David Levine: Escapes
745 Fifth Avenue at 57th Street,
February 12 to March 20, 2004
Dickensian in temperament, David Levine wields a wicked pen. Part moralist, part entertainer, he lampoons presidents, political contenders, literati, and cultural icons with equal verve.
On view are 40 caricatures from The New York Review of Books, The New Yorker and Time. The NYRB has been publishing Mr. Levine’s widely imitated line drawings since 1963. Levine is a born satirist with a genius for portraiture, suggesting personality traits through exaggeration of telling details, observed and invented.
Architect Walter Gropius hunches uncomfortably against the geometry of one of his own Bauhaus chairs. Howard Stern’s face emerges from a page crowded with hair, the luxuriance spreading over armfuls of money. Martha Stewart (c. 2000) is a blonde goose atop a mound of golden eggs. Likenesses are densely rendered with the bold, convincing pen strokes that have earned Mr. Levine the affectionate title “King of Cross Hatching.”
None of Levine’s hard-edged burlesques prepare you for the the sensuous satisfaction of his paintwork: the matte charm of his oil handling and the virtuoso refinement of his watercolors. Caustic humor gives way to unexpected gentleness in the paintings.
There is something romantic, even courtly, in Mr. Levine’s approach to the human figure. He depicts ordinary people with great tact. Alert to color and mass, Mr. Levine assembles motley Coney Islanders into a rhythmic arrangement of contrasting patterns and tonalities. In “Boardwalk Ascent and Descent” (1966), the movement of golden-toned crowds up and down stairs resonates with suggestions of Tiepolo’s angels in flight. Vuillard hovers over Levine’s paintings of garment district workers. Eakins breathes on the figure of an elderly man, leaning over his clothing press. Degas’ seamstresses and washerwomen insinuate their presence, as well.
Mr. Levine’s aptitude for specificity, so crucial to caricature, is the mirror image of his talent for abstraction. An eye for essences is central to both exaggeration and abridgement. An adroit editor, he controls the course of pooling pigment to suggest omitted detail. “An Embroiderer” (2003) illustrates the power of watercolor in the hands of a painter responsive to the idiosyncrasies of the medium. “Back,” a small watercolor of a seated nude, is a lovely evocation of the tones and weight of flesh using the most economical means. A brooding image of the Coney Island roller coaster against an unlit sky is an elegy for more than seaside amusement.
Irreverent toward power and topical celebrity, Mr. Levine paints with deep regard for art history and for his betters. There are fewer of them than you might think.