Abraham Levin


Levin suffered the rags-to-riches, riches-to-rags fate of many self-taught artists in the 1940s. Swept up in the “naive” boom of that period, he was heralded with numerousgallery exhibitions and rave reviews. His renown faded, however, as quickly as it had arrived, and Levin was not rediscovered until the 1990s, as the result of agrowing interest in self-taught artists. His paintings have a moody, bluish palette, as well as a distorted style reminiscent of the Spanish painter El Greco (1541–1614) or the German expressionists who worked in the first decades of the twentieth century, while his evocation of Eastern European village life, based on childhood memories,has been compared to the work of Marc Chagall (1887–1985). Levin’s subjects also included portraits and still-life paintings.Levin, like his better-known compatriot Morris Hirshfield (1872–1946), immigrated to the United States from Lithuania and found employment in the garmentindustry. Bored and eventually disgusted with his mind-numbing job sewing “knee pants,” he started making pencil sketches; at the age of 57, he turned to painting.Encouraged by his teacher at a Works Progress Administration art class in the Bronx, New York, community where he lived, he brought his work to the UptownGallery in Manhattan, where he was given his first show in 1941. Several exhibitions at the Galerie St. Etienne followed in quick succession.Initially, Levin was hailed as a great “find.”
The New York Times called his first exhibition “a thrilling experience.” Critics responded strongly to the elements of hisintuitive style that evoked the modern masters. The Amalgamated Clothing Workers Union sent their own critic to evaluate Levin’s work, and then granted him a $25-a-week stipend that enabled him to paint full-time. Though Levin was delighted by this change of fortune, his windfall was not sufficient to permit his family to leave their three-room walkup apartment, nor to allow his wife, also a garment worker, to quit her job. And Levin’s luck did not last. The dovetailing of folk art and modernism,which in the early 1940s still seemed cogent, began to lose support as the decade progressed. In the end, Levin was forced to beg the union for his old garment-industry job back. Levin’s painting career never revived. He died at the age of 77 in 1957.