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

Posted by on January 13th, 2010 at 12:01 AM

From The Comics Journal Library: Drawing the Line Vol. 4 (2004). This interview originally appeared in TCJ #178 (July 1995).

Richard Nixon

DAVID LEVINE WAS BORN IN BROOKLYN IN 1926, where he has lived — and drawn and painted — his entire life. His family was  “militant Communist” — his mother was a Stalinist and his aunt was a Maoist — and he grew up looking at the leftist pub­lications of the day such as The Masses where he devoured the great draftsmen and political carica­turists of the time (such as Art Young). His family environment taught him to question authority and to support the underdog.

He studied at the Brooklyn Museum of Art School, Pratt Institute, the Tyler School of Art at Temple University in Philadelphia and the Eighth Street School of New York with Hans Hoffman. He’s won more awards than one could conscionably list, but the two that stood out for me were the French Legion of Honor Award and the Thomas Nast Award in Landau, Germany.

Although he is probably best well known for his caricatures that have graced the pages of virtually every major magazine in America — Time, Newsweek, Esquire, The New Yorker, Playboy, New York, The Nation and, for over 40 years, The New York Review of Books—he is also an equally accomplished painter who has exhibited in Paris, Munich, Stuttgart, Oxford (England), Washington, Beverly Hills, and other cities. His carica­tures and paintings are in permanent col­lections at the San Francisco Fine Arts Museum, the Cleveland Museum of Art, The Brooklyn Museum, the Pierpont Morgan Library, NY, the Smithsonian’s Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, the National Portrait Gallery of England, the Library of Congress and the National Portrait Gallery, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

As he was growing up, Levine looked at political cartoons, read newspaper strips and comic books, and loved animation, especially the earliest Disney features. In the ’50s he tried to become a comic-book artist and, like Jules Feiffer, failed. As with Feiffer, the world — and the the artist — was richer for the failure. He concentrated on his watercolor painting and began appearing in mass circulation maga­zines as a caricaturist. He got in almost at the be­ginning The New York Review of Books, in 1964, taking over after a brief sting by Edward Sorel as the literary magazine’s home artist, and has drawn caricatures in every issue from then to now, for which he has become justly famous.

I conducted this interview in the spring of 1994 in Levine’s tastefully decorated and alarmingly neat Brooklyn apartment. He was a gracious host and we spent the better part of a day together. He is a terrific talker, lucid, urbane, erudite, opinionated, and, like most artists who protest their lack of verbal skills, immensely articulate. He takes special delight in great draftsmanship and subtle expression and conveys his love for both with great passion.

Two great American writers have epi­gramatically summarized Levine’s virtues:

Pete Hamill, novelist, newspaper editor, and memoirist: “The paintings of David Levine are never bombastic. They are sel­dom only about the thing or the place to the people directly observed. They are also about the unseen world that they suggest, a world of time and nostalgia, of things and people lost. If David Levine was a writer he would be Chekhov.”

John Updike, novelist and essayist: “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.”

-Gary Groth

GARY GROTH: I’d like to find out how you developed your love of drawing and your political passions. Can you tell me a little of your upbringing here in Brooklyn? I understand you were born into an essentially middle-class family.

DAVID LEVINE: Born into a middle-class, militant, Communist family. I heard all the noise and all the meetings all of my life, and saw all the publications of the far left in which the great draftsmen were usually featured on the cover of these pamphlets, and I always wanted to be like them. That always struck me as a high thing to achieve.

GROTH: Wasn’t The Masses being published at the time you were growing up?

LEVINE: It was being published. I don’t know whether I saw it or other things. Probably The Masses at its best quality was already gone. It was then more strictly in the hands of the Communist party rather than under [Max] Eastman who kept it on a fairly healthy basis. He had a better graphic idea of how to use the drawings.

GROTH: You mother was a Leninist.

LEVINE: A Stalinist. There were no Leninists then because Lenin was already dead and it was really all in the hands of Stalin.

GROTH: And your aunt was a Maoist?

LEVINE: Yeah, when the Chinese Revolution was successful and Mao started to say things that were somewhat different than Stalin’s, my aunt seemed to go with that. And there were great arguments between my mother and my aunt, who were very close sisters, and who never lost their feelings for each other, but there were great eruptions at family gatherings.

GROTH: Their views were that nuanced?

LEVINE: Family Stalinism and family Trotskyism and things like that are not nuanced. They are absolutes and are black and white. Either you’re for, or you’re a traitor.

GROTH: Your father was a pattern-maker –

LEVINE: They went on strike; they were trying to establish a union and were broken because they received no backing from the AFL union at the time. They lost the strike so he was forced to go into business for himself. That became a contradiction. He was not a Communist. He was interested, he was influenced by my mother, but he was not a Communist. Nevertheless, his situation as a boss made life hell for him, because my mother would take the workers’ point of view in most cases.

GROTH: That sounds like that could create family difficulties.

LEVINE: It did. They were frequently on the verge of splitting. But he was able to absorb this because he worked with his hands. He was just thrilled to make a dress, and I think I’ve taken on a certain aspect from him. The working with the hands, no matter what’s happening that day, if you have work, it’s your therapy, it calms you down.

GROTH: You didn’t rebel from your parents values as so many children do and become a Capitalist.

LEVINE: No, I stayed as long as most people could in the Communist party, and then the movement was gone, dead from under our feet. I didn’t leave it because of a difference, and to this day have not changed a social point of view as far as my sympathies go. I would say I would call for a gathering of the Socialist clans, and if they could make peace with themselves, I would be for such a movement rather than any particular tendency.

GROTH: Is it accurate to say that your artistic proclivities were fueled by your political passions at that time?

LEVINE: No. I really wanted to get into comic books, and on one occasion some people in my Communist club questioned my wish to do drawings of American Indians and Westerns, suggesting that that would be a horrible way to treat the Indian question, and so on. To me it seemed silly when they raised it, but in retrospect it was interesting how early on it these people particularly were – they were terrible people other than that. They would talk their sympathies, but they weren’t real to them. It was a chic pose.

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