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

Posted by on January 19th, 2010 at 12:01 AM

Previously: Part One, Part Two, Part Three, Part Four.

GROTH:  Have you ever been confronted by anyone that you’ve unflatteringly caricatured? Did Henry ever walk up to you?

LEVINE:  A subject’s wife asked me, saying, “He’s got everything else and I want to give him something unique for a gift.” I said, “Don’t ask me to do this. First of all it’s expensive, I don’t like it, I know the man, he’s a friend, I don’t want to do it.” Well, she convinced me that she had to have it, it was all she could think of. So I did it and I got a three-page letter from her telling me how bad my drawing was, it wasn’t up to the same quality as any of my other caricatures, it missed him entirely, on and on and on.

GROTH:  One drawing you refused to do for the New York Review was a diagram for a homemade bomb.

LEVINE: Right. I thought that was very irresponsible. They went on to ask somebody else to do it and they published it. Years have gone by, and all of a sudden that became a question in which they said they were not responsible for doing it. I said, “As far as I could tell, yes you were.”

GROTH:  How could they disclaim responsibility for that?

LEVINE:  I don’t remember, but I remember Vic calling me and trying to get the exact details of it: “Who came to you and asked you?” I gave him that, and then I got a call from Barbara at the New York Review saying “Don’t you remember, David? That wasn’t the way it happened.” But it was.

GROTH:  Have you refused to do any other drawings for the New York Review?

LEVINE:  No. First of all it wasn’t a caricature. It was a diagram of how to make a Molotov cocktail. That’s not my business.

GROTH:  Have you ever done a caricature that you looked at after you finished it and you threw it out because it wasn’t what you wanted?

LEVINE:  Yeah, once or twice. We’re talkin’ 30, 40 years of doing it. I generally know that I’ve gotten what I want in pencil. Going on from there to ink it is not mechanical, but it is not that far from mechanical. So my choice is at that moment at penciling, and generally that means erasing a little more. Also if I have to change anything, I do it by scraping with a razor blade. I did something recently where I drew age lines on Ingmar Bergman on a Photostat [of an old drawing of Bergman], simply because the scrap material didn’t have anything new to offer, so why was I going to draw the thing just to put those lines on it? I don’t need a bulk of work any more. On my death the government’s going to step in and charge my family per drawing according to what prices they were last sold at, which means my family will have a couple hundred thousand dollars to pay in death taxes. This is really one of the sore points of our careers.

GROTH:  Maybe you should just sell a few of them at five dollars apiece.

LEVINE:   Yeah, but that’s not the way it works. They go to the high point. This is simply technical in reference to caricatures and it applies to painting too, that both watercolor and caricature relate in scale in that I cannot make the parallel lines without a ruler unless I just carry on just so far, an inch and a half, two inches is the extent to which I can keep doing a certain amount of tonal lines. That controls the scale I can draw. I can probably do a very large one, but basically I’m comfortable with 11×14 inches, so I tried to think of designing a variation within that space for the whole career. This follows with watercolor. It’s a medium of blots and puddles. You can’t do that too big. The guy who does these things on a huge board and tilts the board and lets the watercolor run in an abstract way, wherever it goes, that’s not what I’m talking about. If you want a controlled image that looks like something, there is a scale that holds you back. It’s an edited go-over covering of layers, it could be bigger. It makes it easier to generalize.

GROTH:  I thought watercolor was notoriously difficult to work with.

LEVINE:  In the old-fashioned way it is, that is, in Sargent, if he didn’t hit it right, he has to pile on the white. And he does — there are very big, thick areas of white. In Homer, huge areas have had to be scraped out in order to correct certain things. Basically they worked on absorbent papers, and close up to the object they were painting, and therefore the correcting had to be a very tedious job. With the English, they worked at a great distance from a town, from a view of something, on a very small scale, and they found certain ways of taking out things with a brush and water which we did too, but more so there. What I found out eventually for myself, was a paper that is not as absorbent, which keeps the stuff on the surface, and where with a sponge, if the paper is really good and you begin to learn to be sensitive to the paper, just how far you can rub before you destroy the top layer, because the next layer is very ripe in its lightness. So if you remove that top layer of paper, you’re going to get a bright spot you can almost not kill. But if you’re careful and you work with very natural ingredients, such as the sponge is a real sponge, the ceramicist’s sponge, called an “elephant ear,” is what I find usable. And the same with the razor blade when correcting a pen-and ink drawing. If you don’t dig, but just work over the surface with a careful amount of time, you’ll maintain enough so you can re-draw in that area. So I approach watercolor very differently. Arnie Roth says he does it in the romantic way the English do, layer upon layer. That’s got limitations. Suppose I don’t like it, and I want to rub it off and start all over? I can’t get it down to white, but I can get it very close to that, and then I can start all over. It gives me a chance to silhouette figures with light or take out lights from within. I can alter my approach to how the drawing goes. You can work from the outside or the inside. It makes for an almost sculptural approach. It’s less killing. You don’t make a mistake that way; your mistakes can be incorporated into an interesting texture. No sudden death. Because if it was I wouldn’t stay with watercolor.

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