Alfred Levitt meets Alex Klyuy

by Jerry Mintz (

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 Hope.

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 meet Alfred.

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 all."

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.  

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