PHOTO: Herbert Mitgang



Wednesday, December 29, 2010

David Levine: An Audio Portrait

David passed away one year ago today.  In his memory, The New York Review of Books posted this lovely slide show and interview conducted with him in 2008.  It's great to hear his voice again.

Saturday, December 25, 2010

The Artist Illustrated

David Levine remembered, in the Sunday New York Times, by Walter Bernard.

“Hands down, he’s the greatest modern-day caricaturist and one of the great artists of the last half-century,” wrote Michael Kimmelman in The Times after David Levine died almost a year ago. And it’s true: he was. As wonderful (and occasionally brutal) as his caricatures were, however, painting was David’s truest passion. In 1958 he founded the Painting Group with the artist Aaron Shikler, and for more than 50 years it met every Wednesday evening to work from a live model. For the last 35 years, I was a member of the group. • Watching David work was a revelation. He handled watercolors unlike anybody else. He liked to experiment and, as he put it, “play.” He would draw, redraw, “schmeer,” sponge out and paint again. It was not uncommon to see him rub out a work we’d been marveling over, saying, simply, “I didn’t get what I was going after.” • Three years ago, Levine’s eyesight began to fade rapidly. He lost his ability to see the model, to draw those beautifully crosshatched caricatures for The New York Review of Books, to spend summer days painting the bathers at Coney Island. “I always knew I was a degenerate,” he said, “but I didn’t know it was macular.” • He still came to class every Wednesday and sat among us talking about Degas, Sargent and Daumier. After giving a precise critique, he always offered encouragement. “Keep playing,” he’d say.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

David Levine Retrospective at the Century Association

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

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

Thursday, October 28, 2010

The Artful Populace Of David Levine

An oldie, but goodie, from a Morley Safer piece on CBS News Sunday Morning in 2001.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

David Levine's Magazine Covers

A gallery of some of David Levine's magazine covers

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Paintings and Drawings by David Levine and Aaron Shikler

Some of you might remember this exhibit in April, 1971.  If you click on one of the images, it will enlarge.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

David Levine Memorial Service

A memorial service was held in Brooklyn Heights on Monday, February 1, 2010.  Here's a link to a report on the event.  Here's the text of what David's son said at the service.

"For some reason, when I was little, I couldn’t go to sleep without my father telling me a bedtime story about my stuffed animals, led by a cocker spaniel named Tacko, and how they came to life the moment I fell asleep. 

They slid from my bed, tip toed down the hall and, every night, my father invented a new way for them to open the apartment door.  Then they were free.  Whatever their night’s adventure involved, it always ended the same way, with them finding their way to a building out in Brooklyn where the slaughterhouse livestock was kept.  They would free the sheep and goats and cows and let loose a stampede, right under the nose of a guard who would tear his hair out and shout, “They’re driving me crazy!”

That part would drive me crazy with laughter, and I’d beg him to show me how the guard pulled out his hair, over and over again.  Then Tacko and friends would sneak back in bed with me, just before I woke up. 

So much of my father is in that story.  His ability to fill the inanimate with life.  His sense of justice.  His love of the underdog.  His compassion for all living creatures.   The humor he derived from the flaunting of an individual’s right to expression in the face of authority.  And his understanding that play and playfulness are the keys to freedom.

Everyone who knew him – and there are so many of us! – knows that he was first and foremost a man at play.  His caricatures were questions in the form of statements.  They made you engage his perspective. Essentially, they made you play with him. 

His paintings were explorations of the possibilities of paint, hung on the human figure, or on the crumbling remnants of monuments to play.  A finished painting was never his objective, but time to play with paint was something he fought for.

His tennis was pure joy.  He could care less about winning.  What he wanted was to be involved in an interesting point, or simply to be on the court with an interesting person.   And just about everyone he met was interesting to him in some way, even if he secretly disliked someone, which was rare.

This is not to say that my father was all ease and pleasure.  In fact, he explored, without compromise, every gesture and every statement made in his presence.  Maybe two weeks before he died, I was visiting him in the nursing home and I had an awful sense that he was so sick I might never see him again.  But all I said was “Gotta get back to the office, dad.  I love you.” 

“Now why did you say that?” he said.  “You said that because you’re afraid I might die.  Now, I certainly am going to die, but not tonight.  Now go one, get outta here.”

In the same way that I couldn’t get to sleep without a story from my father, perhaps my greatest fear in life was of losing him before I could be filled with everything he had to offer.  There seemed to be an endless wealth of surprising wisdom that flowed from him, of startling points of view that I wished I had thought of, of stories that went to the heart of being human, of reassurances that, no matter what the anguish of my situation, I had better get back to play because that’s where life was lived and the rest was really a waste of precious time.

But a surprising thing happened the moment he took his last breath.  Serenity and a smile came over me.  I think that’s because the pain of losing him is only fleeting, in the grand scheme of things.  The richness of knowing him is something we’ll always have.  And I know he’d want that for us."

Sunday, January 31, 2010

The Watchful Eye of David Levine: Interview by Gary Groth (Part One of Six)

I conducted this interview in the spring of 1994 in Levine’s tastefully decorated and alarmingly neat Brooklyn apartment. He was a gracious host and we spent the better part of a day together. He is a terrific talker, lucid, urbane, erudite, opinionated, and, like most artists who protest their lack of verbal skills, immensely articulate. He takes special delight in great draftsmanship and subtle expression and conveys his love for both with great passion.
-Gary Groth

Part 2
Part 3
Part 4
Part 5
Part 6

Sunday, January 24, 2010

On David Levine (1926–2009)

Garry Wills

It is a charming little dog, meticulously drawn, that faces us, all its curlicue hairs traced, its cantilevered thin legs ending in little paws (1971). Only on a second look do we see that the tiny face staring out at us from this fluff ball is that of Richard Nixon. Then, in a double-take (click!), we realize that this is Checkers, the dog Nixon used in his maudlin television address to stay on Dwight Eisenhower’s presidential ticket in 1952. A less adventurous artist might have done the obvious—made Nixon cower behind the dog he was using as protection. Levine did the unexpected. He made Nixon the dog. And as usual, there was a deeper purpose. He was saying that Nixon would not only do anything to get what he wanted, he would become anything. Later, when abortion was the issue, Nixon would become a fetus (1971). How does one give a fetus identity? With the nose, of course, the Nixon nose that Levine celebrated so relentlessly.
Having to puzzle out, however briefly, why the dog is Nixon was a typical reaction to Levine’s cartoons. They teased. Why is General Westmoreland’s neck so long and curving (1976)? A moment makes one realize it is an ostrich neck, the better for hiding one’s head from reality. Why does Linda Tripp’s head sit atop the body of a large bird (1998)? Oh, of course—a stool pigeon. A Levine work often needed deciphering. Sometimes this was because the attributes were so clever. Al Gore was drawn “straight” during his presidential campaign, but what are all the little clothes suspended around him (2000)? A closer look shows the tabs used to put different dresses on paper dolls, Levine’s comment on how Gore was changing personae.
But Levine did not need attributes to get his meaning across. He might have drawn Milton with a little devil beside him to show that the poet made Satan the hero of Paradise Lost. Instead, Levine shows the man himself as diabolical (1978). He might have drawn John Wayne as the sunny cowboy others depicted. Instead, considering Wayne’s support of every kind of war, he drew him with the face of a fanatical killer (1997).
Levine often did the unexpected. After all, he had a huge range of subjects to cover when illustrating articles in The New York Review—classical figures (working from statues), Renaissance figures (relying on paintings), modern figures (from photos). What other American cartoonist was asked to draw, say,Jonathan Sumption (2000) or Fernando Pessoa (1972)? He even had to draw ideas—linguistics (1963), Mannerism (1965), finances (1964), the military industry (1964), art (1968), automation (1968).
In order to represent such a wide range of subjects, he needed a vast store of techniques. Obituaries reduced him to a few characteristics—heavy cross-hatching, big heads on small bodies, etc. Actually, he used large areas of pure black or pure white for many of his faces. Look, for instance, at Harold Lloyd hanging from a girder—his face is a white blank, except for the shade thrown by his straw hat (1984). John Quinn is all white, even his hair (1978). So, of all people, is Rubens, the master of chiaroscuro (1978).
And he was not trapped in the big head, small body format. He often did normal-size bodies—Elvis Presley(1981), John Pope-Hennessey (1991), Ford Madox Ford (1966), Twiggy (1968), Aldous Huxley (1977), Cesar Chavez(1975). He had to do Michael Jordan full length because he presented him as Leonardo’s universal man in the circle and the square—the image on the Italian one-euro coin (1999). What’s more, he often reversed “his” format and drew small heads on big bodies—Charles II (1979), Charles V(1977), Richard Ford (1987), Velázquez (1986), Paul Taylor (1987), Orson Welles (1972), John L. Sullivan (1988). He made each of Marilyn Monroe’s breasts bigger than her head (1973).
Levine had a larger field for originality because he realized that readers of The New York Review would get arcane references. When he had a tiny grotesque Nixon crouch on the fallen female body of Vietnam (1973), he knew the readers would see the reference to Fuseli’s incubus—only where Fuseli’s imp is instilling a nightmare in the woman, Nixon is delicately dropping a little bomb down her throat. When he drew the fictional character Zuleika Dobson (1966), his audience would know why he used Max Beerbohm’s style (with its mockery of Beardsley). When he drew the fictional Pamela, they would know why she covers her pudenda with a letter (1972). The picture of Nixon devouring himself (1974) would bring to mind Goya’s Saturn Devouring His Son.
Levine was a man of high intelligence, wide reading, and solid artistic training. He composed, shaded, and drew with the eye of a practiced painter. But more than that, he had great psychological insight into his subjects. What he revealed could be scathing. The sadness of Richard Burton’s career is in the picture of his drink-raddled face and bleary eyes as he poses, in his Hamlet costume, tiptoe on the skull of Yorick (1989)—the real death’s head is his own.
Despite such dark visions, Levine had a kind of surreal imagination that took the next step, the way Mark Twain used to. It was not enough for Twain to say that a train was so slow it had no need of the cowcatcher; he added that the cowcatcher was needed in the rear of the train to keep cows from ambling aboard. In the same way, Levine began with a picture of Lyndon Johnson crying little crocodiles for tears (1965). But later on, he had to top that—he shows a crocodile shedding little tear-images of Lyndon Johnson (1966).
Given the run of his working years, his great subject had to be Richard Nixon. Herblock, too, was a great artistic foe of Nixon, but his Nixon is often a stick figure and Levine’s is a rounded tragic portrait. Consider the two men’s treatment of the eighteen-and-a-half-minute gap in the White House tapes. Herblock shows a little Nixon doll dangling in the gap, holding on to the severed tapes on either side of him. Levine shows a seated and solemn Nixon, his hand over his heart in a pledge of truthfulness, but he had phlebitis at the time, and from his swollen left trouser leg some tape reels are spilling (1974). Levine brought us many aspects of the man—Nixon in sheep’s clothing (1970); Nixon asleep with a panda bear doll beside him on the pillow (1971); Nixon dangling from the last helicopter leaving Saigon (1971); Nixon crying dollars for tears in the ITT scandal (1975); Nixon as a rugby player, with the globe as the ball (1973); Nixon as Boss Tweed (1973), as Queeg (1974), as the Godfather (1972). The sixty Nixon drawings should be put in a book, to be called The Nixoniad.
The treasure house of Levine images—thousands of them—contains actors, athletes, musicians, scientists, philosophers, movie makers, pontiffs, all brought to life (sometimes brought back to life) by a magic pen and an incisive brain. What a loss that he is gone.

Monday, January 18, 2010

"Excuse me, are you David Levine?"

I was introduced to the work of David Levine during my first year at the School of Visual Arts and was immediately taken by the wonderful lines of his caricatures and the soft, eloquent tones of his watercolors.  I scoured the library for as much as I could on this artist.  I found his book, “The Arts of David Levine” in a used bookstore and spent a good portion of my very limited budget to purchase it.  

A couple years later I attended one of David’s openings at the Forum Gallery where I very nervously shook his hand and told him how much his paintings meant to me.  As luck would have it, he passed me the following day on Henry Street in Brooklyn. Recognizing him I asked, "Excuse me, are you David Levine?" I told him I had been at his opening and reiterated my admiration for his work.  During our very brief conversation it came up that I was a painter.  I had recently moved to Boston and was not feeling particularly confident in my work at that time.  He very graciously offered to look at some of my paintings and provide some feedback.  “Would that help?” he asked.  I, of course, was thrilled at the prospect of receiving a critique from the man whose work I held in such high regard.  I quickly jotted down his mailing address and thanked him for his time.  The following week I mailed a few drawings and small watercolor paintings to David.  A few weeks later I received a letter filled with straightforward, sincere criticism and advice which I continue to refer to this day.  I will forever hold a place in my heart for this generous artist and teacher who so kindly took the time to help a stranger. 

e. halvorsen

Sunday, January 17, 2010

David and I

After many years of admiration for his work, my personal acquaintance with David Levine began over a case of censorship. In 1980 I used ten of his drawings of eminent scholars as illustrations in my book on Psychological Anthropology. Eight years later I added two more to an expanded edition, keeping the same twelve for a final revision in 1999 (Rethinking Psychological Anthropology, Waveland Press). These caricatures may have been the most notable features of the texts, and all of them had been seen by hundreds of thousands of viewers of The New York Review of Books.

Nevertheless, in 1999 I received a long letter from the Committee on the Status of Women in Anthropology insisting that I and my publisher Bowdlerize the drawing of Margaret Mead that preceded Chapter Four. It depicted the face of the aged Mead perched on a diminutive naked torso of a pubescent female. This group demanded that I delete or “crop” the drawing to make it less offensive to members of COSWA who felt that it “denigrated” Mead and might corrupt undergraduates. They also threatened to “air” their complaints if I did not comply

I replied that I was not about to censor Levine’s drawing and urged them to view it in the context of the other drawings as well as my praise for Mead’s contributions discussed in the rest of the book, including her well known and once controversial work on human sexuality. At the same time I wrote to David telling of my admiration and requesting a statement from him on the issue.

He replied with a letter (12/11/99) of support, stating that the reason for his drawing Mead “bare breasted” was to “even the playing field for all of those. . .women of color whose lack of sartorial cover were published in exotic travel articles (frequently by anthropologists).” The letter (now framed on my wall) included a drawing of himself, bare breasted!

His kindness did not end there. A few years later when my artist wife and I were visiting our daughter in Brooklyn he invited us for brunch and, later, to tour his studio where we saw his wall of framed caricatures and many of his wonderful paintings. This is one of our most precious memories.

The controversy did not end there. Despite my warnings about the precedent such censorship might set, my publisher wanted to “settle” and even recommended a black bar across the drawing and the deletion of some sentences from the text. Some colleagues supported my position but others recommended changes. Final, I told the publisher to leave that page blank in the next printing. Though I regret not fighting further against foolish meddling I am delighted that these events brought me into personal contact with a fine artist and a good man.

Philip K. Bock <>
Emeritus Prof. Of Anthropology
University of New Mexico

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

The Carrot of Caricature

Now that David Levine is dead, I guess another reassurance is down the drain: leafing through the New York Review of Books, first examining all the obscure titles from the university presses, then inspecting the index to see which erudite summation of a new tome to read so that one does not have to buy said book, spotting a familiar byline (Joan Didion, Garry Wills), sighing with satisfaction at the inevitable David Levine caricature of the bylined author, hoping that another book on Richard Nixon has been released to occasion the reprint of a Levine classic of the trickster[...]

Ed Sorel on David Levine

Saturday, January 9, 2010

from The Nation magazine: David Levine

...Once, when The New York Review turned down as "too strong" (David's words) a caricature he had committed of Henry Kissinger, he paid us the compliment of offering it to The Nation. Although it caused controversy within the Nationoffice--it showed Kissinger on top and the world, depicted as a woman, being violated by him under an American flag blanket--luckily for us we ran it, and subsequently it found its way into art exhibitions around the country and ended up on the cover of a Harvard art catalog...

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

My hero since I was an art student 40 years ago

It's been fascinating to hear personal reminiscences of David. He has been my hero since I was an art student 40 years ago here in London. I copied several of his drawings to try to unpick that amazing
cross-hatching which does so many things at the same time, what with tone, direction etc. But I have never known much about him, even how old he was. And it was difficult to get hold of publications or books featuring his work.

Eventually I found a book of his caricatures in Amsterdam and this has been my 'bible' ever since. The devastating likenesses,the elegance and simplicity of line, and restraint in the use of a 'prop' to point up the caricature are very hard acts to follow. Every time I draw a caricature and search for that 'prop' I am reminded of his brilliance and wonder what his solution would have been!

It's good to know that in person he was as fine a man as he was an artist. He has been a major presence in my life and has helped me develop as an artist and as a  human being.

Paul Tucker

Sunday, January 3, 2010

We are all richer for the gifts he used so generously

David Levine died this week, aged 83 years, leaving behind a life's work of extraordinary wit, humor, and biting truth.

Fellow schmearer

i remember  so clearly  the first time i walked into the studio at 63 Greene St, and this nice man, sitting on a couch - renowned though he was - looked up and greeted me. i felt right at home, and there began the next 20 years  of Wednesday nights filled with joy, inspiration, and comradery.     
       not long after that night, we were both at an auction. i loved a  portrait painted by John Koch of his mother, which i  didn't think was the kind of painting that would appeal to the "average" buyer... i was uncomfortable bidding, so i would tap my friend Andy and he would raise my paddle.  it soon became apparent that i was competing with one other person; and being an uneasy competitor, i bowed out.  afterward, i was embarrassed to discover that my competitor was Dave himself.... so I lost the painting, and Dave had to pay a lot more!  but i was secretly pleased that HE wanted  it too.         
       Wednesday  evenings before leaving, Dave would always leave us with a few words... one night he said: " if anyone needs me,you can find me in the emergency room" ..., whereupon a groupmate replied: "that's not funny" ... of course the reality was anything BUT funny,  but the STATEMENT was! ... this was Dave ... i will miss his parting little words, and the late night carpool en route to henry street.
       A statement  that stands out for me was said during  Dave's interview for "Portraits of a Lady" : ..."I found a group of artists and built me a Nation." ...  and i was proud to be a citizen.
                                                        admirer, friend, and fellow schmearer,    
                                                                                     irene 1  

Saturday, January 2, 2010

A lightning intuition and a heart to match

A friend who had introduced me to the Painting Group, called  and said: “There’s an opening, do you want to come and paint?.” I arrived that night.  
I knew that the man whose drawing I had admired since my college days was there and I was anxious to meet him. By chance, David was at the door as I approached.He was taking me in as I walked down the corridor. We said hello and he pointed to the studio door. I liked him, I felt.   
At work from the model later, he walked up to my easel and we started to talk. I think I first noticed just how quick his emotions were, how engaging and conversational he was. It was in contrast to his quiet voice. Process, media, drawing, observation. There were actually occasional direct statements about these: they came as surprises, interspersed among observations about palette and brushes, jokes, a model of art history that assumed you knew it, yiddish phrases, asides about politics and a probing for intentions. In the months I knew him, his comments were incredibly apt. Only painters talk this way, and I was feeling grounded. This cultured and gentle, compassionate and funny man had befriended me, and it seemed to me, chuckled a little as his comments lifted the ropes of the ring I was entering.

I realized those conscience-nurturing, penetrating and revelatory, moral images had been drawn by a man with a lightning intuition and a heart to match.

  Michael Monsky