Phil Stein passed away last month and there is an obituary to him in today's New York Times.
I knew Phil for many years and often met him and his wife Gertrude at events and rallies in New York. I also knew Phil's very good friend, comrade, and fellow artist, Charles Keller, who passed away a number of years ago.
From what I can gather, the New York Times obituary, as it deals with Phil' contributions to art is well done(his best known work perhaps is the large mural at the Village Vanguard) but one aspect of it made me very angry. Phil is referred to as an "ardent leftist" when the obituary mentions that he spent three months in prison in 1946 for his part in the Hollywood studio strike. But he is never referred to as a Communist, which is what he was when I first met him and what he had been long for a very very long time before that. Actually, the obituary mentions that Phil went to study in Mexico in 1947 because "work was scarce" in Hollywood in 1947. Isn't mentioned as such.
Ironically I participated a number of years ago with Phil, Charles Keller, and others in interviews for a documentary for South Korean television on the postwar repression. The group interview was held in the reference center for Marxist Studies at the CPUSA's national headquarters on 23rd street.
But it may not be so useful to criticize the obituary on that point because a capitalist newspaper is a capitalist newspaper. Anti-Communism is always about the anti-Communists, their fears and ignorance. And even in the NYT obituary, Phil was in very good company. The obituary notes that Phil worked with "the great Mexican muralist, David Alfaro Siqueros," who became the central influence in Phil's development as an artist. But it doesn't mention that Siqueros was also a very prominent Communist.
I guess this is a little bit like the old joke about Albert Einstein. "If he succeeds, the Germans will call him a German and the French will call him a Jew. If he fails, the French will call him a
German and the Germans will call him a Jew." If a Communist like Spanish painter Pablo Picasso, Irish playwright Sean O'Casey. Brazilian architect Oscar Niemeyer (who among many other things played an important role in the design of the UN building, even though as a Communist he was barred from visiting New York for years to look at the building he designed) makes a large contribution to the arts, sciences, and professions, they are "depoliticized," so that "Communism" as an abstraction can continue to be demonized, even in 2009.
But let's celebrate Phil a little (he earned it). Phil didn't talk too much about himself so I never knew that he was part of anweather forecasting unit of the U.S. army that moved across Europe with U.S. forces as they advanced from D Day to their meeting with Red Army Troops at the Elbe River. I had seen Phil at so many peace rallies and demonstrations in New York and Washington to I knew about his work in the Hollywood strike and his work in Mexico with Siqueros. I knew also about his remarkable achievements as an artist, but not that he had begun to teach himself painting as a teenager in Newark. I knew about his love of jazz, which I have long shared, but not that his sister, Lorraine, was the wife of Max Gordon, who founded the Village Vanguard (she now manages the club) I knew vaguely that he and Gertrude had lived in Spain in the 1980s, (in the obituary, Gertrude says that "we were looking for a place with a good vibe") but I didn't know he had a radio show devoted to Jazz on a local station.
Phil played an important role in helping to involve me in in the 1990s in the struggle against the U.S-NATO war to dismember Yugoslavia and its accompanying propaganda campaign aimed at demonizing the leadership and people of Serbia. It was through Phil that I met Barry Lituchy, Director of the Jasenovac Research Institute(JRI) , which has sought to educate Americans and people everywhere about the history of the Holocaust in wartime Yugoslavia and use that education to actively resist neo fascism today. Phil and Gertrude strongly and consistently supported the work of JRI as they strongly and consistently supported a myriad of peoples struggles in a marriage that spanned nearly seven decades.
If there are readers of our blog who knew Phil, I would like to hear their comments. I am sure there will be tributes. Phil was a Marxist in theory and a Communist in practice, a gifted artist who worked with and learned from one of the great artists of the twentieth century, and a person who by synthesizing art and politics made both and his society better. He was also, as jazzmen would say, a cool cat.