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

Posted by on January 18th, 2010 at 12:01 AM

Previously: Part One, Part Two, Part Three.

David Levine self-portrait

GROTH: Did you meet [Jerry] Iger?

LEVINE: Yeah, twice. When I said I erased pages, that was for Jerry Iger’s something-or-other. I kept saying, “You promised me, Mr. Iger, that you were going to let me draw, do some pencils.” “Yeah, yeah. Sometime. Clean up the pages.” And when I left, it was after six weeks of feeling absolutely no hope. So I grabbed a bunch of paper, 60 pieces, that was a lot of money then, and when I finally came to show him the stuff, I said, “Do you remember me?” He said no.  I described that I stole the paper from him and he looked and me and said, “That wasn’t very nice, was it?” [Laughter.] That was it.

Now, I met Eisner years later. There was a show at the Brooklyn Museum of Cartooning, and some of his work was there. When I spoke to him, he was so crass. I said, “Do you ever sell? Do you ever have anything to trade?” He said, “No, everything has a buck at the end of it.” And that was the end of it. Wow, that sounds terrible. I met him after that, when I was already known as an artist, a cartoonist, and then it was a different meeting, he was much nicer. But it was a pretty appalling way to meet somebody. It was business, he was the businessman, too. And when you meet artists who are their own agents in a sense, they’re tough. They can say things that I can’t.

GROTH: Well every artist is his own agent. You are.

LEVINE: I can’t. I really can’t. If I allow anybody in here to buy things or to come look, they do me in sooner or later. It’s really terrible. There’s a big difference. Nor can I talk about my artwork in quite the same way that a lot of these guys can.

GROTH: Iger’s was a shop, wasn’t it? Were there other artists working there?

LEVINE: Yes. Most of the comic book shops were that: Five or six guys lined up and working on the drawing boards.

GROTH: Did you know who any of them were?

LEVINE: Just Howie Post and Jack Mendelson. We were a real close threesome. Jack went off to become a comic writer for Carol Burnett. He tried to be a cartoonist, but he really wasn’t able to draw like I would or Howie was able to. But today he could draw as well as EC or things like that, very simple cartooning.

GROTH: You worked for Iger for six weeks?

LEVINE: About that, yeah.

GROTH: Can you tell me what a typical day was like?

LEVINE: It was after high school, and I would come in and there would be a stack of papers to erase. That was it. That’s all I did. I watched the other guys. It was my first introduction to watching one man pencil and another man ink. One man did perspective views of the city for a superhero fly-by.

GROTH: So it was a real assembly line.

LEVINE: Yeah.

GROTH: How professional was the environment? Was there clowning around?

LEVINE: Not clowning like my two buddies and I did where spitballs flew … We had a thing separating each booth. The appalling thing now is when I go to an auction and see animation cels being sold and realize how anonymous the art was, and how further anonymous it was in the inking and the painting by hundreds of little Asian women who worked in that industry, aside from the drawings, it was just incredible. And people are paying unbelievable amounts of money for those things. And the studios are manipulating it. It’s very frightening.

GROTH: How do you account for that manipulation?

LEVINE: Just a collectible level of … It’s more colorful after all, it’s colored and you put it up framed and it looks a certain way. You know what else is horrible about that? I bought some early sketches for a scene from [Walt Disney’s] Fantasia, the “Dance of the Hours” with the hippopotamus, which is truly one of the great moments in satirical art, and I was introduced to the wife of some animator who is now a restorer of cels. I said, “It must be very difficult to mix the gouache colors and match what’s flaking off.” She says, “Match? Oh, I just wash off all the stuff and repaint it.” I said, “You call this restoring?” She says, “What else is it?” [Laughter.]

GROTH: That’s something. I guess it doesn’t matter then.

LEVINE: Not to the collectors. Very little does. They don’t really know. [Laughter.] See, the people who are buying those things are not from the art world where restoration is a process. So they had no idea what it is to own a work of art.

GROTH: After you started getting work in Esquire, and segued into the New York Review, did you feel any conflict between your sense of yourself as a painter, and entering the commercial arena with caricature?

LEVINE: No. One of the things, first of all, was that I looked forward to the chance to do something. I’ve never stopped being a cartoonist, and I looked at it as a way of making a living that was a little surer. I could say, “For this number of drawings for the columns, I want so much per month.” I worked out things on a monthly basis, for both Esquire and the New York Review, I always have. Whatever publication I worked for I was always trying to get a monthly fee.

GROTH: I assume you were living in New York.

LEVINE: Always. Always in Brooklyn. I’ve never lived in Manhattan.

GROTH: Why is that?

LEVINE: Brooklyn is known territory. To a painter, it’s a goldmine. All the rooftop views, Coney Island, all the things I have experienced growing up, are still available in one form or another for me to paint. So it’s a goldmine. I go in there and dig out a variation on a theme of my life’s experiences. To go to Manhattan or to go anywhere else, it’s OK, but not for me, it’s not enough. For maybe one painting or drawing, Rembrandt may have gone to London, but I don’t think so. He basically stayed in Holland. He knew what he was about.

Be Sociable, Share!

Pages: 1 2

Tags: , , , , ,

2 Responses to “The Watchful Eye of David Levine: Interview by Gary Groth (Part Four of Six)”

  1. Jeet Heer1 says:

    The tag line should be Henry Kissinger, not Henry Kuttner. Although I would have been interested to know what Levine thought about Kuttner….

  2. Kristy Valenti says:

    Thanks, Jeet. It’s fixed.