Eli’s book was published in 2007 and I wrote my review soon after. It was printed in the local paper. The last time I saw Eli he had a small house up in the mountains, maybe Penasco, or some other small town in Northern New Mexico. I don’t remember which one for sure. He told me that he still had his home in Santa Fe, and that he moved from one place to the other every two weeks. Yeah, it’s just like Eli to do something like that. f
Santa Fe Bohemia
The Art Colony 1964 – 1980
By Eli Levin
A book review by Forrest Fenn
The book signing took place near the top of Lower Canyon Road at Argos Etchings and Paintings, there on the left, next to Ed Larson’s gallery, whose large sign reads “Jesus Says Buy Folk Art.” All of this fits Eli exactly, I thought as I splashed up the steps and into a small but pleasant gallery space. It was crowded with people I didn’t know.
Well, there was Eli, standing beside the exit signing books. His brown, Humphrey Bogart hat fit like it was sewn on, and the heavy sweater he wore in the warm room suggested he was ready for a quick exit down the steep steps, through the mud and away, should one of the characters in his book arrive in person to disagree with his take on him or her. And there are many of both genders that felt the swath of his laser sharp pen.
Most chapters contain interesting geographical descriptions of the person whose name appears in the chapter head. Some of what he calls “little jibes” about his friends are:
“…a puffy old alcoholic,”
“It was hard, looking at her, to imagine her with a man.”
“…her worst feature was her brown teeth.”
“…was tall, with a sunken face, dark crooked teeth, bugging eyes and a balding pate fringed with scraggly grey hair.”
For him to say that the wonderfully petite and sensitive Carol Mothner was “quick at repartee,” and high strung and aggressive and had a sharp voice, shows me that he spent too much time holding down bar stools at Claude’s – which he readily admits to on nearly every page.
His books were selling well when I arrived at his signing, as buyers and well-wishers, three or four at a time, slowly moved up the line to get his signature. When my time came, I said, “Eli, I hear you gave me hell in the book.” So we both laughed as he wrote, “I gave you hell,” and signed his name. Anything less would have disappointed me.
Now, I’ve always had a warm place in my heart for Eli, though the reasons are not at all clear. Perhaps it’s because he seems to personify the underdog. The sincere smile that always curls his face seems perfectly at home, his down-beat eyes and gentle manner, the intensity with which he engages his craft, his “lookout” for fellow artists, are all traits we’re quick to admire in anyone. We didn’t socialize over the years because we never happened to be in the same place at the same time. He’s a New York Jewish Bohemian and I’m a recovering Texas Baptist. There was little reason for us to mix even though art made our paths cross on several occasions. Chapters in his book describe several such events.
In 1968, when I was fighting the unfortunate war in Vietnam, Eli was in Santa Fe expounding on how tough life was for him. His feelings were honest; he was having a hard time. That’s the definition of an underdog. In 1972, when I moved to Santa Fe and built a gallery, Eli was well established in the barrios and Canyon Road art places. He had become the Chief Cultist, the professional underdog, or the head of the art world underground as “Pasatiempo” recently insinuated. He had a large following of admirers, most of whom were painters and drinkers, as he describes them. And nearly all are barb recipients in this book.
Somehow I envy what he had, and has. While I was working forever in my gallery office he was holding court in smoke-filled kitchens and bedrooms that were clouded with jabbering, coffee and wine drinking soulmates – all artists, whose studios housed easels and sincere canvases hoping for a magical brush-stroke that would make their masters famous. It didn’t happen, and the mourning continues. I’m not talking out of school, saying those things, because that’s what Eli’s book is about over and over. Santa Fe Bohemia – The Art Colony 1964-1980.
Along with renderings by other artists, Eli’s paintings and etchings decorated the walls of Argos gallery. I told myself that all of the artists showing their art there must be friends because there seemed to be a cohesive warmth in their combined display, maybe a “togetherness” of sorts. That seemed to fit. Many works by the artists, all unknown to me, were pleasant and soothing.
Although I had seen pictures of Eli’s work before, this was the first occasion I remember taking a close-up look and having an opportunity to examine them with my magnifying eye. His folk art, mostly bar room scenes, is graphic and funny and it’s easy to see that he doesn’t sketch anything on the canvas before his brushes arrive. And what he lacks in technique he makes up for with warm visual dialogue. His work makes me wonder whether he paints because he likes it or likes it because he does it. In any event, his rewards must mostly be the satisfaction he gets from the participation and its associated camaraderie. The shameful thought came to me that perhaps he should be showing next door where Jesus might buy one.
It had been a long time since I had seen Eli but I swear he has not changed a hair since we first met thirty-seven years ago. And as he remembers and reminisces in this book about the old days in Santa Fe I must also admit to remembering a few things about the people he describes – about Don Fabricant quitting his job as critic for the New Mexican because of me, and about his newspaper review of Susan Rowland’s show at St. John’s College, saying that her work “isn’t too bad if you get back far enough, like clear across the street,” and knowing that she cried for days because of it. And I remember consigning a Macaione painting to Margaret Jamison that was so cluttered with thick paint clusters that, for three years, we didn’t know it had seven bullet holes through the canvas, and might not have known even today if we had not taken it outside so the sun could shine through the holes. Everyone, it seems, was a critic. Someone said the bullet holes made the painting more valuable so we went up on the price. Those were the good old days.
The Santa Fe art history about which Eli writes was so vibrant with energy you could feel it tingling in your bones. Today we have more galleries and more artists, but the energy is gone. Hopefully this review will start it anew. Your turn Eli. f