Jack Levine at 90
DC Moore Gallery
724 Fifth Ave.
January 6 – January 29, 2005
A version of this article was first published at The New York SUN, January, 2005
Jack Levine is a hanging judge, bless him. His merciless Court of Peculiars has been in session since the 1930s, pronouncing sentence with the zest of the Red Queen on politicians, night clubbers, the art crowd and other gangsters. At 90, he has been painting throughout my lifetime. I cannot imagine a world without his satirical eye or elegant hand. This mini-retrospective at DC Moore is a museum show in a gallery setting.
Born in 1915 to Lithuanian immigrants, he grew up in Boston ‘s tough South End. These were the years of the reign of James Curley himself, rascal king of City Hall and the statehouse. Mr. Levine cut his teeth on rousing news of shenanigans in high places. He-and his art-was marked forever by skepticism toward political culture but also by something more humane: sympathy for the human condition.
A disappointed romantic, his humor is tinged with melancholy, the offspring of high expectation. “For the Sake of Art”( 1969-71) is a scathing glimpse of avant garde consumers leaving Lincoln Center . Painted in funereal tones relieved by flashes of red, his decadents have an irridescent vampirish cast . Blood suckers, the bunch of them. “Panethnikon” (1978) takes a ferocious look at the fauna of the U.N. Security Council, witnessing to Mr. Levine’s admiration for George Grosz.
“Bandwagon (Four More Years)” (1973) registers Mr. Levine’s dismay at the election of Richard Nixon to a second term. It hangs in pride of place at DC Moore in honor-for lack of another phrase-of the 2004 re-election of George Bush. Whatever your politics, it is a marvelous and caustic painting. All the tawdriness, backroom skullduggery and theatrical patriotic display that characterize every presidential election is here. It could be placed on public view every fourth year from now until the end of the republic. In between, it would reflect nicely on mayoral, senatorial and gubernatorial elections as well.
His subject matter should not obscure the beauty and sophistication of his paint handling. Tender, lyrical surfaces are the work of a man who understands paint as intuitively as he grasps the comedy of human malfeasance. His love of technique (right down to using Maroger medium, a black oil with an almost cult following among painters) and mastery of craft is everywhere apparent.
Start with the gouache that greets you as you come off the elevator-Cezanne’s card players resurrected as beefy, cigar-smoking ward heelers. It is a small summa [ITALICS] of his art: that dancing line, control of form, the intricately variegated surface of flecked and woven color. He pushes even an opaque medium to transparency.
On view is a never-exhibited self-portrait of Levine in uniform in the 1940s. There are also several of the prints that built his reputation; plus two gems from his rarely seen series of Jewish sages, combining his love of Flemish, Mogul and Persian miniatures with biblical figures. Looking at these early works, you understand how much graphic control undergirds successful expressionist distortion. Twentieth century American painting is graced by Jack Levine.