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

Posted by on January 15th, 2010 at 12:01 AM

Previously: Part One, Part Two.

GROTH: How did you know [Harvey] Kurtzman?

LEVINE: We were both at SVA at one point; I was teaching a drawing course, he was teaching a comic course with Slackman.

GROTH: When were you teaching at SVA?

LEVINE: [Laughter.] Don’t ask the dates.

GROTH: Was it the ’60s?

LEVINE: Yeah.

GROTH: So Hogarth was there at the time.

LEVINE: I think so.

GROTH: But you didn’t have much contact with him, obviously.

LEVINE: Not then.

GROTH: Who hired you to teach?

LEVINE: [Silas] Rhodes. I don’t know why.

GROTH: It’s interesting, I interviewed Hogarth, and he went over in some detail the creation of the School of Visual Arts. He started his own class and then hooked up with Rhodes who – my understanding of this is based on Hogarth’s side of it and there could very well be another side – but Rhodes was the entrepreneurial impetus to expand it and continue the school, and they became partners. Hogarth left very bitterly in 1970.

LEVINE: Really? I didn’t know that.

GROTH: Yes. He was quite voluble about the circumstances.

LEVINE: He tends to be an all-or-nothing kind of coloration.

Here’s an interesting thing. Remember I mentioned the woman who raised the question about my drawing Indians? Here’s Burne Hogarth, he’s devoted to a life of the good guy white man fighting these terrible tribal looking guys, fierce natives and so on, and he’s a Communist. Hogarth, if he wasn’t an active member, he was surely very closely aligned. That would be a really interesting thing to hear you develop.

GROTH: I’ll call him and get back to you on this.

LEVINE: It would be very interesting. I’m not looking to put fault, but it would be interesting to see how much you could see in a period when you’ve got a job and it calls for doing this, and how much do you really think about it?

GROTH: People tend to put political blinders on when their own livelihood is at stake.

LEVINE: I’ve had to think twice when I got into the caricatures. The caricatures was not a normal development for me. That came with a peculiar twist as to what I was doing. But the question of drawing women and the question of drawing blacks came up at one point and I thought, “Well, all right. If a black person has stepped into the arena, I can draw them.” But how I draw them was always a question. It was very difficult. And the same for women. If you draw a woman and if she’s very elderly, you know what you’re drawing is a monstrous version of that person, who may have been very beautiful when young. After all, how our society deals with women and their looks, is so weighted a question, that this is tough to figure out how to draw. Hannah Arendt, they never let me do her in the New York Review. She asked not to be drawn. Lillian Heliman, in kind of a drunken state, said, “Don’t ever draw me.”

GROTH: Did you acquiesce to the request?

LEVINE: If there is some review dealing with her, they don’t even let me get in on it, in a sense. [Since this interview, Levine has drawn both women for New York Review.]

Levine's caricature of Lillian Hellman

GROTH: Do you know why she didn’t want you to draw her?

LEVINE: Yeah. Because the pictures of her when she became well-known and was reviewable…

GROTH: She was not a terribly attractive woman.

LEVINE: No, she had that big, long horse face. You can imagine what… Although I’m not one of those compulsive caricaturists who stretches things beyond. I say keep it in a certain bound, which is maybe even worse because it’s more recognizable.

GROTH: But the decision you seem to have come to is you are an equal opportunity caricaturist.

LEVINE: Yeah.

GROTH: But would you agree that some of your caricatures are really not unflattering?

LEVINE: I’ve also always preserved the sense that this is my species and I’m not interested in cutting them up in a way that is abusive. There is a point at which I think setting the context in which people function can be very upsetting. If you maim people for the violence on television, with all the new technology, that gets to be a point where you are undercutting the humanity of even the worst people you are talking about, and cartoonists have to share that. There is a tendency and a love of just going as far as you can, and that’s part of a feeling in caricaturists, the really natural ones, but I caution them on two levels: One, your art director or editor is going to say, “Hey, that doesn’t look like them,” so you might as well not go that far. And secondly, there is this thing of, you owe a responsible position to your species.

GROTH: I think it would be doing you a great injustice to assume that every caricature you do is a vicious hatchet job.

LEVINE: Yeah, but that goes with the word “caricature.” There’s an assumption that you’re mean and you love doing it. A lot of people do not understand anything about an industry that commissions you to do something like that. Most people don’t know how they get their newspaper. They have no idea.

GROTH: Many of the caricatures I see in the New York Review of authors that I assume you feel are benign, are relatively flattering.

LEVINE: I may not know what their work is all about. Sometimes the articles don’t reveal more than what that person writes or wants to write about, so it can become a question of a heightened portrait. It depends. My deadline time does not offer a great deal of investigation time. On Thursday or Friday I begin to get some articles, by Tuesday I have to listen to the Knicks, go out and play tennis, paint, and then get several drawings done. So it’s a race.

GROTH: Can that kind of urgency work to your advantage in any way?

LEVINE: On occasion I have to complain about the scrap material, but not often. Sometimes it’s the size of your thumbnail, deep in a photograph and they’ll say it’s all that was available. Then you have to start thinking of ways of doing something that’s going to be usable. It can force me to do something more creative perhaps, I don’t know, or maybe a less able drawing.

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One Response to “The Watchful Eye of David Levine: Interview by Gary Groth (Part Three of Six)”

  1. […] § Tom Spurgeon has a long interview with IDW president Ted Adams who isn’t interviewed very often, but who knows an awful lot about the comics business, having worked for a ton of them before setting up his own. We’ll resist the urge to pullquote, but it does touch on IDW’s strength in licensing and e-comics, and their weaknesses in publicity, as well as the role of owner IDT. § The Comics Journal is reprinting a long interview of the late David Levine by Gary Groth. […]