When Dr. Arthur Levine entrusted Pat Sheahan and Adrienne Heinrich with his late wife’s artwork, they knew what they wanted to do with the collection — put it on display in the American Jewish Museum (AJM) of the Jewish Community Center of Greater Pittsburgh.
“The artwork is so intellectual and so erudite that it needed to have a setting where those characteristics would be appreciated,” Sheahan said. “This is a museum. What more prestigious place could one’s work be exhibited?”
More than 60 drawings, paintings and sculptures by Ruth Levine are now on display in an exhibit titled “Radiant Circles: Ruth E. Levine’s Generous Life.” The exhibit debuted Oct. 23, but the opening reception was held Tuesday, Nov. 13, with many of Levine’s friends in attendance.
“Her life was radiant and she has so many issues around society, politics and philosophy that underpin her work, so even though the forms look very simple there is incredible depth to her artistic motivation,” AJM Director Melissa Hiller said, explaining the title of the exhibit. “I wanted the title to evoke all of those senses at once.”
Levine became a fulltime artist while living in Washington, D.C., in the early 1990s, and continued her work when the couple moved to Pittsburgh in 1998.
In Pittsburgh, “she immersed herself in the camaraderie of a group of artists who belong to a closely knit discussion group, as well as joined the boards of the Andy Warhol Museum and the Associated Artists of Pittsburgh,” according to a biography of Levine compiled by Hiller.
After she died in 2010, her husband received the names of Sheahan and Heinrich as people engaged in the arts. He consulted them about cataloging, measuring and preparing his wife’s art for presentations.
“It [was] all in storage just languishing without having anyone look at it,” Sheahan said.
When going through the archives, Sheahan and Heinrich noticed the richness and diversity of the work and thought that they should put it on display.
“I was the first person they thought of because of the American Jewish Museum and because of the fact that Ruth was a Jewish artist,” Hiller said.
Hiller jumped at the opportunity to bring Levine’s work to the AJM.
“When I began looking at her work I knew right away that this was material that was mining a very rich expanse and considering human existence,” she said. “I knew that she was a very interesting artist, so I wanted to unpack that and have that exhibit here.”
The exhibit is already garnering attention from even casual passers-by.
“The other day,” Hiller said, “someone who passes through here every morning stopped me and said, ‘I don’t really understand abstract art, but I see something different every morning that I walk through here. Some days I feel like I’m looking at DNA print, other days empty spaces between columns just jump out at me and this morning I’m really tired and feel like I’m floating, so these rectangles look like the top of something that I’m hovering over.’ I told him that I thought Ruth would be pleased with his sleep deprived observations.”
At the opening reception guests perused exhibit guide pamphlets that provided interpretations of 13 of the works in “Radiant Circles.”
For a drawing entitled, “Kings Play Chess on Fine Grain Sand,” the interpretation began with a description that “Kings Play Chess on Fine Grain Sand is a pared-down drawing comprised simply of five rows. Each row is made up of overlapping stamps and hand-drawn rectangles in subtle red and blue shades. The stamps that designate the lines’ rows depict various designs. Two rows contain a long line of plump birds resting on wire. Two other rows illustrate Japanese characters. Other rows depict abstract decorative patterns.”
The guide goes on to explain, “The expression ‘kings play chess on fine grain sand’ is a mnemonic that aids memorization of the classification of living organisms. 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 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.” The exhibition is located in the JCC Kaufmann Building’s Fine Perlow Weis Gallery and in the Robinson Building’s Berger Gallery. The art will be on display until Jan. 11, 2013. It is free and open to the public.
Much of the artwork in the exhibit is for sale and the proceeds will go into an endowment fund that supports emerging artists.
Radiant Circles is supported by Susan and Dr. David L. Bartlett, Joan Birnbaum, The Fine Foundation, Isabel and Lee Foster, Toto and Jim Fisher, Dr. Margaret Tarpey and Dr. Bruce Freeman, Julie and Mike Gibson, Adrienne R. Heinrich, Adrienne Masters and Dr. Harry Huang, Dr. Arthur Levine, Angela and Dr. James Maher, Sarah Mirkin, Ellen Chisdes Neuberg, Dr. Bert W. O’Malley, Dr. Carol-Bird Ravenal, Ralph Reese, Dr. Patricia and James Sheahan, Judith Sugar, Teresa Jones and Joshua Zimmerberg.
Arthur Levine, the late artist’s husband and senior vice chancellor for the Health Sciences and dean of the University of Pittsburgh’s School of Medicine, attended the opening reception but did not want to comment citing that his wife’s art should speak for itself.
(Andrew Goldstein can be reached at email@example.com.)