Urban bytes: Interviews in Pittsburgh and Beyond.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Ruth Levine: Artist, Wit and Urban Dweller

Photo by: unknown

Ruth Levine is an artist who has lived in Pittsburgh since 1998. Her work can be seen here.
She is a natural for this interview blog, being both an urbanite and an artist. Also, she tells a great story.
This interview was originally recorded in the summer of 2008, and with some updates, is finally being "blogged" now.

Jean: You had told me a story about Andy Warhol. And I think you said you got a call....that's how it started?

Ruth: Yes. In the early nineteen eighties, I was working at a very large Jewish community center in Rockville, Maryland. And although we had some National Endowment for the Humanities grants and we were starting to make a name elsewhere, it was with some slight sense of shock that I got the following phone call: Somebody got on the phone and said, "Hi my name is Ron Feldman. Do you know me?"And I said, "If you’re the Ron Feldman I’m thinking of, no I don’t know you. But I know that there’s a gallery with your name on it in SOHO, in New York."

He said, "Well I’m here with Andy Warhol who wants to talk with you". And that started the first of my series of saying "right" [ as in" yeah, right"] Because I was very dubious that indeed Andy Warhol wanted to talk to me. And Feldman goes on to explain that Warhol had only done images of live people and that his mother had died. Julia had died. And he discovered that people could have influence long after they died. And he decided to make a list for images of the ten great people of the twentieth century. I continuing in the role of wise ass said, "Why not twenty great people of the tenth century or fifteen great people of the fifteenth century?"

And Feldman who wasn’t about to laugh at anything I said, said, "Oh no, he only does tens." He continues with his story that in the course of drafting a list, that he [Andy}discovered that many of the names were Jewish. And that he decided to call somebody that worked for Jewish agency and get the names of ten great Jews of the twentieth century.

I called in my partner who ran the gallery. I tended to run the grants and the arts school there. And I said "Ron Feldman’s on the phone and he’s about to put Andy Warhol on the phone and get a list from us of the ten great Jews of the twentieth century."And my friend, Susan, as expected burst out laughing and went, "Right."

So now we have two people saying "Right". Warhol gets on the phone and he said would you give me your list? So I started with the Marx Brothers because I didn’t really believe any of this was happening. And I had an uncle who knew two of the Marx brothers. We went on from there and tried to get a little serious with Kafka and Judge Louis Brandeis, and then we went a little berserk, adding Gertrude Stein and Sarah Bernhardt. And we went through a list of ten entries.

And then we asked if that was what he was looking for. Andy, who said very little, said it sounded fine to him. I assured him that if he didn’t like some of the images that attached to these names, he could very wisely use the four Marx brothers in four different images as opposed to just using the one image. And he said, "I’ll get back to you in six months with the images." And we burst out laughing and in chorus said, "Right." Much to our surprise six months later a package was delivered and there were ten images (ie screeprints by Warhol) And the first one was of the Marx brothers.

Jean: All four of them?

Ruth: All four of them on one image. And they were very nice. Very interesting, and he asked if we could have a party. And we invited a lot of well-to-do and culturally in the know Jews from the Washington and Rockville area. And all of these people in a moment of group think, not only came, but came armed with Campbell’s Chicken Noodle Soup cans. I gathered Campbells for Andy to sign.

Jean: Tomato or one of the others?

Ruth: No just Chicken Noodle, and Chicken Noodle because I guess Chicken Noodle seemed Jewish to them. And they of course wanted him to sign them. I don’t know how that ended. I think he signed a couple and then backed off. We had a great opening. The show went on to the Jewish Museum in New York, and we had our first five minutes or fifteen minutes of fame a la Warhol. When Hilton Kramer wrote in the New York Times, "Ten great Jews of the twentieth century has opened in the Jewish Museum in New York. This is very possibly the worst thing to happen to Jews since the Holocaust. And who in god’s name are Susan Morganstein and Ruth Levine of Rockfish, Maryland" {Note to reader, this is not a typo}.He didn’t even get Rockville...

Jean: He put that in the New York Times? Oh that’s a riot.

Ruth: At that point I only wanted to bury my head in the sand; ignored the rest of the tour and hoped that the whole thing would go to bed. But it showed up a couple of more times in my lifetime. The next to the last time it showed up was just before I was moving to Pittsburgh, Andy Warhol’s home town.

The University of Maryland art gallery decided to do their holdings of the Ten Series. And included Ten Great Jews of the twentieth century. And in this case the reviewer felt compelled to say that, "The ten great Jews were very interesting, but he hadn’t realized that Andy Warhol was so anti-Semitic as to have started out with the Marx Brothers, given all the famous and intellectual Jews around." I in turn felt compelled to call the reviewer and emphasize that my name was Ruth Levine, and that I had given this list to Andy Warhol. And mostly I had done it because I hadn’t expected it to come to pass. I came to Pittsburgh, and dined out on the story. Until one night I was seated next to Tom Sokolowski, someone made the usual disparaging remarks about the Marx brothers. And Tom, who runs the Warhol Museum, said actually that’s my favorite [piece in the series]. And so that was the end of my Warhol encounter.

Ruth Continues And the only PS to the story is about three weeks after the tour had finished I got a call from someone whose name I no longer remember, who said he represented Salvador Dali. And I hung up on him. He called back to say that we had become disconnected. And I decided to listen to him this time before I hung up on him and he said that Mr. Dali would like to make giant bronze menorah to sell at the Jewish Community Center for seven thousand dollars a piece. And I pointed out that I no longer wished to do Jewish objects by non Jewish artists. And I didn’t frankly think that a menorah by the man who had done the Last Supper was going to sell very well in the Jewish Community. And then I hung up on him.It turned out nobody bought this menorah, except one person who gave it to the Israel Museum in Israel. And the Museum hated it so much they gave it to Lod Airport, and put it in front. And everybody there hated it so much that they tried to blow it up. So I was right.

Jean: You were right. So knowing the situation with Dali then, he probably never even touched it or knew nothing about this phone call. Because he was on the decline.

Ruth: He was on the decline,but I think was an original Dali. It wasn’t like the prints where somebody was signing off on them. But it was truly a very ugly menorah. It looked like a weapon of war by some underwater god. And so I was glad that I couldn’t be blamed for that one too.

Jean: Well there are scurrilous stories circulating (about the Ten Greatest Jews series) because I read something in the New York Times...... where they were talking about the series and then they were crediting someone else for the list of names...I can't recall who.

Ruth: Ron Feldman claims that he had put the names together. And then he, I had Susan call him, so he put her name in. I was just as happy not to have my name in. And the series went back to either the Jewish Museum in New York or one other just recently. And in the catalog because the person who wrote the article wanted to track it down, he called me. He put both of our names in. So I don’t know that I want the fame, need the fame. I’m very happy in Warhol’s home town.

Jean: So was that your first connection with Pittsburgh? The Andy Warhol thing, or even though he of course didn’t live in Pittsburgh at that time. But that was the first................

Ruth: Absolutely. And now life has been very good because I’m no longer connected with that.(ie just with that story). But I’m on the board of the Warhol Museum. And enjoy the shows. And have come to appreciate Warhol.

Jean: Well I’ve heard many people say that from seeing that. Because once you really see the prints, and see the lithographs it really makes an impression.

Ruth: It’s astonishing. It’s really impressive. So I was sorry I was so snobby with him then, and I’m paying my dues now.

Jean: So your uncle knew the Marx Brothers where? In New York?

Ruth: One of my uncles was a lawyer for a lot of theater people. And he belonged to and was on the board of governors for an organization called the Friars Club. And like the Lamb’s Club which was purely theater, the Friars Club was theater , and Hollywood and stand up comedians etc. And my uncle who truly enjoyed a leisurely life as a lawyer, only saw clients briefly. And then went to the Friars club, would play bridge and would go out with, I think it was Harpo and Chico.

Jean: Was this in California?

Ruth: No this was in New York City. And I would get to meet them and Milton Berle and Danny Kaye, and Eddy Cantor. It was terrific. It was really nice. So yes I had an aspect of my childhood that was very interesting with my New York uncles. And their trips between the track, and the night clubs and the Friars Club roasts.

Jean: That’s pretty wonderful.

Ruth:It was terrific.

Jean: Yeah I think I had said to you that I was very disappointed to read that Danny Kaye was kind of a jerk.

Ruth: Yes.
Jean: Because, although his comedy can be kind of over, no, a lot over the top. I always thought he was so charming and so attractive (from his appearances on the old tonight show with Johnny Carson) and he just seemed so great. And I was just like what? , no!

Ruth: He apparently and unfortunately was a jerk. And his wife was a brilliant song writer. She wrote, Sylvia Kaye wrote most of his Patter songs. And he was a brilliant cook. And apparently had a long affair with Olivier. Laurence Olivier.

Jean: Oh he did? I missed that.

Ruth: Oh Yeah. All the bits and pieces that come floating back when you’re seventy two. You suddenly, you suddenly remember all of this.

Jean: Well if he was gay in that time period maybe he had a right to be a jerk.

Ruth: No, I don’t think he had a right to be a jerk. Life was pretty good to him. There was a wonderful kind of section of New York that my uncles inhabited. And when they would come to visit me in Connecticut, you always had the distinct feeling that that they would have felt better if somebody had issued a visa so that they would be sure that they could not only come into Connecticut but get out again and get back to New York.

Ruth: New York was astonishing. There were all these places that people went. I learned to drink when I was still underage in the back room at Lindy’s. Because my uncle knew him also. So my two uncles, the bachelor uncles sat me down and it was a bottle of Scotch. And they gave me my first drink, and my second drink, and my third drink and I threw up.

And all they did was say "Now you know two is your limit. And never drink anything sweet". This was the education of bachelor uncles. Yeah, it was a different time.

Jean: How old were you?

Ruth: I was fifteen.
Jean: Fifteen.

Ruth: I was fifteen.

Jean: They didn’t want to start you on anything easy. They just went right to the Scotch.

Ruth: No, they went directly to the Scotch. This was also (ie one of the two) the uncle who played cards so marvelously, he would play with people like the owner of Ceil Chapman( a ballgown designer). I would get ballgowns. I also got a fur coat. And you have to understand, we had no money. And I had this wonderful fur coat that he had won in a card game. And this same uncle was playing with Mike Todd one day. And he raised Mike Todd and he [the uncle] died and the payoff from that game was enough to take care of my uncle’s funeral. So they were very colorful men. Very colorful men.

Jean: And well of course, I know you were in DC for many years.

Ruth: Thirty-one. My husband and I got married in New York, and moved to Chicago for medical school. And then moved to Minnesota for internship and residency. I all the while pining for New York. And then because my husband got drafted, he was able to get into the National Institute of Health, this was during the Vietnam War. And it was supposed to be a two year stint. There was a doctor’s draft. And we stayed for thirty-one because he got appointed to various jobs. And although it wasn’t New York, it was close enough so that I could take the train in. And I rather loved that. And I thought we were going to stay in Washington forever. Made a crowd of friends, raised my kids there. Went back to school, got a masters in painting, had all of my jobs there. And in ninety three decided I would just paint. And he came home one day and said, there’s this very interesting job in Pittsburgh. And I said "Pittsburgh?" And I came and I liked it. And we bought a wonderful house.

And although I missed my friends in Washington, I met a crew of people living in Shadyside, or near Shadyside in Squirrel Hill, artists from CMU and from Pitt. And artists from other venues who were part of a group, called Group A. And we would have coffee and we would talk about art supplies and shows in New York. And what we were working on. And it filled a wonderful space in my life. So I’ve been here since ninety-eight.

Jean: So had you ever set foot in Pittsburgh before?

Ruth: We had come once for a cousin’s wedding. And had gotten very lost. Because I think it was before Sophie Masloff{Mayor of Pittsburgh } put up all the street signs.

Jean: Right, which are still only so improved but they are a lot better than they were.

Ruth: And the highway that we came in on, apparently the numbers increased and then decreased. And we didn’t know that about the exits. And so we couldn’t figure out if whether we were supposed to get off at the first number or the second time the number appeared. And of course we weren’t supposed to get off the second time. So I learned a little bit about how distracting it was to drive in Pittsburgh. But it was a lovely wedding, we had a very good time. And never thought we would ever come back because these cousins then moved to Philadelphia and there didn’t seem to be any reason to come here. But we came and we’re staying.

JeanNow this may require a little bit of thought or maybe not. But how did DC change in the thirty-one years you were there?

Ruth: Oh it changed profoundly. We went there in sixty-seven and which was the kind of Post Kennedy era. There was one French restaurant, one fried fish restaurant and it was a very sleepy southern town. Slowly but surely it became a very sophisticated town and on top of that got a subway. Which meant that you didn’t have to drive through hectic Washington traffic. And as I held a number of jobs there. And had a really good time there. And the restaurants, the movie houses, the theater all of this increased and it became very sophisticated.

Jean: Became very sophisticated, yes. It seems so different to me than it used to be, even 15 years ago.

Ruth: It really became very sophisticated. And a lot of fun. And I complained bitterly, because as I said to somebody I’m leaving Washington, they finally got bread into Washington. And now he’s going to move me to a town where there’s no bread. Well now I found bread in Pittsburgh so I’m staying.

Jean: Why do you think it changed so much?

Ruth: I think that, one of the things that’s happened with Washington is that every four years, every two years actually, definitely every four years, there’s a new influx of people. And the weird thing is, that the people who were of the previous administration never leave. So the population just piled high. And then with all the different government bureaus and the NIH etc. There was a lot to attract people. And once you get a quantum mass of people, and you get a lot of foreigners. One of the best things about Washington in those years was that, there were great restuaurants Indians, so Ethiopians, there were Vietnamese. There were sixteen different kinds of Chinese Restaurants. There was Sichuan, and Cantonese and it really reflected populations.

And Virginia moved out of it’s sleepy mode with a huge Asian population. And really good school systems. And essentially people did very well who lived in Washington. Of course they still didn’t know what was happening in the rest of the country. We were like that too, now suddenly we see the world from a Pittsburgh point of view. It’s a little more realistic and a little healthier.

Jean: Really, you mean because it’s more.......................

Ruth: It’s tuned in to what people think outside, what they call outside the beltway. In DC the people who live in Washington in DC and parts of the burbs are living inside the beltway and have no idea what’s happening in the country. They assume everybody’s doing well because house prices went up in Washington. They really have no idea what unemployment or job situations or changing economy where we don’t produce as much, what kind of impact that has on people. Because there’s always a job in Washington.

Jean: Okay I see what you’re saying. So it’s much less of a cross section.

Ruth: Absolutely, it wasn’t until I came to Pittsburgh that I knew about neighborhoods. There are no neighborhoods in DC. Everybody is from somewhere else. Even if they spend their entire life there, and they’ll say I’m from Ohio or North Dakota. I would say the thirty-years I lived in Washington we’d go to New York, and somebody would say where are you from. And I’d say well I’m from New York, but I live in Washington. After thirty-one years I was from Washington, but I just wasn’t prepared to admit it. Now I say I’m from Pittsburgh.

Jean: If we could let’s talk about your work and your exhibit in DC, the one that you had at Gallery 10.{ i.e. "Patterns:Echo,Shift and Rescript"}

Ruth: Ok about nineteen ninety-six, nineteen ninety-three I decided to paint full time. Nineteen ninety-six I joined a gallery, which was an artist run gallery at DuPont Circle in DC called Gallery 10 because originally there ten people in the Gallery.

Now there are a greater number to support the rising rental costs and other costs.Every other year I would have a solo show there and the last show I had there was this year ’08. And it was called "Patterns"I became very much interested in patterns because I saw and owned patterns from Africa, where the patterns change. And I thought it’s only in the West where we make things line up left and right. And top and bottom. African patterns, like life, change and segue into different shapes. So I went at it from a very abstract and geometric point of view.

And then I started thinking about the other meanings of patterns. And found some wonderful paper in a New York art supply store that was simply labeled, " Pre World War II Japanese paper" It was a dollar a sheet. And I bought two hundred sheets. And my husband said, "What are you going to do with two hundred sheets?" Eventually,I decided to turn them into books. The papers were then layered with photo-transfers of Japanese newspapers from Tokyo from the years 1931 to ’34.

I didn’t know very much history, but I did know about the invasion of Nanking by the Japanese was their designated start of the World War II. And what I didn’t know, which I subsequently found out, and what went into these newspapers, was that it really had started much before then. Because the Japanese army had had its appropriations cut by the Emperor, who was afraid of the army's influence. And the emperor made a big mistake when he cut their appropriations because they staged an incident in Manchuria. Claimed the Chinese had done it, and got their appropriations and more back. And went on to invade a number of places. And that was a change in the pattern of a nation. So I had these wonderful papers. And they were up on old newspaper poles, stuck in tables on a ledge. And I had a video of all of these news paper pages running continuously. And felt very good about it.

Jean: And then also, with the photo transfers on the paper there’s also painting as well.

Ruth: Yes, there’s painting and with different kinds of metallic and non-metallic water colors. And there are stamped images, Benday dots( which are like the dots that newspapers traditionally used). And so some them have a lot of verbage and some of them have a lot of abstraction. One is prettier but not as clear, the other is clearer and not as prettier.
{For installation images, click here} http://relevine.com/pattern_shifts_rescripts.php

Jean: And there’s a video of the work.

Ruth: And there’s a video, and the title of then show changed to "Patterns: Echo, Shift and Rescript". The rescript was because the emperor, when he realized that the people of Japan really loved what the army was doing, issued what was called an Imperial Rescript. And he said, everything I’ve said so far was wrong. What I really meant to say was that the army has saved our country. That it has saved our honor. It has honored the emperor and we salute the army. So that was the pattern shift and rescript.

{For the video of these works,click here} http://relevine.com/pattern_shifts_rescripts_video.php

Jean: Okay I had forgotten that it was that blatant when you had explained it me before.

Ruth: Yes, Imperial Rescript.

Jean: Which of course we have all the time.

Ruth: We have all the time, yes Imperial Rescripts are the order of the day.

Jean: They’re referred to know as what ......, misspoke I think is one,

Ruth: Yes. I like Imperial Rescript. I think this is ..........

Jean: It’s more honest.

Ruth: Yeah, you decide to issue a statement and all the previous statements should be erased because I say so. That’s good, that’s good. So my art starts out abstract, turns political, starts political, turns abstract. I play with shapes, I play with words. I mostly draw, I mostly draw or make small marks.

Jean: And there are also paintings,

Ruth I have a number of paintings on canvas, there were some between sheets of plexi. They were abstract, actually made by rubber bands soaked in Sumi ink on one side. And on the other side a block that I had found in San Francisco that was called "hundred happiness". And so one side was fairly rigid, grid like pattern. And the other side was a pretty loose abstract pattern. It was my show, I decided to call it Patterns. And I decide therefore everything that was in it was a pattern. I ended up with three pieces that were twenty inches across and sixty-two inches long, each of which was called Three Flags. One was called Three Flags Black, one was called Three Flags White, and one was called Three Flags Grey. And it was a little joke.

Jean: And in Pittsburgh, what you’ve shown with Group A, you’ve shown with Gallery Chiz right?

Ruth: Yes, and Associated Artists of Pittsburgh, and Gallery Chiz.
Jean: Right of course.

Ruth: And so I've really had a chance to work here in Pittsburgh.
Jean: { Note to the reader, the tense is changed in this section due to the lag between the time of the interviw and the time of the posting} You are in the catalog, and were in the exhibit, for Two Hundred FiftyYears of Art in the Making exhibit at Fe Gallery in Pittsburgh.
Ruth: Which is just great. So I’m going to be one or two hundred and fifty artists from this area whose work got selected. And a piece from each of us was hanging up on the wall. And I gather it was in celebration of the two hundred and fiftieth birthday of Pittsburgh. So now I am a Pittburghian.
Ruth: ...............and I’ve been reviewed. Not as often as I would like. But I’ve been reviewed here in Pittsburgh, and also in Washington. I think in Europe but it’s always in somebody else’s language. And I just have to be happy that my name is there and hope that there is saying something that isn’t too disapproving.
So again we’re back to Andy and his fifteen minutes of fame.
Jean: Thanks, Ruth.
NOTE: You can see two works by Ruth Levine at Carnegie Museum through Nov 8th, 2009 as part of the 99th Annual Exhibition of the Associated Artists of Pittsburgh