Alfred Levitt
Alfred Levitt interviewed for NPR
   
ALFRED
Alfred Levitt was perhaps the ultimate raconteur. He was a gifted storyteller, renowned artist, humanist, anarchist, sportsmen and spelunker.  Born in Russia in 1894, he lived most of his life in the United States, where he died in May of 2000, at the age of 105.

The documentary is a "Rashomon" style look at his life and career from several points of view. The documentary begins with the standard premise that the filmmakers, having found a colorful character, need to build a cinematic pedestal to highlight and amplify the subject’s life affirming qualities.  Time and reflection, however, cast their own baleful eye on these efforts, intruding with a simple question:  Is this man really as great as he appears to be?  Alfred is about ego, self-reflection, self-importance; and, ultimately, how one is perceived by others, and by history.

The filmmakers stumbled on Levitt, in 1995, while doing research for a documentary on Jack London.  London had passed away in 1916, so the odds of finding anyone with first-hand knowledge were slim at best – until Levitt came along.  He had attended lectures given by the famous author.

The filmmakers were friends of Levitt and filmed him during the last five years of his life.  Divided into three parts; the first act, "The Wise Old Man," follows a standard documentary format, establishing our character as a charming charismatic character.  The second act take a different POV; "Deconstructing Alfred," begins to probe into his personal life, his ego, strained relations with his wife and his philandering, all from the POV of people who knew him well.  The last act, "Reconstructing Alfred," is redemption of a sort, as we follow him during the last months of his life. 

In many ways he was the last of a generation: a self-educated working class activist/artist.  His passion was painting, and he befriended many art notables of the twentieth century, including Marcel Duchamp and Pablo Picasso.  Although he struggled for recognition, Levitt never gave up on what he saw as the purity of his art.  And these same sensibilities provided a context for his political thinking and his embrace of anarchism.  Emma Goldman, who took young Levitt under her wing, employed him as an office boy for her radical newspaper, Mother Earth.

Alfred Levitt was born in a small town in Ukraine, in 1894, one of fourteen children. His father was a Jewish carriage maker.  Surviving the pogrom of 1905, the family immigrated to the US.  Levitt, aged 17, was quickly caught in the embrace of a then-thriving art community, centered around the anarchist-inclined Modern School in Manhattan.  Honing his techniques under the tutelage of renowned art teachers, like Hans Hoffman, his work, by the 1930’s, reflected a growing concern with the European fascist threat.  During this period, Levitt became part of a flourishing art scene that included Marcel Duchamp, whom he shared another passion with: chess.  But by the 1940's Levitt’s style changed, from political to lyrical, influenced by summers spent in the Gloucester, Massachusetts. His watercolors of this small fishing village would become some of his best known works.

Levitt traveled frequently to Europe where he ran an art school in Provence and explored the caves of France and Spain, as he developed an interest in prehistoric cave painting.  He also developed a passion for the uniquely French game of pétanque (similar to the Italian lawn game bocce).  Upon his return the US, he was instrumental in the construction of two courts in Washington Square Park, where he proceeded to build his own reputation as a skillful practitioner. They remain there today, as a testament to his all-around love of life and his drive. 

Growth and Fuition, 1951
Growth and Fruition, 1951

He has over twenty paintings in the Metropolitan Museum of Art.  But why isn’t he a better known artist?  The answer to this question came only after his death.  Through engaging and humorous interviews with close friends the film reveals bits and pieces of a bigger story.  Alfred was a braggart, self-centered and certainly his relationships with women were unusual and interesting, to say the least.  In terms of his career, according to his close friends, Alfred was his own worst enemy. 

He was fallible, but in the third and final act in the film, the filmmakers try to find a way to appreciate his humanity and individuality.  Well into his 100’s, a frail figure, he still radiated a sense of energy and a talent to make new friends.  His quest for knowledge remained undiminished. His enthusiasm for life was contagious. The sum of his life was a life fulfilled; a life that radiated passion and dignity.

 




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"There are places and times in American art history endowed with a peculiar aura of their own. One was Gloucester, Massachusetts, in the 1940s when a group of young modernists made it their summer painting ground.... Of these painters Alfred Levitt has perhaps been the most unjustly neglected."

- John I. H. Baur
   former  director of the    Whitney Museum of    American Art, in 1983


"I have hiked the fields and forests where Cezanne and Van Gogh have found their inspirations. I faced the same mountains and sat under the same cypress
trees, all in order to glean, perchance, the elusive qualities that made those men mad with creative urge."
 - Alfred Levitt

Mary Washington College's collection of Levitt's art

Thirteen.org City Arts web site about Levitt

AERO Article on Levitt