Life Is Art and Art Is Life for Painter Joe Blaustein

Painter Joe Blaustein in his Topanga Canyon home and studio.

Painter Joe Blaustein in his Topanga Canyon home and studio.


Joseph Blaustein is in the prime of his artistic life, furiously finishing paintings for a soon-to-open solo show at FIG Gallery while juggling a vigorous teaching schedule that includes two UCLA drawing classes along with two other weekly instructional gatherings’one at his Topanga Canyon home and another at a large studio in Venice. One has the sense that the frenetic pace is part of his secret for maintaining a remarkable zest for life and youthfulness as he approaches his 83rd birthday. It also appears that he is making up for lost time. While he has always painted, and will soon mark his 50-year anniversary as an art professor at UCLA, he also had a parallel career as a major advertising executive for 40 years. “It’s not exactly true that neither worlds knew about one another, but I did try to keep those lives separate,” Blaustein says. Along the way, he was a devoted husband and father to four, raising his kids in the Palisades. “I was a soccer ref along with all the other fathers,” he says. “I did the whole thing. But I never stopped painting.” Blaustein lived in the Palisades from 1962 until 1987 before moving to a house in Topanga, where he still resides. He quit his job and moved there after his beloved wife, Paula, died. “I couldn’t handle advertising anymore,” he says, admitting that his day job was a means by which to support his family and his art. It was only then that he launched a career as full-time painter. “When Paula died, painting really saved my neck,” he says. “It was cheaper and better than psychiatry. It was how I communicated with myself.” Blaustein grew up in Manhattan and had a permit to paint at the Metropolitan Museum as a kid. “I started painting very early,” he says. “I always considered myself an artist.” At 16, he was accepted to Harvard, but chose Bucknell instead, where he excelled, finishing at the top of his class, with a double major in philosophy and psychology. He took a detour from college during his junior year after Pearl Harbor was attacked and the U.S. entered WW II. He joined the Navy and spent five years as a combat intelligence officer. “There are a whole bunch of stories that are just now beginning to come back to me,” says Blaustein, who points to some of his darker, more somber canvases as examples of how he is incorporating these horrific memories into his art, including when a kamikaze plane hit his ship. His imagery moves from whimsical to dark and back again, with abstraction getting almost equal billing with figurative work. All the paintings seem to be expressions of his life’bits and pieces of the past and present that, taken in as a whole, become a rich, complex tapestry. “At this point, I don’t need to prove anything to anybody,” Blaustein says. “I do it for me.” He describes one of his paintings, composed of rows of different colored-squares and ovals against a black background, as autobiographical. “Each row represents a different decade of my life,” he says. In other works, dogs and ducks are a common motif. “Dogs are like a Greek chorus, the silent audience,” he says. “They don’t complain, they exist for all the deeds we do, both good and bad. They’re witnesses.” Ducks emerge as nostalgic reminders of his years in the Palisades, when the family’s large property in the El Medio bluffs was populated not only with cats and dogs but also with chickens, hens, ducks and geese. Major recognition of Blaustein’s talent came 50 years ago when he took a couple of extension courses at UCLA. An impressed instructor grabbed his work and placed it in various shows, with Blaustein immediately receiving prizes and recognition. This led to a string of one-man museum and gallery shows for which his artwork won acclaim. It also paved the way for Blaustein to be offered a teaching position, one that continues to this day. People who enroll in Blaustein’s classes come from all walks of life, from school teachers and rock stars to actresses and engineers. What they all share is a seriousness and drive, along with gushing praise for their teacher, with words like “wizard” and “genius” popping into their testimonials. “He manages to create a safe place to play and explore, but the thing that’s priceless is that he finds the perception or style unique to each artist,” wrote one student in her blog. “My value as a teacher isn’t what I know,” says Blaustein with perhaps undue modesty. “I can evaluate all the formal things. What’s of value is how to allow each of them to tap into their own resources. “The people I’m dealing with are so fully engaged in life,” he adds. “I don’t want to screw that up.” Blaustein’s show continues at FIG Gallery, 2525 Bergamot Station, G6, Santa Monica, through June 24. A reception will take place on Saturday, June 3 from 5 to 7 p.m. On June 17, the gallery will host a Q&A with Blaustein at 3 p.m. Contact: 829-0345.