In the bowels of a Georgetown apartment building lies the studio where Samuel Bookatz, 89, has been hard at work since 1946. It is more than a space where he mixes colors and creates canvases large and small. The web of rooms, piled high with artwork and books, reflects his life's journey.
Here's one of his first paintings, "My Old Violin," a dark still life in a gilt frame made in 1935, before he enrolled at the Cleveland Institute of Art. In a cramped back room, he squats to open a battered wooden paint box, a memento from years spent in Europe just before the start of World War II. Next to his easel in the main room, hidden behind a few other canvases, rests an unframed work, a sprawling geometric pattern that won an award at a Corcoran Gallery of Art Biennial exhibit. And by the door his latest pieces huddle against one another, abstract comminglings of bright colors against black backgrounds.
Bookatz has paint in his veins. Not even a Midwestern family that valued doctors above artists could persuade him to put down his brush. "I knew when I was 5 years old," he says. "That's all I ever wanted to be." Thirty of his works from the '50s and '60s are now on display at the Corcoran. The exhibit is the second in a series sponsored by local arts patron Evelyn Stefansson Nef of mature artists who have been underrecognized at the museum level.
The show's two curators, William Christenberry and Paige Turner, spent days in Bookatz's studio and home, sifting through materials. "I have never seen such a productive person in all my life," says fellow artist Christenberry. The selection process resembled "an excavation project," adds Turner.
Bookatz's twin talents in detailed portraits and abstract painting especially intrigued the pair. "It's unusual to see an artist who is working so completely in different styles simultaneously," Turner says. Instead of an overview of Bookatz's work, they picked a fertile period that displayed his versatility.
"I'm an everything painter, really," Bookatz says. "I can work on 12 canvases in one day ranging from the realist to the abstract." He doesn't like to plan his work. "I don't know what's going to happen from minute to minute," he says. Inspiration, however, does come from beautiful women. From time to time Bookatz spied potential models walking down the street in his neighborhood and persuaded some of them to pose in the nude.
The only painting he doesn't like is the kind that comes with instructions. "If I'm told what to do I don't like it," says Bookatz, who has turned down portrait commissions when he feels the subject is too demanding (one woman wanted him to match the color of her dress in the painting to her actual living room rug).
Although Bookatz is not a household name, he has always made his living as an artist, one way or another. Several museums own his work, including the Phillips Collection and the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden. But it has been nearly half a century since his last solo show, which took place at the Smithsonian in 1950. After art school, Bookatz won a two-year scholarship to study with illustrator Alexander Jacovleff. He then snagged a three-year scholarship to study independently in Europe. He traveled to Hungary, Italy and Yugoslavia with his sketch pad, mingled with Pablo Picasso and Chaim Soutine, heard Mussolini and Hitler speak and rented a Paris apartment where Modigliani once lived. The king of Italy, Victor Emmanuel, attended his first exhibit at the American Academy of Rome. Bookatz still has a photo of the two of them together.
But in the early years of World War II, the young American artist was hassled many times, once for not rising as Mussolini began to speak and another for sketching a military fort in Marseilles. "When you're young, you're not as afraid as I would be now," he says. Bookatz barely got a ticket for the last ship to sail from Bordeaux to America in 1942. He left many artworks behind.
Bookatz returned home to a life radically different from that of the peripatetic expatriate. He joined the Navy and was promptly assigned to Washington to paint portraits of admirals, many of which still hang in Bethesda Naval Hospital. For the two years of this assignment, his studio was the White House's Lincoln Bedroom, where he heard Eleanor Roosevelt typing her newspaper column, "My Day," in the next room. Although he never saw combat, he was at one point assigned to sketch body parts of soldiers to help the doctors performing reconstructive surgery on them. "That's why they picked me. I could take all this" blood, says Bookatz. And he knew his anatomy cold.
After the war he stayed in Washington and eventually married a psychologist, Susan. They have no children. Bookatz was anxious to pursue his own projects and quickly got into a routine of rising early and painting all day, alone. "It's not like a symphony orchestra," he says. "The painter has to be by himself."
A jaunty, spirited man, Bookatz shows no sign of slowing down. He still drives, doesn't wear glasses and tools around town to concerts and museum shows. He used to care about disclosing his age but now sees no reason to hide it. "I don't believe in retiring," says Bookatz. When he goes on vacation, his paints go, too.
A Holiday Twist
At the new Georgetown coffee shop Twist, everyone is invited to be an artist for a small fee. As a fund-raiser to fight hunger, patrons can purchase a round ornament for $5 to $20 and decorate it with glittery ink. The musician Chris Isaak covered a shiny pink ball with a leopard skin motif. One of Twist's employees wrote a proverb about "peace and love" in Arabic and Russian. "Have you ever tried to draw on a bobble?" asks Franck de Rose,Twist's director of operations. "This is difficult."
A few hundred ornaments have sold so far; many can be seen hanging around the shop. When Twist opens at 11 a.m. on New Year Eve, all the bobbles will be for sale, but it's not clear who might want to buy one that just says "Stone" in block letters or Max@Mara, a company logo. A better bet would be Twist regular Grace Balmediano's two balls: one shows the Golden Gate Bridge and the Capitol, symbolizing her recent move from West to East, and the other features the lyrics from a song she likes by G-Love and Special Sauce.
Twist is located at 3011 M St. NW. Call 202-333-1111.
CAPTION: "I'm an everything painter, really," Samuel Bookatz says. "I can work on 12 canvases in one day ranging from the realist to the abstract."
CAPTION: "Sketch of Eleanor Roosevelt" by Bookatz, whose studio once was the Lincoln Bedroom.