Lewis Rubenstein created the art you see in this exhibit, but both he and his wife were partners in the creative process. Lewis and Erica embraced the beauty of the natural world and the strength and grace of humankind. This show is dedicated to their artistic partnership. Erica is an art historian with a doctorate from Radcliffe. Their relationship started on the eve of her defending her doctoral thesis on the art of the New Deal. Lewis wandered into the Harvard Library and invited her to dinner – whether by chance or by design we don’t know.
When we ask Erica, “How would you describe Lewis as an artist?” the answer is unequivocal and unchanging. “Your father was a good painter.” There is a pause as the word “good” hangs in the space between us. “What does ‘good’ mean?” I ask. “Who would you describe as a great painter?” Without hesitation my mother replies, “Rembrandt.” After a reflective pause Erica adds, “Your father was a very good painter.” Erica’s objectivity and her critical eye were an important aspect of the creative partnership. When Lewis had assembled a body of work, he would ask Erica to join him in the studio that was joined to our home at 153 College Avenue, Poughkeepsie, New York. Erica would help him judge the firsts, the seconds and the discards to be left for the garbage men, or the “garbageros” as Lewis fondly called them.
If there was one place in the Universe where Lewis was most centered in his creative calling, it was Cape Cod. We spent our summers there and Lewis painted the dunes, the sea and the delicate compass grasses that traced circles on the shifting white sands.
Lewis was a community artist, whether in Buffalo where he was born and raised, Poughkeepsie where he taught at Vassar College, or Burlington where he “retired” in his 80’s. He could be seen, a solitary figure on a sketching stool, painting in the fall, the winter or the spring. He called summer “the spinach season” and preferred to paint the dunes rather than verdant landscapes.
Lewis was either painting or thinking about painting almost every hour of his waking life. His father wanted him to become a lawyer, but the redheaded son had other plans. Lewis was a human being who was compelled to observe and reflect what he saw in his art. He chose a wide variety of media – murals, frescoes, oils, watercolors, ink paintings, lithographs and time paintings, horizontal scrolls painted on linen and viewed in a wooden frame. He also recorded family life and faculty meetings in humorous sketches. His art reflects the quality of the man – warm, insightful, reflective and peaceful. The art he created in the 1930’s are strong testament to his belief in the inherent dignity and worth of each individual – miners, steel workers, ordinary people and protesters in the Hunger March in Washington. His murals in the Harvard Museum of Art, the Busch Reisinger, were powerful warnings against fascism. His spirit and his art are a legacy to the communities where he lived and to his family – his children and their partners, his grandchildren and five great-grandchildren.
The works displayed in this show are the bookends of an artistic career. He sketched and painted from his boyhood until his death in 2003. The show brackets his work with art from the 1930’s with strong depictions of American workers to a later collection of paintings, The Creation Series.
Lewis saw, he composed and he drew. The time between seeing and sketching could be measured in seconds. He made quick decisive strokes of his brush, dipping the delicate tip into water then picking up his favorite lavender hue from his paint-smeared wooden palette. Once working, he moved to another plane of existence, beyond time, space, weather or hunger.
This show is a celebration of beauty – in the natural world and in the lives of people. Lewis and Erica both cherished the intangibles of life – love, beauty, joy, humor, courage, integrity and travel. The legacy of my father returns to me every sunset, every sunrise. He taught us to see and focus on the fleeting moment of beauty. Let this be the legacy of this show for you, who perhaps can begin to behold the work through your ears and the written word. As you visit this gallery and as you leave it, we hope that you will pause and reflect on these “intangibles” and the beauty of the world.
By Daniel Blake Rubenstein
Co-Steward, Lewis William Rubenstein Legacy Collection