For many readers, the work of caricaturist David Levine has been a lifelong part of the experience of the world of books, politics and the arts, making his death on December 29 at the age of 83 an occasion of true sadness and loss. His four-decades-plus of drawings for The New York Review of Books put Levine’s unique visual stamp on an astonishingly copious array of literary, cultural, and political figures.
In an essay which will shortly appear in the The Barnes & Noble Review in full, our regular contributor Thomas De Pietro takes on the challenge of mapping Levine’s unique and lasting genius. Here is an excerpt from that essay:
As a caricaturist, Levine wears two hats: with the same fine-line style and cross-hatching technique, he draws two very different kinds of subject matter. His political drawings usually drive home a point, and the view more often than not reflects his own leftist politics. Levine claims to dislike all those who hold power and authority, and his work does skewer both Democrats and Republicans. Richard Nixon with his perennial five-o’clock shadow shows up in one as Don Corleone, Ronald Reagan in another as a cowboy with an unnatural hairline. Jimmy Carter, on the other hand, grins like a hopeless fool with an excessively toothy smile, and, perhaps most famously, Lyndon Johnson reveals an abdominal scar in the shape of Vietnam. All of these are included in Levine’s seventh and most recent collection, American Presidents (2008).
The caricatures in on display in this desk diary represent the other Levine: the artist as genial portraitist. These literary subjects, all done on assignment, derive their magnanimity from a rather mundane cause, as Levine himself explains to an interviewer in The Comics Journal. Discussing his often flattering portraits of writers, he admits, “I may not know what their work is all about. Sometimes the articles don’t reveal more than what that person writes or wants to write about, so it can become a question of a heightened portrait.” Much depends on the “scrap” material he’s sent by the editors-the forthcoming articles but also whatever photos might be available. Levine then races with time: “My deadline time does not offer a great deal of investigation …. On Thursday or Friday I begin to get articles, by Tuesday I have to listen to the Knicks, go out, play tennis, paint, and then get several drawings done.” The point, as Levine reveals elsewhere, is that he’s not much of a reader, preferring the social realism of Balzac to the latest author reviewed in the article at hand.
There’s another, more serious reason for Levine’s amiable drawings: “I’ve also always preserved the sense that this is my species and I’m not interested in cutting them up in a way that is abusive.” And the portraits here support this claim. If you skim through, you will see that many rely on the exaggeration of a single feature: James Baldwin’s almond-shaped eyes; Herman Melville’s bushy beard; or Langston Hughes’s prominent forehead. Tom Wolfe and Toni Morrison come together for a simple reason-they both have dramatic hair. When physical facts yield little, Levine can always count on a pair of over-sized glasses for effect: What else do Umberto Eco, Joyce Carol Oates, and Jonathan Safran Foer have in common? Some of the finest drawings employ a visual joke, rather than an exaggeration-not a complex idea that requires a scholarly gloss, but a reference that any culturally literate viewer will understand. Sylvia Plath is enclosed in a bell jar, which of course refers to the title of her famous novel; Mark Twain is drawn as two figures, reflecting his well-known use of a pseudonym; and Saul Bellow, he of doe-eyes and large proboscis, here also sticks his foot in his mouth in honor of the tale that give its name to his 1984 collection of stories. -Thomas De Pietro