Oil on canvas
63 1/8 x 72 1/2 inches
Museum of Modern Art, New York
Excerpt from The New York Times:
Jack Levine, a Painter Who Twinned Realism and Satire, Dies at 95
By WILLIAM GRIMES
Published: November 9, 2010
Jack Levine, an unrepentant and much-admired realist artist whose crowded history paintings skewered plutocrats, crooked politicians and human folly, died on Monday at his home in Manhattan. He was 95.
His death was announced by the DC Moore Gallery in Manhattan, which represents Mr. Levine.
Mr. Levine despised abstract art and bucked the art world’s movement toward it, drawing inspiration instead from old masters like Titian and Velázquez. He specialized in satiric tableaus and sharp social commentary directed at big business, political corruption, militarism and racism, with something left over for the comic spectacle of the human race on parade.
“I felt from my early days that good and bad weren’t simply aesthetic questions,” he told American Artist magazine in 1985. “You have to defend the innocent and flay the guilty.”
Mr. Levine burst onto the American art scene in 1937 with a scathing triple portrait remarkable for its bravura brushwork and gleeful vitriol. Titled The Feast of Pure Reason, it depicted a police officer, a capitalist and a politician seated at a table, their bloated faces oozing malice. Hanging conspicuously in the background was an American flag.
“It is my privilege as an artist to put these gentlemen on trial, to give them every ingratiating characteristic they might normally have, and then present them, smiles, benevolence and all, leaving it up to the spectator to judge the merits of the case,” Mr. Levine once said by way of explanation.
The painting was a hot potato. After it was acquired by the Museum of Modern Art, the trustees debated fiercely about whether to exhibit it, lest it offend principal donors.
Similar arguments surrounded Mr. Levine’s later work, notably Welcome Home (1946). It shows an armchair general being honored at an expensive restaurant, a wad of food in one cheek. On his right sits a bored socialite. Two decrepit businessmen in tuxedos make up the rest of the party. The central figure, Mr. Levine said, was “the big slob who is vice president of the Second National Bank and the president of the Chamber of Commerce, only now he’s been in the Army.”
When Welcome Home was included in an exhibition of American culture in Moscow in 1959, the chairman of the House Committee on Un-American Activities mounted a campaign to have it removed. President Dwight D. Eisenhower said, “It looks more like a lampoon than art, as far as I am concerned,” but refused to intervene.
The uproar made Mr. Levine a star. He later told an interviewer, “You get denounced by the president of the United States, you’ve hit the top.”
Jack Levine was born on Jan. 3, 1915, and spent his early childhood in the South End of Boston, the youngest of eight children of immigrant parents from Lithuania. His father was a shoemaker. When he was 8, the family moved to the Roxbury neighborhood, and he began taking children’s art classes at the Boston Museum of Art with his friend Hyman Bloom, who also became a well-known painter. The two friends later studied with Harold Zimmerman, a young painter from the museum’s art school, at a settlement house in Roxbury.
By a stroke of good fortune, Denman Ross, a patrician professor in Harvard’s art department, took Mr. Zimmerman and his two students under his wing. He took Mr. Levine to his home to look at the art treasures on the walls, organized a showing of his drawings at the Fogg Museum while he was still in high school and provided him with a stipend and a studio.
With the Depression raging, Mr. Levine signed on with the Works Progress Administration as an artist and, in 1936, two of his paintings — Card Game (1933) and Brain Trust (1935) — were included in “New Horizons in American Art,” an exhibition of W.P.A. art at the Museum of Modern Art. After completing The Feast of Pure Reason, he received his first one-man show at the Downtown Gallery in New York in 1939.
Inspired by old masters like Titian, Velázquez and Goya, and German expressionists like George Grosz and Oskar Kokoschka, Mr. Levine took a lofty view of art and the artist’s mission. “I took my place in the late 1930s as part of the general uprising of social consciousness in art and literature,” he said later. “We were all making a point. We had a feeling of confidence in our ability to do something about the world.”
After the death of his father in 1939, Mr. Levine, a nonobservant Jew, experimented with several formal, Rembrandtesque portraits of Jewish sages and kings. “I think these are the flip side of the satirical work,” said Norman Kleeblatt, the chief curator of the Jewish Museum. “They are internal and highly personal.”
Mr. Levine later explored his Jewish heritage in a number of paintings on biblical themes, notably Cain and Abel (1961) and avid and Saul (1989).
Mr. Levine was drafted into the Army in 1942 and, after doing camouflage painting, spent the war as a clerk on Ascension Island in the South Atlantic. In 1946 he married Ruth Gikow, a painter, who died in 1982. Their daughter, Susanna Levine Fisher, survives him, as do two grandchildren.
He returned from the war to an art world in the throes of transformation, as Abstract Expressionism became the dominant painting style, displacing realists like Mr. Levine. He did not go quietly. He referred to abstract painters as “space cadets.” Later styles likewise failed to impress him.
“I am alienated from all of these movements,” Mr. Levine said. “They offer me nothing. I think of myself as a dramatist. I look for a dramatic situation, which may or may not reflect some current political social response.”
Despite retrospective exhibitions at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston in 1952 and the Jewish Museum in New York in 1978, the onward march of abstraction and avant-gardism relegated him to the margins.
“I made quite a splash in the art world in the 1930s, and it seems to me that every year since I have become less and less well known,” he told David Sutherland, the director and producer of the 1985 documentary Jack Levine: Feast of Pure Reason.
True to his first artistic impulses, Mr. Levine continued to produce work in a caustic vein. Some works were overtly political, like Election Night (1954), a squalid political tableau, and Birmingham ’63, a savage depiction of guard dogs attacking a group of black men. Others were bustling social panoramas in the spirit of Daumier.
Gangster Funeral, painted in the early 1950s, depicted a crew of thugs in formal attire gathered at the coffin of a slain mob boss. In the grandly conceived diptych Panethnikon (1978), Mr. Levine — depicting a semifictionalized gathering of the United Nations Security Council — presented an exuberant portrait of the human race, whose identifiable members included Leonid Brezhnev, Idi Amin and Ibn Saud.
“He never gave up,” said Patricia Hills, a professor of art history at Boston University. “He kept the faith. He continued a great tradition of painting, of showing the foibles of people, the human drama and especially the foibles of powerful people.”
He spoke of what underlies his art in a speech in 1976. “I am primarily concerned with the condition of man,” Mr. Levine said. “The satirical direction I have chosen is an indication of my disappointment in man, which is the opposite way of saying that I have high expectations for the human race.”
Jack Levine, (American)
b. January 3, 1915
d. November 8, 2010
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