Wednesday, December 30, 2009
David Levine was one of my heroes and I would like to share this with you all.
When I wrote my thesis it was on caricature as a vehicle for social and political commentary and in the chapter titled A Look at the Pioneers of Contemporary Illustration That Use Caricature as a Vehicle for Political and Social Commentary I used him as the first illustrator that I was to discuss. I was lucky to get a phone interview with him and even luckier that it lasted over an hour. I would go as far as saying that one of my greatest experiences in both school and my career (so far) was having the ability to get advice and to be able to pick his brain for a moment. In that interview he gave he pearls of wisdom that not only put my paper in prospective but also continues to help me now as I continue to build my own career. David Levine was more then a caricaturist and he was more then a phenomenal draftsman. He was a great storyteller and a brilliant man.
Below is an excerpt from my Thesis
This chapter is dedicated to the pioneers of contemporary illustration that use caricature as a vehicle for political and social commentary. When I think of caricature I think of David Levine (b.1926). Levine’s work is just as important now as it was 40 years ago. He has created over thirty-eight thousand caricatures for the New York Review of Books alone; this gives some idea of the scope of David Levine’s career.
The great novelist and essayist John Updike, when discussing Levine’s caricatures, said,
"Besides offering us the delight of recognition, his drawings comfort us, in an exacerbated and potentially desperate age, with the sense of a watching presence, an eye informed by an intelligence that has not panicked, a comic art ready to encapsulate the latest apparitions of publicity as well as those historical devils who haunt our unease. Levine is one of America's assets. In a confusing time, he bears witness. In a shoddy time, he does good work. Here he is."
David Levine was born in Brooklyn into an extremely politically charged family: His mother was a Stalinist and his aunt was a Maoist. There was always extreme left-wing literature around the house for Levine to read, and it taught him to always question authority.
Levine studied art at many different institutions but during the conversation I had with him he said that what he learned in school came from friends pointing out things-his professors were too busy “sleeping in the men’s room.” He attended the Brooklyn Museum of Art School, Pratt Institute, and The Tyler School of Art at Temple University in Philadelphia, as well as the Eighth Street School. In addition, he studied with Hans Hoffman (1880-1966).
Hans Hoffman has been called a Fauvist, a Cubist, and an Abstract Expressionist. He inspired his students, as well as artists all over the world. From his smaller works on paper to his larger paintings, all are unique and powerful. Hofmann was known for bringing together traditional methods and avant-garde concepts.
In his book, The Search for the Real and Other Essays, Hofmann discussed a new type of landscape without using trees and land, but instead using the tension between space, form, color, and planes. His focus was on geometric forms in positive and negative spaces.
“It was the object,” he said, “that creates the negative or positive space, not, as traditionally conceived, that an object is placed in a space. If an object creates space, then it is light that creates form. Similarly, light makes color in nature, but color creates light in painting.”
Before David Levine went to study with Hoffman, he graduated from The Tyler School of Art. There he’d met Aaron Shikler (b.1922). Levine said, “Shikler had an intuitive feeling about art.” Both Hoffman and Shikler’s influence guided Levine toward an awareness of how to look at art and think about what he was doing.
Aaron Shikler also studied with Hans Hoffman. Shikler was born in Brooklyn and studied at the Barnes Foundation in Pennsylvania. He earned his Bachelors of Fine Art and Masters of Fine Art from the Tyler School of Art at Temple University in Pennsylvania. Aaron Shikler is a world-renowned portraitist whose works are in the White House. these include portraits of President & Mrs. Kennedy and the official portraits of Ronald and Nancy Reagan. Time Magazine used his painting of president Reagan for their cover on January 5, 1981 when Reagan was elected President.
Levine spent some time in the US Army and worked briefly for the military publication Stars and Stripes. When he came home he met Jules Feiffer (b.1929) through a mutual artist friend and began trying to get work as a cartoonist.
Jules Feiffer is one of America's most influential editorial cartoonists. He has also written plays, novels, and children's books. Among the many awards he has received, the most prestigious is the Pulitzer Prize for his cartoon strip, Feiffer, appeared in the Village Voice from 1956 to 1997, and in 1996 a retrospective exhibition of his work appeared at the Library of Congress.
Growing up as a young boy in Brooklyn, Levine looked up to comic book artists such as Will Eisner (1917-2005) creator of The Spirit, as well as 18th century English cartoonists. His love for comics has not died. In the past Levine has even compared some comic artists to Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519), saying, “They can see something in their mind’s eye and then put it down on paper.” Levine has also said, “The comics from 1905-1935 were to art deco what jazz was to the black community.” Later, when he began to paint, he discovered artists like Edgar Degas (1834-1917).
In the late 1940s Levine did some work for a magazine called The Gasoline Retailer, and for a left-wing paper called The Daily Worker. In the early 1950s, Levine worked with a Christmas card company and, though the company failed, the experience was a success for him personally because he discovered his signature style.
In 1963, Levine got his first assignment with the New York Review of Books. He is still doing caricatures for them today, but it was not always that easy for him to get work. Between the time that Levine studied with Hoffman and began his work with the New York Review of Books, he tried to ghost some cartoonists, (ghosting a cartoonist is the act of drawing the cartoons for an artist with no recognition or ownership of the art), but that did not work out. Levine also tried to get work as a penciler (someone who draws the comics) but when he went to get a job
potential employers stated they only needed inkers. He worked as an inker briefly, but his bosses said his work was too slick because he was much more comfortable inking with a pen rather then with a brush. Ironically, he was making a living at that time selling his paintings. He would make them small and sell them for $50 or $75 each. Living in Brooklyn was cheap enough then that he could afford to live on the money he made from selling his art. When referring to that time in his life, Levine Said:
“I used to say that painting was my way of making a living, and to support my hobby, which was cartooning. It was a really weird twist.”
In his long career, Levine has had some great jobs. For instance, when he worked for Time Magazine, the art director allowed Levine the freedom to draw without worrying about making his image fit the magazine. The art director took on that burden for him. Levine had such a good reputation that once he called the feature editor of Esquire, Clay Felker, and told him, “I really wanted to go to Europe; figure out a job for me.” Felker sent Levine to Europe for twenty-eight days. He visited all the major capitals and museums, and did thirteen oil paintings, twenty-two watercolors, and filled up three sketchbooks. Because of his love for comics, he was able to capture movement quickly in his sketchbooks.
Levine believes that whenever he does a caricature it is political, even if he is drawing a novelist or an actor. Levine feels if you have written a book or if you are in the public eye at all, you have a certain amount of power. He also feels that many of today’s caricaturists are just playing harmless games; they are not truly attacking the politicians issues. According to Steven Heller and Gail Anderson, authors of the book The Savage Mirror Levine questions the effectiveness of the political caricature:
“ I am not saying give up, but there are periods when what we do is like howling in the wind. The politicians generally have a very good sense of it. The artist needs some sense of it too.”
Levine still lives in Brooklyn but also has a small piece of land with a pond in the country. It was there, late in his life, that he discovered a philosophy that he discussed with me in detail. Levine shared this philosophy with a simple story. When he was at his new house, he and his wife decided that they wanted to get a duck for their pond. They went to see a man in their neighborhood that sold ducks. Next to where the ducks were was an old house and in the front and the back were dozens of old cars. Levine asked the man if it bothered him that this garbage pile was there and the man told him, “This is not garbage, it is a gold mine.” At first Levine did not understand, but then the man explained. The man said that he never needed to look for a screw or a nail or a piece of metal because every thing he needed was in or on those cars.
Levine then put some thought into it and realized that he had his own gold mine in Brooklyn. It’s in the garment workers that he paints or the people he paints on Coney Island. “It’s a garbage pile but it’s my gold mine.” For Levine the caricatures are about humor and criticism, but his watercolors are his tribute to who he is and where he came from.
According to author and editor Pete Hamill,
“The paintings of David Levine are never bombastic. They are seldom only about the thing or the place to the people directly observed. They are also about the unseen world that they suggest a world of time and nostalgia, of things and people lost. If David Levine was a writer he would be Chekhov.”
Both David Levine’s watercolors and caricatures are playful
“I am making fun but not in a way that undermines them. It makes them individuals. Caricatures divide the world into goodies and baddies, them versus us, too easily. The people at work, the people at play, are people doing things that I think are beautiful.”
Looking back at his great career David Levine left me with this
“I hope that some day my drawings will be unshackled of who they were and just stand up as good drawings.”
Levine is one of the most successful American caricaturists. It would make sense that he is also one of the most imitated.
“I think that too often young cartoonists imitate the easy parts, the fun parts, which are the nose, eyes and face, rather than taking a total look at drawing and style-how to handle hands, details, and other things that give it consistency.”