Pittsburgh artist's works are a study in classification

Kurt Shaw
| Saturday, Nov. 17, 2012, 8:57 p.m.

The exhibit “Radiant Circles: Ruth E. Levine's Generous Life,” which opened last week at the Jewish Community Center in Squirrel Hill, has already garnered a lot of attention, especially among the artists who knew Levine.

“She mesmerized me with her storytelling,” recalls artist and independent curator Jill Larson. She visited Levine at her Shadyside studio to prepare for the exhibit “Encoded” at Fe Gallery in the fall of 2003. “The patience and passion that Ruth possessed was poured into her pieces. I quickly began to realize how prolific she was, when she began opening drawer after drawer, describing every mark and sharing every story.”

The exhibit substantiates that with more than 60 drawings, paintings and sculptures completed over approximately a 20-year span between the 1990s and her death in 2010 from complications from stomach cancer at the age of 74.

“She had a lot of gallery shows during her career, so every couple of years when she completed a series of work, she would show it,” says Melissa Hiller, director of the center's American Jewish Museum and organizer of this retrospective exhibition, “not only in Pittsburgh, but Washington, D.C., New York, Prague and Venice, among other cities.”

Born Ruth Rubin, in Queens, N.Y., in 1936, she painted since childhood, but did not become a full-time artist until relatively late in her career. After marrying Dr. Arthur Levine in 1959, the couple lived in New York, Chicago and Minneapolis before moving to Washington, D.C. It was there that Levine came of age, artistically, graduating from the art program at American University in 1971, where she also received a master of fine arts degree in 1975.

In D.C., she flourished as an educator and arts administrator, lecturing at American University, holding several positions with the National Endowment for the Arts, and managing traveling exhibits for the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum.

Levine and her husband moved to Pittsburgh in 1998, when he was appointed dean of the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine.

In Pittsburgh, she immersed herself in the camaraderie of a group of artists who belong to a closely knit discussion group, and joined the boards of the Andy Warhol Museum and the Associated Artists of Pittsburgh.

“Her social circles were very important to her,” Hiller says. “She knew many artists in the D.C. and Pittsburgh areas and met with them often.”

Though the earliest pieces, like two paintings on display from her “Still Life” series that re-created crime scenes in New York from the first half of the 20th century, are more representational, the bulk of the works on display are abstract.

Visually stunning, many of the drawings and paintings in the exhibit summon African textile patterns, diagrams, horizon lines, biological or architectural cross sections, tracks or even sheet music.

For example, “Kings Play Chess on Fine Grain Sand” is a pared-down drawing composed simply of rows. Each row is made up of overlapping stamps of dragonflies, birds and Japanese characters, looking at a distance like computer punch cards.

Hiller says the title is particularly telling. “The expression ‘kings play chess on fine grain sand' is a mnemonic that aids memorization of the classification of living organisms,” Hiller says.

Designed to improve memory, a mnemonic is a kind of system that translates information into simple forms that the human brain can retain. Knowing this helps to correlate the relationship between the work's title and its composition, which calls to mind the varied means by which we take in data and process information.

In a similar, though more organic fashion, Levine's piece “Kuba/Shift/Pattern” uses pattern to create intrigue by incorporating varying patterns of stacked spheres in clarion colors that repeat throughout the canvas.

The word Kuba in the title refers to the Congo's Kuba Kingdom, and more specifically a type of cloth made in that region. Thus, like in the African textiles, the drawing here contains repeating abstracted designs that create the illusion of depth and dimension.

Also on display are a number of Levine's book sculptures, such as “Invisible Cities” an accordion-folded book sculpture she created based on a work by Italo Calvino (1923-85), an Italian journalist and writer of short stories and novels. The short story is a narrative that imagines conversations between Kublai Khan and Marco Polo, whereby Polo recounts stories for Khan of non-existent urban places he has experienced.

Hiller says that Calvino's theoretical and epistemological inquiries about the organization and dimensions of society distinctly align with Levine's own explorations of order and form in her work, and thus, “It is not surprising that several of her drawings take their titles from phrases found in ‘Invisible Cities.' ”

Adding to that underlying subtext, several of Levine's friends have added their voices to the exhibit in the form of quotes that are on display.

Each written response is about specific works by Levine that especially struck a chord or resonated for them. The responses, which are personal and incisive, not only illustrate for visitors that interpretation is both something felt and learned, but, says Hiller, also convey “the marks Levine has made as an artist and friend.”

Kurt Shaw is the art critic for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at kshaw@tribweb.com.

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