Encounters: Oil Paintings, Sculptures and Watercolors.

The National Arts Club:

15 Gramercy Park South

Opening reception: May 28, 2003: 6 p.m. – 8 p.m.

May 28 – June 11, 2003


Some artists are very deliberate; planning, plotting and calculating each aesthetic move to nurture an elaborate artistic program or a growing career. They are proud to assert control over their creativity.

Others seem to create willy-nilly, spilling their psychological baggage out before us, amazing us with each new specimen of personal history. They assert that they have no idea what each new work might mean or what will follow. Benjamin Levy maintains that he is just this kind of spontaneous artist. His paintings, sculptures and watercolors are being shown at the National Arts Club, May 28 through June 11.

Benjamin Levy was born in 1940 in Tel Aviv. His background, and most importantly, the history of his family, is a predominant force that shapes much of his artwork. His family’s travels from the far reaches of the Middle East to settle in the Land of Israel produced a jumble of influences to shape the young artist. Benjamin’s father, Ovadiah, walked from Yemen to Jaffa, taking two years to traverse the vastness of Saudi Arabia. Ovadiah’s mother and sister died along the way. Benjamin’s mother, Batsheva, was born in Jerusalem to parents
who had migrated from Turkey. When his parents met in Jaffa they were both impoverished orphans. He sold peanuts, sunflower seeds and occasionally birds while she worked as a maid. They married and had eleven children. Benjamin was the ninth child born to his parents. Life was a struggle.

Benjamin’s reaction was to create art. His talent was soon noticed as a young adult and later he studied art in Paris, Israel and New York. He now divides his time, living and working on the Upper West Side in New York and in the artist’s colony of Ein Hod near Haifa. Working
hard and giving free rein to his memory-soaked imagination, he has created a fantastic universe inhabited by prototypical men and women in surreal settings. Everything is depicted as quite real in this manufactured land of Nod that is, according to Levy, unplanned and unscripted. He is driven as an artist, working over 12 hours a day, producing countless drawings, watercolors and paintings and has exhibited continuously and extensively throughout the world since his
early 20’s. His art opens a world of unimagined possibilities.

Benjamin Levy does not title his paintings, rather they are exercises of artistic freedom unbounded by text. We see a man posed in a room next to an incongruous tree surrounded by birds. This room and endless variations is a staple of Levy’s world. A narrow, slightly claustrophobic shadow box becomes the stage in which little vignettes are played out. Proportions are all slightly out of kilter as a kind of primitive naturalism prevails in a scene that seems clear and yet hides its meaning behind a puzzlement of details. This “Birdman” painting seems to speak about how we are surrounded by freedom (the birds can come and go as they please through the window) and yet we are constrained, bounded by limiting proprieties. Remember, Levy’s father sold birds.

In a drawing done this year, we see the bird again – this time alone, flat on its back with both feet straight up. It is the end for this colorful bird. And what of freedom? In a world in turmoil, with Israel under constant attack – are all birds of freedom doomed?

Concepts such as freedom, home, and our place in them are constantly explored. A series of “table landscapes” show a miniature house, a pair of figures and a tree all set on a table placed in a room. The chimney is smoking and echoes the smoke from the passing steamship glimpsed through the open doorway. Distant travel is anxiously juxtaposed with the comforts of domesticity, rendering our concept of home security but an imaginative plaything. Levy’s surrealism grows in the fertile soil of his family history of difficult travels and equally uncertain homes of part-time exile.

Levy is restless in his depiction of the strange and the familiar alike. A recent watercolor of a rabbi is startling in its depiction of something normal, possibly a memory of a traditional rabbi from his Paris days. This playful drawing serves to ground his fantastic universe with a reminder of a Jewish world, as elusive as that might be.

After a recent visit with the artist in his New York studio, one image kept on returning to haunt me. A man in a suit with little angel wings is seen hugging a tree. How strange! Levy told me it was a recurrent image in his work. Perhaps his father loved trees? Surely the birds do. But more poignantly, the image is about how we all crave stability, and even a little certainty in our lives. We all wish to grab onto something rooted, something that soars heavenward even as it provides shelter and beauty. Something remarkably like a tree.

In a curious way, Levy’s seemingly spontaneous and idiosyncratic artwork expresses how much we all yearn for that stability even as the world around us goes spinning in so many different directions.

For biographical details I am indebted to Ori Soltes’ excellent catalogue essay; “The Travels of Benjamin and La Familia” that accompanied the 1993 Retrospective at the B’nai B’rith Klutznick National Jewish Museum.

Richard McBee is a painter of Torah subject matter and writer on Jewish Art. Please feel free to e-mail him with comments at rmcbee@nyc.rr.com.