Photography by
Greg Benson

Though he has been known primarily as a Philadelphia artist, with the hint of limitation that comes with the label, he was anything but provincial. Awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship to travel to England in 1968, he worked at the Curwen Art Studio in London, and was a guest lecturer and instructor at Kent Art College in Canterbury and Camberwell Art College in London, as well as Brevard College in North Carolina. He had numerous opportunities to move to New York (including once when he was offered the opportunity to redesign Time magazine). In addition to the Philadelphia Museum of Art, some of his pieces can be found in the permanent collections of the Museum of Modern Art, the Tate Gallery in London, the National Gallery of Art, the Smithsonian Institution. He had major exhibitions in London, Paris, Frankfurt, Tel Aviv, and Tokyo, and a 66-foot tapestry hangs at the Tai Chang Tap Factory in Shanghai, delighting the more perceptive workers.

Sometimes his work would turn up in the most unexpected places.

“Somebody called him from somewhere in Mexico, when they were having a demonstration against something or other,” recounts Lilyan. “He told Sam, ‘I looked across the square, and there was a flatbed truck with a whole lot of kids standing on it, and one of them was wearing one of your T-shirts from the School of Arts and Sciences!’” Yet he was deeply devoted to Philadelphia, that “eccentric, marvelous” city that he loved in spite of its provinciality and the fact that it often “kills its artists.” The English artist and writer Paul Hogarth was told by five different people in various European cities that he should contact Maitin when he was preparing his Walking Tour of Philadelphia, part of a series of such books, because Maitin knew the city and its people so well.

“You can’t be a Philadelphian without crossing paths with Sam and coming into his aura,” says Dr. Dilys Winegrad Gr’70, director and curator of the Arthur Ross Gallery. “He was such a generous spirit, I think.” When she and Maitin and others were casting about for a title for the current exhibition, someone had suggested a more playful, “cutesy” name, she recalled. “I just started saying, ‘Well, what about “A Life in Art”’—not a life of art but a life that’s fully lived in art. And so it stays quite relevant, unfortunately.”

“Implicit in all Maitin’s work is the way they communicate how precious life is and why it should be treasured,” wrote Dr. Burton Wasserman in a preview of the show that appeared in the journal Art Matters. “Innocently child-like, it is also brilliantly sophisticated, never childish or shallow.”

“This is about how there is an endurable quality to the creative output of the man,” Winegrad added. “Having gone over the mourning feeling that we’ve shared, this is an opportunity for people—collectors, family, friends, artists, students, colleagues—to all come together and feel that it’s the right thing to do. That, indeed, you can meet over art.”

Penn Hillel was also delighted to be a part of the exhibition. “The show developed out of the tremendous admiration we have for Sam, both as an artist and as a human being,” said Rabbi Howard Alpert, executive director of Hillel of Greater Philadelphia. “First, I like his work—many people in Philadelphia, including individuals connected with Hillel, simply like Sam’s work. Secondly, we loved Sam. He was an individual who placed his humanity and the humanity of others as his highest priority, and acted to improve the life of those around him. In Hebrew we would call him a neshama—just a wonderful soul.”

The exhibition encompasses a broad range of his work from six decades, ranging from etchings and a gouache from the 1950s to “peace prints” he made with poets C.K. Williams C’59 and LeRoi Jones (aka Amiri Baraka) to a side-wall “sketch” of a mural for CHOP to several multi-media masks dubbed “Members of the Mob,” and much more. “Having evolved a style that was all his own,” noted Wasserman, “Sam Maitin refreshed the forms with endless variation. The result is a degree of virtuosity reserved by the muses for the mightiest creative masters of contemporary art.”

Certainly Maitin was protean in the range of forms and media he worked in. He may still be best known as a terrific printmaker, which in some art circles may be a backhanded compliment, but he was far more than that. In 1971, when he had a retrospective at the Fleisher Art Memorial in South Philadelphia (where he had taken many classes as a high-school student), he had an epiphany while looking at a wall of his prints. “I realized that I always layered things in my works (such as the process of printmaking),” he said in a 1999 interview. That realization that he had been “putting things on top of things”—drawing or painting on top of pieces he’d printed—led to collage, a process he described as “intuitive, frantic, and very quick—that’s my nature.”

It was, he later said, a “liberating” process, even though his pieces were always “carefully considered.”

“I start with the idea that there are no rules at all—there’s the eye,” he said. “A sense for color—there are vital decisions to be made even in the most chaotic piece. The image is in flux up to the last second.” Years later, another retrospective led to his color-splashed sculptural cut-outs. “I think of them as color in three dimensions,” he told the Gazette in 1987. He had been invited to have a retrospective at a gallery, and having done some color-on-color collages, “I wanted the color to be in three dimensions,” he recalled. “So I developed some cut-outs from numerous drawings and put them all over the room. And when they were compressed, as they appeared to be from certain perspectives throughout the gallery, they looked like the collages on the wall. The people who came to see the show would browse around the gallery—and it was as if they were walking around in my paintings!”

At the time of his death, he was working on a mural for the new home of Philadelphia’s Please Touch Museum. The connection with children was deep and life-long.

“There seemed to be an innate sense of trust with kids in his presence,” said Ian Maitin, Sam’s nephew. “It was not unusual to find him on all fours, so as to engage the kids eye-to-eye, and better to relate to them. He had the ability to dream and think and create like a child, with boundless imagination.”

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©2005 The Pennsylvania Gazette
Last modified 03/05/05

The Art of Life
By Samuel Hughes

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Detail, Another Wild Flower 1993 (top left);
glass sculpture made in collaboration with Adam Kamens (far left); Darkness Dispelled/Hope (below).