Beyond the art David Levine was best known for, that is his caricatures for the New York Review of Books, beyond the line, the lights and darks, the famous cross-hatch, beyond all that was first and foremost David’s attitude, his strong, thoughtful, and incisive views, and his very left politics, or what remained of it, burned out and bemused, not unlike many of us who came out of the Cold War fifties just as he did.
In his caricatures he translated thought into art: what do I think of this book, this author, this politician, and once I know, how do I convince my readers that there is no second opinion? David’s drawings were totally defining: his L.B.J. weeping crocodile tears over Vietnam, followed a few months later by a drawing of a crocodile weeping Johnson tears. And there it was, what we later came to call the credibility gap, distilled pictorially, memorably, shockingly, and hilariously. David left no room for doubt. His literary caricatures, no less defining than his Nixons or his Reagans or his Clintons, let us into the inner recesses of writers who often would have preferred less accuracy and less exposure. Saul Bellow, half-naked up on a cross for the book review of Herzog. Kafka, a strikingly black portrait etched in soul-searing lines, haunting and familiar at the same time. David was not only the best political caricaturist of the last half of the twentieth century, he was really the only one worth paying attention to. He was also a wise and witty literary caricaturist—the wisest and the best we’ve ever had. From Tolstoy to Camus to Nabokov to Beckett, Roth, Updike, Mailer, Lillian Hellman glaring scarily, larger than the page she was on, all-knowing and glamorous, truly what became a legend most, Levine’s caricature of her.
Essays in line, provoking one kind of reaction when one saw them in print, provoking another when one saw them on the walls of the Forum Gallery. One had to gasp at the precision, their power and their beauty. All of us who were young in the fifties remember the Cold War paranoia, the fear in the air, the politics of repression, the disembowelment of the left, first the communists, then the liberals. That was the social and political neighborhood in which David grew, to which he responded and matured. David grew up in Brooklyn and spent just about all of his life there, coming to know in his early years what seemed to be an unending number of other Brooklyn artists, all brilliantly talented, all realists; and all of them knew right from the beginning that David was a special case among them. He had a different eye. And while he intended to paint, and that was to be his essential life’s work, he also, shockingly, wanted to be a cartoonist. His cartoonist assessment of his subjects, how they posed, how they expressed themselves, found its way into his paintings, and his painterly self was imprinted all over his caricatures. His revival of the crosshatch, that outdated nineteenth century style, became in David’s hands a sculptural tool that molded heads and bodies into 3-D extravaganzas on the pages of the New York Review. Over and over again, Levine presented us with seismic moments in newsprint: Aha! moments, “Oh my God, how did he ever come up with that?” moments.
Beyond his thoughtfulness lurked the attitude I mentioned earlier: it was that of a radical deconstructionist, bringing to his caricatures an outrageousness unknown in the field when he began in the late 50s, drawing with a sense of carefree danger, the artist as a happy bomb-thrower.
He was a serious artist who refused to see himself as the person I have just described. He didn’t have an ounce of self-importance or pomposity, unless you caught him in a communist moment.
It wasn’t simply caricature he provided for the New York Review. Dave altogether gave it its sex, its energy, its style. He lifted it from a literary journal to an art forum. No one looks at it the way one does the TLS or the London Review of Books. Great and good though they are, they don’t have what Levine brought to his paper, they don’t have pizzazz. David was all pizzazz, showmanship in caricature, and showmanship in his Coney Island paintings: mobs of bathers behaving in massive and fleshy rhythms out of a Busby Berkeley musical. The energy, the gesture, the color, the curling, twisting, diving roller coasters close by, full of high spirits meeting diminished expectations. Not unlike David’s life work, his own roller coaster going off in all directions, wry and sly, a roller coaster, with a twinkle.