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

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

GROTH: Let me wend my way back to you. After the Tyler School of Art, you studied with Hans Hoffman. Can you tell me how you met him and how you decided to study with him?

LEVINE: I just signed up for the course with the GI bill. He would come around once a week to review the drawings, and once a month to review paintings. He was a very enthusiastic and energetic man, and a memorable character in that sense, but what he said did not make sense to me. Or it was a way of turning something around and calling something mysterious that was not mysterious. The effect of two colors placed next to each other creating a third quality, he would say this is the mystery in art. I said, “No, that’s simply an effect. Why call it mystery?” I could never allow myself to go all the way into that, because each step meant giving up what I felt was a strength, which was draftsmanship. Therefore, both Shikler and I looked at each other and said, “We’re still more interested in even a lousy representational portrait.” We used to go by a gallery and they had these Tyrolian old men, and they’d have all the hairs showing, and they’d have a magnifying glass in front of it to show you the skill, and we said, “That’s terrible, but what the hell. It’s still more engaging for technical reasons than somebody who just makes a splat on a canvas.” When Hoffman would tell me that the real drama in a painting was the space between two encroaching forms, I’d say, “Who cares whether they encroach on each other?” Whereas when Rubens did Mars about to step on a beautiful, luscious baby’s leg, or on its head, that was an encroaching form.

GROTH: You really resisted abstractions. It sounds like you demanded that content be allied to form …

LEVINE: Well, to me it’s the whole thing. Either it’s all there, or you’ve lessened it. And if you want to say this is a terribly limited form of art-making, OK. But they never would say that. They’d say just the opposite. Because it’s such-and-such, it’s more. Imagine. We used to have a group called the Intimates. All of a sudden I read an article somewhere about a 10-foot-by-12-foot canvas of big forms and so on, and it’s now called the “New Intimates.” Why?  Because it’s so big, it envelops you in an intimate way. I mean, I always think my way in, and then take my way out again and think, “That’s not really there.”

GROTH: Did you oppose the whole Abstract Expressionist aesthetic that was coming up at the time?

LEVINE: Yeah. Let’s put it this way: It opposed me. It said anything and everything that I could ever achieve or do was meaningless, was pandering to a simplistic market. And not only that, they cut off all history. They’ve had an interesting history themselves. At one point they had a publication called It Is. That was to say, “Forget all that museum stuff. It is! What’s happening now, is now, and that’s what counts.” And then, as they start to get selective out of the group to have shows in museums and get hoisted up to collectors and so on, they began to want to have history. The first thing the Museum of Modern Art did was give them history. They’d have a show of Rothko, and they’d show you some Turner studies breaking up the color areas of what he would eventually articulate into forms. So there would be bands of color, and they would say, “See? It’s the same thing.” Turner became a grandparent, authenticating this abstract art. The difference is, he said no, this was only an underlying thing, like a tone canvas. That’s not what he intended to leave it at. Whereas Rothko was leaving it at that. And the whole thing began to be… they needed history then. So it’s a living lie.

GROTH: I understand that your first professional engagement was with Esquire when Clay Felker gave you an assignment.

LEVINE: It wasn’t actually my first, but it was close to it. The first was I used to do little cartoons, little caricatures for Atlas magazine. Atlas was one which had an editorial made up of snippets of world press and I would illustrate each from their point of view. If it was Franco saying something, the line developed something that I would use to illustrate his point of view. So I was illustrating Mao and whoever the leaders were who were being quoted, and that was a couple of months before Esquire. Esquire came out of a humorous brochure – because I was a cartoonist to the gallery where we showed, I did a funny brochure about some of the adventures going up the Hudson River, trying to act as if we were the new Hudson River School. Clay Felker came in with a P.R. guy, Sonnenberg, who was interested in the look of the gallery and the framing. He brought in Clay Felker who was just beginning at Esquire as features editor, and he asked me to try some things. The first thing I did for them was [an advertising guy, 25 tomatoes], it was a well-known line in advertising. After that they asked me to come on and do front of the magazine, the columns, the restaurants, travel notes … since I didn’t illustrate the columns, I never got to read the columns, I just made a variation on a theme critically. When I couldn’t come up with a funny idea, I did a person who was famous in the field. And the art director then was Sam Antiput and he was asked to design the New York Review’s front page, which he did with the big block lettering. He put them on to coming over and saying, would I try some drawings for them and that was it. Then I was really the caricaturist. Until then it was only when I couldn’t think of something else.

GROTH: Did you work for Esquire when Arnold Gingrich edited it?

LEVINE: Yes.

GROTH: Did you deal with him at all?

LEVINE: Yeah, a little bit. Harold Hayes was really the editor, Gingrich was already in semi-retirement. A very nice man. He introduced me to the fact that besides collecting Stradivarius violins, you could actually collect violin bows. I had no idea that they were of any quality, and yet they were. He had a great collection of them. They’re going up in value all the time. All of that stuff does. You see, the influence of the New York magazine is the scale. It had a terrible effect on things like Esquire and so on. All those magazines were much nicer in their full scale from the point of view of the look of the art. Now every magazine is the [smaller] size of the New York magazine. Almost all of them.

GROTH: By scale you mean…

LEVINE: The actual size of the damn thing. There were times when I could do something on a travel trip for Holiday magazine and almost have full scale of reproduction. It was a nice feeling to be able to get that.

"A Cranky Sketchbook of Christmas" was for Esquire (1959)

GROTH: Do you know when your stint with the New York Book Review started?

LEVINE: Thirty years ago.

GROTH: 1964. Can you tell me roughly what you were doing between the time you finished studying with Hans Hoffman and the beginning of your professional –

LEVINE: I was painting. I tried to ghost some cartooning, nobody was interested. I tried penciling. When I went for penciling, they said they had pencillers, they needed inkers. When I tried inking, they said it wasn’t slick enough, and why was I using a pen? Everybody was doing it with a brush, as I knew. But I really never got a feel for the brush.

GROTH: Was this for comic books?

LEVINE: Yeah. Shortly after that, or around the same time, Pogo came out and I don’t know how much was done by brush and how much by pen, but there was a greater look of penwork, and I would point to that and they said it had nothing to do with them. I found I wasn’t getting any work and I was able to sell paintings. I used to have a show of maybe 50 very small paintings, and sell them out, boom! They were $40, $75, and that was OK in the period when I had a six-room apartment for 60 bucks two blocks from here; everything was relative to that, so it wasn’t a big deal and I could live.

GROTH: You could actually make a living on your painting.

LEVINE: Yeah. I used to say that painting was my way to make a living, and to support my hobby, which was cartooning. It was a really weird twist.

GROTH: That’s interesting. Do you know what companies you applied to in comic books? Did you just find the addresses in comic books and walk in the door?

LEVINE: Yeah. And all my samples, basically, were along the lines of an imitation of Eisner. Everybody had hands flying — it was a certain kind of look I went after.

GROTH: Did you think of going to Eisner’s studio?

LEVINE: No.  I didn’t even know that he had a studio. I did hit a studio that a former partner of his had, Iger, who was the heavy in all of his work. That I loved! I thought that was very funny.

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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. […]