Irving Petlin made the world a better place

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"WINTER SUN, The Island Series," 22 x 30 in. — Nicolas Marailhac Atelier AE

Artist Irving Petlin, who died at his home in Chilmark earlier this month, led a relatively quiet, low-key life at his summer home on the Vineyard. But his was hardly a passive life of quiet and isolation. Petlin, who is recognized as one of the modern masters of pastels, was among the most outspoken and active members of the Vietnam War era protests, and he continued his opposition efforts throughout much of his adult life.

Petlin worked in both oils and pastels. His work is included in the permanent collections of many of the world’s most renowned institutions, including the Metropolitan Museum, the Whitney Museum, the Museum of Modern Art, the Pompidou Center in Paris, the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington, D.C., the Los Angeles County Museum, the Art Institute of Chicago, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts, to name a few. He was among the artists exhibited in the Paris Biennale (1961), the Whitney Biennial (1973), and the Venice Biennale (1982).

Petlin was as committed as an activist as he was as an artist. In the 1960s, as an already well-regarded painter, he founded the Artists’ Protest Committee, and was the primary organizer of the Peace Tower, a 60-foot-tall structure made up of over 400 paintings by artists including Robert Motherwell, Mark Rothko, and Frank Stella. The monument was erected in West Hollywood as a protest against the Vietnam War.

When he moved to New York City in 1966, Petlin continued his protest activities in earnest, playing an important role in the Art Workers’ Coalition (AWC) opposition efforts. The AWC took on many of the major art institutions in New York City on a variety of civil rights issues. He was one of the designers and promoters of the iconic anti–Vietnam War poster “And Babies.”

Petlin was born in Chicago, the son of Polish Jewish immigrants. He studied at the Art Institute of Chicago and earned a master’s in fine art from Yale University. He served in the U.S. Army, and then emigrated to Paris. There he began to earn recognition for his pastel work, showing at the same gallery as some of the prominent surrealists of the day, including Max Ernst and Roberto Matta.

The American civil rights movement drew Petlin back to the U.S. out of a sense of duty to his homeland. From Los Angeles, Petlin and his wife Sarah, a poet, moved to New York, where the couple would spend the next 28 years. The artist remained active with the AWC in protests against the U.S. intervention in Central America and other issues.

Around the time of the Gulf War, Petlin finally became disillusioned with U.S. policy and decided to return to Paris, where he lived for the last three decades of his life, splitting his time between his apartment in the Fifth Arrondissement and an 18th century farm in Chilmark.

The artist continued his commitment to activism, often speaking out through his work. Even very recently, Petlin used his medium to comment on the police killings of African American men with a series of oil paintings titled “Madonna of Slavery.”

In his dreamlike, mystical work Petlin utilized allegory, mythology, and symbolism to comment on the human condition, as well as politics and humanist issues. He was represented by the Kent Gallery in New York City, Nadine Fattouh in Paris, Galerie Ditesheim and Maffei Fine Art, Neuchatel, Switzerland. On the Island, Petlin showed his work at A Gallery.

A Gallery owner Tanya Augoustinos recalls her visit to Petlin’s studio in Chilmark two years ago, when he arranged to show his work on the Vineyard for the first time. “He wanted to honor his deep connection to the Island and to the considerable body of work that had been created here over several decades. Of that he said, ‘Maybe it’s the apartness of an island, the fact it’s surrounded by water, that invites the mythological, the magical, more easily to take hold, and enter imagination and memory — this has certainly been true for me over the past 36 summers.’”

Right up until the end of his life, Petlin enjoyed commercial success as well as recognition as an important contemporary artist. This past winter he was honored with a tribute at the National Arts Club in New York, and also inclusion in a show titled “The Art of Pastel: From Degas to Redon” at the Petit Palais, Paris (he was the only living artist to be included in the retrospective).

Petlin worked year-round, often using his time on the Island to create pastel works, many times using these as studies for paintings he completed at his studio in Paris.

When he knew that his time was nearing an end, Petlin chose to spend his final days on the Vineyard, enjoying the peace of the Island and visits from his children and grandchildren. “This has been an important place for him and his work in many ways,” said Sarah Petlin of her husband’s time on the Vineyard. “He never depicted it literally, but that doesn’t mean that it hasn’t always been a really strong presence and a continual source for his work.”

Although he enjoyed enviable recognition as an artist and developed friendships with some of the world’s most successful contemporary artists, as well as a number of the legendary beat poets and writers, Petlin always maintained a very down-to-earth attitude, and displayed an openness and interest in the people he met in his day-to-day life on the Island.

Irving Petlin was an artist, an activist, and a gentleman of humility, humor, and grace who sought to better the world with his art, not just to further his career.

A small gathering of friends and family of Irving Petlin will take place at Abel’s Hill cemetery at 1:00 on Sunday, Sept 16.