Dixon-based artist Eli Levin eschews technology and trends in works that speak directly to the viewer
BY ANYA SEBASTIAN
PHOTOS BY DOMINIQUE VORILLON
STYLED BY CYNDY TANNER
Eli Levin hates Modern art. The well-known local painter, etcher, and writer, who turns 81 this year, has even written a book about it, aptly titled, Why I Hate Modern Art. “I was never even tempted to follow that trend,” he says. “In fact, I was asked to leave the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston in the early 1960s because of my commitment to realism. They wanted me to paint large abstract pieces, which were all the rage at the time, but I just wanted to do small-scale social realist works, so they let me go without giving me a degree. I always wanted to paint subjects that everyone can relate to, not just a culturally elite art circle.”
Levin—tall, slim, and remarkably fit— still paints every day and considers himself a social commentator. Through his artwork, he tells stories that need to be told. Common themes include homelessness, social problems resulting from the extreme wealth disparity between rich and poor, workers being pressured by corporations into taking low-wage jobs in order to survive, and, more recently, racial conflict and police shootings.
Eli Levin in his studio holding Nude with Red Book and Clock (2016), egg tempera
Levin in his self-built studio, a comfortable hideaway of art and books.
“Unfortunately, social realism isn’t very saleable these days,” he admits. “It’s considered outdated, and frankly, I wouldn’t want to hang my social commentary artworks on the wall and look at them every day, either. I’d much rather they were hung somewhere where lots of people can see them, start thinking about what they represent and, hopefully, start a conversation. Most of my work now ends up on display in museums, which is just fine with me.”
Born in Chicago in 1938, Levin grew up in a left-leaning, intellectual environment. His father was a war correspondent who went on to write several books, and his mother was a university professor and a card-carrying Communist, as Levin is to this day. He began drawing and painting as a small child and went on to study art in New York and Boston before hitchhiking across the country, ending up in Santa Fe in 1964. “I didn’t really have a plan, and I didn’t know anyone,” he says. “I just needed
a change, and I’d heard that Santa Fe had a good art scene, so I thought I’d check it out.” That was 55 years ago, and he has been here ever since.
There was, indeed, a thriving art colony in Santa Fe from about the mid-1960s until the early 1980s, and Levin has since written a book about it called Santa Fe Bohemia. Canyon Road was a thriving art hub, with studios where artists could both live and work. Levin was able to rent a residential studio for just $65 a month, and his art career flourished. “I was able to make a living as an artist during that time,” he says with a smile. “It was great.”
His social life flourished as well. At that time, Santa Fe was a melting pot for creative artists like Will Shuster, T.C. Cannon, and Fritz Scholder, among many others, and Levin knew and partied with them all. The most popular place to hang out was Claude’s Bar on Canyon Road (in the space now occupied by Tresa Vorenberg Goldsmiths), which attracted a mix of artists, cowboys, Indians, writers, lobbyists, and politicians, and Levin liked to paint the frequently wild bar scenes. The paintings sold, often right off the easel, but then the prestigious gallery he had signed with wanted him to paint pictures with a predetermined mix of characters, and Levin refused. “I won’t paint to order,” he says, “not for a gallery and not for a client.” He finally needed a lawyer to get himself out of the contract.
In the late 1960s, Levin built himself a house in downtown Santa Fe (“I learned as I went along,” he says modestly), which he divided into four apartments, one to live in and three to rent out. That was his home for many years, until the art scene finally shifted. Galleries moved in, and Canyon Road became known for selling art rather than making art. “The artists were forced to move out as things became too expensive, and the whole character and personality of the place changed,” he says wistfully. “It didn’t feel the same any more. My friends had either died or moved on, and the younger artists coming in were more interested in using technological aids, rather than producing pure art forms like the old masters did.”
Since he already owned some land in Dixon, New Mexico, Levin decided to move there and build himself another house with a studio where he has lived with his girlfriend, also an artist, for about the past fifteen years. The studio is simple but welcoming, with a big, antique woodstove, a few threadbare rugs tossed onto the concrete floor, wooden beams, a huge easel, an abundance of books, and shelves for storing paintings … a real hippie hideaway and a perfect reflection of who he is: an uncompromising spirit of simpler times past.
His favorite medium for painting (and another reminder of his rugged individualism) is egg tempera, which was much favored by Renaissance painters before oil took over as the preferred medium in the 1500s. Powdered pigment is added to specially prepared egg yolk to produce the desired color. Unlike oil, it dries instantly, hardens, doesn’t fade with time, and produces brilliant, permanent colors. “That’s why Renaissance paintings still look so vibrant,” he explains. “The yellow from the egg yolk disappears at once and, even though it’s flat—you can’t build layers to produce a three-dimensional look like you can with oils—I personally think it’s cooler looking in the end.”
A prolific painter, Levin works with other media, too, including both oil and watercolor, and he is also highly skilled in the art of printmaking. In 1980, together with artist Sarah McCarty, he started the Santa Fe Etching Club. Now based in the Argos Gallery downtown under the leadership of Eric Thomson, the club offers regular classes, studio sessions, and events, and it gives artists the opportunity to show their work by taking part in regular exhibitions. Although he no longer makes prints himself, Levin is still involved with the group and will occasionally give talks or take part in events.
In addition to his bar scenes, Levin is also known for painting nudes, but he now prefers to use his imagination instead of a real-life model. “It can take up to 30 hours to paint a nude,” he says, “and, just like with photographs, the models are rarely satisfied with the result. That’s why I’ve never painted portraits. Working with live models you inevitably build a relationship, and I much prefer to have artistic freedom.”
Levin has recently turned his attention to inanimate objects—everyday items such as kitchen utensils, hammers, and screwdrivers—which he refers to as “a structured little section of the universe.” Living in rural Dixon, with its wide-open spaces, he is now drawn to painting landscapes as well. “Most artists nowadays focus on just one theme, either to make their work instantly recognizable, or because a gallery thinks that will make them more salable. I think the art of painting has definitely suffered because of commercial considerations.”
Playground (2009), egg tempera
Levin’s art has been displayed in many Santa Fe galleries over the years, including Zaplin Lampert Gallery, Ernesto Mayans Gallery, and St. John’s College, among others, and a retrospective of his work was held at the Las Vegas Art Museum in Nevada in 2000. His work is also included in the collections of the Tucson Museum of Art, the Archives of American Art in Washington, DC, the Cleveland Museum of Art, and the New Mexico Museum of Art in Santa Fe. He is also a regular participant in the Dixon Studio Tour, which has been held annually during the first weekend of November for more than 35 years and now includes some 40 different artists.
Levin is proud to still be painting and to have maintained his independence from popular artistic trends throughout his career. He firmly believes that fine art has been in rapid decline for well over a century, moving further and further away from its purist roots. He cites the loss of technical skills, the lack of depth, the lack of concern for the human condition, and the advent of technology as major reasons for that decline. “Who wants to be a Renaissance artist these days?” he asks. “Most artists use technology now; people are obsessed with it. Artists today really don’t know how to paint anymore, but then, I don’t know how to use a computer.”
Levin’s landscape paintings adorn an adobe wall in his home in Dixon, New Mexico.