The Artful Populace Of David Levine

Talk show host Oprah Winfrey smiles as she talks to reporters before the Chicago premiere of the stage version of The Color Purple Thursday, May 3, 2007. Winfrey made her debut as a producer when she first brought the show to Broadway two years ago.
AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast
David Levine was born 100 years late.

In the 19th century, the acid in his pen and the compassion in his eye would have made him a public hero.

But even with the blur of a billion images in this post-millennial age, the perfect line still arrests our eye, and the exaggerated feature reveals more than any camera.

He is the artist as journalist, mirror of social conscience.

He is our Daumier, but in an age of greedy indifference, reports 60 Minutes' Morley Safer for CBS News Sunday Morning.

When Honore Daumier flourished in 19th century France, crowds lined up, awaiting the latest issues of magazines that carried his work, his skewering of the mighty and the pompous, politicians, lawyers and judges.

Like Daumier, the young Levine became an enemy of the establishment - not for what he drew, but for whom he knew.

"In the good old liberal days of Harry Truman, they took away my passport," says Levine. "I had worked all summer to get the money to go see the great paintings for the first time, and the night before, I was about to go to a pary, a send-off party. Two FBI agents came to the door and said, 'You might as well think you're not going anywhere because you're on a list they have, and your passport is not usable.' And that was it... I was a communist."

He is a Don Quixote (who, by the way, was Daumier's favorite character), tilting at the windmills of politics and literature and history. Each month, he contibutes to the pages of The New York Review of Books, America's leading intellectual journal, as many as a dozen drawings per issue.

But his lefty soul does not bar him from contributing to Time, Newsweek and The New Yorker. Still youthful, well into his 70s, Levine's pen has drawn most of a century.

He estimates that he has done as many as 5,000 drawings, adding with a laugh, "The hand never stops. When I'm asleep, I have to hold it."

And he finds his work as fulfilling as ever.

"I'm a very political person," he explains. "I grew up in a household where the arguments for breakfast, lunch, and supper. And I'm a red diaper baby."

That means he's a dyed-in-the-wool, dyed-in-the-diaper socialist.

He has painted a lifetime of the work-worn bodies and the plain faces of America's underclass, These paintings have a timeless quality; they could have been done 100 or 200 years ago, the underpinnings of a conspicuously consuming society.

As bone weary as his characters may be, there is a heroic quality to them. His caricatures deflate the powerful. His paintings elevate the ordinary: the Sunday hordes at Coney Island, New York's garment workers taking their pleasure with a certain sadness. He's been capturing this gritty panorama since he was a boy.

His father was in a small business of clothing manufacturing. "It's the work, the group of people at work. It's my species again doing what it does best: producing for eacother."

Yet, there is a dark quality, too. "The advance over conditions since the Triangle fire are not that great. There's many a runaway shop that has that kind of problem," Levine says, referring to sweatshop conditions.

And there are other things.

"The beach is where I played," he says. "I had an association on many different levels over a lifetime. It's mass. There are masses of people. We're a mass society in city life. And I can't see that elsewhere."

He likes the fact that people go to the seaside "with all their relations, old age with young, men and women, people individually, putting out their little territorial napkins to sit on and so on. And it's exotic. It's chaotic in color... And, then, what goes on in the water is a battle scene, a Renaissance battle scene."

But his beach is the beach of the working people, the Coney Island beach.

Says Levine, "I used to go out and work on the beach in Connecticut. But I gave it up because everybody had new equipment. Everybody was coifed... They were on display in a totally different way."

Coney Island and all of Brooklyn is, to Levine, what Florence was to the Renaissance masters. He loves the Brooklyn Bridge, and still finds inspiration in the Statue of Liberty. "I mean, the quote down below, the idea behind the Statue of Liberty," he explains. "The word 'liberty.' All of that has great meaning. It's just somebody has to always stand up for these things, again and again. That's the thing."

He also has an affinity for Aesop and his fables. They talk to each other, Levine and Aesop, bridging the divide of thousands of years. The Brooklyn artist has illustrated a collection of the legendary Greek's fables, and some of that work was exhibited in New York, at the Foundation for Hellenic Culture. Their common ground is a mutual sympathy for life's constant struggles -- between rich and poor, cunning and greed, ignorance and enlightenment.

"He was a true satirist," explains Levine. "He wanted you to learn from these stories."

Another reason that he enjoyed illustrating Aesop's fables: "Well, I love animals to draw. I started drawing them when the Brooklyn Museum had stuffed animals. And I've been drawing them at the zoos."

His childhood dream of drawing them for Disney almost came true when he sent away for the Disney drawing test. But there was a problem.

"I had to draw Goofy," he recalls, "using their circles and their constructions. And I did, and I sent it out to them. And they said, 'Fine. Come ahead.' I had to write to them and say, 'I'm only 9.'"

There is nothing chic about this radical. He has an abhorrence of the fads and fashions of contemporary art, the conceptualists, minimalists, all of the "ists" and the "isms." Even Picasso does not make the grade.

"Yes, it's extraordinary to see all the different variations that Picasso comes up with,"> says Levine. "Nevertheless, I wouldn't date any of the women that he drew for me."

But that's a Brooklyn boy speaking -- an uncommon artist who has spent a lifetime believing in and celebrating the common man, and aiming an arrow at the heart of those who would believe otherwise.

To see a gallery of David Levine's work, go to The New York Review of Books.

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