I’m not a child of Cézanne,” Jack Levine told me once. “I’m a child of Daumier. I have a right to be. It’s a free country.”
Levine, who died in November at the age of 95, loved his zingers, particularly when the target was most of the art made during the last century. The inspiration for his own works—satires skewering the rich, the powerful, and the pompous—came from much older masters, the brushwork from Rubens and Titian and the righteous indignation from Hogarth, Daumier, and Goya. These qualities made the Boston-born child of Lithuanian immigrants a young art star; when he was 25, in 1936, his impastoed beady-eyed fat cats were grinning from MoMA’s white walls. The next year, the museum accepted an extended loan of The Feast of Pure Reason (1937)—depicting an unsavory trio of cop, politician, and capitalist—despite initial fears that trustees might take offense.
The son of a shoemaker on Boston’s South End, Levine was considered a prodigy. At 14 he started studying with Denman Ross in Harvard’s art department, then got a job with the Works Progress Administration’s Federal Art Project. He was drafted, got married. Art styles changed, but Levine didn’t. His art was outside of “-isms”—including, contrary to what many obits said, social realism, which he disdained for its conviction that it could actually change anything. He was tickled, though, when Welcome Home, his 1946 “comic Valentine” depicting the dissipated guests at a society banquet honoring a returning general—included in a State Department exhibition of American art that traveled to Moscow—annoyed Dwight D. Eisenhower.
As the New York School waned and Minimalism came and went, Levine kept his brand of lefty expressionism focused, unfashionably, on the figure—in images of civil rights protesters, the 1968 Democratic Convention, arms brokers, Vegas showgirls, and Jewish heroes, from Moses to Maimonides. He stayed in the spotlight with a traveling retrospective organized by Boston’s Institute of Contemporary Art in 1952 and another organized by New York’s Jewish Museum in 1979. But later in life Levine fell out of fashion, and art-world consciousness. 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, Levine never received the belated attention afforded to artistic relatives like Alice Neel and Leon Golub. At the time of his death, only the de Young Museum in San Francisco had his work on display—Birmingham ’63 (1963), a searing portrayal of protesters and police dogs, hangs in the museum’s lobby. He used to be bitter, his admirer Pete Hamill wrote of Levine in the catalogue for his 90th-birthday show at DC Moore, in New York, his longtime gallery (along with George Krevsky in San Francisco). “But he has outlived them all.”
When I visited his Greenwich Village studio in 1997, Levine was working on a painting called Finger of Newt—a Macbethian-titled picture featuring the then-Speaker of the House. Levine was having trouble with the hand, which was performing a rude gesture. “He’ll be out in two years and I won’t be done,” Levine growled.
Eventually he finished the painting. Sure enough, amidst a lineup of jowly, sour-faced politicos, there was Gingrich, grinning. He was giving the finger.
Of course, the picture is as relevant as ever. Jack Levine has had the last laugh, once again.
Robin Cembalest is executive editor of ARTnews.