Jewish Journal

Deconstructing Harry

How a one-man art show became a permanent fixture on Fairfax Avenue.

by Michael Aushenker

Posted on Jan. 18, 2001 at 7:00 pm

Harry Blitzstein and friends. Below: "The Distraction," a work of Blitzstein's from 1986. Above and below right: two other Blitzstein paintings show the broad strokes and cartoonish character of his art.

Harry Blitzstein and friends. Below: "The Distraction," a work of Blitzstein's from 1986. Above and below right: two other Blitzstein paintings show the broad strokes and cartoonish character of his art.

When Harry Blitzstein decided to open up his Blitzstein Museum of Art (facetiously subtitled "Formerly Moe's Meat Market"), the neighboring merchants on Fairfax Avenue had a unanimous reaction. "They thought I was just kidding," the painter said.

After all, area residents have known Blitzstein all of his life. Harry was the son of the owner of Fair Shoe Stop, a long-standing establishment that folded in 1984, a few months after the death of Blitzstein's father. However, since opening his studio five years ago in the building that once housed his father's store, Blitzstein has become as venerable a Fairfax Avenue institution as the famed L.A. delicatessen across the street. In fact, Blitzstein points out that his father, whose business originated in Boyle Heights, used to repair shoes for old man Canter himself.

These days, Blitzstein can often be found at his storefront gallery, sitting in the eye of his artistic hurricane -- a dense output of nearly 200 pieces peopled with his "spirits and creatures" that sometimes literally leap out of the picture frame. These cartoonish oil portraits, rendered in quick, freewheeling swaths of paint, defy description or category; they're something like the Cartoon Network broadcast from inside a German Expressionist's fever dream. And that's not even including the frenzied mural of doodles that adorns the floor.

According to Blitzstein, he opened the gallery "the same way I paint, just to see the reaction of the people." That reaction has run the range from befuddlement among the local denizens to energized among the extended community of artists, models and writers.

They are not alone. Even Blitzstein's grown children don't quite know what to make of his work. And Blitzstein's parents, whose lineage traces back to Russia, never really appreciated or supported what he does either... and that's despite the fact that his mother, now 89, is an artist herself.

"She didn't really encourage me," said Blitzstein, who has been the subject of eight shows in recent years.

"My work is probably a departure from pretty little pictures. Not seeking beauty in that sense."

Blitzstein -- who paints before noon and finds drawing "relaxing, like doing a jigsaw puzzle" -- admits that the spurts in which his stuff sells (prices range from $5 to $40,000) can be discouraging.

"Yes, sometimes I'll just want to fold up for good, and then someone comes in and wants to buy a painting or make a movie about me," said the 62-year-old artist, whose work has appeared in a handful of offbeat films, such as the beloved cult horror favorite "Puppet Master."

"Offbeat" is a term that's been used to describe Blitzstein's work. Many people off the streets visiting the Museum of Art barely stay long enough to meet Art -- Blitzstein's synergistically named black cocker spaniel who is not the subject of his museum.

Although his work draws inspiration from artists such as Goya and Putin, Blitzstein is more moved by great literature and music -- these days, Kafka and Isaac Bashevis Singer linger on his nightstand, while Mahler and Leonard Cohen spin on his turntable. Surprisingly, the world of cartoons had little impact on the young Blitzstein while growing up, save for the genius of Dr. Seuss and a casual interest in Warner Bros. shorts and Disney features. That comes as a shock given the loopy, whimsical nature of his work and the loose gestural sketches that often resemble something torn from an animator's sketchbook.

Blitzstein keeps a portfolio that just may underscore the driving philosophy behind his work. The three-ring folder is filled with "masterpieces" of contemporary and pop art artists: Rauschenberg, Johns, Lichtenstein. The difference: each picture plane is invaded, intruded and interloped upon by a freaky-faced Blitzstein creation.

Blitzstein frankly feels that many of the darlings of the art world are overpuffed soufflés, and that critics and buyers alike cannot identify a great work of art beyond hype and celebrity.

"People need familiarity," said Blitzstein. "They feel safe because it's acclaimed. That's not art, that's commerce."

He has equal patience for the genteel, pompous portraits and landscapes that might fill a museum such as the British National Gallery: "One boring face after another. I want to just blow that apart."

Indeed, Blitzstein revels in blowing apart the pretentions of the modern. His art is all about escaping from the mind-numbing universe of minutiae and routine that intrudes on our everyday life. Anyone suffering from whiplash is advised to stay out of the Blitzstein Museum of Art, where you'll spend much time looking up at the hundreds of dolphins, camels, rat-faced dogs and other critters ignoring the constraints of their canvas to reach out to you. They include dogs inspired by the knotholes in the wood Blitzstein paints on and toucans dating back to his L.A. High School days, when Blitzstein drew them on the margins of his schoolwork "so I could not listen to the teacher doing chemistry equations." And if this zany menagerie seems to vie for your affection, that's because, as Blitzstein puts it, "they're little creatures that want to be loved."

The Blitzstein Museum of Art is located at 428 N. Fairfax Ave. For more information, call (323) 852-4830.

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