Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Jack Levine

Certain artists will never have a widespread public appeal. Their work is too specific, focused, obscure, referential, or just too fucking ugly to ever expose them to a wider audience. Damien Hirst and Jeff Koons produce objects and art that speak to us about celebrity, excess, exposure, and wealth, and are famous, excessively exposed, and impossibly wealthy for it. They go beyond the manufacture of art about pop culture, they live it. Even Koons's interview persona, all creepy and dead-eyed is, I maintain, an intentional homage to Paris Hilton.

There are some artists though who simply due to management, or luck, or the nature of their work can never expect their reputations known outside of art circles. Lawrence Weiner will never be Bruce Nauman (mostly because of the name), Stanley Spencer will never be Lucien Freud, etc. Jack Levine is one of these artists. He is, at 95 years old, destined to be remembered as a painter's painter.

One of the mid-century American Social Realists, Levine has spent a career lampooning power and money (the people who have them, not, like...the concepts) in pretty brutal terms. The strange thing about his obscurity, versus someone like Koons, is that Levine's message seems so appropriate to today's audience. Koons creates work that we interact with the same way we interact with MTV Cribs or the Jersey Shore; it's designed to be envied, derided, laughed at, to offend or excite, but to do it out of reach. This is work made by, purchased, and displayed by the implausibly wealthy, as we sit on couches and critique, imagining we have a role in the process. Levine, meanwhile, deals in an explicitly middle class outlook, less glitzy, more clever, angry, and translatable than a lot of the gentle intellectual abstraction you can see today.

Jack Levine was born January 3rd 1915 in Boston, to a tight-knit lower middle class Jewish family in the South End. From a young age he displayed an affinity for drawing and, at fifteen, he and Hyman Bloom began an apprenticeship of sorts with Harold K. Zimmerman, who was then teaching at the West End Settlement House. In the early 1930's the two fell under the sway of Denman Ross, who was then the force behind Harvard University's art department. Both later credited Zimmerman's instruction in drawing and Ross's very particular color theories (full Google book here), although Levine said neither ever adopted them fully.

Denman Ross left, and Hyman Bloom, right

A stipend from Ross had allowed Levine to concentrate on his studies. After Ross suspended it Levine found himself without a job or income at the height of the Great Depression. After working for the Works Progress Association on and off for four years he was found ineligible for further work there and enlisted in the army in 1942. His poor childhood, years of unemployment and underemployment, and his time in the stifling atmosphere of the army all marked in him a dislike of economic and authoritarian hypocrisy. After his discharge in 1945 he embarked on four decades of artistic production and biting social commentary.

Welcome Home
(above), which he painted after leaving the army, caused a furor when it was shipped to Moscow a few years later as part of a traveling exhibition.
Eisenhower, when asked by a reporter about it answered "[It] looks like a lampoon more than art, as far as I’m concerned."

Seen in the context of the artists/editorialists who proceeded him it becomes clear that Levine's hand is tied to his content. There's certainly a shared aesthetic to the body of work on the line between Social Realism and Expressionism. You see a shared subjective eye in Goya, Daumier, Lautrec, Philip Evergood, George Bellows, Leon Golub, Nancy Spero, Ben Shahn, Ivan Albright, and others. The energies that other movements have invested in harmony, balance, or color these artists have turned towards describing dissonance, violence, hate, and fear. Using a visual medium -rather than a spoken or written one- to describe something or someone you hate is a visceral experience, and these artists have taken full advantage of it. Levine's paintings sometimes seem as if even the paint abhors describing its subjects. Strangely, he rejected the Wiemar Expressionism which his work is often compared with. For him the distortions were too much; he felt the Germans sacrificed a level of objectivity he seemed to regard his own work with.

Above:Ivan Albright, left, and Leon Golub, right. Below: Levine.

Of course, to describe Levine's work as being as fatalistic as Albright's would be a mistake. Levine, like Hyman Bloom, had a weakness for retelling Biblical stories. Especially after his father's death (in '39) there is a streak of reverence in his work. Jewish patriarchs, bible stories, virginal characters are all safe from Levine's tendencies as a satirist. Even the bodies in these works are different, blocky and clumsy, like children's drawings. The jowliness, the puffy fat contrasted with spindly thin features, the empty, drawn smiles of his other work disappears in these, replaced with a broadness, a sort of Semitic rough-hewn beauty. In his patriarchs we see confident, reserved men of learning, in his biblical figures we see farmers. But although well painted, and a shock to what devotional art can look like, these works are missing the edge that sets his "observed" pieces apart (although he can come close, see below). It's the decadent urban, not the reserved pastoral that Levine is rightly (relatively) famous for.

In all Levine is one of the talented American draftsmen of the last century. The movement towards abstraction paused just long enough (after the start of the Great Depression and up until the early 1950's) to allow him and other socially conscious painters like him to flourish. However, the rapid change in American art during the later half of the twentieth century was not amenable to figuration, and not to Levine. Like many other artists and many traditional techniques he was lost in the shuffle.

However, with the (comparative) re acceptance of figuration, the greatest economic recession in a century and the wealth disparity in the country growing further and further it seems to me that Levine is due for a comeback. Looking at his work now it occurs to me how little has changed in terms of wealth distribution in the country since it was painted. I'm no fan of populism (mostly because it's so often misdirected, I mean, come on guys, Jews are not at fault for this stuff) but these days anger at the richest 1% of Americans strikes me as healthy. Levine's work (at least one example) can be found in museums in most American cities, and because so many of us are unemployed now there's plenty of time to look at them. We don't have a new WPA yet, but it's never too early to start get organized and get outraged.

all images are Levine's unless otherwise noted


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