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David Levine, 1926-2009

Filed under: In Memoriam   Tagged:

Martin Schneider writes:

Some people, you figure they will just always be there. David Levine was drawing caricatures for The New York Review of Books well before my birth, and it was only reasonable to suppose he'd be at it years after my death, too. It's difficult to imagine a world without a steady succession of new Levine drawings in it; it's not merely perverse fancy to wonder whether Levine's death makes it impossible for The New York Review of Books to keep publishing articles. That is how strong that association was.

You may have guessed that I grew up in a household with The New York Review of Books in it. Has there ever been a connection between an illustrator and a periodical as strong as that between Levine and The New York Review of Books? Norman Rockwell and The Saturday Evening Post, I guess. I can't think of another one. His drawings meant as much to the identity of that journal as—if not more than—Rea Irvin's typeface and monocled fop have meant to the image of The New Yorker.

How do these things happen? It's not just that the drawings synecdochally came to represent the high quality of the articles in The New York Review of Books; the transferral of associations very nearly worked the other direction, too. I guess it's just a long-winded way of saying, the artist and the periodical were made for each other.

Maybe the highest compliment one can pay Levine's work (at least the caricatures; he was also a painter) is that the work lies in some realm beyond which the word "witty" really has no meaning. They were not "witty," and they were not lacking in wit, either. Many of the drawings contain the kind of visual puns that constitute the most basic elements of the caricaturist's trade. And the drawings could have dispensed with them altogether, without any loss of quality. The drawings rewarded the intelligent and informed reader who is in a mood to be serious but also engaged. In short, the New York Review of Books kind of reader.

Levine's art appeared in The New Yorker many, many times, but it would be folly for me to celebrate him as a New Yorker contributor, impressive though those contributions surely were. It would be like celebrating Michael Jordan's exploits for the Washington Wizards.

Earlier this year, I was obliged to empty out the house in which I grew up. Thirty-five years of living had accumulated in its corners, and I was forced to throw much of it away. During that process I came across a faded sheaf of twelve prints by Levine, presumably distributed to subscribers (in this case, my dad) a decade or three ago. I threw away so much, but I kept this, because reading means something to me, because ideas mean something to me, because The New York Review of Books means something to me, because David Levine means something to me. I'm looking at the prints as I write this.


SO glad you kept the Levine prints. Oh, to grow up in an NYRB household…your tribute is perfect, Martin.

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