The Lost Art of Sylvia Ludins
By Lou Fancher
The coolest things most people find on Craigslist are free sports equipment or antique armchairs for $50. But Berkeley resident Justin Cronkite raised the bar when he visited the garage of an Elmwood home to pick up a free 70-year-old dresser in November 2015 and stumbled upon nearly five hundred pieces of art.
"I opened the dresser and there were stacks of paintings, watercolors, sketch books," said Cronkite. "When we moved the dresser, there were enormous political propaganda oil paintings and wall-sized murals, sculptures, beautiful plates...."
Astoundingly, nearly all of the artwork was created by one artist, Sylvia Ludins, a relatively unknown 20th-century American painter. Now, Cronkite — a 36-year-old filmmaker and producer— is making it his mission to introduce Ludins to the world.
And Cronkite is a fervorous candidate for the job. He's an intriguing blend of willful, idealistic entrepreneur and an astute user of social media and technology. He seems prone to hyperbole, but not entirely without foundation in Ludins' case. Already, he's arranged for the Sylvia Ludins Collection exhibit at the Graduate Theological Union Library in Berkeley, where it's currently on view through Sept. 30.
Cronkite learned from the artist's nephew and owner of the home, John Katz, that Ludins was born in 1909 and grew up in New York City's Greenwich Village. Additional research revealed that Ludins, the daughter of Russian Jewish immigrants, attended Hunter College and earned a master's degree in art from Teachers College, Columbia University. Exhibited in New York venues including Roerich Museum, Brooklyn Public Library and ACA Gallery, her early work reflected the social realism movement prevalent in American art during the Thirties and Forties. Diego Rivera's progressive murals influenced her style, resulting in images of working-class people rendered in rich colors and dark-pigmented outlines, assertive compositions, elements of cubism and flattened perspectives. Ludins moved with her family to California in 1948, becoming an art teacher and expanding her politically bold, expressive paintings to include abstract and landscape themes.
After Ludins died in 1956 at the age of 56, her work and that of her sister, Florence Ludins Katz, was tucked away in the family garage. "The idea of having a garage with a car in it was totally alien to us. A garage was for art," said John Katz in a short video Cronkite produced for the Sylvia Ludins website he has created (LudinsArt.com).
As the inheritor of his mother's art, Katz gave most of her work away to friends, but was uncertain what to do with his aunt's paintings and other materials. Cronkite admits he's no art expert, but he was captivated enough by the "spicy politics and the sheer beauty of the images" to propose that Katz give him permission to "shine the light" on Ludins' large body of work.
"I thought I'd make a documentary about how I made a million dollars without knowing much about art," said Cronkite. Asked what will happen should that not come to pass, he was undeterred: "I'd change the title if I didn't make a million. Listen, I can make movies and tell stories. My job in life is to make sure individuals and projects are found and seen."
Katz was convinced by the same pitch and granted Cronkite permission to explore exhibiting, selling, or finding museums to house the work.
Enter 97-year-old Peter Selz, UC Berkeley Professor Emeritus of Modern Art, former painting and sculpture curator at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, and founding director of the Berkeley Art Museum. "The homeowner whose cottage I live in suggested I show it to Peter, but warned me that he was picky and doesn't like a lot of art," said Cronkite. "When he saw the paintings, he said, 'Oh my god! Look at the colors. Justin, you need the 101 on art. You need to learn.'"
A crash course ensued, with Selz taking his student to galleries, museums, Urban Ore's Ecopark Store in Berkeley, and more. Cronkite has captured their journeys, along with footage of interviews with Katz and hundreds of items in the Ludins' collection, to be used in the eventual documentary and for an Indiegogo campaign he's soon to launch. The funds will underwrite the documentary about discovering and bringing forward Ludins' art and will pay for restoration, cleaning, and framing of the art in preparation for an exhibition.
In a phone interview, Selz was of two minds: Sure about Ludins' importance in art history and slightly guarded about Cronkite's heroic ambitions. "Ludins clearly knows how to draw and paint. It's extremely well done and the political message is invaluable. Social realism was a major art movement and she was a part of it, making interesting paintings." About Cronkite's chances of "making a million" or creating a traveling museum exhibit, Selz said, "I'm not sure he realizes how hard either might be, but I'll do everything in my power to help him. She's an important artist."
Of course, cautious art historians and any naysayers to the project may not be taking into account the powerful tailwind behind Cronkite's mission. His father, Hal Cronkite, a former Berkeley City Manager, died June 14 at age 73. A quiet man devoted to public service, he was "no-fuss, similar to Ludins," according to his son. "Everyone wants their parent to have a statue or a street named after them, but my dad didn't want that," he said. "I can't let his passing go without making something live on. I can [do] that with Sylvia's work. She's someone who deserves to be known, just like my dad."