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: How did you acquire your deep appreciation for draftsmanship?

LEVINE: Because I could draw. The tendency, possibly, is that the thing you’re drawn to … somebody came back to my art school and said, boy, they’d just come from Hans Hoffman, and that’s where it’s at! If you didn’t study with him, you wouldn’t know what’s really going on. I came to New York eventually, when my school was over, I still had GI bill time, and I went to study with Hans Hoffman. In the first session, I was making a representational drawing but with the distortions that I would naturally make. He said, “No, no, no. If you’re going to draw like that, you must draw like a photograph. But if you want to show imagination, then you work abstractly.” So what I tried after that was to be abstract. The closest I could get to that was an early, kind of funny form of Cubism, which he liked. He said I had a wonderful, symphonic sense of line. No matter what it would be, it would be drawing that would be whatever I tried in art. So I think draftsmanship leads to whatever I understand and feel for in art. For me it is primary.

GROTH: I assume you believe that in order to distort properly you need to understand correct draftsmanship first.

LEVINE: Yes. I think that, unfortunately, most cartoonists and most schools where they teach cartoonists tend to be places where you want to emulate the last most successful thing going, rather than to get deeper into the tradition. They go to the immediate person. So if I were really in comic books, I would have tried to stay with Eisner rather than to look at all the things that made Eisner what he was; that’s why I think it’s important for a cartoonist to get a lot deeper education than they’re getting. But there’s a rejection of that in schools. Cartooning has a history but it is not taught in art schools.

GROTH: I’m partly asking you that because I think comic books have hit an all-time low in terms of draftsmanship. You really don’t have to be a draftsman.

LEVINE: I blame that on the underground comics development.

GROTH: Do you?

LEVINE: I do because I see its influence everywhere right now: the New Yorker seems to be taken over by underground comics’ lack of drawing. In most cases, that passes for some kind of expression to an audience that grew up with it and thinks that’s what it’s supposed to be.

GROTH: That’s a very interesting observation. Ed Sorel echoed what you just said.

LEVINE: I’m sure a whole bunch of us would. Then we would probably look at each other and say, sheepishly smiling, “Well, I guess that’s the generational way of looking at it.” But I don’t feel a part of a generation. I go back to Egyptian drawing, if necessary. There’s no generation for me. It’s good quality. Scripted quality, and it’s got to be quality that stands out, rather than just is.

GROTH: You ‘re familiar with the work of R. Crumb, I assume. What do you think of his work? The reason I ask is because I thought he would be in your tradition of exaggeration and distortion, but I also think he’s an excellent draftsman. Would you agree with that?

LEVINE: I think he’s an excellent comic draftsman but he and [can’t remember his name] who does a re-hash, very much made up of the same studies that Crumb does from the ’30s and ’40s cartooning. There’s the Smoky Stover, a whole mishmash … In a peculiar way, I see his expressivity, and his need to tell you something, which on occasion horrifies me because he subscribes to and allows himself to say things that are frighteningly Nazi-like at times. I just saw something in one of the publications you sent me where he has what a black man is feeling about whites, and when he does that, I think he’s unbridled and he is doing something which I think is racist. I’m not going to try and stop him, but I think it’s as bad as this guy, Khalid, making his statement. But the talent is there, the expressivity is there.

There’s a difference that was posed to me recently. How did I feel about Lucian Freud and his paintings and etching, and his friend Bacon? I think Freud, while there were a lot of qualities I didn’t care for, as an illustrator is an authentic observer and draftsman. Bacon is like a re-hash, a made-up assortment of things taken, much the way a style comes through in cartooning. The distortions are not the way he sees the world, they’re implants. He has to have a funny mirror to see that. He has to do it by a mind-assembled concoction, rather than an authentic point of view which expresses feelings. I’m not sure about people like Crumb, that that isn’t the same thing. As different from Heinric Kley’s drawings, the animals or people …

GROTH: May I ask how familiar you are with Crumb?

LEVINE: I’ve seen it ever since it started coming out and someone sent me some sketchbooks of his. I’m not as admiring of the art itself as I am of the general “quality of life,” or what he has to say. But it’s very effective. However, that isn’t what I’m talking about, in lowering the quality of drawing. There were people who simply couldn’t draw at all that did entire pages full of the dykes eating the something-or-other, and there would be a battle scene where people were cutting off parts of limbs and breasts and bodies. They were terribly drawn.

One of the most interesting things for me in this neighborhood is that there are several very ritzy high-price private schools here to which all the middle-class people send their kids. They haven’t the slightest idea that the Metro Comics shop on Montague Street has a world their kids all subscribe to, see and read, and their parents have no idea what goes on. That wasn’t possible in my day. My father probably knew that I went to a burlesque show, that was part of what he expected of a son growing up …

GROTH: To what do you attribute that?

LEVINE: A lack of interest on the part of the parents. They didn’t believe in comics, and they’re all very successful, and they just don’t know what their kids are doing. They don’t know how much pot the kids have smoked or whatever, harder drugs … They simply don’t know. These schools are so separate from them and the schoolmasters, in one place around here, the first thing he tells every pair of parents who come to him, is that they are depraved, they are backward, and that their children are pure and beautiful and they should have as little as possible to do, he will bring them up and get them into fine schools and so on. And this school is famous!

GROTH: Well, that’s a little perverse. How do you explain parents acquiescing to that?

LEVINE: Because like [William] Buckley, he has an enormous command of the language and his mind blows them with this vocabulary, and they sit there and listen, and think, “Well, if anybody can talk like that, they must be right!”

Sigmund Freud

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