Peter Leventhal Paints “The Thirty Six: A Pop-up”

By Kahren Jones Arbitman, photo by Jesús Herrera

This April, Peter Leventhal’s remarkable exhibition entitled “The Thirty Six” opens in Houston. There’s a lot of buzz about this series. Some people want to know more about its curious subject. Others are interested in its personal connection to Leventhal. And everyone is asking why it is being whisked away to the US before being seen in San Miguel. Responding to this request, friends of the artist have organized a two-day pop-up exhibition.

The Thirty Six: A Series by Peter Leventhal
Two days only!
Sat, Feb 28, 4-7pm
Sun, Mar 1, 4:30-7pm
Casa de la Noche
Órganos 19

February 28 and March 1 only, visitors are invited to enter the world of the Lamed-Vav, or Thirty Six. It is a tale Leventhal first heard as a young boy, related with great flourish by his paternal grandfather. “In this world, at all times, live 36 righteous people,” the old man begins. “They do not know they are thus anointed. They do not recognize one another. They carry no distinguishing mark.” He continues, “They assure God that mankind deserves to survive. And when each dies, as all men must, he is replaced by another worthy soul.” With rising voice, he then declares, “But should this succession fail to happen, should the number fall one short of 36, even for a blink of an eye, the world will come to an end.”

This mesmerizing tale, once heard, is hard to forget. Seventy years later, its memory proves a lifesaver. In 2010, Leventhal sustains a personal loss that pushes him to the brink of suicide. A seer, whom he seeks out as a sounding board, admonishes him for his self-destructive thoughts. He needs be patient and wait, she counsels, for he has “one series left undone.” This tantalizing thought somehow keeps him going. The subject of this undone series eludes him until the story of the Thirty Six creeps back into his consciousness. Beginning as a gentle nudge, the idea grows until it shoves out all other possibilities. He, Peter Leventhal, a secular Jew for whom Hebrew letters are an exquisite but completely unreadable calligraphy, needs to capture on canvas the unknowable Thirty Six.

Leventhal sets himself a mighty task, for who is worthy of the title Righteous? In the end, no world-renowned names make their way to canvas. This journey is much too personal. Many, it turns out, are anonymous souls who through simple lives of service mark them as chosen. Leventhal also elects relatively unknown Jewish intellectuals, writers, union organizers, and non-conformists. No clear criteria exist for inclusion, just the artist’s sense that each belongs, not because he is uber-religious, but because he is just. The resulting series is neither literal nor linear. It is a jumbled, wildly expressive, loosely woven search of the soul. Leventhal’s assembled Thirty Six would be mystified to find themselves among the Elect, their inherent humility precluding any pretension to specialness. But they are special, indeed. For since the beginning of time, they have preserved the family, preserved the faith, preserved the world, and ultimately preserved the soul of a wounded artist.


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