Portrait of the Artist:

Peter Leventhal

painter in front of painting

I was very fortunate to grow up in New York City. I had access to the Metropolitan Museum; in those days it was free. I’d get on the subway from my school and go uptown to the museum and walked through the museum for endless hours. It probably stunted my growth socially.

There are always serendipitous things that occur in life; one happened to me at the New York Public Library. The main branch on Fifth Avenue has a wonderful print and drawing collection, but you have to be a member of an organization to get in to the collection. I happened to meet, I don’t even remember how, the assistant curator of the collection and she paid my way to allow me to go in even though I wasn’t an academic. I could put in an order slip, to see three Rembrandt pieces and they’d bring out the original sketches and I could sit and scrutinize them for as long as I wanted.

I always remember how one time when I was looking at a Rembrandt etching I noticed that there was his thumb print on the edge of the print. These were originals. It made me happy to see that thumb print because the bane of my existence at home was that I was a slob. My father tried to train me in his world, which was textile design, but he gave up, I was a hopeless specimen. I wasn’t orderly. I'm loath to admit it, but I'm still very disorderly in my habits. It was hell trying to be taught by my father. He was a very demanding man. He had a talent and he wanted to pass the business on to me, and it just wasn’t going to happen. So that thumb print sort of gave me some solace that greatness can be achieved even though you don’t wash your hands properly. Believe me, I'm not trying to compare myself with Rembrandt.

I spent hours at these places. I went to a lot of galleries. In those days there wasn't much in the way of contemporary galleries. There were some. In the 40s and 50s the work that eventually became well-known as work of the time wasn't being shown in many places. There were some places downtown, especially on east 10th Street, where there were some galleries that showed contemporary work. But I wasn't interested; I was never interested in pure abstraction. I was always interested in figuration. And even more in narrative figuration, that is to say paintings that sort of told a story, even if the story wasn't quite obvious. There was an underlying narrative to the painting. That was a struggle as a young man because by the time I had my own studio it was the hey-day of abstract expressionism and nobody seemed to be interested in contemporary representational painting. That, of course, was not quite true. There were artists working in a representational way who were successful in their careers, if not monetarily at least critically. And there was one gallery that showed these people. It was the Forum Gallery where people like Ben Shawn and Philip Etherwood and people like that were showing. That was what interested me.
painter in front of painting
Even though I grew up in New York and frequented the spots that artists frequented and partook of the social life, I always felt at the edge of the world that I was living in. My father took me to see art. He was a very odd character, he was very glib man and he always used to tell me that painting real painting ended at the end of the 18th century. That having been said I remember going to exhibits by Modigliani, Soutine, painters that were more in the modern tradition. One of the things that made me want to be an artist was on my 10th birthday he took me to the Metropolitan where they had a huge Van Gogh show. Looking at those paintings just sealed it for me. That was when I said, "I don't know how to do this. I don't even know how to live the life of an artist, but that's what I'm going to do." I knew then that that was my direction in life and maybe as glib and as erudite as my father was, I was as obstinate so it may have been the ancient Oedipal struggle, writ small.

I drew. I spent a great deal of time drawing. Drawing has always been a great love of mine, perhaps because it came to me fairly easily. Painting is another matter. Painting is intractable. It's a struggle. It's really like a wrestling match. But drawing, I always had a facility for drawing. And so I had in 1959, I had a show of drawings. A wonderful man, he was probably only a few years older than I but he seemed much more worldly, had a small gallery called The Drawing Shop on Christopher in NYC. And he somehow saw my drawings. I think what happened is that I had a friend who opened a coffee shop, in the village, Greenwich Village, and I would come in and draw on the walls and the ceilings, decoration. A number of people saw the drawings and asked about them. I was too callow to understand that they were interested in them. I never even thought about selling them but he asked to see a portfolio of them and I showed it to him and he gave me a show in '59. Then I left the next year to live in France for a couple of years, and when I came back he gave me another two shows. Those were my first shows. Then I showed at the Forum Gallery, they had a spring show of young talent, new talent, and each gallery would select the person as representative of new talent and once again I showed drawings. The owners name was Bella Fishko, her son now has the gallery. It's enormously successful in New York and Los Angeles She was an old school gallerist. She just loved the work that her artists did. She said in her blurb that she wrote about my show, these drawings reminded her of the drawings of Klimt. Since I knew Klimt and knew his work and knew his reputation it was medicine for the soul.

painter in front of painting
Then I struggled with showing work, I had a lot of rejection about my work as being unplaceable, no place for it. There had been a turn away from abstraction in an expressionist form to pop art and I was not a pop artist. Even though there were elements in my work that had a kid of pop character, for instance I think for 20 years there was always a series of cars that sat in the background of my paintings and these were what we used to call Hot Rod cars, customized cars. It was a world that I knew a little bit about and was fascinated about. It represented something. I used to do a lot of print making before my hand disobeyed me so much. My first set of prints was called The Great American Paper Bag. They were in a pop theme but they were not really pop. There was nothing ironical about them. In those days I had a very deep affection for, and I still do except it's unrequited now, American life as I understood it through the writings of Walt Whitman or Howard Crane or later on the beat writers. It seems like such ancient history now. It seems that affection is there in a reflective mode but not in an active mode. I just I feel a certain tragic loss to something essentially wonderful and dynamic in American life.

I have a whole political theory about what has happened in the United States. But for me it was an essential tragedy because what I knew, I knew the beat writers very well, I knew them first-hand and I could almost say that I knew Whitman first-hand because I lived in areas he lived in. I made it a point to go see things that Whitman would have seen which still existed. I actually slept in his bed at this little state park that was on Long Island that was his original house where he grew up. It was a very deep and inviting love and at one time it was very real-seeming to me and now it seems like it's all disappeared except for a few pieces.

There are several currents that work in the US: the first thing was the mendacity of the original constitution which was made by very rich men essentially to exclude poor men and women completely. But the forces of industrialization while they did terrible things, I'm thinking in terms of the strikes in Colorado in mines, the workshop fire, enabled a class of people in the US to become politicized and by then, numbers and the necessity to deal with them, created an alternative current to the current of the money-mad plutocrats and eventually that was destroyed. The technological innovations that occurred in American labor and American workplace and the globalization of production and money destroyed that and when it was destroyed the culture went with it. And I guess that's my synopsis.

painter in front of painting painter in front of painting
I spent a decade and a half of my life working for political causes as an artist, I did posters and brochures. It just seemed like an inclined endeavor. It just seemed to be getting less and less productive. I wouldn't say that I wasted my time doing it, I met a lot of incredibly wonderful people, but in terms of the salvation of the American soul, if I can be pompous like that, it seems to have been negated. And that's why I'm here in a way. Somebody once said to me when I was young, the wonderful thing about living here in New York or San Francisco or Provincetown Mass., one of the places on the map of the outsider sensibility, is that you can live in exile in your own country. But you couldn't do that anymore as far as I saw, so I literally exiled myself here to Mexico. I've been coming to Mexico for 40 years, but as a tourist or for several months of the year. I first came to San Miguel 20 years ago. I'm not active. I'm not even particularly deeply interested in quotidian politics in Mexico. But for me there's a human quality here that I can't find any more in the United States. The way people hold their children, the way that they correspond with one another… I have a great affection for those qualities, and they seem to be erased from life in the United States. There are other things, but I don't want this to be a political polemic.
more to come
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