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

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

GROTH: Were you in at the beginning of the New York Review?

LEVINE: I think I missed two weeks in which Ed Sorel was the cartoonist. I don’t know the full reason why he gave it up, but he’s kicked himself for that ever after.

GROTH: Was that pretty heady? The New York Review now is an institution. I don’t know what the aura was around it when it began. Was there a sense that this was going to be a substantial politically-charged literary publication? Was there a sense of excitement?

LEVINE: In the very beginning it was really a chance to do caricatures in an open publication. They really didn’t know what they wanted. They knew what they didn’t want, but they didn’t think in terms of how big the drawings would be, so I could grow. I could grow in whatever I wanted to try. That was the feeling, that this was an open space. It was like giving an artist a page and saying, “Draw on it.” However, eventually, in a fairly short time, the Vietnamese struggle began to take over, in a sense, everything, culturally. The political movements on the Left, in this case, they were groups that I would have been in very strong opposition to politically, began to form and grow. There developed a schism between those who felt that Stalin was the great enemy of all times, and a group which was doing the New York Review saying, “Yeah, but if you become like him, then what the hell are you?” So they took a peace position, “Let’s get out,” and that’s where I could sail in with any political feelings that I had.

GROTH: Were your cultural interests coterminous with the New York Review‘s?

LEVINE: I am not nearly the reader that they are. I am not a word person.

GROTH: [Joking] I assume you read every book they review by the authors you caricature.

LEVINE: No, I’d read every article that was written. But no, I’m not a great reader of contemporary novels. I’m immersed in the 19th century culture that I derived my form from. There is a kind of full-fledged realism in Balzac that is part of the painting scene too, so I am much more involved with that than with a Joan Didion stylist.

GROTH: Was Epstein the editor when you jumped on board?

LEVINE: Barbara Epstein? Yes, with Bob Silvers. Bob is more equal.

GROTH: So was she the one you dealt with?

LEVINE: No. Both. Basically they have always laid off censorship. Basically I did whatever I wanted to do. They never said, “Do this, or do that.” It was never a question. The one time, for instance, I handed in a drawing of a Catholic priest in Vietnam who immolated himself and I did a wiseguy drawing of him with a match on his shoulder, Bob Silver said, “Gee Dave, they’ve got enough problems. You’re only adding with this point of view on this drawing.” I said, “Hey, I think you’re right. You’re being more sensitive to it and I really should have been.” So I changed it around. But it took very little more than him saying that. On another occasion, the word came through, and this was from Barbara, I had done a Brezinsky foaming at the mouth, but one of these drawings where without the foam, it was just as strong. She said she thought the foaming at the mouth was a little redundant. How did I feel? I said, “OK, you’re right.” My feeling has always been, if it isn’t there in the head, then I’ve failed at what I had in mind anyhow. So I took the foam off.

GROTH: Can you tell me how the process works? Could you choose which pieces you illustrate?

LEVINE: No. They send pieces that will make a certain kind of issue. They have to balance a cultural piece about music and a piece about contemporary history, and a famous novelist. They make an interesting assortment for the issue, and those are the people I get to do. Lately they have not been giving me the artists because they have gotten color, so they print a photograph. That only started when NYR was sold. The owner is very, very decent, a very nice guy, but I think he was interested in making it a little more current by sometimes having photographs. So for some of the artists, their work will be reproduced, rather than my caricature of them.

GROTH: Do you have the authority to choose not do caricatures?

LEVINE: Yeah. If I have an objection, I will let them know. It’s so rare. I’m perfectly willing to do Stalin or anybody else. When something is revealed to me that was questionable about the guy, I would use it. So there’s never been anything that I could say, “Gee, I don’t want to do this.” The only thing is, I don’t think I can do an adequate drawing from some of the scrap, but that’s something else.

GROTH: Was there any figure you drew that you had trouble drawing for personal reasons?

LEVINE: I found it very difficult at the time to do Kennedy. A man who has been assassinated is not exactly a fun subject matter. I think you have to be sensitive to how you feel about something like that. Lamumba was very difficult for me to do at the time. I generally find that a waiting period helps.

GROTH: When you say that you didn’t want to do Oswald because of the way the situation was handled –

LEVINE: I didn’t like how the guy was shut up by his sudden death. That raised questions.

GROTH: So did you ever do Ruby?

LEVINE: No. I don’t think I did.

GROTH: I assume there are victims that you take great relish in drawing as opposed to people you’re indifferent to.

LEVINE: Nixon. He provided the most fun, he and Kissinger. Their holier than thou attitudes, and with the power they had. Twice I did a drawing of Quayle, and although he was in the power position, didn’t get to use his power. He could only speak. So what’s to go after? He’s a dull creature.

GROTH: And he had such bland good looks, I would assume that would be an impediment.

LEVINE: You can just about go after anybody. But Johnson, Nixon, and Kissinger … It’s interesting. I went to show a series of slides of caricatures and paintings at the Century Association, at which there must have been a goodly number of Republican big-money CEOs who came to this luncheon to be amused. The last drawing I did of Kissinger was of him fucking the world.

GROTH: You got into a lot of trouble for this.

LEVINE: Of a different kind. But I showed it, and there was a lot of laughter, and that was it. Nobody was interested any more in questions of how you handle Kissinger. Now some of the big-moneyed guys in the Democratic Party asked me why I was being so easy on Clinton. I said, “It’s not a question of being easy, I don’t think he’s had half a chance to do anything.” He’s been up there in the witness box constantly and when he’s done something that I think can be used, I’ll do it. Until then I’ve done him in a questioning way, as a kind of a wise-guy, projecting this country boy with the graduation cap on his head. It questioned his character, because that was something about him. Not so much with the hearings going on, but right away. When he speaks he has a thing as if he’s holding it all back. There’s a quality to that. But with Kissinger, first of all the New York Review did not want to print that. They’re fearful of things sexual. On one occasion I did a drawing of Philip Roth. In the scrap material he was wearing a turtleneck sweater. Back came word from Barbara E., why did I make him a penis? I said, “Wait a minute! Come on, you’re reading into it. There’s nothing there.” On the other hand, I’ve done drawings of Nixon on the side of his forehead, cut outs of drawings of Johnson’s profile. I said, “You overlooked that, you never saw that. But you can read into this.” That was our biggest tumble over something.

GROTH: Did they print the Kissinger drawing?

LEVINE: Yeah. What happened was kind of wonderful. I wanted to see it published so I went to Victor Navasky of The Nation, and he published it gladly. The next thing I know, he calls me up and says – and this has to be a funny moment for a Communist – he says, “I think you ought to come down because there are some people here that feel very negatively critical toward that drawing.” I say it’s funny for a Communist, because there was a period when the big thing that hit the party was criticism and self-criticism. It was similar to the cultural days in China. But here I was being called down for a criticism, and who was leading the group of young interns, a young woman whose parents I had known as Communists, only she is much further to the Left than they ever were; she is now the new militant feminist. It was just very funny. When I came down, the big question was, “Why was the world a woman? Why wasn’t it a guy? Why wasn’t it a big, black, hairy guy?” I said, “Come on, look. What you’re doing in cartooning is you’re dealing with symbols and sideways references that you want people to get a sense of or feel the humor. As far as I know, when I want to say ‘screwing’ or ‘fucking,’ most people in the world would understand the position of a man on top of a woman, and that’s it.” “Why is she clutching the bed? Is that passion?” I said, “She’s being attacked here! She’s holding on!” The questions raised were silly. But it divided many people who worked there. I got letters from those people, people wrote into the publication canceling their subscription. Feiffer had a similar experience over a black question at the Village Voice.

GROTH: Was it your intent that Kissinger be raping the world? I mean, ‘fucking’ the world could be a euphemism for raping the world.

LEVINE: Also I wanted ‘fucking’ the world, because it was ‘fucking up’ the world. Here he was out of power, it may have been Carter who appointed him to this commission to study the situation in South America … Whatever it was, here he had gotten back into doing something when he was no longer a relevant power – now they were giving him back power. So that was my reason.

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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.