David Levine self portrait at easel
Widely acknowledged as one of the greatest caricaturists of the second half of the 20th century, David Levine was best known for his drawings for the New York Review of Books (which spanned more than 40 years), Esquire, Time magazine and The New Yorker. Awarded numerous prizes for his work, which was reproduced worldwide and influenced a generation of international cartoonists, he was also an accomplished painter in watercolours and oils.
David Julian Levine was born on 20 December 1926 in Brooklyn, New York, the only child of Harry Levine, who ran a small clothing factory specialising in women’s dresses from a loft on Sixth Avenue, and Lena Isaacson, a nurse. Though not an academically strong pupil (“I didn’t do anything in school – I studied volleyball”), he excelled in drawing and wanted to become a comic-book artist like Will Eisner (creator of The Spirit). At the age of nine he won a contest sponsored by Walt Disney to draw the character Goofy and was invited to audition as an animator for the Disney studio in Los Angeles.
However, his parents decided against this and after he left Erasmus Hall High School, Brooklyn, they sent him to study painting at the Tyler School of Fine Arts at Temple University in Philadelphia (1944). After spending his national service (1945-6) in the US Army, serving as a cartographer in Egypt, he returned to complete his degree and take an art teacher’s certificate (1946-9). He then studied with the Abstract Expressionist painter Hans Hoffman at the Eighth Street School of Painting in Manhattan (1949).
Intending to become a professional painter, his first works (mostly watercolours) were scenes of pressers, cutters, fitters, sewing-machine operators and others in his father’s factory and seaside panoramas of bathers at nearby Coney Island. He began to exhibit regularly at the Davis Gallery in New York from 1954 (until 1963), winning four awards for his paintings from the National Academy of Art & Design. In 1958 he and fellow artist Aaron Shikler (whose portrait of John F Kennedy hangs in the White House), formed the Painting Group, which met regularly over the next 50 years to paint life models (US Supreme Court judge Sandra Day O’Connor famously sat for them in 2006).
Failing to make a sufficient income from his paintings alone, he also began to work as an illustrator for Gasoline Retailer and other publications. In addition, he published a series of Christmas cards based on Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol and illustrated books such as Elizabeth Kirtland’s children’s fantasy Buttons in the Back (1958).
His first drawings for Esquire appeared in 1958 and over the following years Levine produced more than 1000 illustrations for the magazine. However, his big break came in 1963 when he was invited to join the New York Review of Books as staff artist, shortly after it was founded. In all he drew nearly 4000 caricatures (including covers) for the Review – earning at his peak more than $12,000 a month from this publication alone – until ill health and failing eyesight (macular degeneration) forced him to retire 44 years later in April 2007 (his last original drawing for the Review was of the novelist Howard Norman).
Levine also worked for The New York Times, Washington Post, Rolling Stone, Sports Illustrated, New York Magazine, Time magazine (nearly 100 drawings including some notable covers), Newsweek (including covers), The New Yorker (more than 70 drawings), Harper’s, The Nation, Playboy and others. In addition, his caricatures appeared in many international publications, including The Sunday Times, the Observer, Daily Telegraph magazine and others in the UK.
Though he drew numerous global public figures in politics, the arts, sport, current affairs and history – from Winston Churchill, De Gaulle and Gandhi to Castro, Mao Zedong and Brezhnev – he was perhaps best known for his portraits of US celebrities, especially presidents. He produced more than 60 caricatures of Richard Nixon for the New York Review of Books alone (notably as Humphrey Bogart’s Captain Queeg in the 1954 film version of The Caine Mutiny) and his many (40 plus) portraits of Lyndon B Johnson for the Review included his most famous work, criticising LBJ’s role in the Vietnam War. Based on a celebrated 1966 press photograph of Johnson proudly pointing at the scar on his stomach after a recent gall-bladder operation, in Levine’s version the scar is made to resemble the outline of Vietnam. This drawing appears on the cover of Levine’s last book, American Presidents (2008), which features caricatures of US leaders over half a century (a tie-in exhibition was held at the New York Public Library the same year).
Other books by Levine include A Summer Sketchbook (1963), The Man from M.A.L.I.C.E. [Movies, Art, Literature and International Conmen’s Establishment] (1966), Pens and Needles: Literary Caricatures (1969), Caricatures (1969), Identikit (1969), No Known Survivors (1970) and The Arts of David Levine (1978). He also illustrated a number of works by others including Washington Irving’s Rip Van Winkle (1963), Vance Nye Bourjaily’s The Unnatural Enemy (1963), William Hauff’s The Heart of Stone (1964), James Playsted Wood’s The Snark Was a Boojum: A Life of Lewis Carroll (1966), Albert E Kahn’s Smetana and the Beetles: A Fairy Tale for Adults (1967), Harold Hayes’ (ed.) Smiling Through the Apocalypse: Esquire’s History of the Sixties (1969), John Osborne’s The Fifth Year of the Nixon Watch (1974), The Fables of Aesop (1975), Joseph Moses’ The Great Rain Robbery (1975), Judy Jones and William Wilson’s An Incomplete Education (1987) and Robert B Silvers and Barbara Epstein’s (eds) A Middle East Reader (1991). Many of his drawings also appeared in calendars and as mousepads, postcards and other merchandise produced by the New York Review of Books.
Influenced by the Punch cartoonists Richard Doyle and Sir John Tenniel, as well as the Frenchmen Gustave Doré and Honoré Daumier and his fellow countryman Thomas Nast, his use of large heads on small bodies ultimately derived from the style popularised by the 19th-century Parisian André Gill (Louis-Alexandre Gosset de Guines). Levine always worked from photographs and drew his caricatures on Strathmore double weight paper (13¾ 11 in.), first in pencil and then in Gillot 102 pen and indian ink with a distinctive, graceful, fine cross-hatched style, signing them simply “D. Levine”. He never captioned his pictures and once said: “If I can’t do it the way Chaplin did it, words are not going to help.” Though frequently cutting in his perceptive and witty use of visual metaphor and other stylistic devices he was never cruel in his work and once said: “I might want to be critical, but I don’t wish to be destructive. Caricature that goes too far simply lowers the viewer’s response to a person as a human being.”
He was the recipient of many national and international honours including the George Polk Memorial Award (1965), a Guggenheim Fellowship (1967), a gold medal for graphics from the American Academy of Arts and Letters (1992), the Légion d’Honneur, the Thomas Nast Award (Germany) and a Lifetime Achievement Award (1996) from the Cartoon Art Trust in the UK. In New York he exhibited his work regularly at the Forum Gallery (from 1963) but also had major solo shows at Wesleyan University, Brooklyn Museum, Princeton University, Yale University, Hirshhorn Museum (Washington), Pierpont Morgan Library (New York), Ashmolean Museum (Oxford), Galerie Yves Lambert (Paris) and in Stuttgart, Munich and elsewhere.
Examples of his work are held in the collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art (New York), Hirshhorn Museum (Washington), Brooklyn Museum, Cleveland Museum of Art (Ohio), Fogg Art Museum (Harvard), National Academy of Design (New York), Princeton University Library, Library of Congress (Washington), Pierpont Morgan Library (New York), National Portrait Gallery (Washington), National Portrait Gallery (London), Ashmolean Museum (Oxford) and the British Cartoon Archive (University of Kent).
A quiet, gentle man who spoke with a marked Brooklyn accent (he lived and worked in Brooklyn all his life), he was about 5ft 10ins tall, with brown eyes and formerly brown hair. A keen tennis player, he was also a lifelong committed socialist (both his parents had been left-wing political activists). David Levine died of prostate cancer at New York Presbyterian Hospital, Manhattan, New York on 29 December 2009.
John Updike, whom Levine drew many times, wrote in the 1970s: "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."
The New York Times described Levine's illustrations as "macro-headed, somberly expressive, astringently probing and hardly ever flattering caricatures of intellectuals and athletes, politicians and potentates" that were "heavy in shadows cast by outsize noses on enormous, eccentrically shaped heads, and replete with exaggeratedly bad haircuts, 5 o’clock shadows, ill-conceived mustaches and other grooming foibles ... to make the famous seem peculiar-looking in order to take them down a peg". The paper commented: "His work was not only witty but serious, not only biting but deeply informed, and artful in a painterly sense as well as a literate one." Levine drew his most frequent subject, former president Richard M. Nixon, 66 times, depicting him as, among other things, the Godfather, Captain Queeg, and a fetus.
According to Vanity Fair, "Levine put together a facebook of human history ... the durability of those Levine depicted, plus the unique insight with which he drew them, guarantees the immortality of his works". Levine's work, taken as a whole, had a leftwing bent, and he claimed still to be a Communist, although people of all political persuasions came in for the same acid treatment in Levine's caricatures. Levine said that "by making the powerful funny-looking ... he might encourage some humility or self-awareness". Levine also described his purpose as follows: "Caricature is a form of hopeful statement: I'm drawing this critical look at what you're doing, and I hope that you will learn something from what I'm doing."
Jules Feiffer has called him "the greatest caricaturist of the last half of the 20th Century".
|David Levine. In Contemplation, 1955. Oil on panel, 6.5 x 7.5 inches; 8.5 x 9.5 inches framed.
LEVINE IN WINTER
Throughout the year 2006, a great drama unfolded in The New York Review of Books. It didn’t take place in one of its famously erudite articles on politics and culture, nor in the characteristically splenetic exchanges on the letters page, nor in a highbrow personal ad in the back. Instead, it occurred graphically, in the caricatures of David Levine, which had graced the publication for the past 44 years.
Levine’s drawings—the latest crop around that time included Jimmy Carter, George Soros, and Colin Powell, along with the usual assortment of novelists, scientists, poets, potentates, and academics, dead and alive—still appeared. His customary irreverence was also intact: Vladimir Putin in a king’s robe; the lips of Justice Samuel Alito, fresh from his unenlightening confirmation hearings, zippered shut. But to anyone familiar with Levine, something was seriously off. The images were scarcer, cruder, more tentative. Even his signature, the casually confident “DLevine” that always nestled cozily at the bottom, was different: suddenly, it was crabbed and erratic, even illegible. Sometimes it all but tumbled out of the frame.
David Levine, Biting Caricaturist, Dies at 83By BRUCE WEBER
DEC. 29, 2009
David Levine, whose macro-headed, somberly expressive, astringently probing and hardly ever flattering caricatures of intellectuals and athletes, politicians and potentates were the visual trademark of The New York Review of Books for nearly half a century, died Tuesday in Manhattan. He was 83 and lived in Brooklyn.
His death, at New York Presbyterian Hospital, was caused by prostate cancer and a subsequent combination of illnesses, his wife, Kathy Hayes, said.
Mr. Levine’s drawings never seemed whimsical, like those of Al Hirschfeld. They didn’t celebrate neurotic self-consciousness, like Jules Feiffer’s. He wasn’t attracted to the macabre, the way Edward Gorey was. His work didn’t possess the arch social consciousness of Edward Sorel’s. Nor was he interested, as Roz Chast is, in the humorous absurdity of quotidian modern life. But in both style and mood, Mr. Levine was as distinct an artist and commentator as any of his well-known contemporaries. His work was not only witty but serious, not only biting but deeply informed, and artful in a painterly sense as well as a literate one; he was, in fact, beyond his pen and ink drawings, an accomplished painter. Those qualities led many to suggest that he was the heir of the 19th-century masters of the illustration, Honoré Daumier and Thomas Nast.
Especially in his political work, his portraits betrayed the mind of an artist concerned, worriedly concerned, about the world in which he lived. Among his most famous images were those of President Lyndon B. Johnson pulling up his shirt to reveal that the scar from his gallbladder operation was in the precise shape of the boundaries of Vietnam, and of Henry Kissinger having sex on the couch with a female body whose head was in the shape of a globe, depicting, Mr. Levine explained later, what Mr. Kissinger had done to the world. He drew Richard M. Nixon, his favorite subject, 66 times, depicting him as the Godfather, as Captain Queeg, as a fetus.
With those images and others — Yasir Arafat and Ariel Sharon in a David-and-Goliath parable; or Alan Greenspan, with scales of justice, balancing people and dollar bills, hanging from his downturned lips; or Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. carrying a gavel the size of a sledgehammer — Mr. Levine’s drawings sent out angry distress signals that the world was too much a puppet in the hands of too few puppeteers. “I would say that political satire saved the nation from going to hell,” he said in an interview in 2008, during an exhibit of his work called “American Presidents” at the New York Public Library.
Even when he wasn’t out to make a political point, however, his portraits — often densely inked, heavy in shadows cast by outsize noses on enormous, eccentrically shaped heads, and replete with exaggeratedly bad haircuts, 5 o’clock shadows, ill-conceived mustaches and other grooming foibles — tended to make the famous seem peculiar-looking in order to take them down a peg.
“They were extraordinary drawings with extraordinary perception,” Jules Feiffer said in a recent interview about the work of Mr. Levine, who was his friend. He added: “In the second half of the 20th century he was the most important political caricaturist. When he began, there was very little political caricature, very little literary caricature. He revived the art.”
David Levine was born on Dec. 20, 1926, in Brooklyn, where his father, Harry, ran a small garment shop and his mother, Lena, a nurse, was a political activist with Communist sympathies. A so-called red diaper baby, Mr. Levine leaned politically far to the left throughout his life. His family lived a few blocks from Ebbetts Field, where young David once shook the hand of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who became a hero, as did his wife, Eleanor. Years later, Mr. Levine’s caricature of Mrs. Roosevelt depicted her as a swan.
“I thought of her as beautiful,” he said. “Yet she was very homely.”
As a boy he sketched the stuffed animals in the vitrines at the Brooklyn Museum. He served in the Army just after World War II, then graduated from Temple University in Philadelphia with a degree in education and another degree from Temple’s Tyler School of Art. He also studied painting at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, and with the Abstract Expressionist painter and renowned teacher Hans Hofmann.
Indeed, painting was Mr. Levine’s first love; he was a realist, and in 1958 he and Aaron Shikler (whose portrait of John F. Kennedy hangs in the White House) founded the Painting Group, a regular salon of amateurs and professionals who, for half a century, got together for working sessions with a model. A documentary about the group, “Portraits of a Lady,” focusing on their simultaneous portraits of Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, was made in 2007; the portraits themselves were exhibited at the National Portrait Gallery.
Mr. Levine’s paintings, mostly watercolors, take as their subjects garment workers — a tribute to his father’s employees, who he said never believed that their lives could be seen as connected to beauty — or the bathers at his beloved Coney Island. In a story he liked to tell, he was painting on the boardwalk when he was approached by a homeless man who demanded to know how much he would charge for the painting. Mr. Levine, nonplussed, said $50.
“For that?” the man said.
The paintings are a sharply surprising contrast to his caricatures: sympathetic portraits of ordinary citizens, fond and respectful renderings of the distinctive seaside architecture, panoramas with people on the beach.
“None of Levine’s hard-edged burlesques prepare you for the sensuous satisfactions of his paintwork: the matte charm of his oil handling and the virtuoso refinement of his watercolors,” the critic Maureen Mullarkey wrote in 2004. “Caustic humor gives way to unexpected gentleness in the paintings.”
Mr. Levine’s successful career as a caricaturist and illustrator took root in the early 1960s, when he started working for Esquire. He began contributing cover portraits and interior illustrations to The New York Review of Books in 1963, its first year of publication, and within its signature blocky design his cerebral, brooding faces quickly became identifiable as, well, the cerebral, brooding face of the publication. He always worked from photographs, reading the accompanying article first to glean ideas.
“I try first to make the face believable, to give another dimension to a flat, linear drawing; then my distortions seem more acceptable,” he said.
From 1963 until 2007, after Mr. Levine received a diagnosis of macular degeneration and his vision deteriorated enough to affect his drawing, he contributed more than 3,800 drawings to The New York Review. Over the years he did 1,000 or so more for Esquire; almost 100 for Time, including a number of covers (one of which, for the 1967 Man of the Year issue, depicted President Johnson as a raging and despairing King Lear); and dozens over all for The New Yorker, The New York Times, The Washington Post, Rolling Stone and other publications.
Mr. Levine’s first marriage ended in divorce. Besides Ms. Hayes, his partner for 32 years whom he married in 1996, he is survived by two children, Matthew, of Westport, Conn., and Eve, of Manhattan; two stepchildren, Nancy Rommelmann, of Portland, Ore., and Christopher Rommelmann, of Brooklyn; a grandson, and a stepgranddaughter.
“I might want to be critical, but I don’t wish to be destructive,” Mr. Levine once said, explaining his outlook on both art and life. “Caricature that goes too far simply lowers the viewer’s response to a person as a human being.”