Roving thoughts and provocations

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On David Levine (1926–2009)

It is a charming little dog, meticulously drawn, that faces us, all its curlicue hairs traced, its cantilevered thin legs ending in little paws (1971). Only on a second look do we see that the tiny face staring out at us from this fluff ball is that of Richard Nixon. Then, in a double-take (click!), we realize that this is Checkers, the dog Nixon used in his maudlin television address to stay on Dwight Eisenhower’s presidential ticket in 1952. A less adventurous artist might have done the obvious—made Nixon cower behind the dog he was using as protection. Levine did the unexpected. He made Nixon the dog. And as usual, there was a deeper purpose. He was saying that Nixon would not only do anything to get what he wanted, he would become anything. Later, when abortion was the issue, Nixon would become a fetus (1971). How does one give a fetus identity? With the nose, of course, the Nixon nose that Levine celebrated so relentlessly.

Having to puzzle out, however briefly, why the dog is Nixon was a typical reaction to Levine’s cartoons. They teased. Why is General Westmoreland’s neck so long and curving (1976)? A moment makes one realize it is an ostrich neck, the better for hiding one’s head from reality. Why does Linda Tripp’s head sit atop the body of a large bird (1998)? Oh, of course—a stool pigeon. A Levine work often needed deciphering. Sometimes this was because the attributes were so clever. Al Gore was drawn “straight” during his presidential campaign, but what are all the little clothes suspended around him (2000)? A closer look shows the tabs used to put different dresses on paper dolls, Levine’s comment on how Gore was changing personae.

But Levine did not need attributes to get his meaning across. He might have drawn Milton with a little devil beside him to show that the poet made Satan the hero of Paradise Lost. Instead, Levine shows the man himself as diabolical (1978). He might have drawn John Wayne as the sunny cowboy others depicted. Instead, considering Wayne’s support of every kind of war, he drew him with the face of a fanatical killer (1997).

Levine often did the unexpected. After all, he had a huge range of subjects to cover when illustrating articles in The New York Review—classical figures (working from statues), Renaissance figures (relying on paintings), modern figures (from photos). What other American cartoonist was asked to draw, say, Jonathan Sumption (2000) or Fernando Pessoa (1972)? He even had to draw ideas—linguistics (1963), Mannerism (1965), finances (1964), the military industry (1964), art (1968), automation (1968).

In order to represent such a wide range of subjects, he needed a vast store of techniques. Obituaries reduced him to a few characteristics—heavy cross-hatching, big heads on small bodies, etc. Actually, he used large areas of pure black or pure white for many of his faces. Look, for instance, at Harold Lloyd hanging from a girder—his face is a white blank, except for the shade thrown by his straw hat (1984). John Quinn is all white, even his hair (1978). So, of all people, is Rubens, the master of chiaroscuro (1978).

And he was not trapped in the big head, small body format. He often did normal-size bodies—Elvis Presley(1981), John Pope-Hennessey (1991), Ford Madox Ford (1966), Twiggy (1968), Aldous Huxley (1977), Cesar Chavez(1975). He had to do Michael Jordan full length because he presented him as Leonardo’s universal man in the circle and the square—the image on the Italian one-euro coin (1999). What’s more, he often reversed “his” format and drew small heads on big bodies—Charles II (1979), Charles V(1977), Richard Ford (1987), Velázquez (1986), Paul Taylor (1987), Orson Welles (1972), John L. Sullivan (1988). He made each of Marilyn Monroe’s breasts bigger than her head (1973).

Levine had a larger field for originality because he realized that readers of The New York Review would get arcane references. When he had a tiny grotesque Nixon crouch on the fallen female body of Vietnam (1973), he knew the readers would see the reference to Fuseli’s incubus—only where Fuseli’s imp is instilling a nightmare in the woman, Nixon is delicately dropping a little bomb down her throat. When he drew the fictional character Zuleika Dobson (1966), his audience would know why he used Max Beerbohm’s style (with its mockery of Beardsley). When he drew the fictional Pamela, they would know why she covers her pudenda with a letter (1972). The picture of Nixon devouring himself (1974) would bring to mind Goya’s Saturn Devouring His Son.

Levine was a man of high intelligence, wide reading, and solid artistic training. He composed, shaded, and drew with the eye of a practiced painter. But more than that, he had great psychological insight into his subjects. What he revealed could be scathing. The sadness of Richard Burton’s career is in the picture of his drink-raddled face and bleary eyes as he poses, in his Hamlet costume, tiptoe on the skull of Yorick (1989)—the real death’s head is his own.

Despite such dark visions, Levine had a kind of surreal imagination that took the next step, the way Mark Twain used to. It was not enough for Twain to say that a train was so slow it had no need of the cowcatcher; he added that the cowcatcher was needed in the rear of the train to keep cows from ambling aboard. In the same way, Levine began with a picture of Lyndon Johnson crying little crocodiles for tears (1965). But later on, he had to top that—he shows a crocodile shedding little tear-images of Lyndon Johnson (1966).

Given the run of his working years, his great subject had to be Richard Nixon. Herblock, too, was a great artistic foe of Nixon, but his Nixon is often a stick figure and Levine’s is a rounded tragic portrait. Consider the two men’s treatment of the eighteen-and-a-half-minute gap in the White House tapes. Herblock shows a little Nixon doll dangling in the gap, holding on to the severed tapes on either side of him. Levine shows a seated and solemn Nixon, his hand over his heart in a pledge of truthfulness, but he had phlebitis at the time, and from his swollen left trouser leg some tape reels are spilling (1974). Levine brought us many aspects of the man—Nixon in sheep’s clothing (1970); Nixon asleep with a panda bear doll beside him on the pillow (1971); Nixon dangling from the last helicopter leaving Saigon (1971); Nixon crying dollars for tears in the ITT scandal (1975); Nixon as a rugby player, with the globe as the ball (1973); Nixon as Boss Tweed (1973), as Queeg (1974), as the Godfather (1972). The sixty Nixon drawings should be put in a book, to be called The Nixoniad.

The treasure house of Levine images—thousands of them—contains actors, athletes, musicians, scientists, philosophers, movie makers, pontiffs, all brought to life (sometimes brought back to life) by a magic pen and an incisive brain. What a loss that he is gone.

—A slide show of drawings by David Levine can be seen here.

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