My friend Si Lewen, the painter, died three months ago, a little shy of his ninety-eighth birthday. In one of ourÂ last phone conversations, I asked him if he was backing Bernie or Hillary. Heâ€™d often told me that he was to the left of Karl Marx, so I was surprised when he said, â€œHillary, of course!â€ When I asked why, he told me that, unless we evolve into a matriarchy, weâ€™re all doomed. Itâ€™s hard to find father figures in oneâ€™s sixties, and, though Si was more like a batty uncle, I miss him.
I first met Si when he was a spirited and elfin ninety-four-year-old who still spent most of his waking hours paintingâ€”as he had since childhood. Iâ€™d stumbled onto his book â€œThe Parade,â€ from 1957, while researching wordless picture storiesâ€”obscure precursors of todayâ€™s graphic novels that briefly flourished between the two World Wars. â€œThe Parade,â€ obscure even by this genreâ€™s standards, was drawn shortly after the Second World War, but was conceived while Lewen, a Polish Jewish refugee from Germany, was a member of an Ã©lite force of native German-speaking G.I.s who were in Buchenwald right after it was liberated.
After the war, SiÂ resumed painting. Much to his astonishment, he found that heâ€™d banished â€œblack in all its overtonesâ€ from his palette, despite his traumatic past. Luminescent and colorful, his canvases from the nineteen-fifties and sixties often sold for ten thousand dollars and more. But, inevitably, his darkness returned, and galleries tried to dissuade him from this bleaker work. Finally, he stated, â€œArt is not a commodity. Art is priceless!â€ and withdrew from the art worldâ€”though not from painting. He told me, â€œOf course, when something is priceless itâ€™s also worthless.â€ So, in his new obscurity, he painted more prolifically than ever, free to now cut up â€œworthlessâ€ old paintings and collage them into new and more complex works.
â€œThe Paradeâ€ is a modernist dirge of a book that still packs an emotional wallop, telling the story of mankindâ€™s recurring and deadly war fever. Einstein wrote Si a fan letter after seeing the drawings in 1951, saying, â€œOur time needs you and your work!â€ It doesnâ€™t take a genius to see that this is still true today, so Si and I collaborated on an expanded â€œdirectorâ€™s cutâ€ version of â€œThe Parade,â€ remastered from the original art and published, this month, as a long accordion-fold book.
On the usually blank verso side is a monograph of Siâ€™s life and work that shows some of his paintings, including from his series â€œGhosts,â€ which had grown to two hundred or more shroud-like canvases between 2008 and 2015, when he had to hang up his brushes.
I brought the first advance bound proof of the book to him in his assisted-living facility, in Pennsylvania, as soon as it arrived. He couldnâ€™t put it down, and he died ten days later. It was,Â eerily, as if seeing his lifeâ€™s work acknowledged gave him permission to die. Now one of the â€œGhostsâ€ is in the process of being acquired by a major New York City museum, and Siâ€™s ghost will soon haunt its permanent collection.
Art Spiegelman will discuss Si Lewenâ€™s life and workÂ in a conversation with Paul HoldengrÃ¤ber, at the New York Public Library, on October 27th. Here isÂ a sequence from â€œThe Paradeâ€:
All images were drawn from â€œSi Lewenâ€™s Parade: An Artist Odyssey,â€ which is out this month from Abrams.