Summary of Jack Levine
Levine ranks as one of America's most important twentieth century political artists. He developed an expressive and highly individualistic figurative style, and he used satire to deliver sharp social commentary and to lampoon the corruption and hypocrisy which he saw within America's political and military systems. Levine complemented his political art with more personal works. These pieces (produced during periods of profound grief) explored his Jewish heritage by revisiting (and reinterpreting) stories and parables from the Old Testament.
- Coming to prominence in the era of "action painting", and the rise of the New York School, Levine remained stubbornly committed to figurative art and a return to the values of the Old Masters (especially El Greco, who he greatly admired). Through his exploration of social commentary, symbolism, and Biblical themes, he was, with fellow Bostonian Hyman Bloom, and the German-born Karl Zerbe, a leading figure within what would become known as the Boston Expressionist movement.
- Happy to court controversy, Levine's satirical attacks on influential political and military leaders, saw him attract the unwanted attention of the authorities. Indeed, he was subject to the so-called "McCarthy witch-hunt" in which the Republican Senator (Joseph McCarthy) was bent on an ideological mission to hound and persecute suspected communist sympathizers, especially those working within the field of the arts (although Levine evaded prosecution).
- In addition to his political painting, Levine drew on his religion in works such as In the Valley of Kidron (1982-83) and a series on Hebrew Kings. These works, which showed Levine in less combative, more contemplative mood, placed him within a group of Jewish artists including Hyman Bloom, George Segal, Audrey Flack, Larry Rivers, and R. B. Kitaj, who helped integrate Jewish-American artists into the "official" twentieth century American art story.
- Levine made his mark initially as part of the American Social Realist movement that emerged during the 1920s and 1930s. Although not a formal organization, he was one of a cadre of American artists who had become disillusioned with avant-gardism, turning instead to a figurative style that better communicated the urgency of the fight against social injustices including the capitalist exploitation of ordinary workers.
- Levine's tendency towards satire earned him a reputation as a so-called "editorial artist". The title relates to the idea that his art functioned as a means of self-expression in a similar way as one might draft a newspaper editorial. Commenting on that term, Levine himself said, "I'm not a political expert, though I have an interest in politics. But now and then I paint in the same vein as making a speech or voting. One feels a sense of intense personal involvement, and I fail to see why an artist at that moment may not paint about that".
The Life of Jack Levine
Levine once said, "I am primarily concerned with the condition of man. 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".
Important Art by Jack Levine
The Feast of Pure Reason
The Feast of Pure Reason, a cutting attack on political corruption, is one of Levine's earliest and best-known paintings. Levine completed it under the American government's "New Deal" programme, and specifically its Works Project Administration (WPA), which paid artists to produce public work projects. The Feast of Pure Reason fiercely rebukes power structures and political hegemony and set the tone for many of Levine's subsequent works.
The satirical composition features three seated men. On the left is a Boston police officer, an underworld figure sits in the center, and a suited businessman sits in an upholstered red armchair. The men are smoking cigars and there is a whisky decanter on the table in the foreground. The dark interior suggests the setting is possibly a "gentlemen's club" where lawmaker, lawbreaker, and capitalist conspire to hatch illegal and immoral deals. The work's title is a direct reference to the "Nighttown" sequence in James Joyce's book Ulysses; "nighttown" being a code name for Dublin's notorious Monto neighborhood which was (in the early 20th century) the largest red-light district in Europe. Art critic Heather Corcoran assesses that, Levine's astute representation and commentary on American power structures calls to mind "earlier European counterparts created by the artists of Weimer Germany's Neue Sachlichkeit (New Objectivity) movement."
Oil on canvas
Levine served in the army during World War II, so the painting Welcome Home held both a personal and political significance for the artist. It depicts a general in the midst of a decadent banquet, stuffing his mouth with food in a display of pompous decadence. When the painting was on view in 1959 at the American National Exhibition in Moscow, Russia, it drew the attention of the United States Congress which was unhappy at its burlesque depiction of the US military elite. This, in turn, brought Levine under the purview of the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), which was an agency tasked with tracking down and monitoring individuals who were suspected of having communist sympathies. President Dwight D. Eisenhower even called Welcome Home a "lampoon more than art". Influential art dealer Edith Halpert defended the painting, however, saying, "The Levine painting is not anti-American. It's just anti-pompous general".
Ironically, the American National Exhibition was organized by the United States Information Agency as a propaganda exercise that sought to promote and celebrate the United States' democratic principles. Despite the resultant controversy around the work, it remained on display at the exhibition. Halpert's defence of the work - she stated: "each artist is free to paint, carve, model, weld, etc. as he pleases and that each form of expression has its exponents among critics, museum personnel, and public" - was widely covered in the mainstream Russian press, giving rise to a bigger debate around the issue of artistic freedom. Diplomat George Venable Allen, who was serving as director of the United States Information Agency at the time, conceded that the painting, "by a strange turn of fate, [had become] a symbol of freedom in contrast to a closed society". Levine said of the furore, "The House Un‐American Activities Committee had a subpoena out for me as a subversive artist [but then] Ike [Eisenhower] backed down, saying the show shouldn't be censored. I guess the Russians came to the show expecting one painting less, but they found he didn't have the power to remove it".
Oil on canvas - Brooklyn Museum, New York City
Inauguration is a representation of a United States Supreme Court Chief Justice administering the oath of office to the president elect. According to Levine, the presidential figure rendered in the painting is an amalgamation of three former presidents: Woodrow Wilson, Harry Truman, and Dwight D. Eisenhower. The painting depicts the cycle of American democracy, but the benefits of the electoral process are not so clearly expressed. Painted in Levine's mature style of gestural brushstrokes and distorted features, Inauguration is both a history painting and a metaphor for political frenzy and the scepticism he felt towards established politicians.
Art critic Philip Kennicott writes that: "The picture space is dazzlingly full and complex, loaded with symbols of American political life, which seem to gather around the central figures like a storm cloud of confused and ambivalent meanings. One can't tell if the figures are inside or outside, but they are definitely in a single, coherent, expressionist space. And that space, like American politics, feels raw, rough, chaotic and noisy. The faces may be mask-like, but one senses the mask not as a lack of painterly competence, but an expertly rendered suggestion that everyone is hiding something".
Oil on canvas
The Art Lover
Levine chose the occasion of his 1975 solo exhibition at New York's, Kennedy Galleries to express his contempt for commercial imperatives of the art industry: "I hope this show makes it clear that I'm unaffected by art trade winos", he said. The Art Lover of the picture's title resembles an eighteenth-century French aristocrat. He sits in an armchair gazing at something happening or situated outside the picture frame. He is holding a tiny magnifying glass in his right hand. He is a caricature and underlines Levine's distaste for the commodification of art and the "portentous" industry of art criticism.
Throughout his career Levine's work had either been relegated, or dismissed completely, by mainstream factions of the arts and cultural scene because he remained committed to figurative history painting when Abstract Expressionism and Minimalism represented the avant-garde. In a 1978 interview with Mimi Poser on the occasion of his Jewish Museum retrospective, Levine suggested that he was "unfashionable" because he was, in essence, a pictorial storyteller: "I find an amazing lack of tolerance for a painter like myself" (he was referring specifically to comments from the leading art critic John Russell). "It does seem to me", he added, "that we're [figurative painters] always being signalled to by the critics [...] I'm afraid I've been perversed (sic). When the art movements seemed to be going one way, I tended to go the other".
Oil on canvas
During the Spring of 1963, Martin Luther King Jr. and the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights, led marches, sit-ins and boycotts throughout the city of Birmingham, Alabama in protest against racial segregation in the city's stores. Known as the Birmingham Campaign, the protests led to confrontations between the activists and the municipal authorities. One such incident occurred when Birmingham's Commissioner of Public Safety Theophilus Eugene "Bull" Conner ordered the police to unleash attack dogs onto the marchers, while the fire department was ordered to spray the protesters with hoses. The level of violence was so shocking it brough about a sea change in public opinion and prompted President John F. Kennedy to back new civil rights legislation.
Levine's painting Birmingham '63 is an homage to the living legacy of the civil rights movement. Five black activists are pinned back by attack dogs, whose leashes are held by unseen figures. They, like the viewer, stand outside the picture frame with the effect that the viewer in embroiled in the attack. The men are the physical embodiment of the words, "We Shall Not Be Moved", which is taken from the famous civil rights anthem, "We Shall Overcome".
Oil on canvas - De Young/ Fine Arts Museum, San Francisco
Our Presence in the Far East
Our Presence in the Far East is an expressive vignette that amounts to a reproach of the United States foreign policy. Two characters, a United States army general, and a pregnant Vietnamese woman, dominate the composition. The military figure has his back turned toward the woman, who seems to be an expectant mother, which invites the reading that the United States has turned its back on the very people it had claimed to have come to protect. It suggests also that in the aftermath of war, it is the ordinary citizens who endure and suffer, while the lives of the military elite go on as before.
In a 1978 review of Levine's work, art critic John Russell, stated that the artist, "did not choose to make any of the points that had by then been made well and often elsewhere. Neither his prototypical general nor his pregnant Vietnamese woman was a radical stereotype". If Russell was suggesting that Levine's art lacked nuance, it was countered by Levine who said of his painting, "I like the ambiguity. that you can't tell a general from a Columbia professor and that he doesn't know what the hell he's doing. The Vietnamese woman became a Chinese princess, the Imperial East. And if there's any pregnancy, at least it's a potential. The general, the West, has no potential".
Oil on canvas - The Jewish Museum, New York
Samson and the Lion
Historian Dr, Peter Webster (commenting on Samantha Baskind's, book, Jewish Artists, and the Bible in Twentieth Century America (2014)) observes that Levine, with George Segal, Audrey Flack, Larry Rivers, and R. B. Kitaj, "came of age in the years following the 'third wave' of Jewish immigration between 1880 and 1920". He observes that in England, and in other European countries, there was a steady stream of religious art throughout the twentieth century (even if it was mostly derided by critics). This, however, was not the case in the US. where any trace of the "tradition of historical and religious painting and sculpture was almost non-existent", and that Jewish-American artists had not been integrated into the "official" American art story. Baskind wrote, "For these younger American Jews, their native land, their homeland, was the Hebrew Bible. Their sense of locale was not the towns around them but biblical geography - the only Jewish soil they knew. The Bible functioned as a 'portable identity [...] the stories in the Bible were American Jews' bond to Jewish life'".
Webster makes the point that these artists were not seeking to produce religious art for "actual religious worship and practice" (as was or is the Christian way) but rather to "retain some sort of attachment to Judaism as heritage". For Levine, indeed, his art "functioned as a means of reflecting on and making sense of contemporary events and of recent history at large, and of personal circumstance: a secularised form of the ancient exegetical technique of midrash [the practice of illustrating a moral principle in the Hebrew scripture]".
Indeed, Levine first turned to Judaism in his art following the death of his father in 1939. Samson and the Lion followed a second period of great grief for the artists when his wife, Ruth Gikow, died after a long illness, in 1982. The story follows Samson who travels down to Timnah with his father and mother to find a wife. As they are entering the vineyards of Timnah, a lion attacks Samson who, emboldened by the spirit of God, overpowers the animal, tearing it apart with his bare hands. It is a parable about how, emboldened by the power of God, one can overcome the greatest adversity.
Oil on canvas - The Jewish Museum, New York
Finger of Newt
The title of this painting is a pun of a Shakespearean line from Macbeth. In the play, a group of witches conjure up an incantation as they recite each ingredient as it is added to their cauldron, one such ingredient being the "eye of newt". Levine's composition evokes an ominous feeling through his dark color palette and expressive rendering of political and cultural figures who appear apparition-like through Levine's translucent and gestural application of paint.
The backdrop is Capitol Hill in Washington D.C. A bust of Thomas Jefferson looms over the figures below. Even the bust is ghastly and looks more like a skeleton of Jefferson than a statute honouring his image. Newt (Newton) Gingrich is flanked by Republican Senator Bob Dole and domestic terrorist Timothy McVeigh, a very forceful analogy suggesting that Gingrich's political tenure has been obstructive and socially divisive. The painting also echoes the 1996 United States Presidential election during which Bill Clinton likened his Republican challenger, Bob Dole, to the unpopular Gingrich who was the Speaker of the House of Representatives.
Art critic Robin Cembalest visited Levine's studio while he was working on the painting and noted that "Mr. Levine has got the faces down, but the rendering of Mr. Gingrich's hand - which he plans to depict in a rude gesture - is giving him all kinds of trouble". Regarding this technical difficulty, Levine lamented, "I went to pieces trying to paint the finger. He'll be out in two years and I won't be done". Indeed, Gingrich is in the process of giving the "middle finger", a lewd gesture that starkly alludes to his callous political reign and his "ethical violations". Reflecting again on the painting after Levine's death, Cembalest stated, "Levine, a one-time art star whose muckraking paintings became too earnest and insufficiently ironic for our postmodern moment. Newt Gingrich's comeback moment seems to be fading away. Could it finally be time for Jack Levine's?".
Oil on canvas
Biography of Jack Levine
Childhood and Adolescence
The son of Lithuanian immigrants, Jack Levine was born in Boston, Massachusetts. He was the youngest of eight children. His father, Samuel, worked as a shoemaker, his mother, Mary, was an advocate for the welfare of their neighborhood, often providing meals for those who needed it during the Great Depression. The Levine family settled in the South End of the city, which was home to many European immigrants. While Jack was raised to observe Jewish tradition and spirituality, he largely rejected his Judaism during adolescence. As the youngest member of the family, Jack was nurtured by his mother and protected by his siblings. Mary was especially supportive of Jack's artistic interests and encouraged him to pursue drawing. On days when Jack visited his father's shoe store, he was given brown wrapping paper to draw on. Although he was a young boy, he chose to represent some mature subjects, including scenes of marching National Guardsmen patrolling the streets during the Boston Police strike of 1919.
The Historic Boston Inc. blog explains how, "For the majority of his childhood, Levine's lived in a tenement on Rose Street, off Harrison and Dover Street, which Levine later compared to Los Angeles' skid row. Levine remembers his mother Mary encouraged his artistic pursuits from an early age, supplying him with a steady stream of pencils, crayons, and paper. According to Levine, Mary spent a lot of her time in the kitchen (reportedly making lunches for bootleggers in the neighborhood during the Great Depression), and she allowed him to keep his art supplies in the cool oven during summer months when she wasn't using it".
Early Training and Work
From 1924 through 1931, Levine took drawing classes at the West End Community Center with Harold Zimmerman. An important influence of many of the American Abstract Expressionists, and the "push-pull" methodology devised by Hans Hofmann, Zimmerman advanced a method of teaching that was known as "visual imagination". He implored his students to develop both an acute sense of observational and recall skills in order to create highly personal works of art. As artist Sigmund Abeles writes, Zimmerman's students "were encouraged to remember an event or situation recently seen. Then, with no visual references except one's sheet of paper, they struggled to make complete, convincing drawings, not isolated parts, but whole ensemble compositions, possessing rhythm, structure, proportion, anatomy, and content. [...] Using always the same HB pencil but applying different pressure, they would start with extremely light lines and gradually add marks all over the paper, creating the whole picture at once". At this time Levine's drawings carried the influence of Chaim Soutine, Georges Rouault, and Oskar Kokoschka with works such as Head of Christ Crowned with Thorns (1927) employing the angular jagged lines and stylized facial features common to German Expressionist woodprints.
Another of Zimmerman's students at that time was Hyman Bloom, a Latvian-born boy from Boston's West End neighborhood. Bloom was two years older than Levine but their shared passion for art, as well as their Jewish heritage, helped build a friendship that would last their whole lives. Zimmerman not only provided his students with a formal education in studio art, but he was also enthusiastic about introducing them to art history, with an emphasis on more modern and contemporary forms. He took Bloom and Levine to New York City to visit the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) where they saw the work of Cézanne for the first time. Levine was particularly moved by the work and, as art historian Judith Bookbinder notes, it inspired him to "experiment with a denser paint application".
Levine and Bloom studied art at Harvard University between 1929-33. They were mentored by Denman Waldo Ross who, in addition to being a Harvard professor, was a trustee at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. Through Ross's generous financial support, Levine and Bloom were able to continue their studies with Zimmerman. Ross also provided them with the means to rent their own studio space and buy art supplies and materials. He even gave them a modest weekly stipend which allowed the friends to devote most of their time to their art. Ross was also instrumental in promoting the work of Zimmerman, Bloom, and Levine which he did by curating An Experiment in Art Teaching at the Fogg Museum of Art at Harvard University in 1932. Ross also collected art as a means of supporting his students and in 1935, bequeathed twenty of Levine's drawings to the Fogg Museum.
In 1933, Levine and Bloom parted company with Ross and Zimmerman. Both men found employment through the Works Progress Administration (WPA), which was established in 1935 under President Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal policy in order to support cultural projects in the United States. From 1935 through 1940, Levine was intermittently part of the WPA's easel program, which prompted artists to create traditional paintings that would become the government's property in exchange for a regular stipend. Meanwhile, MoMA exhibited Card Game and Brain Trust in a 1936 group exhibition called New Horizons in American Art. As the New York Times art critic Grace Glueck wrote, "[Levine] became known, with the late Ben Shahn, as one of the foremost exponents of the 'proletarian,' or social realist, school that dominated American painting in the late 1930's".
Commenting on this period, the art historian Nicholas Capasso makes the point that Boston Expressionism (with two other local movements, San Francisco Bay Area Figuration and the Chicago Imagists) "enjoyed historical and stylistic integrity [that] produced important art, and represented isolated figurative camps" outside of the all-powerful New York art scene. He wrote that "Boston was home to a vital, home-grown group of painters, the Boston Expressionists, at the apogee of their powers and reputations - and anyone paying attention to contemporary American art at the time knew it. As early as the thirties, the young Boston Expressionist painter Jack Levine began receiving national attention and acclaim".
Indeed, Levine exhibited in the Whitney Museum's "Annual Exhibition of Contemporary American Painting" in 1937 and, in 1938, "Three Centuries of American Art" at the Jeu de Paume art center in Paris. It was, however, a time of mixed emotions for Levine, with the death of his father in 1939 plunging him into a period of profound grief. Prompted by his father's death, Levine also began to represent in his art Jewish culture and spirituality and embarked on a series depicting Kings of Israel and Judah, as well as rabbinical figures.
In 1942, Levine's String Quartet painting was acquired by The Metropolitan Museum of Art and was later reproduced and displayed in New York City subway cars. Capasso adds that "In 1942, Levine was selected by curator Dorothy Miller, along with fellow Boston Expressionists Hyman Bloom and David Aronson, for her prestigious MoMA exhibition Americans 1942: 18 Artists from 9 States. During the forties, Bloom, Levine, Aronson, and Karl Zerbe [also] showed regularly in New York commercial galleries [while] ARTnews began to identify and discuss the growing school of expressionist painting in Boston".
Levine's style during this early period referenced the styles of Social Realism and the German Neue Sachlichkeit (New Objectivity) movements. Both movements addressed social, cultural, and political conditions affecting everyday life, and were critical of the power structures that effected those conditions, but Levine's use of satirical metaphors and grotesque depictions of current events and historical narratives was more in line with the Neue Sachlichkeit artists like Otto Dix and George Grosz who distorted real world events for emotional effect. And like Dix and Grosz, Levine employed a raw and bold painterly technique to help exaggerate his caricatures.
During World War II, Levine served in the United States Army. Between 1942-45, he was stationed both in the United States and on Ascension Island, in the South Atlantic. His experiences in the service inspired his mature period, which addressed political themes, such as nativism, blind patriotism, imperialism, and the military industrial complex. One of the first paintings he made after his service was Welcome Home. The composition's liberal political message brought Levine under the scrutiny of the U.S. government's House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) who accused him of having pro-Communist sympathies. President Dwight D. Eisenhower called Welcome Home a "lampoon more than art" and, with fellow social realists, Ben Shahn and Phillip Evergood, he was subpoenaed to appear before the Committee. Levine had received a Fulbright Grant (an award attached to a US/Europe Cultural Exchange progam) to travel to Spain in 1951 and so missed his court date (by the time he returned to the US the HUAC "witch hunt" had effectively run out of steam). Levine seemed to find the whole episode amusing, remarking "You get denounced by the president of the United States, you've hit the top".
In 1946, Levine married the Russian born figurative painter and muralist, Ruth Gikow, and the couple set up home in Manhattan. The following year, Levine made his first sojourn to Europe on a Guggenheim Fellowship. Their daughter was born in 1949. In 1951, Levine was the recipient of a Fulbright Scholarship which saw him travel to Europe for a second time. He studied painting in Rome. He also became influenced by Mannerist style of the sixteenth century Spanish/Greek painter, El Greco. By the time he was back on home soil, Levine had finessed his satirical style of exaggerated forms and heightened human features. In 1952 he had an exhibition at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston which subsequently toured the United States. Levine became a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, Boston, in 1955.
During the 1950s Levine's art became less ordered and more gestural and spontaneous than his earlier Social Realist work. But instead of pursuing nonrepresentational forms, Levine stayed true to the human figure. He also retained an interest in historical and social themes. He noted in a later interview that "I'm aware of historical continuity, and I have a figurative imperative. And I never thought the various schools of art such as abstract expressionism that have flourished in the last thirty years were reason for giving up my aesthetic format, the narrative".
During the 1960s, Levine became more absorbed with printmaking, working mainly in engravings, etchings, and lithographs (some of which recreated the imagery from earlier paintings). He was gaining a (deserved) reputation as a political provocateur through his sharp critiques, and he became the subject of a 1963 documentary film (the first of three throughout his career), Jack Levine, produced by Herman J. Engel. He rebuked McCarthyism and misinformation campaigns via his 1963 canvas, Witches' Sabbath, a metaphor for political "witch hunts" which epitomized the political bias of Senator Joseph McCarthy and other right-wing politicians. Responding to the country's civil rights protests, he painted works such as Birmingham '63 (1963), which depicts the racial struggles in Birmingham, Alabama, during April of 1963, when Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and other activists marched through the city to protest against segregation. He also covered the presidential election of 1968 in his painting, Daley's Gesture (1968), a response to Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley's aggressive reaction to the 1968 Democratic National Convention protests.
Between 1969 and 1970, Levine and Gikow traveled to Asia, visiting Japan, Hong Kong, Thailand, and Cambodia. He produced a portfolio of prints he called Facing East based on his experiences and observations of the local and national culture within each region. In 1973, his painting Cain and Abel (1961), was purchased for the Vatican Museum as a direct response to Pope Paul VI's edit to expand its art collection to include more contemporary art. The painting references the tale, from the Hebrew bible, of brotherly feud and fratricide which he presented as a metaphor for the anti-war movement. The Pope's support for Levine's work was profound, not just because it came from a such conservative religious institution, but also because the Vatican had bought a work that amounted to a critique of the United States government (through its anti-war message). There was, perhaps, an added irony in that Levine, a prominent Jewish artist, had his work displayed in a museum belonging to the Catholic Church. Also in 1973, Levine was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters, New York.
Later Years and Death
Having visited Israel early in the 1970s, Levine was inspired to produce a series of religious paintings, culminating with The Patriarch of Moscow on a Visit to Jerusalem (1975). 1979 brought Levine a comprehensive retrospective, organized by the Jewish Museum, and which traveled the length of the country. Also in 1979, Levine was elected to the National Academy of Design, becoming a full Academician in 1982.
Levine continued to paint following Gikow's death in 1982, when he became increasingly interested in Judaism and Jewish-themed paintings. He also emerged as an astute commentator on Cold War politics. His painting The Arms Brokers (1983), for example, featured a menagerie of figures who were influential in the proliferation of geopolitical tensions (including: US President Ronald Reagan, his Secretary of State Alexander Haig, former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, financier and mogul David Rockefeller, U.S. Navy Admiral Hyman Rickover, deposed Saudi King Saud, Political and Religious Leader of Iran Ayatollah Khomeini, and Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev). Levine said of the painting, "I brought the men together with their toys. These are the arms brokers - the biggest game in town. They are the people in the world who really matter". In 1986, documentary filmmaker David Sutherland, in a close collaboration with the artist himself, released the feature length film: Jack Levine: Feast of Pure Reason (a title references Levine's 1937 anti-military oil painting The Feast of Pure Reason).
The artist's advancing years did little to diminish Levine's political indignation. In the 1990s, Levine's paintings included a scathing rebuke of Congressman Newt Gingrich, Senator Bob Dole, and others in the Republican Party, called Finger of Newt (1993-98). In 1995, New York's DC Moore Gallery began to represent Levine's art and he was included in the gallery's inaugural exhibition. The Brooklyn Museum held a retrospective of Levine's prints in 1999, called A Voice of Conscience: The Prints of Jack Levine. Included in the exhibition of sixty-nine prints was an etching of his renowned painting The Feast of Pure Reason.
In 2005, Levine, now in his tenth decade, had a concise retrospective exhibition, titled Jack Levine at 90, at DC Moore Gallery. As author Peter Hamill writes in the exhibition catalogue, "Across the decades, Jack Levine has been triumphantly American in his art. Those critics who believe that creating a category is the same as thinking (or feeling) have often placed him in one pigeonhole or another, most of them political. In reality, he has always been more than a political painter. But he is certainly a painter for whom politics is part of the human reality. And Levine has a 'yes, but...' vision of the land in which he lives." Hamill adds, "In his work, Levine refuses to sentimentalize the triumphs of our imperfect democracy or the plight of its cast offs". Levine's life and art was the subject of a third documentary film, Jack Levine: An Autobiography on Film, by William Powers, in 2005. He died in New York City in 2010, aged 95, after a short illness.
The Legacy of Jack Levine
For his combination of fine art techniques and astute social commentary, Levine can be placed in the company of some of art history's most renowned satirists, including William Hogarth, Thomas Rowlandson, and Honoré Daumier. Levine himself stated: "I'm not a child of Cezanne ... I'm a child of Daumier. I have a right to be. It's a free country". But although Levine proved to be an artist to be reckoned with during the height of his career, his reputation waned somewhat in subsequent years. As arts writer Robin Cembalest noted, "though the Modern, the Met, the Whitney, the Hirshhorn, and the Brooklyn Museum, to name a few, own his work, it's been years since any of them have shown it. Insufficiently ironic, unironically ethnic, relentlessly anti-modernist [and as such] Levine never received the belated attention afforded to artistic relatives like [other radicals] Alice Neel and Leon Golub".
However, Levine's art has undergone a resurgence and re-evaluation posthumously, with prominent galleries such as New York's DC Moore Gallery representing him and organizing mini retrospectives. Art historian Milton Brown summed up Levine's relevance to contemporary audiences when he stated: "[Levine] is a history painter for our peculiar times, ultimately concerned with the incongruous relationships, ludicrous events, and ironies of existence that somehow define our political, social, and cultural character".
Influences and Connections
- Chaim Soutine
- Georges Rouault
- George Grosz
- El Greco
- Harold Zimmermann
- Hyman Bloom
- Ruth Gikow
- David Aronson
- Arthur Polonsky
- Karl Zerbe
- Renée Radell
- David Campbell
- Hyman Bloom
- Ruth Gikow
- David Aronson
- Arthur Polonsky
- Karl Zerbe
- Abstract Expressionism
- Boston Figurative Expressionism
- East Coast Figurative Expressionism
Useful Resources on Jack Levine
- Jack LevineBy Robert Stephen Frankel
- Boston Modern: Figurative Expressionism as Alternative ModernismBy Judith Bookbinder
- Jewish Artists and the Bible in Twentieth-Century AmericaBy Samantha Baskind