Jack Levine: Artist whose work ruthlessly satirised 20th-century America

Marcus Williamson
Monday 15 November 2010 01:00 GMT

Jack Levine was an artist whose paintings and drawings caricatured and satirised the inequalities of America in the 20th century and mocked those who held power.

As the art historians Kenneth and Emma-Stina Prescott wrote: "One does not turn to Levine's work for landscapes or to find relief from human cares in the enjoyment of animals depicted in repose." Together with Hyman Bloom and Karl Zerbe he became known as part of the Boston figurative expressionism school, although he himself rejected formal associations with any art movement.

Jack Levine was born in 1915 in the South End area of Boston, one of eight children of Mary and Samuel Levine, a shoemaker who had immigrated from Lithuania. He was encouraged in drawing and painting from his earliest years. In 1923 the family moved to Roxbury, Massachusetts, where Levine trained with the Bloom at the Jewish Welfare Center, under Harold K Zimmerman. At the age of 16, Levine was introduced by Zimmerman to Dr Denman Ross, founder of Harvard's art department, who supported him and showed his work at the Fogg museum.

After Ross's death in 1935, during the Depression, Levine found alternative funding in an initiative of President Roosevelt, the Works Progress Administration Federal Art Project, a scheme whereby artists were given government benefits in exchange for paintings. His String Quartet (1937) was purchased from the government by New York's Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in 1942 and has since become one of the artist's best-known works.

In 1937 his new painting, The Feast of Pure Reason, was shown at MoMA. In it, a Bostonian politician, a police officer and a businessman appear to be conspiring together. The suggestion of corruption was clear, causing debate among museum board members before the work could be exhibited.

On the death of his father in 1939, Levine's oeuvre turned away from the satirical, social-realist style for which he was becoming known. Paintings such as King David (1940) invoke Biblical and religious themes, and reflect on his Jewish heritage and upbringing.

Levine spent the years 1942-45 in the US Army, initially involved with camouflage painting, then as a clerk on Ascension Island and finally in New York City. His picture Welcome Home (1946), depicting a feasting general, was created on his return from military service. The work was later criticised by President Eisenhower, as part of enquiries into Un-American Activities, who opined that it "looks like a lampoon more than art as far as I am concerned". Levine later explained in an interview: "The painting actually isn't so much of an attack on the Army as an expression of great joy at getting out of the Army."

In 1946 Levine married the artist Ruth Gikow, whom he had met in New York. Like him, Gikow favoured figurative art over the abstract expressionism that was gaining favour at the time. In 1951 he travelled to Europe on a Fulbright grant, studying the Old Masters and especially El Greco, whose use of colour and form was to have a particular influence. He later said: "I love the Old Masters. I don't care for anybody modern... I want to paint with the dead ones." He paid tribute to these forebears in Six Masters: a devotion (1963).

Time magazine commissioned Levine to cover the 1968 Democratic convention, which resulted in the paintings On the Convention Floor and Daley's Gesture, a satire on the then Mayor of Chicago, Richard Daley.

A major retrospective was held at the Jewish Museum in New York in 1978 and subsequently toured the US, while in 1989 David Sutherland produced and directed a documentary on Levine's life and work entitled Feast of Pure Reason. Commenting in the film on his lack of mainstream recognition in the latter part of the 20th century, Levine said: "In this art business, I'm an outsider. I'm like the dog at the circus. I'm the little dog that goes the wrong way, under the hoop."

Sutherland adds that Levine was "the only American artist who never stopped painting as a Social Realist, even when it went out of vogue in the 1950s and 1960s."

Speaking of his own dedication to his art, Levine said "To paint is to be a keeper of the flame and to do something with it."

Jack Levine, painter: born Boston, Massachusetts 3 January 1915; married 1946 Ruth Gikow (died 1982; one daughter); died New York City 8 November 2010.

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