PHOTO: Herbert Mitgang



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