When Irving Petlin passed away at his Chilmark home in 2018, the world lost a man who was not only a brilliant artist, but one who devoted his life to issues of social justice.
Petlin, considered one of the premier pastel artists in the world, had shown his work in prestigious galleries in New York and Paris, and his paintings and pastels are part of the permanent collections of the Metropolitan Museum, the Whitney, the Museum of Modern Art, the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington, and the Pompidou Center in Paris.
As well-known for his activism, particularly during the Vietnam War, Petlin was a principal organizer of the Artists’ Protest Committee in Los Angeles, a group that famously erected the Peace Tower in that city.
Despite spending 38 years living between Paris and Martha’s Vineyard, Petlin had never shown his work on the Island until he met Tanya Augostinos, who owned A Gallery at the time. The work of the renowned artist was featured at the gallery when it was located in Oak Bluffs. Petlin and Augostinos formed a close relationship, and she has, since his passing, shown his work in two pop-up shows at Featherstone.
Now, for the first time since 2017, the Petlin estate, along with Augostinos, will host a show of pastels at the artist’s former studio on the Petlin property. This event will be in keeping with a tradition the artist had established during his lifetime, when he would invite friends and associates into his studio once a year to show new work, much of which was destined for galleries in New York and Europe.
On display will be 14 pastels done over the course of four decades. Most were completed while Petlin was on the Vineyard. Some feature scenes around his property — formerly an 18th century farm. Two of the pastels come from a series that the artist completed in the 1980s, inspired by a short story collection by his friend Primo Levi, titled “The Periodic Table.”
Petlin’s work tends to be allegorical in nature, featuring symbols that he repeated throughout his career. The Vineyard series that he exhibited at A Gallery was titled “Mythology and the Island.” Recurring themes in Petlin’s work include mythological and historical references, and his thoughts on journeys and exile.
Petlin’s work often features a subdued palette punctuated with areas of saturated colors, and sketchily drawn images and ghostlike figures that give the pastels a dreamlike quality.
For the upcoming exhibit, Petlin’s work (some framed, some unframed) will be positioned around the rustic studio building which once served as the foundation of a barn. Wood shavings have been placed on one area of the floor in the manner of the late master, who would scatter sawdust around to protect the delicate pastels which he purchased from a renowned, generations-old family business in France. The idea behind the exhibit is to recreate the studio as it appeared in the days when Petlin would invite visitors every August to see what he had been working on all summer long. “He worked in his studio every day while he was on the Island,” says Petlin’s widow Sarah. “Everybody wanted to know what he was doing there all day long.”
“We’re going to resurrect the studio to be as authentic as possible,” says Augostinos. “We hope, among other things, to expose his work to new viewers.”
Irving Petlin Open Studio, barn at 119 South Road, Chilmark, August 30, 31, and Sept. 1. From 11 am to 4 pm each day. Preview by appointment on August 29. For more information, contact Tanya Augoustinos, 508-939-0518m or email@example.com.