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

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

GROTH: I was surprised to learn that your first major influence was Walt Disney.

LEVINE: Whenever I’ve met cartoonists along the way, a roommate in college, or Jules Feiffer or any of these people, we all seem to have the same heroes, and almost at the same times. Some of us got there, I never did for one reason or another, but at the age of nine I sent away for the test to get into Disney. It was a question of drawing Goofy, and putting him through various action drawings, and they said, “Come on out!” I said, “But I’m only nine!” I had to get permission. It was cute and all that, but other than that I was fascinated by the process, and was very involved with it. Snow White had just come out at that time.

GROTH: What most interested you about Disney? Animation, or the actual cartooning in comic books and newspapers?

LEVINE: Everything and everybody. This was a more rationalized action than the early Farmer Brown stuff with the little mice multiplying by the thousands, early [Max] Fleischer stuff. It seemed to be character development, people who could come to you with a real-life quality, even though they’re in satirical drawings. Jules [Feiffer] eventually got into animation and wrote for them. Originally I thought I was going to be in comic books, but I could never quite make it, either the rendering or something, there was always a piece missing.

GROTH: What kinds of comics most fascinated you as a kid?

LEVINE: I wanted to become Will Eisner. He was a great god of mine. Again, because of the interesting reality sense of his stories. There was a black kid, Ebony, even though that was a kind of chauvinist drawing, nevertheless, it was interesting to have a black person in a comic book. There were the movie-like action break-downs, you saw five drawings developing an almost animated sense of action; there were ways of dealing with folds that suggested a lot of knowledge and an airy way of doing it, style questions … All sorts of things like that. Then there was this enormous movie sense of using camera angles to see things. So it related to the life I had as a child growing up watching the five movies and three shorts in the local kids’ movie theater.

GROTH: I understand Hal Foster was also an influence.

LEVINE: Foster related to great art. If he had a group of men sitting around in a medieval room … I’ve seen Rembrandt drawings in which he has a character sketch of a man that resembles the way somebody sat in one of those panels by Foster. Then there was Mullin. Mullin was such a great draftsman doing sports cartoons, with his horses, and the way he developed people and groupings, fascinating. So I was open to everything in cartooning.

GROTH: How did you learn to draw? I understand that Bridgman was a –

LEVINE: Bridgman played a significant role in that he imitated Michelangelo’s way of drawing a finger. The examples of what he was drawing and how he analyzed that finger, have stayed with me so that the gesture… And again the gestures were not far from the extremities on a bad guy being socked in the jaw by the Spirit in Will Eisner. There was this sense of extreme gesture which was really Michelangeloesque. All my life I’ve been aware that cartooning frequently makes reference back to the great master draftsmen, that is to say, the English 19th-century cartoonists who did the drawings for Punch, the decorative initials. They made a lot of references to Dürer. There’s a connection there. I may find a way of rendering in a Rembrandt or a Dürer that I’m seeking to deal with in an etching or a cartoon. But the drawing I do now, the caricatures, I primarily think of them as drawings. There is no reason it shouldn’t be as well made as anything else.

GROTH: So you don’t see cartooning or caricature as necessarily inferior to fine art.

LEVINE: As a matter of fact, I always wanted to curate a major show in a museum in which people were unable to walk out of there with a clear vision of the differences between cartoons, satirical drawings, Expressionist drawings, Renaissance compressions, lengthens and distortions. In draftsmanship there are always distortions. Ingre, in his most beautiful drawings, distorts and compresses shoulder lines. In his paintings, the women are nothing like the women who actually sat and posed. Everything is re-designed as much as any cartoonist changes things. The question is quality. It’s not a question of the distortion of what’s in front of you. Krazy Kat creates a landscape as believable as many a German or Flemish early Medieval painter. It’s one in which his characters will live, and can live, and it resembles Arizona as much as the schloss in the background of these early Flemish paintings.

GROTH: Did you read newspaper strips as a kid?

LEVINE: Sure. Of course that was the militarist, Fascist press. I’d have to go next door to borrow it from somebody. Hearst was the great enemy.

GROTH: Did you have favorite newspaper strips? You grew up during the real heyday of newspaper strips.

LEVINE: Alley Oop I thought was an incredible work. It was so creative and so different in its thinking, the drawing was always so complete, it assured me in some way. Whatever it was, as funny as it was, I loved the finish and the complete environment. Fontaine Fox … I’m not sure now whether it isn’t going back and looking and finding greater quality in things I might have overlooked then, but I find now the drawings, from 1905 ’til about ’35, are the things I would like to collect. I started collecting, but lost most of it in a divorce proceeding, so I stopped trying to collect on that basis. Clifford McBride, I’ve always loved drawing animals, and particularly dogs, and there it is, there’s his great draftsmanship with dogs. In general, his pen and ink work is beautiful.

GROTH: Did you look at the illustrators at the time, Webster and Gibbons …

LEVINE: Comic illustrators or more general illustrators?

GROTH: More general illustrators.

LEVINE: Albert Dorn, because he was more closely allied to cartooning, even though it was painting. That appealed to me more. Earlier there were the illustrators who were draftsmen, Wallace Morgan in The New Yorker, Gluyas Williams, all these men were just incredible draftsmen. I liked it all; I was drawn to all of it. I didn’t really know the difference until I went to college. I didn’t take up art in my high school days. I drew all the time, and I played a social role in that I became the comic strip maker of my class. But I didn’t seriously look at anything else even though I lived near the Brooklyn Museum. I did not go to the Met until I was really starting to paint. Then I had a reason to go and look, though I didn’t really have much of a background to judge by. In my first art history class when discussing Modigliani or Daumier, I could not accept them as great artists. They were merely cartoonists. Like anybody and everybody else, they were mere in that sense, and the distortions were something the great artists didn’t do. I didn’t understand it. That’s a learned thing that you have to, by association, pick up. For instance, a great caricaturist came to visit, and I had some drawing reproductions up of Ingre, and I said, “There’s the greatest caricaturist of them all,” and he said he didn’t know who the hell it was. I said, “Coming from France, and you don’t know who Ingre is?” He said no. In their art history, they don’t talk about it. Can you believe that?

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