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Jack Levine

By Calvin Trillin

When Jack Levine was first acclaimed as an important American artist, at the ridiculous age of 22, he was a left-wing social realist. When he died last November, nearly three quarters of a century later, he was still a left-wing social realist. In the fifties he did have what he called “a brief honeymoon with Cubism.” The honeymoon seems to have consisted of precisely one painting; then he went back to being a social realist. As far as I know, he never took a honeymoon away from his political beliefs. He continued to believe, as he once put it, that “you have to protect the innocent and flay the guilty.” Late in life he said, “I want to remain the mean little man I always was.” In other words, he was gloriously unreconstructed.

Jack’s first burst of fame came from a painting called “The Feast of Pure Reason,” which was shown by the Museum of Modern Art in 1937. In the sort of strokes that can be traced from Goya to Daumier to George Grosz to Jack Levine, it depicted someone who can only be called a plutocrat, in what looks like his parlor or his club, having drinks with a ranking officer of the police force and someone who looks to me like a bagman. Banality and hypocrisy and self-satisfaction dripped from the canvas. Apparently there were MoMA trustees who argued against showing the painting on the ground that it might offend the museum’s wealthy benefactors. Jack would’ve put that in the category of flaying the guilty, and that was a pleasure he never gave up, with subjects like a bloated general home from the war, and high society strivers fawning over the Duke and Duchess of Windsor in Florida, and Richard Daley at the Democratic National Convention. When the art world turned toward Abstract Expressionism in the fifties, Jack didn’t budge. He later said, “I wasn’t about to throw away my ability to draw an ear just because that ability wasn’t in fashion.” On another occasion he said, “I come from people who didn’t acknowledge Jesus Christ, why am I supposed to acknowledge the Abstract Expressionists?”

He thought art should be judged on how well the artist succeeded in doing what he was trying to do, not on which style he painted in. He believed that the New York art world game was rigged, and he didn’t hesitate to say so. It must’ve angered him that even though just about every major museum in the country owned his paintings, those paintings were, as he sometimes noted, kept mostly in the basement. But at times he seemed to enjoy his role as an outsider: “A bone,” as he put it, “stuck in someone else’s throat.” Comparing the art world to a dog act in the circus, he once said, “I’m the little dog who goes the wrong way, under the hoop.” He was not one to sugarcoat his opinions. He once managed to sum up his army experience in one sentence: “I hated officers.”

In 1992, when he became the Chancellor of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, which was then a sort of upper tier within the National Institute of Arts and Letters, he said in his inaugural speech that the time had come to end such separation. He didn’t like an elite that he belonged to any better than he liked any other elite. Under his leadership, the distinction was erased. It isn’t difficult to imagine how people who named their friends before the House Un-American Activities Committee in order to protect their careers were viewed by a man who wouldn’t change a brushstroke to protect his career. In the West Village, where Jack and I were neighbors who regularly stopped to chat, the proprietor of a corner store we both patronized told me that while Jack was waiting for his lunchtime sandwich one day, a couple of young actresses or dancers standing at the register were going on about what a genius Jerome Robbins was. Jack finally got his sandwich, paid for it, got his change, and then on the way to the door, turned and said, “He sings better than he dances.”

The story of Jack Levine’s refusal to budge threatens to obscure the story of what an amazing artist he was, in the way that the story of Joe Mitchell’s years of silence threatens to obscure the story of what an astonishing writer he was before that silence began. David Levine, another Academician we mourn, once said of Jack, “He’s an extraordinary draughtsman. If I could think of a painter who had as many ways of using paint, I’d go back to Titian.” Although Jack, who grew up in a hard neighborhood in Boston, sometimes referred to himself as a high school dropout, he was in fact widely read. The title of “The Feast of Pure Reason” was from a book he happened to be reading at the time, James Joyce’s Ulysses. He could talk with great erudition on art history and art technique, and whether Ted Williams of his beloved and cursed Red Sox was as good at hitting a baseball as Velazquez was at painting.

He was a wonderfully witty man, but he didn’t need to say anything to express himself: it was right there on the canvas. The portraits he did of his wife and of his daughter are infused with love. There is respect emanating from the painting he did of Maimonides, in his series on the Sages of Israel. You don’t need Jack’s commentary to know that the man in a painting called “The Senator” is a pompous windbag.

Yes, Jack Levine should be remembered not as the artist he refused to be but as the artist he was. Still, when I’m walking in the Village and I recall the chats Jack and I used to have when we ran into each other, what I can hear just after the voice of this quintessentially urban man is oddly enough a lyric that the rural balladeer Tom T. Hall wrote in a song about country values: “Country is teachin’ your children, find out what’s right, and stand your ground.”

© 2021 American Academy of Arts and Letters