Monday, December 21, 2009

David Levine

(Note: I first write and posted this at the beginning of this year, but removed the post, since I felt it violated the artist's privacy. David Levine died on Tuesday. He was 83.)

I met him at the Museum of the City of New York. We sat next to each other in the small theater, where we had come to listen to Oliver in conversation with Jonathan Miller, a fundraising event for Glimmerglass Opera, where Jonathan has directed productions of La Traviata and Janácek's Jenufa. The man's daughter-in-law, Nancy, whom I'd spoken with at the cocktail reception, introduced us.

"And this is my father-in-law, David Levine."

"Not David Levine the caricaturist?" I said.

Indeed, the man whose pen and ink likenesses of famous authors and political figures have graced the pages of the New York Review of Books for the past thirty-five years. But the word "likeness" hardly does justice to Mr. Levine's work, since his caricatures (another word which, applied to his work, seems too limiting) do more than capture their subjects' looks; they snare them in a spider's web of crosshatchings, pin them to paper with crow quills, lash them to the white page like Ahab battened to his pale whale.

I was still in high school when I first came upon Levine's drawings. Aware of my own bent for caricature, a friend of my parents' gave me a book of his literary caricatures titled "Pens and Needles." For the next week I carried the book around with me, and copied Levine's portraits of Beckett, Joyce, Hemingway, and Poe. I tried all different kinds of pens, paper and ink; still, for the life of me, I couldn't duplicate his line, those cunning crosshatchings. They looked easy enough; scratch, scratch, scratch . . . ah, but they weren't so simple! Levine used his pen like a sculpture uses his chisel, an ink-stained Michaelangelo carving away at the stone to release not just the face or even the expression, but the personality entombed inside it.

Now here was the man, eighty-two years old. He looked, I thought, like one of his subjects; the hook nose, the chin melting seamlessly into what might have been a neck, the small worried mouth tucked into the shadow of the nose, the eyes small, wet and sad. I explained that I'd been a longtime fan of his work; that I had seen not just his caricatures, but his watercolors of Coney Island. "Such beautiful watercolors," I said. This, I could see, made him glad. Afterwards, when the event was over, I asked if I could send him something, an essay I'd written about my days as a caricaturist. He gave me his address. As he wrote it on the back of a card, his hand trembled; the writing was barely legible. I had to confirm it, later, through his stepdaughter.

* * *

A week later I got a call from Oliver. "David Levine has invited us to lunch at his place on New Years' Eve. Would you like to go?"

David lives in Brooklyn Heights. He's been living there for thirty-five years.A freezing day;the forecast called for snow. When we arrived in Oliver's hybrid the snow had already started. It took a half hour to find a parking space. We plunged into the icy headwind that greeted us on Montague Street. It was only a four block walk, but with the wind it felt like fifteen.

David lives in a grand, sprawling pre-war buildings, with his apartment every bit as grand and sprawling. We walked from room to room, with every parcel of wall space taken up by David's paintings—mostly small watercolors and oils in antique frames. "I'm a small-scale painter," he said while giving us the tour. His second wife, Kathy, took us aside one by one to give her own little tour. She showed me the paintings in their bedroom, portraits, mostly, and a painting of David's father in the tailor shop where he worked—a study in dusty browns and umbers raw and burnt. David's paintings, I noted, have an antique, anachronistic quality that makes them more than a match for the old frames he hangs them in. Someone unfamiliar with him and his work would have been hard pressed to guess that the works had been done in the late twentieth century, let alone the twenty-first.

David's apartment holds three studios, one for painting, one for watercolors, and one for the pen-and-ink caricatures for which he is famous. The painting studio is largest, with windows to the north and west. A large in-progress canvas—the biggest I would see that day—sat on an easel, a seascape with heroically posed figures jumbled together among breaking waves: a sort of Raft of the Medusa without the raft. Jittery black lines filigreed the paintings otherwise pale, ghostly surface. The lines—in charcoal—seemed to have been added lately, as an afterthought, by someone whose touch was far less sure than that of the man who had done the underlying brushwork. There was something desperate, something last-gasp like, about those black lines.

Leaning against one wall were dozens of old canvases—old enough so that the linen had been stretched using nails, not staples. These were traditional portraits in the style of the Robert Henri or the Barbizon school, with muddy backgrounds. I didn't think much of them; but as David himself explained they were apprentice works. Against another wall we found stacked portfolios filled with watercolors on paper, and these were much more exciting, more beach and Coney Island scenes, symmetrical compositions holding more amalgamated bathers in bright swimsuits, with striped umbrellas and chairs poking through here and there, paintings both somber and cheerful, filled with raucous life but also strangely static, the static quality reinforced by a low-key palette that imparted to a wide range of hues the dull yellow sheen of old varnish. All of David's paintings and watercolors have this aged look; as if the classicism of their subject matter and style weren't enough to render them anachronistic. I couldn't help thinking, "This man wants nothing to do with his time."

And yet David wants very much to be remembered as an artist of his time. As we passed into his caricature studio, where we perused one of several thick document boxes holding hundreds of numbered ink drawings, he posed the question. Without thinking I invoked Daumier, who like Levine was both a great caricaturist and a great painter, with one art form informing the other. This did not seem to please David, whose already drooping face dropped even further. "What's wrong with Daumier?" I said.

"You shouldn't wish me so well," said Levine.

At last we finished our tour. We spent an hour—I could have spent much longer, but unlike me Oliver's interest in two-dimensional art is limited; whereas I could have gone on forever asking David about pen nibs and kid-finish bristol vellum . . . By now the snow had laid a sheer white blanket over the rooftops of Brooklyn Heights, and Oliver was worried about getting home. We put on our coats and made our way against the icy wind to Montague Street, where, at a place called Teresa's, everyone ordered bowls of chicken soup.

While waiting for the soups I asked David to sign a small facsimile of one of his sketchbooks that he'd given me, which he did using one of Oliver's magic markers—a purple one. David's hand trembled as he signed, his face inches away from the notebook.

David has macular degeneration and is going blind. The man who drew a thousand caricatures for The New York Review of Books won't draw much longer.