Roger Rosenblatt on Photographer David Levinthal

March 13, 1997 at 12:00 AM EDT


JIM LEHRER: Finally tonight, essayist Roger Rosenblatt considers the small world of photographer David Levinthal.

ROGER ROSENBLATT: So clever, so thematically complicated are David Levinthal’s artistic photographs one could mistake them for intellectual riddles. Levinthal’s work of the past 20 years is on display at New York’s International Center of Photography. His subject matter is toys. He shoots toys. The retrospective consists of “Hitler Moves East,” which he did with Gary Trudeau when they were art students at Yale; “Modern Romance”; “The Wild West”; “American Beauties”; “Desire”; and the more controversial recent work “Mein Kampf” and “Black Face”.

The only reason the two exhibits are called controversial is they deal with blatantly sensitive subjects: the Holocaust and African Americans. Yet, like all powerful and original art, everything in Levinthal is controversial, literally. It goes against the side, your side, whatever side you happen to be on. And it does it all with toys. What Levinthal does is to take toy figures and photograph them in a number of ingenious ways, so that we wind up looking at something unreal as real, something childish as adult, in short, at icons of culture, which toys are.

But Levinthal’s art is not about ideas. Ideas are the second or third stage of reaction to his work. The first stage, the one that counts, is feeling, pure shocked, confused feeling. Thus, the German helmets in “Hitler Moves East.” Because they are toy helmets, they are imperfect. A real German helmet, distinctive for its shape, is a fearful object. A toy helmet suddenly looks like a ceramic bowl inverted. One’s responses are jolted. The guns are little, the fires little. The war is little. Marianne Moore’s line comes to mind. “There never was a war that was not inward.” Toy war, toy death. He toys with us. He arranges his figures, and they do the rest.

The figure of Hitler in “Mein Kampf” is apparently glorious and inwardly obscene. The figures of the Jewish victims, outwardly disheveled, inwardly beautiful. Toy Hitler says I am not Hitler. Ceci n’est pas Hitler. I am a figure of Hitler. The writhing bodies say we are figures of the Jews. In life, these figures were the antipodes of experience. Killer and victim, evil and innocent.

But as toys, they are on the same side. They challenge us to sort out what we think about, among other things, morals and beauty, as if to declare we are figures but you have to figure it out. Before that happens, however, the toys force us to acknowledge that we feel several things at once, honorable and dishonorable, good and bad, noble, erotic, and cheap. In the “Wild West” cowboys are heroes and they are deadly too. The figure with his back to us about to enter a new saloon or the new world is America with its hand poised over a gun.

“Modern Romance” is secretive, illicit. A woman stands under a street lamp. She is (a) waiting for her husband, (b) waiting for her lover, (c) waiting for a customer, (d) waiting, (e) all of the above. The terrible grin of the cookie jar bellhop in “Black Face” laughs till it hurts. Take your bags, boss? Take the baggage of national race hatred and shame off your hands with my funny hat and my desperately unhappy happy eyes? We have been caught with our hands in the cookie jar. Feeling is first. In “American Beauties” the star is every girl and every yearning boy, toy love. The “Heartbreak Kid” visits FAO Schwartz. On the beach, in the dark, a heavyish blond beauty stands with her back to us, hands up and surrender, or in “Lands sakes surprise!” Or is she holding up the darkness? And is that the very same woman in desire fallen by now and defiled? The viewer is aroused to sexuality, pity, admiration, sorrow, all at once. Sensations run at one another like toy trains. We cannot tell what we feel or who we are. These are toys. We cannot tell how big we are.

I’m Roger Rosenblatt.