Gikow & Levine @ the Swope

Gikow & Levine @ the Swope

In 2024, on a sunny February morning, I traveled to the Swope Museum in Terre Haute, Indiana. The last time I visited the Swope was pre-COVID, and I wrote about it in the blog What I've Learned About Visiting Art Museums.

The Swope is a small but mighty museum. It has a collection of well-known artists, both regionally and internationally known. They have an excellent selection of paintings by the Hoosier Group and works by Edward Hopper, Thomas Hart Benton, Grant Wood, Andy Warhol, and Robert Motherwell, to name a few.

At the Swope, I discovered some new (to me) artists I found inspiring. On display are two paintings by Ruth Gikow and one by her husband, Jack Levine. I recalled liking the work by Gikow when visiting the museum for the first time, but on this visit, I spent time with her pieces.

Ruth was born in Imperial Russia (1915), in an area we now call the Ukraine. Her parents immigrated to NYC when she was five.

It is said of her work, "Ruth's paintings often depict human figures interacting with an urban environment." She has work in major museums: MoMA, The Met, The Philadelphia Art Museum, and the Whitney. Only the Whitney claims a painting by Gikow. The rest have prints she created in the 40s. I think the Swope wins bragging rights in the "Who has the best Gikow art" contest!

Ruth's paintings in the last half of her life interest me the most. They combine a child-like quality and can be haunting, as in the piece Young Girl. The Swope has excellent educational information about the paintings, and included in the comments, it says:

"Gikow's interest in depicting fleeting psychic states is reflected in this painting of a young woman's moment of introspection." Introspection is a great word to describe this piece. The expression and painting style are treasures.

Young Girl
Young Girl, 1961, the Swope Museam.  



I also applaud the Swope for maintaining such a delicate painting. It was created in 1961 on paper, using gouache and pencil (gouache is said like the word squash, with a G in front of the word). Don't judge the painting by the poor quality of my photo. The matt appears darker on the bottom because I created a shadow while taking the picture.

Gouache is a tricky paint and isn't meant to be used for its permanence. Often, it was used by commercial artists in the early 20th century. Ruth had a background in commercial arts, so it makes sense that she worked with this medium. Still, I imagine many art conservators cringe when they hear the word gouache!

The piece Elvis is Drafted is the first piece of Ruth's that stuck in my mind. As always, the proportions of her figures are distorted, giving a child-like quality to their forms. It is the expressions on the faces that are so compelling. The topic is the reaction of Elvis Presley fans to him being drafted. I love the wildly diverse emotions expressed by his adoring fans.

Most of us are first drawn to the girl in the brown dress, slightly left of center. She feels devastated. But it is the girl in the pink top (next to the girl in the red dress) that I love. She has the look of a young girl adoring her idol! Nine years later, I would have been the same little girl giving Paul McCartney the same look!

Elvis is Dead
Evis is Dead, 1960, the Swope Museam



I also enjoy her painterly style. I lack the hand to paint with a painterly brush stroke, but I admire it in those who do it well, and Ruth is one of those people.  I have written on this topic in depth (For the Love of Brush Strokes!). 

Ruth married artist Jack Levine in 1946. Like Ruth, Levine's work can be found in the collections of several large museums in the U.S. I want to interject something I've learned about larger museums. Due to the sheer number of paintings they own, only a few pieces can be shown. As of this writing, most of Levine and Gikow's works are "not on display" in the East Coast museums. It's just another reason the Swope is a gem to visit. You get to see pieces by artists that the big boys don't have room to display.

Back to Jack. Levine's topics of interest were figurative and social commentary. The latter appears to have gotten him into trouble at times. At one point, "raising suspicions in the House Un-American Activities Committee of pro-Communist sympathies." Being an artist of social commentary can be dangerous.

The painting at the Swope is called A Joy Forever. Painted in 1956, the educational tag says of the piece is "poking fun at the vanities and pretensions of a middle-aged patron in a lingerie shop."

I love his painting style. Although different from his wife's work, the art they created during the latter half of their lives complements one another. The expressions or lack of expressions on the faces are telling. As to the topic, I am not completely clear on his intent, but I am willing to see it as a product of the time it was created. 

A Joy Forever
A Joy Forever, 1953, the Swope Museam


I have not chosen the path of the figurative or social commentary artist, but I enjoy this genre when done well and appreciate the artists willing to take a chance. I know I wouldn't want the modern-day equivalent of the House Un-American Activities Committee or a group of angry middle-aged women in lingerie after me!

Last but not least, please support your local museums. I realize I'm probably "preaching to the choir," as my mom would say! You wouldn't be reading this if you weren't interested in supporting the arts. But attending museums helps to keep their doors open. I traveled two hours to visit the Swope and am a member.

Several of the larger museums have been running interactive events in recent years. I am not a huge fan, but I understand the need. Art museums are trying to find ways to keep their heads above water, and the paid-for interactive events pull people in, along with their money.

The Swope doesn't have epic interactive events, but several months ago, they had an antique appraiser on site who had been on the Antique Roadshow. You could bring in a piece for discussion and appraisal. In my book, that beats an interactive show every day of the week and twice on Sunday!


Link: The Swope Museam


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