At a parent-teacher conference, one of my high school bible instructors told my mother I was well behaved and sat quietly in the back of the room. “If he is sitting quietly in class,” my mother assured the rabbi, “he is either reading a book or drawing.” She was right. My primary high school achievements were my ravenous readings of philosophy and literature and the few hundred copies I made of David Levine’s brilliant pen-and-ink caricatures, which filled several sketchbooks. I was too young to get most of his political references, but when they were explained to me, I laughed genuinely and hysterically.
Even after I moved to New York, it never occurred to me to look Levine up in the phonebook. He was a role model and one of my greatest inspirations, and I assumed that he was inaccessible. I had no way of knowing how kind and humble he was. Then I met artist Mark Podwal, a close friend of Levine’s, at an event at the Yeshiva University Museum in 2004, and he encouraged me to make the call.
David Levine. Ben Gurion.
I still remember the phone call. I was sitting at a computer in the office of the Yeshiva University Commentator. When Levine picked up, I told him I learned how to draw portraits by trying in vain to copy his meticulous cross-hatching. Though I was sure the artist who published thousands of drawings and paintings in the New York Review of Books and in publications like The New Yorker and Time had better things to do with his time, he shocked me by agreeing to an interview right then. After the shock wore off, chutzpah kicked in; I told him I wanted to meet in person. To my surprise, he was giving me his address in Brooklyn and telling me to stop by the next week.
Levine gave me more than two hours of his time, and actually looked at and critiqued every single one of the 100 or so of my drawings in the sketch book I brought. He very kindly told me that he preferred my copy of his Ezra Pound (which I drew without lifting my Rapidograph pen) to the original. Needless to say, there was no comparison.
There have been many fine articles about Levine over the past few weeks (Michael Kimmelman’s in The New York Times and Steven Heller’s piece “The Da Vinci of Caricaturists” are personal favorites), and readers can find out plenty about him by reading his bio on the Review of Books page, where many of his drawings are available. Amongst those drawings are dozens of images of Jewish and Israeli politicians, actors, artists, intellectuals and other celebrities, many bearing very distinct Jewish symbols.
David Levine standing in front of some of his drawings. 2004.
Photo by Menachem Wecker.
The reason I am writing this column about Levine, though, is not only because I consider him such a great caricaturist (and an even more impressive painter), but also because he was such a great man. Both Levine’s wife Kathy Hayes and his son Matthew Levine told me that Levine, despite the biting humor of his drawings, “truly loved his species.” Levine’s art was always blunt, but he was neither petty nor vicious.
Hayes told me that her husband’s lap was always full of art books, even if the television was on, and that he impressed her with the humor of his non-sequiturs – in his conversation, not his drawings. The first time she went to Europe with her husband, Hayes said, they went to Notre Dame. Hayes remembers being blown away by the art, while Levine, looking up at a painting high up on the wall, loudly complained of its water damage and the poor lighting.
According to Matthew Levine, his father was not religiously observant, but “I do know that he loved being Jewish.” Levine also “relished Yiddishisms that he liked to say,” said Matthew, and he loved his mother’s geshmirte matzoh. “He was deeply supportive of Israel in some senses, and deeply critical in others.”
Although Levine told me that he did not think Hitler could be depicted properly in a caricature, because the medium would invariably distort Hitler and play into his favor, Levine drew Hitler dozens of time. One reference to Hitler might escape many viewers.
David Levine. Richard Nixon’s and Spiro Agnew’s dance. 1970.
According to Podwal, Levine’s drawing of Richard Nixon and Spiro Agnew (which appears on page 11 of Levine’s book Pens and Needles), both dressed in military uniforms and doing a dance with their hands on their hips, alludes to Hitler’s bizarre dance on June 21, 1940, after accepting France’s surrender.
Although the dance upset many Americans at the time, it was later revealed that the video clip of Hitler dancing had been manipulated for propagandist purposes. As John Lukacs explains in his book, The Last European War: September 1939-December 1941, John Grierson, a Canadian filmmaker and “propaganda official,” took several images of Hitler, including one with a high step, and “looped” them together to make it appear that Hitler had danced a “silly little jig.”
Adolf Hitler’s alleged dance. Germany. October 1940. LIFE.
Lukacs cites an account of the jig being shown in a Berlin movie theater in 1940, which suggests some version of the dance may have been real – “Were the Germans so stupid as to show the American version of the newsreel?” Lukacs wonders – but either way, Podwal says Levine was probably unaware that the jig was a hoax. Irrespective of the historicity of the dance, Levine incorporated it into the drawing, although he knew full well that few people were likely to recognize it. It often seems to me that Levine achieved something in his caricatures not unlike what James Joyce accomplished in his writings.
“David was in such a class by himself that over the last decade or so, he was to some degree, taken for granted. The New York Times failed to review his more recent Forum Gallery exhibitions. Museums would not give him exhibitions he more than merited,” says Podwal. “Nevertheless, his work will remain a mirror of our time – just like the drawings of Thomas Nast.”
Menachem Wecker welcomes comments at email@example.com. He is a painter and writer, residing in Washington, DC.