I first met Alfred Levitt at the reunion of the Ferrer Modern School
Movement. Born near the border of what is now the Ukraine and Belarus,
he emigrated to New York and had been a student at the Modern School when
he was young. He had learned about art there, and ultimately had become
one of the important artists of this century, with over 20 of his paintings
in the permanent collection of the Metropolitan Museum. When I met him
he was 100 years old! He is listed in a publication put out by the Ellis
Island Museum as being one of the 20 most significant people to come through
there, along with people such as Irving Berlin, Marline Deitrich and Bob
Subsequently he had called me to his apartment in Greenwich Village.
He asked me to help him start a new democratic school in New York. I agreed
to help him organize it, and have started working on the project. He is
now 102 year old. (Please contact the AERO office if you are interested
in becoming involved with this project).
On that visit I mentioned that I had been working with a family which
had been connected with an alternative school in the Ukraine. They emigrated
recently to Brooklyn. They have a son, thirteen, who is a serious artist.
Alex studies on weekends at the New York Art League, and is very talented.
Alfred said he wanted to meet the boy, and Alex said he really wanted to
That weekend I was speaking to a young anarchist group. The first Modern
Schools were started by anarchist Francisco Ferrer in 1901. The meeting
was to be near Alfred's apartment, and he even said he was planning to
attend the meeting. It seemed like a good time to have Alex meet Alfred,
since he studies at the Art League on Saturdays. He planned to meet us
at Alfred's apartment after my talk.
I went to Alfred's after my talk. It turned out that he missed the meeting
because he had thought it would be in the evening, Also, he was a bit distracted
because the BBC had been taping an interview with him just the day before,
to be broadcast some time in March.
I talked to him for about an hour, until the buzzer rang as Alex, his
father and younger brother entered the building three floors below.
Alfred, who suffers from stenosis of the spine, rose slowly to his feet
with the help of his cane. They told him that they could do surgery to
correct it, but that "there was a 10% chance I wouldn't get up off the
operating table. Jerry, I love life too much to take that chance. I'll
just keep on living with it this way."
I opened the apartment door and waited for them to get off the elevator.
His father carried a heavy portfolio of Alex's art. They walked over
and came in the door. Alfred shook hands with Alex's father, Vladamir,
who reacted with some surprise at its firmness. That, it turned out, set
the tone for the whole meeting. Alfred, who continues to live life with
great passion, knowing there may be no tomorrow, spoke urgently and with
great force and animation with Alex, who listened just as intently. Alex
seemed almost transfixed with the man, his art, and the surroundings.
Alfred insisted that Alex's drawings and portraits be placed on a large,
lighted easel by the window. He looked carefully but quickly at each one,
grasping my arm and rising to his feet to get a closer look, then commenting
on them and pulling out paintings and sketches of his own to compare with
Alex's. "You see how strong every part of this painting is? Look at the
dark lines here, and here" he would say, covering parts of the painting
with his hands. "Now look at yours. This part doesn't say anything. It
is empty!" Alex listened carefully with not a trace of defensiveness. Unspoken
but tacitly understood was the fact that Alfred thought Alex was very talented
and was well worth taking this time to teach. He knew that something very
precious was being given to him to take into the future.
Looking at another sketch he said, "You have to decide if you are going
to be an artist or a cartoonist! This is just decoration! That's OK if
that's what you want to do, but to be an artist you must develop the vocabulary
of an artist. in the same way as you would develop it as a writer. You
must study it and work at it every day! Don't bother framing them. Just
put them away and look at them again ten years later. Don't follow what
other people tell you to do. It has to express who you are inside!"
Alex listened intently, then and asked Alfred when he had done each
painting. When Alex mentioned that his favorite painter was Matisse, Alfred
said that he had known him, as well as virtually all of the other great
artists of the century. He had lived in Paris for a long time, directing
an art school there.
Alfred talked about color, perspective, and perception. "One time when
I was studying art I was assigned to draw a picture of Beethoven from a
bust. I was expected to draw EVERY HAIR exactly as it was. There was a
time in art when that was important. But now we have photography for that.
Put on the canvas what your mind sees, not just what your eyes see!"
Alex picked up a photograph of Alfred taken in a cave in the French
Pyerenees twenty years ago, when he was 82. He had explored hundreds of
these caves, even slept in them, to study and understand the cave paintings
made thousands of years ago.
As Alfred kept on looking at Alex's portfolio, a drawing Alex had made
of his father caught his eye. "Not bad" he said, almost automatically.
He criticized one or two parts of the drawing, but kept on saying, "But
it's not bad. Not bad." Alex and all of us knew that this was great praise.
After an hour the meeting had come to an ending point. "I don't want
to say too much" Alfred said. "If I say too much you won't remember it
Alex wanted to know if he could come back and visit again. He asked
several times, and Alfred always answered "Of course you can!" Whether
he does or not, we all knew that this was a meeting that Alex would carry
with him far into the 21st century.