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. 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 (1971). 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. David Levine (who died on December 29) 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…

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