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Posted at 6:00 AM ET, 12/30/2009

A glorious line of work: Remembering legendary caricaturist DAVID LEVINE

By Michael Cavna

As a young and hungry caricaturist, I found it impossible to pursue my creative enterprise seriously without studying at the altar of one artist in particular: the legendary David Levine.

For caricaturists, Mr. Levine's shadow was (and is) so massive, it might as well have been cast by one of his colossal pen-and-ink craniums that helped define his style. His fine lines -- often built up into beautifully cross-hatched fields -- rippled with erudition, with deeply considered craft, and were rendered with nibs every bit as sharp as the illustrator's political points.

From his near-half-century perch as artist for the New York Review of Books, David Levine sculpted a towering career, one true line at a time. On Tuesday, Mr. Levine left us a completed legacy: The longtime Brooklyn resident died at 83 in Manhattan, after enduring several illnesses and prostate cancer,

Mr. Levine's work graced so many publications, including The Washington Post and the New Yorker and New York magazine and Esquire, but it is upon the nearly 4,000 drawings he contributed to the New York Review that his core legacy rests. (Suffering from the eye disease macular degeneration, Levine stopped drawing for the Review in 2006.)

A heavy-lidded President Lyndon Johnson revealing his Vietnam-shaped scar; a beaming President Truman head in a giant mushroom cloud; a cocksure Henry Kissinger in bed astride a feminine globe. Some of Levine's piercing caricatures became undeniably iconic, though it is also a reduction to call them simply "caricatures." They were also, so often, undiluted political commentary.

Nothing, though, could reduce the force of his work. As the left-leaning Levine himself said of his caricatures in a 2008 interview with Book TV: "Usually they are small in scale, but hopefully big in impact."

You can learn volumes by gazing, staring, studying his mesmerizing lines. Some observers try, foolishly, to lump him in with Thomas Nast and Al Hirschfeld and Jules Feiffer and Honoré Daumier. Foolish because David Levine was utterly an original, despite his acknowledged humble nods to Ingres. (An original who once assessed: "I would say political satire saved the nation from going to hell.")

Levine said in 2008 that he planned to leave his original art in the stewardship of his children, so that future generations might see his work in person and perhaps -- like the classic cartoon lightbulb that symbolizes inspiration -- a new set of lights might pop over their heads.

That's the thing about the massive artistic shadow of David Levine. Even as he cross-hatched his path to gorgeous, inky fields of penned precision, he always -- with an eye to his followers -- let in the intelligent light.


I asked Levine's archivist David Leopold to reflect on his working relationship with the artist. Here is, in part, what Leopold had to say:

"To tell you the truth, when I first met him, I worried about him. He was so sweet and good-natured I was concerned when life and experience would buffet him. Then I realized that with pen in hand, David Levine could take on the world...and did. ...

"Early on in our relationship, we talked of a host of influences and David admitted: 'Everything I do is an imitation of Ingres. I think that work is caricature but you can feel the skin and the body. What I try to do in my drawings is to fill them up with experience.' ...

"There is good reason for the association with the [New York Review of Books]. From its third issue in 1963, David's work appeared in every issue for more than 45 years. Every issue for more than 45 years -- and still it represents only a bare majority of his work. There is simply no one else who can say that, and I doubt very much there ever will."

By Michael Cavna  | December 30, 2009; 6:00 AM ET
Categories:  General, The Riffs  | Tags:  David Levine, New York Review of Books  
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I remember meeting David Levine years ago during the Illustrator's Club/Smithsonian lecture series. He was as complex, charming and illustrative as his drawings.

Posted by: jsutliff | December 30, 2009 10:35 AM | Report abuse

The man could paint better with lines than most people can with color.

Posted by: rhompson | December 30, 2009 11:51 AM | Report abuse

When I looked over a retrospective of his work I realized my whole life was passing before my eyes. His drawings were beautifully expressive and I felt I got to know the subjects and the artist through them. He will be missed.

Posted by: elyrest | January 1, 2010 11:51 AM | Report abuse

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