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

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

GROTH: It is rare. Let me ask you your opinion of one cartoonist I tend to think you would like: Ralph Steadman.

LEVINE: I think Steadman is an enormously expressive artist. Not always do I like his drawing – sometimes the splaying and the splashing and all those things almost take over, just like I said sometimes caricature can go too far. Sometimes it’s such a joy to spatter, and you almost feel the blood spreading. Sometimes I think he overstates that in some aspect. But basically he’s a very serious artist, and he feels the wounds of the world. He really is a religious man in that sense. He’s angry as hell. I don’t know whether he was angry before the split with [Gerald] Scarfe. Scarfe incidentally, has become less than a tenth of what Steadman is.

GROTH: Think so?

LEVINE: I don’t doubt the talent, but I see what he’s doing now is just light stuff compared to Steadman. But you know the story of him and Scarfe? It’s pretty upsetting. I only heard it from Steadman, but I can imagine it being that way. I think that gave him a great push of anger into the world. It’s like I have this anti-Capitalist bias that helps me look at all business … You need things like that, it gives you a point of view, in a sense. But I think he’s a tremendous artist.

GROTH: You ‘re familiar with his Leonardo book, and his book on Freud and …

LEVINE: Yeah, I’m not as taken with those things as his real statements which I think are great, political, satirical statements. He visited me once, and I just remember that anger.

GROTH: How long ago was that?

LEVINE: Thirty years ago. I did a caricature of him.

GROTH: I visited him in England, and he could be acerbic, but he is also full of good humor and compassion –

LEVINE: I got from that that he was almost putting down everybody else and saying there was nobody else real and nobody as serious as he was. But basically, I’m happy to hear he’s happy. That’s really nice. Of course he’s a very deeply sincere guy.

GROTH: Yeah, that was my impression.

LEVINE: Art Spiegelman is an interesting guy to me because I’m not sure he wasn’t working out of his therapy in Maus, and like so many great artists, only one book exists of them, only one image that reappears. I can’t imagine anything else in the world coming up in his life that’s going to be as fraught with contradictions of feelings that made that book so good. Trying to describe his anger at his father, and yet this overwhelming feeling of, my God, what my father went through … That made for a great book. What else is going to happen to him in life to make that? I don’t think it can be.

In the meantime he’s a ruined a good magazine. [Laughter.]

GROTH: You don’t like anything about the Tina Brown New Yorker?

LEVINE: Visually? No. I like an occasional cover by Ed [Sorel] and an occasional something by Artie Roth, but basically I’m not seeing anything in visual terms that’s of anything.

GROTH: Editorially, do you think Tina Brown’s taking over the magazine has bettered or worsened it?

LEVINE: I think she’s made it different in that it’s more topical, more momentary, and that’s OK, considering the pressure she gets to come up with things. I’m astounded how much quality has come out. Usually there’s one piece at least that’s in-depth and has got a lot of quality considering how little time there is to develop it. Having been there at the high point of New York magazine, when it really was all about nothing but services, and yet it fooled people into thinking it was vital issues being talked about. And it had a look and a quality of verve and meaning at the time. It was special. But what she does I think is even more. And I think it’s a pretty tough job to do. Really tough. I have to compare a lot of things to those days because it was such a high point for everybody.

GROTH: “Those days” being…

LEVINE: The days of the New York magazine forming up when Felker bought the rights to the term “New York” magazine, which even in the period when he had developed it for the Herald Tribune was exciting, and what are you doing with it?

GROTH: That would have been the ’70s, wouldn’t it?

LEVINE: I guess. As I said, all dates are one shmear to me. But there was an active beehive of quality and involvement that was marvelous, and then suddenly, this thing was taken away from everybody in a sense, when they threw Felker out. I said I’d never work for them again, when Murdock took over. It still has a pall about it; even though Murdock doesn’t own it any more, I tend to feel like, “Not that place. I won’t work there.”

GROTH: You’ve done a caricature of yourself, haven’t you?

LEVINE: I have one I did a long time ago, but it stands up as being pretty much me. I think most people want to see the caricaturist be even-handed with himself.

GROTH: Do you think you were?

LEVINE: I have no vision of what I do in terms of quality. I don’t bother to say, “It’s good” or “I did just that.” Once they’re done, they’re done. I only know what I haven’t done yet, in that sense. The most interesting time is when I do a painting exhibition, and the things I’ve worked on here are all of a sudden on the wall. Now they are really separate from me and I can see them almost with a little more space.

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