Above: David Levine's Franz Kafka
I started drawing as a kid. I learned a valuable lesson one day in grade school. Often, I would draw sketches or strips starring some of the popular TV cartoon characters of the day--Top Cat or Fred Flintstone or Snoopy. Don Martin's crazy characters. I would toss out attempts that went awry (there were many), but eventually, by copying a picture of the character from a newspaper or magazine, I could produce a pretty fair likeness. I got many compliments. One day, a new student arrived. This left-handed, blond kid, named Robert Taylor as I recall, could just sit there and draw beautiful cartoon images of any character in what seemed like seconds! He didn't have to look at any picture to copy. He didn't toss out five attempts before one worked. I now knew what a natural artist could do. Years later, I heard a sad story about a senior tennis player at UCLA, I think, who was just finishing up his college career and about to go pro on the tennis circuit. His last college match would be against a freshman from Stanford. I think he got "double-bageled", losing 6-0 and 6-0 to this unknown kid named John McEnroe. He knew from that moment that, however long he played on the pro tour, he would never be the best. The kid just had gifts he had never dreamed of.
So, drawing became nothing more than a creative outlet for me. I gave up hopes of a career. But I admired artists and was inspired by them. I took out graphic design annuals from the local library and any art books that specialized in caricatures or political cartooning. The most famous at the time was the peerless caricaturist from the New York Times, Al Hirschfeld. He'll get his own entry. But not far behind, for me, was David Levine. His sketches of famous people were regularly published by the New York Review of Books and Esquire (he drew more than one thousand sketches for Esquire alone). I thought they absolutely skewered people in power with devastating wit. No president or senator or prominent public figure could escape Levine's poison pen. His caricatures of famous writers and artists often captured their essence in irreverent but insightful ways.
Below: Stephen Sondheim, Jackson Pollack, Samuel Beckett, and LBJ.
The sketch of President Johnson, above, captures the Levine aesthetic. LBJ had recently had his gall bladder removed, as I recall, and showed his scar to the members of the press upon leaving the hospital. Levine turned the scar into the map of Vietnam. Jackson Pollack's "drip paintings" look to be the work of someone with true disdain for the establishment!
Before I had all my Broadway window cards to decorate my classroom, I posted dozens of Levine sketches of literary figures along my room-length cork boards.
Below: James Joyce, Ernest Hemingway, Scott Fitzgerald, Toni Morrison, David Foster Wallace, Herman Melville
Levine was Brooklyn-born, and studied art at Pratt and Temple before venturing forth professionally. He worked in many forms. His watercolors often depicted scenes from his youth--the boardwalk at Coney Island or the garment workers where his father worked.
An excerpt from his Wikipedia bio evaluates his oeuvre: "The New York Times described Levine's illustrations as "macro-headed, somberly expressive, astringently probing and hardly ever flattering caricatures of intellectuals and athletes, politicians and potentates" that were "heavy in shadows cast by outsize noses on enormous, eccentrically shaped heads, and replete with exaggeratedly bad haircuts, 5 o’clock shadows, ill-conceived mustaches and other grooming foibles ... to make the famous seem peculiar-looking in order to take them down a peg". The paper commented: "His work was not only witty but serious, not only biting but deeply informed, and artful in a painterly sense as well as a literate one." Levine drew his most frequent subject, former president Richard M. Nixon 66 times, depicting him as, among other things, the Godfather, Captain Queeg, and a fetus."
He recognized the phoniness of New York "players" like real-estate mogul and self-promoter Donald Trump and self-righteous, paranoid con artists like President Nixon right from the word Go. He did his best to pick out some aspect of their toxic personalities to exaggerate for effect.
Below: Nixon plays ping-pong with Mao. Trump in diapers, befitting a petulant child.
A number of years ago I drove into the city to visit the gallery that specializes in Levine's work. I believe it was the Forum Gallery on Madison Avenue. Many of the large watercolors were on display, as were many framed lithographs of his caricatures. Of course, their cost was far beyond my paycheck, but they were wondrous to behold. Who should enter the room that night but Levine, himself! I got to talk to him for a few minutes and considered it an honor.
Below: Here are a couple of brief video retrospectives: