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

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

GROTH:  From 1964 to present, aside from your regular stint at the New York Review, and aside from the painting, what do you devote your time to?

LEVINE:  Tennis. I’m a museum rat. I only go to countries where there are great museums. I spend my time thinking a great deal about painting and why I’m not a great painter. I mean that in a serious way; I think I’m a good painter, and I think I’m a good artist in general, but I don’t think I’m a great artist in that there is another step that I understand when I see it by artists of the past, but that I can’t necessarily do. I’d even managed once to do the thing I have in mind, but the great artist doesn’t just do it once; it’s there in all his work. That is, to have made a world parallel to reality which is, in its formal qualities, full of interest and excitement and vitality in a way that is as exciting as the real world. The pastel applications of a Degas are at one point so exciting, so colorful, and so original that they remake the world in terms. When you read War and Peace or Balzac, as in great poetry, you get an alternative to the world that’s as exciting, and complex. That’s a step that I cannot find myself doing. I’m aware of it when I look at Degas, but I’m not aware of it in my own work. So spending time thinking about that is worthwhile.

GROTH:  What quality do you think is missing?

LEVINE:  I’m close in the sense that I can intrigue somebody by the textures and the way in which I’ve gone about doing a watercolor, or in some of the oils. But it’s like a whisper. The whisper suggests that I’m close, but it’s not full-bodied yet, it’s not part of my language really, whereas it became easy language for Degas. Mere imitation of what’s in front of you is small. Representation doesn’t hold it over abstract in that sense. If it’s mere imitation, you’re a camera. Big deal. It can be an interesting picture, it can be personally selective in many ways, but it’s not big enough. To be great art, it’s got to do something more.

GROTH:  It requires interpretation.

LEVINE:  It’s got to have depth of philosophy about something, the feeling expressed in the several skins in a self portrait by Rembrandt, and the implications watching himself go through this materialist development and then decay of the body, every human being’s experience, that’s enormous. The complexity of the way in which he paints those skins, and suggests qualities on that face, is so much more than anybody else’s, that you now have something that carries you beyond the ordinary. I see this in a few other paintings, very few.

GROTH:  Are you saying that the artist has to impose meaning onto what he’s depicting?

LEVINE:  Not only in what he’s saying to you, not only in the content does there have to be an understanding of such insight, but that the means takes on its own life.

GROTH:  Is it painful for you to not —

LEVINE:  No, because it calls for striving. And not self-conscious striving, you evaluate what you’ve done when you’re done with it. I wouldn’t show it if I didn’t think I have something achieved, but it’s a level of awareness of yourself as different from. I don’t mind that kind of competition, I think that’s healthy competition. It’s not boastful nor underplaying myself, it’s full recognition of where I’m at.

GROTH:  You talk about how you learned to draw and how you acquired your draftsmanship. Can you tell me similarly how you acquired your color sense, how you learned to apply color?

LEVINE:  That comes partially out of associating with a lot of great art. How you develop a personal feeling for certain colors is just from that: association. It’s an acquired thing. I’ve always felt that black people have a very good sense of colors that they can wear in clothing. When a white person puts on an orange suit, it looks ludicrous. It may come from every day looking in the mirror. It’s a sense of yourself and the colors you live in.

GROTH:  Would you say it is an intuitive process?

LEVINE: I think it has to be. Plus the acquired taste of the association with previous art. And that is something that so few people have the time to do, that there is a tremendous limitation on what they understand as art. The rich who live with art in their collections have a better chance at knowing what is good in art than those who only see the skills in imitating. So the prize winner is usually a Wyeth-like work. Not Wyeth, because Wyeth is an austere artist who paints a very personal look at nature. Very strong on statement. All his imitators see is the highlights and the little details. It’s a shame.

GROTH:  Could you tell me what you think is the defining characteristic of your subject matter? You made reference earlier to being in Brooklyn, and I think you implied that your painting is rooted in your place here.

LEVINE: When I paint in the shop, one of the saddest things is the question that comes back to you from the people that you’re painting: “Why me? I’m not somebody. What I do is not important.” There has been no attention to what they do. Now, there’s a caricature of that under a false sense of what the Communist countries did. Everybody got a medal. Medals told you that you were important, and that’s a joke too. But what’s sad is the lack of a sense of what they contributed. What I am fascinated by is just the fact that the people in Brooklyn, this huge borough of people, contributed everything to what makes New York tick, and they get no recompense, either in recognition or in money. Everything goes out from Brooklyn, nothing comes back. We pay more money out in taxes that never comes back to our parks; they go out for better care of Central Park. The tennis courts are better attended to in Manhattan than they are here. So is an involvement with paying a certain celebration of this anonymity which really is the basis of everything. I have a limited number of areas that I can possibly cover. It’s not even easy to get into a shop.

GROTH:  When you say ‘shop,’ what do you mean?

LEVINE:  I used to go into garment shops here. I started out in my father’s shop which was in Manhattan, but eventually I did things down on Union Street where there were several garment shops. Most of them wouldn’t let me in. I’d say, “I’m an artist!” and they thought I was a clever union organizer used as a cover to get in. That’s what they were really worried about. Because the Triangle fire conditions are exactly the same. They’re still there waiting for a fire somewhere. Forty women will die in one place. Chinatown, I’m sure, has it all the time. They’re all locked in.

Now, the other subjects are people at play. I go down to the beach, because all the contemporary relationship values are there. I can’t go in their homes and see it, I can’t see how the old grandmother relates to the grandchild and relates to the teenager who is in her way or is frightening to her, but I can see it on the beach. And plus it’s got decorative things which make it an interesting place to place a battle scene. The battle of life is going on in front of you. There are all sorts of possibilities in that sense.

"Beach Scene" 1968 watercolor by Levine (click to view larger image).

GROTH:  Do you enjoy going to Coney Island?

LEVINE:  Very much.

GROTH:  Is that because it’s so teeming with —

LEVINE:  It’s teeming with everything this city has gone through, plus me, which has gone through all of it. I’ve watched it all go down. The greed of the chance to have gambling go in, they tore down all the 19th-century buildings. The inability to support anything – now people come down and pay a lot of money for nothing. When I went down, for a nickel or a dime or a quarter, you got a tremendous amount of rides. Now it’s a dollar or $1.50. Food down there is impossibly expensive. If you go to Nathan’s it’s very expensive. So it’s all changed. And yet, this is the only available thing on a hot, sweltering day. So this city is nothing to those people because they are workers. Powerless. They don’t vote. All the things that go with that class stature. Nevertheless they make up an increasingly interesting scene in that all the groups are there: There are the Russians, the new Chinese elements, the Asians, the blacks, the Puerto Ricans, it’s all there. There was a while when it was not all there, it was almost all black. Then all Puerto Rican. Now it’s back to a much fuller mix. A lot of whites because the Russians are there. So it’s my own chance to see mass survival, surviving humanity out there, getting along or not, whatever, but mostly getting along.

And then there are pieces, for instance, each year I go back with a question in my mind: Didn’t I do the ultimate on this thing? Haven’t I come to the end? And then I’ll notice something and go after it. Last year it was the personal … You put down last year’s tablecloth, and you put shoes here in the bag and that’s your territory. This kind of personalized little fortress and how people set it up, is kind of a still life of a kind.

So I’m always finding new stuff to dig out. It’s interesting. If I come down with a Ruebens battle scene in mind, it helps me to shape up the look of that battle scene that I’m talking about. It enables you to start looking how to physically deploy people and organize the picture. If I go down and I see the flea market areas, having looked at Whistler, it gives me another formal way to look at this, and then what is real changes my little formal idea in some way. But it helps to have all these images. And that is what’s missing from most cartoons. The enormous wealth of imagery that exists in all art, because they’ve been kept away from thinking that they have a relationship with great art in the past.

GROTH:  How do you navigate being influenced by something but not mimicking or imitating it, not being too influenced?

LEVINE:  There is no such thing. All I can come up with is, somebody can recognize, “Oh, you like Pendergast, don’t you?” and I’ll say, “You’re damn right I do.” So what? I love Degas, I love Rembrandt. None of that ever completely comes through. Even if a piece relates to some particular painters, it still comes out of me. I’m not worried about it.

GROTH:  I suppose that’s partly because you’re secure in your own identity.

LEVINE:  I don’t know. I’ve never seen anybody imitate anything that I couldn’t be aware of. It’s those people who tried to be like Degas, they weren’t. And that’s fine.

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