Jack Levine, Child of Daumier, Gave New Life To the Sages
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One of the regrets of my newspaper life is that in the rush of things I failed to make the acquaintance of the painter Jack Levine, who died November 8 at the age of 95. For I came to love his paintings and to be intrigued by the fact that a left-of-center, secular figure such as Levine could have conjured so beautifully on canvas what the great Jewish sages of long ago might have looked like.
The first time I saw one of his paintings was in the library of the Jewish Theological Seminary. My wife and I had gone there to visit a day school that was then temporarily housed at the seminary. When we passed the portrait — an imagining of Maimonides — I was transfixed. During the tour of the premises I snuck back to the library several times to admire Levine’s elegant picture of the sage.
“Maimonides” turned out to be but one of several portraits of the sages that Levine imagined and painted in the 1940s and early 1950s. They are slightly expressionist, but evince a powerful sense of personality life. His painting of Hezekiah offers a more soulful glimpse of what he might have been like than even the most famous of the other imaginings of the Judean king.
Levine’s Jewish portrait paintings were but the tip of the iceberg, so to speak, in one of the great oeuvres in American art, an oeuvre whose best known masterpieces are of more secular figures — such as “Feast of Pure Reason,” depicting what Robin Cembalest, in a reminiscence in ARTNews of her visit with the painter, calls an “unsavory trio of cop, politician, and capitalist.”
Ms. Cembalest interviewed Levine for the Forward, in which she quoted the curator of the Hirschhorn in Washington, Judith Zilczer, as putting Levine in the tradition of Hogarth and Rowlands. “I’m not a child of Cezanne,” she quoted the painter himself as saying. “I’m a child of Daumier. I have a right to be. It’s a free country.” And she quoted another great painter named Levine — David — as noting not only what an extraordinary draftsman Jack Levine but adding: “If I could think of a painter who had as many ways of using paint I’d go back to Titian.”
That is some comparison for a figure who was working at the time on a painting called “Finger of Newt,” a satirical canvas whose figures include the right wing Republican making a rude gesture. Ms. Cembalest provides a hilarious account. “I went to pieces trying to paint the finger,” she quoted Levine as lamenting. “He’ll be out in two years and I won’t be done.”
It says something about painting that for all of Mr. Gingrich’s many achievements — or transgressions, depending on one’s point of view — a simple painter for whom he never sat and who created his work in a modest Greenwich Village studio will have a lasting impact on how, for better or worse, the 58th Speaker is remembered in history’s visual imagination. The painting of Gingrich is a reminder that the artist often has the last word and the painting of Maimonides that he can bestow his own kind of immortality.