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

Posted by on January 20th, 2010 at 12:01 AM

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

GROTH: I think there’s a cartoonist working now who imitates you.

LEVINE: There are a number of them. Each one has something a little different. But basically, the only problem with that is generally, if somebody doesn’t use me but uses them because they’re less expensive, that kind of bothers me. And on one occasion, many years ago, there was a guy who was editor of the Atlantic Monthly, Robert Manning, and he hired somebody who did an entire issue of the magazine, full of caricatures, small drawings, but all of them total imitations. But he didn’t sign them. I have a feeling that was an editorial choice. Because I had done some work for them, I poked a little fun at them by sending the bill, as if I had done it. [Chuckle.] I never got a word back. It was a joke.

GROTH: They didn’t accidentally pay you or anything? [Laughter.]

LEVINE: Nothing. That’s more upsetting.

GROTH: What 20th century painters are you especially fond of?

LEVINE: As you know, I’m very taken with Shikler.

GROTH: Would it be accurate to say that he was your mentor?

LEVINE: Yeah, I call him my maestro, really. The others are some artists who in some works have done things that I admire. Lennart Anderson. There are things in Ed Sorel that I think are marvelous, and in Jules [Feiffer], there are all sorts of people. I’m not denying others, but there isn’t much. There are no super-masters that are so big. Peculiarly, I found Lucian Freud had a lot of quality and then went on to pander in some peculiar way, this weird … Or maybe I felt that he was looking at my species as if they were animals. I will admit, as a materialist, that man is an animal. He’s part of the animal kingdom in a sense, but I still think there’s a specialness, and I felt that his people lying on cots in pain almost looked at as if they were just pieces of meat, that was a kind of statement that I worry about.

GROTH: Did you feel that there was a lack of compassion present in his work?

LEVINE: On the opposite side of compassion, it was almost a put-down, that it doesn’t matter what happens to these people. I didn’t get the compassion that said as a generalization, man is still worth preserving, not harming. So I questioned a lot of things in the show. But there were pieces of paintings, in almost all the paintings, that were marvelous passages. Big talent, really.

GROTH: What do you think of Hockney?

LEVINE: Hockney is just clever. He’s a sort of pastiche on what came before: a little Matisse, a little Picasso. And on occasion, for instance I saw one painting of a middle-class lifestyle in California, which was affecting. I could say that satirically it hit me. But something was missing, too. There was something on the positive side, there was a quote of Gorky talking to some Russian writers saying, “Before you can be a real realist, you have to be able to see Winston Churchill as a father.” In other words, you can’t just have a caricature, that’s not big enough. If you want to be a realist, you have to expand to a full-bodied creature, capable of both negative and positive. And I think that’s part of the way I look at these works.

GROTH: Do you admire Hopper?

LEVINE: Up to a point, yeah. I met him twice. He was interesting. I think there’s an austerity to his work that’s very personal and yet the big shows of his work get bland. When I see too much of it … I like the etchings more than I like his paintings. And some of his drawings are powerful in black and white. Once he gets into paint … There are some paintings which I think are marvelous, a lot that are just ordinary. But unfortunately he falls under my general way of seeing, which is that painting is done. It’s nice to indulge, but the art of our time is the movie. The audience alone -when I have a show, when anybody has a show, let’s say the most popular show in the world: Cezanne or Picasso at the Museum of Modern Art, they’ll get a million viewers over a period. At any given moment, a film is seen by 60 million, 100 million, all over the world. What audience was ever like that? And it’s talking to them. So it’s not a question of whether the right thing is being said, it’s that it’s being said in this medium, to that much audience. That’s the act of art. Who else discusses all the moral questions? You don’t see it in paintings. In fact painters who are painting abstractly give up all the questions, other than formal ones, and the realists paint the highlights. That’s basically what it’s come down to.

GROTH: Doesn’t that suggest though, that painting is no longer relevant to people’s lives?

LEVINE: Yes, that’s what I’m saying. It can now provide lovely indulgences. OK, I’m still painting because I love doing it, but I don’t have a feeling that I’m really addressing major issues to anybody.

GROTH: You once said, “Art has to be brought back to the presence of life the way it was in the Renaissance. And painters were called upon to show society what it was all about. And those to be emulated what you would be punished for. Today artists are only called upon to be entertaining. We’re in a period of escape where almost no one is willing to face up to serious questions.”

LEVINE: Boy, did I sound whacked!

GROTH: Pretty good, huh?

LEVINE: Yeah! But I think it’s there in the movies. Recently I put in a tape of Woody Allen’s Crimes and Misdemeanors. Great discussion of morality. It can be in a humorous vein.

GROTH: But that’s an exceptional film, too, isn’t it?

LEVINE: All the good films are exceptional films. The amount of bad films, bad painting, bad art in any period has to have been lots compared to the few great ones. But the discussion, even the taking up of the issues simply cannot be done in paintings. Nobody’s going to do it.

GROTH: That’s a pretty apocalyptic statement.

LEVINE: But it’s because it’s not the medium of contemporary possibilities. When Veronese painted his enormous paintings, Christ in the House of Levi, it was an immediate statement of class structure, all sorts of things were going on in the painting. Nobody’s taking that on in art. Those who take on murals and things like that are making jokes. There’s a guy named Haas who paints the sides of buildings. That’s a joke, really. It’s cute, and it may demand lots of energy, but it’s not real. He’s not saying anything.

GROTH: Do you think technology has just passed painting by?

LEVINE: It just shifted over to another area. The things of our time are mass and the movies have masses of people working on them, the technology is contemporary, the storyline is still written, and maybe written by five people and gone over and changed. All the roles played brings in an enormous number of eventual points of view, being something that’s much more reflective of the kind of society it comes out of, than a guy sitting in his little room …

GROTH: What effect do you think that has on our culture?

LEVINE: Throwaway, made of paper. There was a joke and at the end of it was, “Hey, these cans are made for trading and moneymaking. You’re not supposed to open up the can and make something out of it. It’s just for business.” Look at the millions made or not made on a circle or a dot in painting. It didn’t make its expected amount at auction. That’s total investment speculation, it’s a crap game. And that’s the fun for the wealthy class.

GROTH: Do you see a human casualty in this trend?

LEVINE: No, because the movies are there. It’s not as if we absolutely have nothing else. We have this enormously complex medium that’s come in. There are serious, serious films that have been made, even in the silent periods. It’s a tremendous medium. It’s even changed the newspapers, TV has changed the newspaper. Everybody I know is talking about they don’t get the quality out of the New York Times the way they used to. It’s now, everybody who writes for them is a columnist practically, and they’re not involved with news as point of view and entertainment. What is really talked about now is the endless amounts of child abuse questions, and these bizarre things take over the papers much more than they used to, as opposed to hard news.

GROTH: That sort of change, it seems to me, would exact human casualties.

LEVINE: If the medium is lost, yes. And the fact that there’s less readership for great novels being written, that’s a loss. But it’s not a loss in that generally, something else is there. If you always just feel the loss, watch out. You begin to reach an age where you start sounding like they’re taking it away from you. My mother used to say that. In her senile period she would say, “Somebody took this, or that.” And I’d say, “Gee whiz, there’s nothing that’s been removed.” Somebody would say, “Well, at her age, she feels life is being taken away.” When you just see it all being taken away and you don’t see that there is something else there, chances are, it’s just senility. [Laughter from Groth.] There are certain things that are becoming more available in a sense. There’s less music … There are more wonderful instrumentalists playing less and less available music today, other than the rapping. I’m talking about classical. They talk about how upsetting it is when the house doesn’t come through and they don’t want to listen to some modern thing that’s a two-hour drone. It’s a problem.

Levine's Franz Kafka caricature

GROTH: Another painter, George Hooker – what do you think about him?

LEVINE: Again, somebody I know. There’s a period of his work which I think is very wonderful. The figures weren’t always realized in terms of what I wanted personally to see, but the overall quality of the paintings was interesting. I have not seen his paintings in a long time, not anything recently. A very shy man. Could hardly defend himself if you said, “I don’t agree with you.” He’d just sort of look up at you almost helpless. But he was involved with a group who were all doing things that were related. His were actually the most intense, I think. That was 20 or 30 years ago. Jack Levine is somebody I know and I think people haven’t even seen half of what he’s done. At one point he was the most popular thing around, and then all of a sudden some critics like Hilton Kramer really did a number on him and the museums got rid of him because it was political cartooning from their point of view, all of a sudden. They liked him when he was just an Expressionist. But when he got into a political statement, they wanted to get rid of him. That combined with the critic and the museum, he had a tough time. But the last show I saw was marvelous, and it included things that he doesn’t get the chance to show much, which were watercolors of landscapes, Rome, all sorts of things. He’s an extraordinary artist.

GROTH: Do you think that judgment by that critic and the curators was unjust?

LEVINE: If they would apply that same criticism, they would have to ban Goya in the same way. There were so many painters and paintings that they would have to say were not worthwhile if they did that. But they don’t. What’s back there in the past is OK – you can’t do it. That’s the way it always works. I really feel that we’d be much better off without critics. They are an insinuation into the field because of the ignorance of the middle class who need to be told what’s good. They’re applying most of their time to making a living – making a good living – struggle to maintain a living, whatever it is, and they don’t have time to go to the museums until they’re led there by a sure thing. And here it is! “This painting by Picasso says… and you look to the light over the head… and the horse rearing means this.”   They need written explanations, and critical reassurance: “Wonderful, wonderful, wonderful!” If they took any last look at Picasso’s last etchings, they’re just mere cartoons, not better drawn than anybody else, they’re just funny old men looking at young bodies. That’s it.

GROTH: What do you think of Hilton Kramer?

LEVINE: Just that. I think he and there are a number of them who can only say negatives. Once they project what they think is good, it’s just ridiculous. They’re heavy-handed, personalized, that is, they say personal things. I remember John Simon attacking Liza Minneli for the way she looked! How do you go onstage and be criticized for the way you look? And what are you going to change? Your nose? Your cheeks? Your eyes? It’s crazy! That kind of thing is an overindulged attack. Kramer once said that Shikler’s painting, his portrait of Lenin was the most laughable painting in the museum. Why did he have to go after the painting that has nothing to do with the collection? He was there to review the collection, what was going on in the collection. But he had to get that in … It’s amazing. Every now and then he’ll write something that’s useful in the sense that it attacks something. But basically it’s too personalized.

GROTH: Do you dislike Robert Hughes too? I think he is one of the better –

LEVINE: No, I think he’s one of the better critics. Still, I don’t need a critic to tell me. I’d rather go and see it myself. I don’t want to be told which movies are good. There are so many that would have been overlooked on that basis.

GROTH: It seems to me the best critics have some sort of insight into the work that might not occur to you.

LEVINE: I guess it’s possible, but I rarely see it.

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