The Barrett Art Center presents
Lewis Rubenstein Retrospective
Moments in Time, from the 1930’s
to the Turn of the Century
September 20 – October 11, 20011
The Artistic Legacy of Lewis Rubenstein (1908-2003)
It is 1937. The New Deal unfolds slowly; some banks reopen and tens of millions of Americans are out of work. A handful of workers keep America’s steel mills, mines and shipyards alive. A young artist, Lewis Rubenstein, recently returned from Europe, records America’s industrial heartland in bold lines that capture the hope, despair and enduring resilience of the American worker. These images of Art from the 1930s form the foundation of the Artistic Legacy Exhibit.
A display of Rubenstein’s artistic vision over an eighty year span, the Exhibit includes drawings, lithographs, watercolors and time paintings, a fusion of western and eastern art forms that the artist invented. The art of the 1930s demonstrates, in bold draftsmanship, how Rubenstein witnessed the social change occurring in America. Mining Town (1949), Rubenstein’s first time painting, records life in a copper mine in Jerome, Arizona. Later Rubenstein painted oils and watercolors of life on Poughkeepsie’s Main Street, capturing the Hudson River town in transition. Throughout his fifty years in Poughkeepsie, he painted landscapes of the Hudson River and recorded the timeless serenity and majesty of one of America’s most beautiful waterways. The ever changing but timeless dunes of Cape Cod were the subject of many of Rubenstein’s ink paintings, a style perfected during a year in Japan in 1958. A rich selection of lithographs documents places Rubenstein traveled and studied – with vivid images of Easter processions in Mexico in 1952 and images reflecting the color and bustle of small villages around Tokyo in 1958.
In the 1970’s, as Rubenstein retired from teaching studio art at Vassar College, he embarked on a series of paintings he called “The Creation Series” – bold, turbulent abstractions that depict the moment of creation of the universe, as described in Genesis.
The Exhibit reflects Rubenstein’s exploration of Time – as an artist witnessing social change, reflecting varied but eternal patterns in the dunes, inventing Time Paintings that depict themes in a moving scroll, recording the ephemeral beauty of a sunset or other moment in Nature, and creating images that evoke a sense of Creation, the beginning of the Universe.
In over 70 works, this Exhibit captures the richness and diversity of Rubenstein’s artistic vision in this Centennial Year, the 100th year since his birth
Lewis Rubenstein Legacy
24 – August 13, 2011
BCA Center, Burlington, Vermont
In January 1937, at the height of the Great Depression, Lewis Rubenstein was a young fresco painter and recent Harvard graduate. Following a major mural commission at Harvard’s Fogg Museum, Rubenstein set out cross-country in hopes of “seeing real life in America.” After experiencing the turmoil of the Bethlehem Steel strikes, he traveled to the copper mining town of Jerome, Arizona. Descending with the workers into the mineshafts, he filled his sketchbooks with the details of their lives and of their struggles. Later these sketchbooks would form the basis of Mining Town , the first of Rubenstein’s highly dramatic and uniquely original artistic form: the Time Painting. From there, Rubenstein traveled to the San Francisco waterfront documenting the shipyards and dockworkers. These works powerfully capture the strength, dignity and fortitude of the working class. Today, again, we find ourselves in the midst of an economic crisis. In America and around the world, millions are out of work, and the American worker is faced with one of the greatest challenges since the Great Depression. Rubenstein’s work resonates as strongly now as it did then.
In this exhibition, the BCA Center is thrilled to show three distinct bodies of work covering Lewis Rubenstein’s artistic legacy of eighty years. In the watercolor on paper works of the Art of the 1930’s, he documents the lives of the working class. The swirling, luminescent abstract ink on paper of the 1980’s Creation Series makes innovative use of the water-based Japanese sumi-e painting technique. Finally, the Vermont paintings capture, in a variety of mediums, the environment of his later years until his death in Shelburne, Vermont in 2003.
This exhibition would not have been possible without the support and encouragement of the Rubenstein family: Erica Rubenstein, Emily Morrow, Paul Morrow, Lillian Morrow, Daniel Rubenstein, Nancy Rubenstein, Ari Rubenstein, Beth Rubenstein and Joshua Rubenstein.
“I went to Virginia and the Carolinas, drawing and painting mostly in garment factories…. After traveling in the South…. I bought a secondhand Ford and headed west to see the country…. The first destination was Cleveland, to draw in the Bethlehem Steel plant located there…. It was the time of the great steel strikes of the 1930’s and the bitter feelings ran deep…. I spent some time drawing in the plant. When I came out, the strikers grabbed me. They insisted I was a company informant and was spying on the men…. Finally, the biggest of the leaders just tore up all my drawings and told me to get out of town and never come back again. I spend the night sleeping on the beach on the shore of Lake Erie; I couldn’t stay in any place in town.”
“In 1948 I got the idea for Time Painting. It developed from my long interest in Chinese and Japanese
horizontal scrolls, which I first saw in the Boston Museum [of Fine Arts]. My Time Paintings differ from
the Far Eastern hand scrolls mainly in that I pan them to be seen upright in a frame as a changing
picture. I wanted to do something like music in developing visual themes in time as well as in space.”
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 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. 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
2 May 2011, Ottawa, Canada
Lewis Rubenstein: Retrospective Exhibition
Vassar College Art Gallery
May 5-June 7 1974
[When we first discussed the contents of this catalogue Lewis was kind enough to entrust to me space for a few critical and historical comments on his art. In order to help he made available to me all of the visual and documentary material in his possession, including a tape, which he made especially to assist me, of recently recorded remarks on his art. Of all this material, the tape was the most interesting. Lewis’s observations were fresh, direct and inti mate, yet, at the same time, lucid and comprehensive in describing the development and unify ing components of his art. It was clear to me after the first listening that no words of mine could equal his own, and certainly that none of my thoughts could possibly have the same authority. And so, seeing that Lewis was his own best critic and historian, I suggested that we include the text of his remarks in this catalogue, for which they would serve as a delightful and most helpful introduction. To this suggestion he kindly agreed, and the transcript of his re marks, to which I have appended a few notes, follows below. N. C. Jr.]
Transcript of remarks recorded March 20, 1974, by Lewis Rubenstein.
In looking back, it seems to me there have been three main threads running through the work I’ve done. The first is drawing. Second, a liking for water-based techniques. These in clude watercolor, tempera, true fresco,’ acrylic, but especially ink, or sumi painting. Though I’ve always painted in oils I’m working on one now I always keep changing in oil. General ly, I prefer the decisiveness of water-based media. Watercolor, true fresco and sumi painting are really performances in rapid time. The third thread is that I’ve found the horizontal scroll form most sympathetic for my objectives in painting.
To get back to the first thread, drawing. As a kid I was always drawing. I drew peo ple, heads, trying for likenesses. I loved sports: swimming, diving, baseball, football, basketball. I played them, and then came home and drew what I remembered. When in grade school I attended night classes at the Albright Art School in Buffalo. In those days art students started drawing in charcoal from casts. In high school, after school I drew in a sketch class. My am bition then was to be an illustrator. My father sent me to Harvard to become a lawyer. While in college I decided instead to go into art, which was what I really always wanted to
do. After college, while on a Harvard traveling fellowship, I met Rico Lebrun’ in Rome. We were both looking for a fresco teacher. We found Galimberti, and worked together in his studio on the Via Margutta. Rico was a strong draughtsman. I learned a great deal about drawing from him. While painting fresco, back in America, I did a tremendous amount of figure draw ing, mostly of men. The Steelworker in the [collection of] the Vassar Art Gallery is an exam ple [Cat. No. 75]. I drew the portrait of my grandmother at about that time [Cat. No. 74]. In 1938 I studied lithography with Emil Ganso” in his New York studio. Of all the graphic tech niques I prefer lithography because it permits the most direct drawing. I’ve continued lithography over the years. I get out an edition or two just about every year sometimes more. In Mexi co in 1951 I did a series of eight lithographs at the Taller Grafica. I did several with Onaya san in Japan. I’m still drawing as much as ever. Lately I’ve been more interested in landscape and nature forms, like the ferns [Cat. No. 84] and skunk cabbages [Cat. No. 102]. In faculty meetings at Vassar over the years I’ve made surreptitious drawings of our colleagues in little sketchbooks. Some of these will be exposed for the first time in this show [Cat. No. 81]. Draw ing has always been natural and enjoyable for me.
The second thread is my great interest in water-based techniques, particularly in ink, or sumi, painting. In high school I used to get hold of all the books I could find on Japanese brushwork and composition. When I got to Harvard, the Far Eastern paintings in the Boston Museum of Fine Arts opened up a whole new world for me. Even while teaching fresco later, in the Boston Museum School, I used to go over to the Museum to do Oriental brushwork with Chie Hirano in the Museum’s Asiatic Department. I did ink paintings on my own. I got the idea of doing them on canvas the Provincetown Harbor  in this show is one of the first of these [Cat. No. 56]. In 1957 I was awarded a Fulbright grant to Japan for my ink and scroll painting. In Japan I worked with various masters sensei, as they are called – in ink painting (suiboku) and in calligraphy. I got to know some of the last of Japan’s great tra ditional painters, Maida Sesson, and especially Keigetsu Matsubayashi. Both were very much in terested in my work. I had a close and happy relationship with Keigetsu. I used to bring my work to him, and then he’d paint to show me his way of working. (A film was made of us to
gether in his studio.) I soon realized that no Westerner could ever achieve the technical mas tery of such Japanese traditional painters, so I tried to use sumi like any other medium, for my own expressive purposes.
I think I might say a word about sumi painting. A basic concept in Far Eastern painting is that the unpainted areas are just as important as the painted ones. The Japanese have a word for the unpainted area: it’s kukan literally “sky-space.” But it really means more than that. It’s a space to be filled by the imagination of the sensitive observer. I used this idea in the Dunes Time Painting [Cat. No. 4]. Another concept in Far Eastern painting is the idea of identification – to become so immersed in the subject that one becomes the sub ject. I think I did this with the ink studies that I did for the Dunes scroll, such as Every Val ley [Cat. No. 66], and in doing the final Time Painting of the Dunes. Sumi painting demands a combination of great discipline with maximum spontaneity. I think I came close to this com bination in my Noh Dance [Cat. No. 62]. It’s most difficult to do sumi painting on a highly sensitive Chinese paper, as I used in the Triptych [Cat. No. 71]. The paper is so thin and absorbent that if the brush hesitates a moment it goes right through the paper. Such paper is used because it brings out the most beautiful tonal effects of fine Chinese inks is sort of bluish black. the tone
While painting with sumi, I’ve always continued doing watercolors. (I started doing watercolors seriously while I was in the Navy, when I had very little time for painting.)” Sometimes I’ve combined the two media, as in Machu Picchu [Cat. No. 40]. Most of my Time Paintings are done in watercolor on linen. The sized linen gives the scrolls the necessary strength and quite a different quality from the watercolor on paper. Most of the individual watercolors and caseins in this exhibit were done outdoors.
I enjoy painting from nature in oils, too. A number of canvases in this show, such as Urban Renewal [Cat. No. 20] and Backyards [Cat. No. 25], were painted right on the spot. When I work in oils in the studio I keep changing endlessly, but I do it very directly out doors, and find it a very pleasurable way of painting.
The third thread running through my work is my use of the horizontal scroll form. This started early, too. As a kid I liked to do continuous drawings on rolls of paper with colored crayons, then I’d run them through a cut-out opening in a box in front of a lamp. My first real introduction to the great Far Eastern scrolls was in the Boston Museum. Arthur Pope used to take our Harvard Fine Arts 1A class into the Museum. He communicated a tre mendous feeling for such scrolls as “The Burning of the Sanjo Palace,” the Chinese landscape scrolls, Dragon scrolls and others. The impact of these Far Eastern scrolls had been perco lating in my mind for a number of years while I was doing murals.
Along about 1948 I got the idea of combining the horizontal scroll form with the framed picture. The impetus was to develop a sustained visual theme in time as well as space to do something like music. I developed what I call Time Painting. This is continuous scroll painting designed to be seen moving through the window of a special viewing frame. Some of the first I did around Vassar Lake in winter, such as Vassar Lake , the one the Vassar Gallery owns [Cat. No. 2], and Winter Walk, which is shown in the Time Painting film.” I’ve used a variety of themes for Time Paintings, some Biblical, such as the one based on the 104th Psalm [Cat. No. 71, and the story of Joseph. I’ve done landscapes, seascapes, as in Dunes, Water [Cat. Nos. 9, 10]. I’ve done documentaries, such as Mining Town [Cat. No. 11, Macumba, Capoeira and Coming of Age [Cat. No. 6]. Scroll painting is essentially an art of transition, of shifting in scale and space, of continuous flow. You can’t cut rapidly, as in movies. The change has to be gradual. In my Time Paintings there is the additional need to compose with in the viewing frame as the scroll moves through the window. They differ from Far Eastern scrolls in other essential ways, too. They are made to be seen at eye level in frames instead of looking down while unrolling a little at a time on a horizontal surface. I paint them on fine white linen that I prepare myself. I do the final painting like I used to paint murals in true fresco. I finish a section a day, day after day. Like fresco, the scrolls can’t be changed, so in doing a thirty foot scroll it requires considerable discipline in order to sustain the spirit of a painting throughout. In about twenty-five years of work in Time Painting I believe I’ve made the scroll
form a personal means of expression. I think the three threads – drawing, water-base painting, and the horizontal scroll form- tie together in my Time Paintings. Time Paintings such as Psalm and Water recall recurrent themes I’ve used in my work over the years. In the two Water scrolls there’s a love of water in just about every form and mood: sea, storms, streams, reflec tions, snow. The Cape Cod dunes have always fascinated me. Often I’ve walked over the dunes near Provincetown from the bay to the ocean, then I’d paint them from memory or improvisa tion. In Psalm 104 there are mountains such as I saw in Japan or Machu Picchu. I saw the gleaners in a field near Oaxaca in Mexico many years ago. I also used this theme in the litho graph Gleaners II [Cat. No. 92]. The Hora dance theme I used in the painting in Vassar Temple [Cat. No. 23] and in the lithograph Praise Him with Dance [Cat. No. 98]. And the dunes come in again at the end.
The 104th Psalm is a psalm of faith. As much as anything I’ve done the Psalm Time Painting represents my own credo. While my own point of view in painting is essentially rep resentational, my objective is an expressive use of nature. After many years of painting in both Western and Eastern modes it’s now pretty much one world for me.