Margrit Lewczuk with Phong Bui
One Sunday afternoon in mid-May Rail Publisher Phong Bui paid a visit to the painter Margrit Lewczuk’s studio in Williamsburg, Brooklyn to talk about her life and work.
Phong Bui (Rail): You were born in 1952 in the Lower East Side of New York City. Your father was from the Ukraine and your mother was from Germany. Did they meet in the U.S.?
Margrit Lewczuk: No, they first met in Europe. My father was a young man taken from his family into a German work camp during WWII. At the time, it was looked down upon for a German woman to be with anyone that was not the same race. They were given the choice to come to America, Australia, or Canada. They chose to come here. They arrived in New York on Labor Day, September 1951, and I was born in January 1952, three months later. I still don’t understand the fact that they just knew each other for a short time and neither of them spoke the same language, yet they managed to communicate with each other somehow. I’ve never spoken to my parents about this, but I figured it out years later. I must have been 3 or 4 or however old you are when you start watching television or playing in the park with other kids. It was only then that I began to speak English, and then I started first grade early at age 5.
Rail: And you spoke German to your mother and Ukrainian to your father?
Lewczuk: Yes. I still speak German to my mother, and I am a little less fluid with Ukrainian when I speak to my father.
Rail: What was it like to grow up in the Lower East Side in the 50’s?
Lewczuk: Having read the book on Milton Resnick and the New York School (Out of the Picture), and looking at the map of Lower Manhattan in the 50’s I realized that many artists had lived in the same neighborhood. All the galleries were on 10th Street. Alfred Jensen and Michael Goldberg were on 10th Street. So was Joan Mitchell, Larry Rivers, and Elaine de Kooning. We lived on Eighth Street and First Avenue, and even though I was a child, I must have felt the energy that was around me. By the mid-60’s, after the era of the beatniks, the neighborhood changed a lot. The poet and composer Moondog could be seen on the street playing his music or trying to sell his poetry. I went to see many concerts at the Fillmore East, which was on Second Avenue and East Sixth Street, in my teenage years, mostly bands from the West Coast like Jefferson Airplane, Country Joe & the Fish, Vanilla Fudge, The Grateful Dead, Jimi Hendrix, The Doors, Janis Joplin, and many others. Not to mention the Joshua Light Show, which was an important part of those concerts.
Rail: Serious psychedelia, which I can only imagine, based on what we can see now on YouTube.
Lewczuk: Exactly. And come to think of it, part of that experience is in these new paintings I’m making now. Lately, I feel like I’m going back to my childhood.
Rail: You mentioned once that the first painting that you made a copy of when you were 12 was a Stuart Davis painting.
Lewczuk: Yes. I was looking through thousands of images in different art books, and the images of his paintings of the 1940’s struck me the most and I thought, “I want to copy this.” Even though at the time I didn’t even know how paintings were put together so I went out and I got a piece of glass and I painted my own copy with sign painter’s paint.
Rail: So from then on you became more attracted to painting.
Lewczuk: I can’t remember exactly how old I was but my parents always wanted to move back to Europe so they always prepared us, my brother and I, in case we should move back. I remember every Saturday having to go to the Goethe House for my German lesson, right across the street from the Metropolitan Museum, and when mother came to pick me up after class, she would take me to the Met and we would just walk around the museum. It was always considered a great day because afterwards we’d go to a German movie on 86th Street, which used to be Yorktown where there were a lot of German restaurants; she loved going there because it reminded her of her old country. Yorktown sort of disappeared, probably by the early 90’s.
Rail: Which high school did you go to?
Lewczuk: I went to St. Joseph’s high school, which was and is in the West Village on Washington Place. It was an all girls Catholic High School. It was very small, we had nuns and lay teachers. But by junior year of high school, my family moved from the Lower East Side to Forest Hills, Queens, mostly because my father, who was working for Schrafft’s Company, was injured in a boiler explosion and could not and did not work for about 15 years. In fact, there was a major court case against the company. The first one he lost, but the second case went to the Supreme Court, and he won. So he was awarded a sum of money, and it was like the Beverly Hillbillies. We packed up the truck and moved to Forrest Hills where my parents bought this 13 room English Tudor house, which I still visit regularly to see my father. Anyway, life was totally changed forever. I went to Forrest Hills High School, which was a real shock for me considering where I had been previously, a small, protected Catholic School. At Forrest Hills, where Simon and Garfunkel had gone, rich kids were driving up in the circular driveway with fancy sport cars and it was there that I saw drugs for the first time (not on the Lower East Side as you would imagine).
Rail: Where did you go to college? I assume painting was your major?
Lewczuk: I went to Queens College, and I didn’t actually study painting. Instead I studied psychology; at the time I was very interested in observing people’s behavior, and I was a good listener so I thought I would be good at it. In the meantime, I’d walk around the school and notice these art studios and I’d have this feeling of how brave these students were in that they were able to make art in public. I really wanted to do the same but I was too shy to do anything about it. Gradually, I became less interested in psychology, and after three and a half years, I basically lost my interest and left school. Right after taking a big trip in a TR4 across the country with a friend—I went to look for my brother and found him in Laguna Beach.
I had a lot of strange jobs [laughter]. I was selling real estate on the phone in the Poconos, Pennsylvania. After a couple of months, the company went bankrupt because they were found to be selling land illegally, so all of us lost our jobs. I started collecting unemployment, and it gave me the time to think about what I really wanted to do. That was when the opportunity to go to art school presented itself. I had never really thought before that art is something that you can learn in a school, but I thought you would be able to learn technical skills like in a trade school.
I ended up taking a full-time class at the Brooklyn Museum Art School for the next three years. I was in a class with five rotating instructors. They were Kendall Shaw, Allen Barber, Sheridan Lord, Bill Jensen, and Francis Cunningham, who was a former student of Edwin Dickinson.
We also had Ron Gorchov, Judy Rifka, Stuart Diamond, Ted Stamm, and Joan Thorne come in as visiting artists.
Rail: I’ve been told that Cunningham was extremely generous and very methodical as a teacher.
Lewczuk: That’s true. He really knew how to teach the craft of painting in a very traditional way: how to look and draw from observation, how to set up your palette, how to mix color, and all the fundamental requirements. We would spend two weeks drawing and painting a seated figure, and everyone’s painting looked exactly the same, but it was good because you learned all of those necessary things, which you will need later before developing your own sense of yourself. That background, plus the fact that I was a housepainter for many years, gave me my confidence to paint.
Rail: And where does Bill [Jensen] fit in the picture? He must have been a younger instructor at the time, and I could only imagine that his teaching method was less traditional.
Lewczuk: To say the least, he was completely different than the rest of the teachers there, then and now. Also, while I was a full-time student during the day there I also was a part-time model in the evening.
Rail: So you spent more time at the school than anyone else, really.
Lewczuk: In a way I got part of my education by modeling because, when you model you meet a lot different instructors, and you hear all the different methods of teaching. Actually, I think I taught myself how to draw just by sitting in place. Modeling is very meditative, so it gave me time to learn how to draw myself in place and back into place again. It also taught me about pressure points.
I teach at the New York Studio School and a Life Drawing class at the New School and I always tell the class when a model gets up, take a look where all the red marks are, and you can tell where they’ve been leaning and try to put those pressure points in your drawing. [Laughs.]
Rail: There must have been other pressure points—I mean the attraction between you and Bill.
Lewczuk: When you’re in love with someone, you’re always afraid to be the first one to say, “I love you,” because the other person may not feel the same about you. Do you want me to repeat the story?
Rail: Please, for posterity.
Lewczuk: There were times when I was going home to Brooklyn by train. At the time, Bill lived in SoHo, and we would have to take the same train. I would see him sitting on the bench in the train station as the train was going by. And I would think: why is he sitting at the bench when the train just left? He should be on the train. I later realized he was waiting for me. And then I went and I sat on the same bench. And there was this incredible tension between us.
Rail: How distant was the interval?
Lewczuk: A little bit distant, but we were both extremely shy so neither of us said a single word. And then the train would come, we’d both get up, walk in, sit down. I don’t think we even said anything and this went on for a while, I don’t know exactly how long, and then, eventually, he invited me over to see his work on Prince Street.
Rail: And what was your impression of his work then?
Lewczuk: I always liked his work. At the time he was just starting to do some of the shaped paintings. Bill did construction for a long time while teaching part-time here and there. He would take back to his studio whatever pieces of cut offs that were shapes that he liked. He would wrap canvas or linen around the shapes and paint them. They were sort of Matissian in that they had long ellipses on them. Anyway, after I visited his studio we went out for a walk on the West Side Highway and I remember him asking, “Can we walk arm-in-arm?” I thought, this is like from another era. Who says “arm-in-arm?” Like, where are you from? [Laughter.] Bill seemed like someone from another era, from another time. I just knew right then this was the man that I was going to spend the rest of my life with.
Rail: What year was that roughly?
Rail: What was the community of artists like?
Lewczuk: We all would have parties in our lofts. If any one of us got a CAPS Grant, which now seems like pennies, but it was $2,500, we would have a party. I remember, one year Bill and Porfirio di Donna got one together so we all went to the fish market at 5 o’clock in the morning and brought back bushels of oysters and clams and had a party that lasted forever, shelling fish and drinking and being in everybody’s studio, music, dancing, and it would be 50 people. Everyone would celebrate the other person’s success.
Rail: So there was a real community.
Rail: Where was your studio?
Lewczuk: Well, I had a friend who was a real estate agent who found a loft for me on Tiffany Place in Red Hook for $37.50 a month in 1976. The only person who lived on the same block with me was Peter Gourfain. Red Hook then was full of drugs, heroin addicts, and prostitutes. It was a really rough neighborhood. My studio was a 1,200 square foot space with no water and no heat, but I didn’t care. Bill had just moved from his Prince Street loft to North 3rd Street with Bob [Robert] Grosvenor and Jene Highstein, and Susie Harris, but every night we would be together either at his studio or mine. Bill usually would come with his bicycle carrying firewood, and that would be our heat once we sawed it up into pieces for our wood burning stove.
Rail: That’s heavy.
Lewczuk: It was really rough living. To find water, you would have to go into the basement, deep into the bowels of the building and carry the water up to the third floor. We were poor, but very happy.
Lewczuk: One day I came home and I saw my landlord carrying my claw-foot bathtub down the steps, my only prized possession.
Lewczuk: Because I couldn’t pay the $37.50 rent that month. In any case, I was homeless and jobless. I was standing on the corner of Grand Street and Bowery with the Village Voice under my arm. Out of the corner of my eye a golden car came speeding toward a group of people, but only hit me. It hit me on the left side and threw me up in the air on top of the hood of the car. They found my shoes underneath, and I was taken to the hospital. I had a huge contusion on the side of my hip. Luckily, I was okay and managed to get out of the hospital at the end of the same day. And then days later I’m hobbling around with my friend Michael Stolzer and he needed a place too, so we thought, let’s combine our forces and we’ll find a place. So, he said, where would you like to live? And, I said, I would like to live on the Lowest East Side. So we decided to start from Grand Street and walk down towards the water. And, as we turned the corner, on South Street, I saw this loading dock and this one seaport building standing by itself. And there was a man standing outside and he, too, had a crutch. And we looked at each other and smiled. And he said, okay, what happened to you? And I said I got hit by a car. I can’t remember what happened to him. This man turned out to be the Mafia boss of Staten Island, Sal De Blasio. And that was his building. I said, I’m an artist; I need a place to live and work. He said, I think I have something for you upstairs for a hundred dollars cash every month, gas and electric included. I took the front half of this beautiful fourth floor with a view of the East River. My friend Michael took the back half. Upstairs, the top floor, was the sculptor Jim Clark. And then, because we wanted to fill it with our friends, we got Kiki Smith to take the third floor in the rear, which left a beautiful front space. In all of these studios, you could see through the floors, because there was no insulation, whoever was on the top floor had the benefit of the heat from the floors below. So, Bill took the front half of that floor, right below me, as his second studio, which mostly was used as storage for Ronnie’s [Bladen] big heavy paintings. We were there for a couple of years. I remember Sal saying to us, you can stay, but when I say it’s time to go, it’s time to go. He eventually got shot by his brother and survived. He was a real wonderful family man. I always felt comfortable coming home at 2 or 3 o’clock in the morning because the block was safe.
Rail: What sort of paintings were you doing in those days?
Lewczuk: I’d say they were abstract paintings that were influenced by Frida Kahlo and Russian icon paintings. They were painted very gesturally and minimally at the same time. Then gradually, the palette got darker and the structure became a bit more definite. I would say, during that time, Rouault and Soutine were the two other painters I really loved and I still do.
Rail: The other thing I would say about the early paintings is that both the negative and positive space is being treated equally and very frontally, up close to the surface. Yet there’s a kind of unorthodox way of modeling.
Lewczuk: That’s one of my favorite words, unorthodox.
Rail: There is a strong attraction to dark, somber colors, a variety of subtle pink and earth tones, and occasionally very bright, and intense colors.
Lewczuk: I was thinking about Goya and Fra Angelico, the dark and the bright, and the stillness that is so powerful in their paintings. By 1980, when I moved from South Street to the Meat Market on 14th Street the palette got lighter, mostly because the studio had two skylights, and it was flooded with natural light.
Rail: That makes sense.
Lewczuk: The other thing I did differently was that I switched from a palette knife, which I did use with those paintings—the earlier paintings in the 70’s—to a brush. I guess after a while you just want a new way to work and you get tired of seeing your own touch and your own hand, so I switched my tool from the palette knife to the brush. I think that contributes to the way the paintings look, at least on the surface level.
Rail: Did the paintings increase in size?
Lewczuk: Well, every time I made a new batch of paintings, which would be about 10 a year. And every year when I did that, they would go up an inch at a time. And I figured I could get up to 50 inches, which was the size of the paintings I made on the 14th Street studio in the Meat Market District and was the biggest size that would fit in a taxicab. It wasn’t until I came to my new studio in Brooklyn that I increased the size to 4 by 5 feet.
Rail: The late 70’s into the 80’s was considered a strange but exciting time, partly because more women artists were showing their works than in previous decades. Were there any specific women artists whom you had a dialogue with?
Lewczuk: Well, I would say, more so than dialogue, it was just a way of life that Elizabeth [Murray] set up as an role model for me. We both had children that were at Little Red School House. Her daughters, Sophie and Daisy, were a couple years older than Russell. I would see her at the end of the day, coming to pick up her children. She would be walking down Bleecker Street with two shopping bags filled with groceries and two children one on either side of her. She was the one who really gave me some kind of affirmation that I, too, could do this. I could have a family and still be an artist. So, that felt great. More than a dialogue, she didn’t have to say anything. I’ve seen her give talks many times and the question about being a woman artist always comes up, and she always says, if I were a man, you’d never even be asking me that question. So she was a tremendous role model for me.
Rail: That’s great. What was the reception of your first solo show at Pamela Auchincloss in 1987?
Lewczuk: A lot of people saw it, and Pamela was a great supporter of my work. I was scheduled to show with her every two years after that. During that time, I was also showing with Dolan Maxwell in Philadelphia. I was also showing with Thordon Wetterling Gallery in Stockholm during those years.
Rail: Did Neo-Expressionist painting have any effect on your work?
Lewczuk: I have to say that I really stayed out of that whole mix. It really didn’t have too much of an effect on me. Besides, Russell had just been born in 1987, so he was the main focus of my life. I was just trying to keep everything together being an artist and a mother.
Rail: Could you tell about the fire that destroyed a lot of your paintings in the 14th Street studio?
Lewczuk: Twenty-five years of my work and our entire art collection was all gone.
Luckily, no one was hurt. That was the most important thing. Equally lucky we had bought a building in Williamsburg, where we are now. We had just started renovating it before the fire happened in ’99. Then slowly we built our new home and my new studio. That was a year I didn’t paint. It was also one of the few years that we didn’t go to Italy for the summer to work. Instead, we went to Kippy Camp where I began to work with charcoal and ink on paper with big, sweeping marks. I remember bringing them back here and hanging them up and people would come over and say, oh Margrit, it looks like the smoke and the fire, you must be so upset. And I thought, you know, I don’t want pity. So I went out and got the brightest colors I could find and used fluorescent, which, eventually wound up being phosphorescent, because the light was not enough just in the daytime. It had to be light also at night.
Rail: Do you think your attraction to fluorescent paint has to do with psychedelic effects?
Lewczuk: No, I think that having visited Mexico several times—the first one being a pilgrimage to Frida Kahlo, then seeing the Orozcos at the Chapel of Instituto Cultural Cabaña, all the great Rivera frescoes at the National Palace—had more of an impact. Also, just being in Mexico with the vibrant and beautiful colors of textiles that are made of natural fibers were everywhere, the whole visual field is flooded with colors that really vibrate. And now thinking back at my teenage years seeing the Joshua Light Show at the Fillmore East must also have had an influence.
Rail: And that’s how one feels when seeing “Russell’s Eye” (2005), though there’s an element that recalls designs and musical rhythms that derive from a non-European culture.
Lewczuk: Similar to all the elements such as vibrant colors and alchemy in the Aztec culture that I was attracted to, African music and African culture is just as important to my recent work. I really can identify with the use of repetition in Sahara: Blues [of the Desert], especially with Ali Farka Touré. “Russell’s Eye” was painted, in fact, when Russell was 18.
Rail: Yeah, the album that he collaborated on with Ry Cooder [Talking Timbuktu (1994)]was a killer. Anyway, I also thought of the late cutouts of Matisse, especially of his designed vestment for the Venice Chapel, partly because of its composition, which requires no more than three pictorial elements such as three colors, three characters of form, or lines. Most importantly, it’s painted with such economy.
Lewczuk: You know, when you go to see the Orozco frescos on the ceiling in the Cabañas, it’s made with no more than three colors. I also am very interested in the idea of making the most from the least. And light is an important issue in my paintings.
Rail: In fact, when Matisse was asked by a journalist from Look Magazine in 1953 what direction he thought modern art was taking, he replied, “light,” which is similar to what he had already said to Pierre Courthion, “The main goal of my work is to achieve the clarity of light.” Which brings up another kind of light in “Three Stars for Emma.” What can you tell about the painting and your interest in Emma Kunz?
Lewczuk: I admire her work because it comes from a real necessity she had in making the work, not as artwork, but as a healing process for her patients. There’s a directness and urgency in her symbolic use of form and shape, as well as lines that I think are very powerful. You can say that I’m creating my own pharmacy [laughs]. But I also think that my interest in esoteric philosophy may have initially started when I was a teenager. I used to go to Hunter College to hear Timothy Leary and Baba Ram Dass lecture on various subjects of spirituality and so on.
I found Baba Ram Dass late one night when I was unable to sleep on my transistor radio on channel WBAI. He spoke about universal truths and that was a comfort to me.
Rail: How about the genesis of “Drums for Connie”?
Lewczuk: It was painted right before we had a memorial tribute to Connie here, in my studio. (Connie Reyes-Corrigan was my best friend and life partner to Ronnie Bladen). In 2005, before her death, Connie said to me, “I hate funerals. If something ever happens to me, I want a party. I want people to eat and drink and dance and have a great time.” So when Jenny-Lynn McNutt introduced me to African music and Baye Kouyaté and I heard his music for the first time at Zebulon in 2005, I thought, this is the kind of music she would love. Needless to say, we had Baye and his band perform here and this painting was hanging up. So I think, without doing it deliberately, that vibration, especially of his talking drum, got into the painting.
It was because of that new life force in my paintings that I came alive again after the fire.
Rail: You could actually feel the heat and the atmosphere of the desert. What about the relationship between your drawing, collages, and paintings?
Lewczuk: Usually I work on the collages in the summertime, when we’re away in Italy. It was only about three years ago that I began to use colored pencil, colored papers, and a swivel knife as a way to generate a simple form, shape, and pattern that could be useful for the paintings. It’s very difficult to interpret collage into painting, partly because they have a different physical reality—they’re cut and woven. Whereas I normally do the drawings in a small sketchbook, almost like a diary and they in fact have a different relationship to the painting than to the collage. You can say they’re closer to the painting, partly because they are flat.
Rail: So is it fair to say that the drawing functions as an intermediary between the collage and the painting?
Lewczuk: You can say that. The other element that may show in my work is different motifs in Persian architecture, which I really love. This past summer all the books I read had to do with explorers making their way across the Sahara Desert. One was The Road to Oxiana written by Robert Byron (distantly related to Lord Byron) and had to do with Persian architectures’ importance compared to Italian architecture. In Persia, when a king or queen die they would place the body on a camel as they walked out onto the desert; they would determine where to build a temple based on where the camel dropped. One example is the Musalla which is a mosque, mausoleum, and college built for Gohar Shad in Herat. It is with all of these images and colors that I would start my collage.
Rail: Would you say that your painting in the last decade evoked more of a universal sense in its synthesis of form and content, as it is revealed through color and line, and so on?
Lewczuk: It would make me very happy if that sense of universality was achieved. And as long as it includes the great mistake that I constantly hope for every once in a while, everything will be all right.