Jonathan Harding, who did a wonderful job curating the David Levine Masters show at the Century Association, wrote the following to accompany the show.
David Levine was born and raised in Brooklyn, New York. His father, Harry, ran a small garment factory and his mother, Lena, was a nurse with strong communist sympathies. Their influences would shape his career. Raised as a “red diaper” baby, David not only sold copies of the Daily Worker, but also began haunting the Brooklyn Museum and sketching from its taxidermy collection. After attending the museum’s art school, Erasmus High School and the Pratt Institute, he enrolled in the Tyler School of Art at Temple University in Philadelphia, but was drafted in 1944 after his first year as a student. During World War II he served in the armored infantry as a map-maker in Egypt and provided cartoon illustrations for The Stars and Stripes. After the war ended he returned to Tyler to finish his studies where he soon met Aaron Shikler and Leroy Davis. While the three were enrolled at Tyler they also availed themselves of the Barnes Foundation where they began to study art through the stylistic traditions touted by Dr. Barnes.
Intrigued by post-war developments in contemporary art, David and Aaron returned to New York in 1949 and enrolled in Hans Hoffmann’s Eighth Street School. Each eventually found the experience more a study in oppositions, and David would later state, “It was a question of not being able to give up a strength for something that was an excursion into an unknown. I could never let go of representation, in terms of drawing. I really couldn’t understand what it was to cut the moorings completely from some kind of putting down of a relationship to what I was seeing.”
Drawing remained the underpinning of David’s career and is fully evident in his caricatures. From childhood he demonstrated a passion for cartooning which persisted in the cartoons submitted to The Stars and Stripes and in a series of Christmas cards he produced with the artist Shelly Fink. David began submitting works to Esquire in 1958, turned increasingly towards caricature, and was hired as the staff artist for The New York Review of Books in 1963. Through the combination of his innate talent and this new platform, David’s name became internationally renowned, and his caricatures of world figures have become part of our visual lexicon. The ability to capture both the physical and psychological attributes of his subjects with deft and sure strokes of the pen put him on a par with the greatest caricaturists of history, most notably Honoré Daumier. The comparison is, on the surface, most appropriate. The 4,800 caricatures David did for The New York Review of Books, Esquire, The New Yorker and other periodicals correspond to the thousands of lithographs Daumier did for Le Caricature and Le Chavari. The two would have undoubtedly shared many sympathies, but while Daumier often targeted the follies of the petit bourgeois, David reserved his strongest judgments for political figures. As Phoebe Hobin noted, “If Levine is a master at skewering the foibles of the mighty, he is equally adept at depicting the dignity of ordinary people.”
In fact, it is the mediums of watercolor and oil painting where David’s art and the Realism of Daumier are closest. From his earliest visits to the Brooklyn Museum David was aware of the larger role of art and took every advantage of the finest teachers: “I don’t mind my resemblance to certain artists I admire—and I don’t think that Degas cared. I don’t think any artist who ever saw anything he liked wouldn’t like to incorporate it and use it, if he could.”
Regardless of his sympathies with such French Realists as Daumier and Millet, David was also inspired by the American Realists—“The Eight,”—especially William Glackens and George Luks, who had worked as both illustrators and painters. He was also studying America’s preeminent watercolorists, Winslow Homer, John Singer Sargent and Maurice Prendergast. The bravura and freshness of these artists’ watercolors is evident in many of David’s works, but as his style evolved he found equal inspiration in the techniques used by such nineteenth-century British watercolorists as David Cox, John Sell Cotman and Thomas Girtin. The art critic John Canaday observed, “But look again. This apparent shorthand is meticulously studied; what would have been a simple wash in most watercolors is a tint that has been partially rubbed out, modified, worked over—yet with no loss of freshness.” David’s virtuosity with watercolor did not preclude his reverence for oil painting, and he happily professed his esteem for the Old Masters in both their facility with oil painting and their love of humanity. In such works as The Presser, a subject he often returned to, David achieves the same tenor and mood in his large oil as in his smaller, and more intimate, watercolors.
David’s art is an integral part of American culture, not just for the caricatures of the famous and infamous, but also for his understanding of the common man and woman. He advised his son Matthew and many other artists who sought his counsel to “paint what is familiar” and, not surprisingly found his own greatest familiarity in recording the beauty of Coney Island, garment workers and schmatta ladies, and his ever-interesting sitters and models. David also believed in sharing both ideals and technical expertise. In 1958 he and Aaron Shikler founded the Painting Group, a forum where both professional and amateur artists could hone their craft. While not created in direct reaction to the schools of Hans Hoffmann and others, The Painting Group came to occupy such a role, and for over fifty years has offered an alternative approach to understanding art. Through the Painting Group, David shared not only his knowledge of technique but also his understanding of humanity. He asserted, “Traditionalism doesn’t mean that you have to resemble anything in particular other than to align yourself with a continuation of something that you enjoy in other art of past periods, but that you want to continue because you think that the good aspects of life should continue, so in the same sense painting should relate to what we psychologically are capable of.” David’s thoughts and words continue to resonate with us, and in this single sentence he conveys the depth of his approach to art and how he viewed his own role. David’s paintings, drawings and caricatures are a testament to his vision.
Jonathan Harding, Curator