David Levine, a master of the caricature, died yesterday at the age of 83 in New York as a result of prostate cancer and other illness. Levine had the ability to expose and gently exaggerate the distinguishing features of politicians, historical figures and literary giants. He used humor, but his refined hand betrayed no cartoonishness.
Levine penned thousands of caricatures for many leading publications like Time, Esquire, the New Yorker, the New York Times and the Washington Post. His most recognizable impact was as the staff artist for the New York Review of Books. For 45 years, he crafted upwards of 5,000 drawings for that publication, and the magazine will continue to pull from his archive in the years to come.
“He was able, almost miraculously, to suggest certain traits of character often by very small details,” said Robert Silvers, editor of the New York Review of Books. “His command of these little details was often extremely witty and funny. And above all, and this was the great mystery of David’s work: revealing. It seemed to reveal a certain kind of character.”
From Stalin to Shakespeare, Nixon to Updike, Levine leveled many of the defining personalities of both modern and historical times with his pen.
“I try first to make the face believable, to give another dimension to a flat, linear drawing; then my distortions seem more acceptable,” Levine was quoted as saying in the New York Times.
Born in Brooklyn, Levine made New York his lifelong home, and also a primary theme of his other artwork. His realistic watercolors depicted the landscapes (one of his favorite places to paint was Coney Island) and the workers of his hometown. Indeed, his first love had been painting, but it is his caricatures for which he will be remembered.
“I might want to be critical, but I don’t wish to be destructive,” Levine once said, according to The New York Times. “Caricature that goes too far simply lowers the viewer’s response to a person as a human being.”
“It was the kind of work that made him recognized as the greatest caricaturist in the world,” said Silvers.
Listen to Robert Silvers talk about his friend and colleague, David Levine:
Editor’s Note: All images courtesy the Forum Gallery.