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January 1, 2010

David Levine, 1926-2009


David Levine, the caricaturist and artist whose work graced thousands of magazines from the 1960s through the 2000s, becoming the visual identity of The New York Review Of Books in the process, died Tuesday at Manhattan's New York Presbyterian Hospital. The cause of death was prostate cancer.

Levin was born in Brooklyn in 1926 to Harry and Lena Levine. His mother was politically active on the left, triggering a lifetime's awareness of such issues in her son. Levine served in World War II in the US Army, and then won double degrees in art and education from Temple University. Like many New York City artists of the World War II generation, Levine supplemented his education at the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn. He studied under Hans Hoffman, telling Gary Groth in 1995 that he began to learn from Hoffman about six months following his graduation.

imageAlthough he sold a comic that was eventually published in Wings and served for a brief time in a studio run by Jerry Iger, Levine's primary passion as a young man was painting. It was his primary vocational pursuit in the 1950s and an extensive sideline career in the years he became better known for his illustrations. In 1958 Levine co-founded the Painting Group with Presidential portrait artist and eventual gallery owner Aaron Shikler. His subjects were frequently ordinary people from Brooklyn, including employees of his father's garment business and workers like them.

Levine began contributing caricatures and illustrations to the magazine market in the early 1960s. Levine's first client was the news compendium Atlas, but his first major client -- and probably the second most important of his long career in illustration -- was Esquire. While at Esquire, Levine worked out a monthly payment from the magazine for the work he was to do, an arrangement he preferred over less aggressive scheduling and billing practices.

The artist began contributing to The New York Review Of Books in its second year of publication, 1964. His portraiture, featuring his skill with large, expressive, and sometimes unflattering faces, became a signature of the magazine almost from its start. "In the very beginning it was really a chance to do caricatures in an open publication," he said to Gary Groth in their interview. "They really didn't know what they wanted. They knew what they didn't want, but they didn't think in terms of how big the drawings would be, so I could grow. I could grow in whatever I wanted to try. That was the feeling, that this was an open space. It was like giving an artist a page and saying, 'Draw on it.'" Levine described his process at the magazine as one where he was sent the articles they were to publish, an arrangement designed to give the artist a variety of entry points.

As politics became more of a front-burner concern as the '60s progressed, Levine became known for that aspect of the drawings he submitted to NYROB and other A-list clients. Among Levine's most famous caricatures were President Lyndon B. Johnson revealing a gallbladder scar that looked just like Vietnam, Henry Kissinger having sex with a female body sporting a head in the shape of the planet earth and multiple ruthless portraits of President Richard Nixon. According to his New York Times obituary, Levine would portray President Nixon over 60 times. He would go on to make over 3800 illustrations for NYROB.

In the mid-1990s Levine had triple bypass surgery but continued on with his client list intact into the new century. In 2006, the artist was diagnosed with macular degeneration; his last new piece for NYROB appeared in April 2007. A November 2008 profile in Vanity Fair, "Levine In Winter," asked openly if NYROB might not owe Levine a great deal more than the treatment he saw during his malady-related decline, especially given the strength of Levine's overall contribution to that publication. NYROB continued to use older Levine illustrations after they stopped commissioning new ones. Levine's 2007 painting of Justice Sandra Day O'Connor in the Portrait of a Lady effort was shown at London's National Portrait Gallery.

Levine's work was in most cases staid and straight-forward, portraits that showcased the faces of their various subjects, sometimes with features exaggerated, sometimes with appearances left slightly unkempt. A standard Levine caricature felt like an intimate portrait taken at the closed function of a fabulous private club. There was something after-hours about them. Many of his subjects looked roughed up in a humanizing way like snapshots from campaign headquarters on election night, or of soldiers on furlough, or college kids on semester break. When Levine went for something stronger and more specific, whether in positive fashion as was the case with a famously flattering portrait of boyhood hero Eleanor Roosevelt as a swan, or negative as with many of his Nixons, it was almost as if the resulting picture was that much more potent for the subject matter triggering a rise out of the normally calm and relatively even-handed artist. Audiences spent four decades leaning in David Levine's direction, hoping for those moments when he'd break that relative, visual silence and give you a bit more of what was truly on his mind.

imageThe artist's extensive client list included Time, Holiday, The New Yorker, The Washington Post and Rolling Stone. One of his most famous non-NYROB images was the 1967 Time man of the year portrait depicting President Johnson as King Lear.

Levin won several awards during his long career. Among his awards in the U.S. were the Louis Comfort Tiffany Foundation Award, the Isaac Maynard award, the George Polk Memorial Award, a Guggenheim fellowship, and the Gold Medal of the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters. He was also the winner of several awards abroad, including Germany's Thomas Nast Award. His work was shown extensively all over the world, and is housed in a number of permanent collections. According to the artist's web site, there were six books published of Levine's art, including Pens and Needles (1969), David Levine's Gallery (1974), The Arts of David Levine (1978) and the gallery show-related American Presidents (2008). There was also a portfolio of 12 plates published called Words and Music.

The newspaperman and author Pete Hamill said of Levine in a quote used by the artist's web site: "The paintings of David Levine are never bombastic. They are seldom only about the thing or the place to the people directly observed. They are also about the unseen world that they suggest, a world of time and nostalgia, of things and people lost. If David Levine was a writer he would be Chekhov."

Levine is survived by a wife, two children and two stepchildren; his first marriage ended in divorce. David Levine had just celebrated his 83rd birthday.

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