Fifty years ago, a group of six artists gathered in an Elkins Park studio space for the first of a planned series of critiques and discussions of each other’s work. After a few such meetings, sculptor Dennis Leon, who passed away in 1998, made an offhand suggestion that would create a ritual that has now lasted for half a century. “Dennis said, ‘Let’s play poker,’” recalls ceramic sculptor and art teacher Armand Mednick. “And that’s how we started.”
“The Poker Game and Its Circle,” a new exhibition opening this weekend at Woodmere Art Museum, celebrates that long-running monthly game with a show focused on “The Poker Game,” Larry Day’s 1970 portrait of the gathering. The show features work by the five players commemorated in that painting and their compatriots, including Mednick, Leon, Sidney Goodman, Jimmy Lueders and David Pease.
The game takes place at noon on the first Sunday of every month, without fail. “If you had a family, you’d better make arrangements,” Mednick says. He described the formalized structure of the gathering: “We play from 12 to 1; at 1 we have champagne and hors d’oeuvres, at 2 somebody prepares a wonderful meal with wine, then we have a little cognac and talk about our lives and our work, then we play for another two hours and at 5:15 the game is over and we wait for the next month.”
Gathering all of the poker players’ art in one place, Mednick says, was a good way to see how the game has impacted all of their work. “Over the years what it’s done is develop an intimacy between men that I’ve never felt anywhere else. We talk about real stuff: our lives, our fears, and that’s reflected in our art. Because all art is personal; we all represent different forms of trying to reach other people in a symbolic and human way that people can relate to.”
Though Day and two of the players in his portrait have passed on and other players have come and gone over the years, the game continues to this day with participants ranging in age from 88 to 37. The financial stakes have never been as high as the artistic ones, according to Mednick. “The most you could lose was 30, 40 bucks. But it’s a wonderful excuse for social exchange.”
“The Poker Game and Its Circle”
July 20-Oct. 26
Woodmere Art Museum
9201 Germantown Ave.