Abraham Levick Chanin's Life Story
A Biographical Sketch by Jack Harrison Pollack
| A few years
after A. L. Chanin died, his friend Jack Harrison Pollack wrote this article
succinctly outlining the life that Abe had led. It was published in 1970
and appeared in Encyclopedia of Biography.
The notes that are in bold have been added to this web version to update material Jack had included and that relate to events that happened after his death.
"The unique genius of the late Abraham Levick (A.L.) Chanin, perhaps the most influential art educator in American history, was in linking art to life in today's cultural explosion."
"An indefatigable art lecturer, teacher, critic, author, and historian, Abe Chanin - as he was affectionately known in art circles all over America and Europe - enriched the lives of numberless thousands of grateful persons in his pioneer Museum of Modern Art lectures for twenty-three years in New York, scholarly books and pamphlets, newspaper and magazine articles, TV and radio talks, and interviews."
"In making all aspects of contemporary and classical art alive and meaningful, Chanin helped bridge the gap between artist and audience, partly because he spoke and wrote in non-technical language to laymen."
"Abe Chanin was born in Lithuania, August 12, 1912, the youngest of four sons of Levick and Sarah (Cohn) Chanin. His father, who was born in Russia in 1878 and died in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, in 1964, was a factory employee who brought his family to the United States in 1921."
"Of his three other sons, Israel became a physician, Kusiel was the administrator of a home for the aged, and Joseph became a businessman."
"A gifted artist even in childhood, Abe Chanin at the age of nine was sketching fellow passengers on the boat to America. At fourteen, he began painting in oils seriously, picking his subjects from the streets of Philadelphia, as many French impressionists had done from the streets of Paris."
"At the Simon Gratz High School, he excelled in art, English, and history, but failed in mathematics and gymnastics. Having to go to work during the depression, he dropped out in his junior year, and because his family could not afford further formal education for him, he educated himself, spending endless hours in the libraries and art museums."
"Abe Chanin's unorthodox academic art education began when he wrote an historic letter at the age of seventeen to the late Dr. Albert C. Barnes, an eccentric, controversial millionaire art collector in Merion, Pennsylvania. Dr. Barnes, a self-made tycoon, had collected hundreds of masterpieces in his remote, fabulous art fortress, permitting only 200 selected students and a handful of special guests to view these treasures each year. He considered his collection not a private museum, nor a display of wealth, but as a serious experiment in art education."
"Abe Chanin had read Dr. Barnes' 1925 book, The Art in Painting the library and had written him asking to visit the Barnes Foundation art collection. Something about the boy's inquiring spirit apparently intrigued Dr. Barnes, who invited Chanin to come to the twelve-acre retreat."
"After peering at the youth's water colors and oils which he had requested to see, Barnes casually asked, 'Would you like to study here?' So it was that Abe Chanin enthusiastically studied at the Barnes Foundation from 1931 to 1934, where, as he put it, 'I learned to see.'"
"Then Dr. Barnes sent his prize student to Europe to study the Old Masters, in the main museums of various countries, on a Barnes Foundation Fellowship for six months. Mr. Chanin returned to the United States in 1935 and resumed his studies at the Barnes Foundation until 1936."
[Abe repaid the doctor once after the war, jumping into the fray during one of Dr. Barnes' struggles with the art establishment of Philadelphia.]
"Determined to paint full time, he won a fellowship to paint from January to May 1937 at The Research Studio in Maitland, Florida. Returning to Philadelphia, Abe Chanin frequently displayed his work, including shows at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts in its Oil Annuals and Water Color Annuals, and in a one-man show at the Boyer Galleries."
"His expressionistic style attracted considerable attention. Moving to New York's Greenwich Village, he continued to paint, sometimes eighteen hours a day. But he earned his living largely through drawings, sketches, and cartoons for various publications. He exhibited his work at the Brooklyn Museum Water Color Biannual and at a one-man and group shows at the Harry Salpeter Galleries."
"In May, 1941, he enlisted in the United States Army. Private Chanin, of Company 'C', 24th Engineers Battalion, painted a huge mural in the mess hall at his first base, Pine Camp, New York. Later, transferred to Camp Gordon, Georgia, where he was with the Medical Detachment, 55th Armored Engineer Battalion, Tenth Armored Division, he decorated the Three-Stripers Club with a more ambitious mural, done in pastel and colored chalk, a medium he devised to save time. The December 17, 1953, Camp Gordon 'Cadence' reported:"
"The results of this experiment are amazing. The color effect is charming and gay. When the club lights are dimmed, the delicate tones of the mural glow in startling luminosity."
"At Camp Gordon, the soldier-artist also created and drew an amusing comic strip called 'T-7 Bulldozer', which became one of the most popular features in 'The Tigers' Tale', the weekly camp newspaper. He also found time to be art editor of 'The Mighty 55th', a semi-monthly publication by his battalion at Fort Benning, Georgia."
"Sent overseas, where he served in the late General George S. Patton's Third Army, now Sergeant Chanin saw battlefield action as a combat medic. The gentle Chanin's humanitarianism inevitably led him to the medical corps, a service branch dedicated to saving - not destroying - lives."
"But he once almost lost his own. During the Battle of the Bulge, he raced around picking up leaflets dropped by Nazi bombardiers - to study the art!. One drawing was from an American magazine by his boyhood friend Joe Kaufman. For his bravery in action, nonetheless, Technician Fourth Grade Abraham L. Chanin was awarded a Silver Star Medal, as well as the Bronze Medal and a Presidential Unit Citation.
[ Family members have learned that Chanin also received the Purple Heart which, unfortunately, is currently missing.]"
"Abe Chanin returned to New York after being demobilized in November. 1945, and lived in a rat-ridden cold water flat, where he still continued to paint. When a sudden opportunity arose for him to join the educational staff of the burgeoning Museum of Modern Art, he swiftly switched from easel to lectern."
"Though he felt unhappy at being unable to paint, he threw himself into teaching art, and, thanks to his weekly paycheck, rented three clean rooms in which to live."
"As soon as he was financially able, he sent for Margit Winter, a beautiful, extraordinary German girl, the daughter of Franz and Helene Winter of Goerlitz, Germany. Her late father was a prominent hotel owner and realtor. They were married in Jersey City, New Jersey, in September 1947."
"Though she came from an artistic family, and is now a recognized international authority on many leading European painters whom she introduced to America as an art dealer - she is conceded to be one of New York's leading private art dealers - Margit Chanin is the first to admit that her most enduring art education stemmed from her husband of twenty-one years."
[Sadly, Margit passed away this past winter of 2001 and her art collection remains tied up in inheritance litigation, Abe's personal works among them.]
"In his Museum of Modern Art talks, educator Chanin steadfastly strove to convert casual interest into knowledge, having agreed with his mentor, Dr. Barnes, that aimless wandering in art galleries was a futile diversion, and that art is not a trivial matter, but a source of insight into the world."
"Dr. Irving Bieber, eminent Clinical Professor of Psychiatry at New York Medical College, said of him:"
"What an enriching adventure it was to walk through an art exhibition with Abe Chanin. Side by side with his warmth of personality, wisdom, and simplicity that often seemed naively trusting, he had an irascible intolerance for hypocrisy and injustice. Abe loved to laugh...."
"Victor D'Amico, director of the Museum of Modern Art's Department of Education, who worked closely with him for twenty years, reflected,'The increasing public interest in modern art was partly because Abe Chanin explained the whyand what of paintings to so many people. His extraordinary gift was in helping an audience see and sense exactly what occurs in a painting, in revealing the connection between an artist's expression and his daily experience.'"
"A suburban Scarsdale, New York, housewife recalled:'He made modern art clear instead of confusing to me.'"
"In 1960, Chanin was a visiting professor at Brandeis University in Waltham, Massachusetts, teaching Twentieth Century Painting and Sculpture. Other institutions at which he taught courses on art history were New York City's Mills College (1961), the Young Men's and Young Women's Hebrew Association (1952-56), and the Barnes Foundation in Merion, Pennsylvania (1948-52)"
"But his showcase teaching was as a staff lecturer (docent) and a faculty member at the Art Center of the Museum of Modern Art, one of the world's great repositories of contemporary masters, which attracts nearly a million visitors a year."
"Chanin spoke informally in the galleries about both the permanent collection of paintings and sculptures and those in the special exhibitions. Occasionally, he allowed his audience to pick the topic. Having a Messianic attitude towards art appreciation, Chanin gave unstintingly of himself, answering all questions with an indefatigable patience. Among his gifts was a special way of relating art to children, and their questions were of particular concern to him."
"In addition to his lectures, A. L. Chanin reached a wide, appreciative audience as a panelist on many New York radio programs. He discussed modern art on the first color television program, on June 20, 1951, on CBS with actress Faye Emerson."
"He was also a prolific writer. Among the magazines for which he wrote art critiques during the 1950's and 1960s were Harper's Bazaar, Connoisseur, Art News, Art Digest, The Arts, Charm, Dance,and The Nation. In these, he was among the first to recognize the growing importance of such painters as Vassily Kandinsky, Franz Kupka, Fernand Leger, Auguste Herbin, and Jackson Pollock."
"He authored hundreds of newspaper and magazine articles and reviews between 1935 and 1968. His articles, appearing in the"New York Times Sunday Magazine" during the 1950's and 1960's, were widely read, and, from 1949 to 1952, he conducted a weekly Sunday art column for the 'New York Compass'. Still, he frequently scolded the press: "Too few newspapers cover art news."
" A. L. Chanin's classic best seller, Art Guide/New York(Horizon Press, 1965) is an unusual, illustrated picture-by-picture tour to all of New York's leading art museums. The distillation of a lifetime of experience and ten years in the simple though scholarly writing, it assesses more than 300 classic and modern paintings, includes unconventional biographies and evaluations of 165 artists, as well as a checklist of paintings and sculptures."
"This book was widely acclaimed, and among many laudatory reviews the following appeared in the 'St. Paul Pioneer Press':"'With this book in hand, one may proceed from museum to museum and look at the paintings with a new sense of awareness and appreciation.'
"Other books in which A. L. Chanin's art and sculpture writings appear include Modern Art: A Pictorial Anthology (Macmillan, 1958); Chaim Gross: Fantasy Drawings (Beechurst Press, 1956); Joseph Solomon(Crown, 1966); and Gabo-Pevsner(Museum of Modern Art, 1948)."
"This international art authority was also sought out to rite the text of more than a hundred booklets, catalogues, and brochures, including Cubism, Abstraction, Realism (Metropolitan Museum of Art and Book-of-the-Month Club, 1956); and one of his final works, a brochure for the first American exhibition of two Bauhaus masters, Rohert and Ella Bergmann Michel: A 50 Year Retrospective, 1917 - 1967(Waddell Gallery, 1968)."
"A man of the loftiest humanitarian impulses, Mr. Chanin in his personal, political, and artistic philosophy was oriented to the needs and potential of his fellow men. As his friend, Dr. Irving Bieber, put it:'Abe Chanin's profound concern for the human condition was the backdrop against which his rich and productive life was played out.'
This sensitivity of perception so manifest in his chosen art field typified his life, and was coupled with a rare simplicity of heart which enabled him to discern lasting human values. He vigorously championed his adopted country and the principles upon which it was founded. One of the keynotes of his life was expressed in the poem of Emma Lazarus inscribed on the Statue of Liberty:"Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free..."
"In failing health, Abe Chanin went to Florida on a rare vacation in January, 1968. After his return to New York City he collapsed during a lecture at the Guggenheim Museum. Admitted to the hospital, he was visited by dozens of students and admirers and, despite his increasing pain, he - remained deeply interested in all the activities of his many friends, managing to compose poetry for some, and to write to many who were absent. After his death a boyhood friend recalled a poem by Fitz-Greene Halleck they had once shared:'None knew thee but to love thee,
Nor named thee but in praise.'
On May 1, 1968, Abraham Levick Chanin died at the age of fifty-five. Approximately a thousand persons from all walks of life attended the memorial services held May 3, 1968, at the Riverside Chapel in New York, and listened to the speakers recall Abe Chanin's grandeur of heart, grace of soul, search for beauty, and love of life, and how he inspired the noblest instincts in all."
"Dozens of his friends swiftly established a Special Purchase Fund in his memory at the Museum of Modern Art, and many other admirers are now planning another memorial to enable deserving, underprivileged youngsters to study art, the fund to be administered by a Negro college in the South."
"It should be noted that this record of Abe Chanin is to a great measure based upon a more lengthy and definitive biography written by Jack Harrison Pollack".
[As far as can be determined at the moment, this biography has been lost and is unfortunately no longer available.]