of interest in “Outsiders” came three decades during which many scholars seriously argued that twentieth-century self-taught art did not--indeed could not--legitimately exist. There are, in fact, distinct parallels between the 1940s and the present moment. America was, in the earlier period, still reeling from the impact of the Great Depression, just as we are now coming to grips with our loss of political and economic stature as a global superpower. The grass-roots nature of self-taught art serves as an antidote to this sense of malaise by making Americans feel good about themselves, about their innate talents and resiliency. That folk art is a relatively low-budget collectible is also a fact that has never been lost on its adherents, particularly in times of economic retrenchment. More significantly, non-academic art has always acted as the conscience of the avant-garde: a lesson in pure, unmediated artistic expression, a way to replenish the creative juices when they seem to have run dry. Thus folk art served as a vital inspiration in the ‘40s, when America had not yet developed a native avant-garde of international standing, just as “Outsider” art seems fresher and more interesting than much of today’s post-modernist groping. Folk art booms will come and--inevitably--go, but quality will always survive. Not only can great non-academic art hold its own next to the work of great trained artists, but the two strands are so intertwined within the context of modern art history that the one cannot exist without the other.