I don’t remember the first time I saw Al Hirshfeld’s wonderous charactures in the New York Times. They were always there as far as I’m concerned. Those drawings were the closest the Times had to actual comics other than the Sunday political cartoons. As a kid, I looked forward to picking out all the “Nina’s”–his daughter’s name–that he embedded in each piece. Hirshfeld was a master of lyrical line drawing.
So is David Levine, though his line is dramatically different.
I didn’t see The New York Review of Books much growing up, but I was familiar with Levine’s work. A good friend of my family, a lawyer who also happens to be is a fine draftsman not to mention a dry wit, was very influenced by Levine. His annual holiday postcards reinforced this familiarity, so I knew about Levine before I really knew his stuff.
It wasn’t until high school probably that I actually saw Levine’s drawings. I was hooked instantly. I drooled over them during my college years, studied and copied them. Levine has remained one of my favorite artists ever since. I can look at his drawings time and time again; they still give me an enormous amount of pleasure.
I don’t read The New York Review of Books these days so I didn’t notice that Levine hasn’t had an original drawing published in the magazine since the spring of 2007. Part of the reason is that Levine, 81, born and raised in Brooklyn, is losing his eyesight. David Margolick wrote a heart-breaking profile on the fractured relationship between Levine and The New York Review of Books in Vanity Fair not too long ago:
Following the decline in Levine’s work from one issue to the next was to them like watching another iron horse, Lou Gehrig, suddenly faltering on the field.
Soon the rejections came, from the Review and other publications. “These drawings are not what we have come to expect from David Levine,” Levine says Silvers told him. (Silvers says he was far more delicate—that is, if he said anything at all. “I think we just didn’t use them and said we were sorry,” he recalls.) Levine didn’t argue. “I agreed that there was something wrong and that a problem had developed,” he says. He subsequently tore up most of the rejected pieces.
Levine nonetheless insists that over time the quality of his work in pencil would have improved. Some of his colleagues, such as Jules Feiffer, agree. The Review’s “callous disregard” for Levine, he wrote Silvers in February 2007, was “stunningly at odds” with its long tradition of “intellectual conscience and decency,” and was tactically unwise to boot. “You are handing your enemies a gift,” he warned. “What fun The Weekly Standard, The National Review and The Wall Street Journal are going to have at your expense when this affair goes public.” Certainly, he concluded, “the greatest caricaturist of the last half of the Twentieth Century deserves better from you.”
Even friends who concede that Levine’s latest drawings are no longer worthy of the Review criticize its handling of him, which they consider insensitive from the start. Levine neither asked for nor received any stock in the publication when he went to work there, for instance, so that when Rea Hederman bought it for $4.5 million in 1984 he reaped none of the profits. Friends say Levine never realized how indispensable he was there, and was almost pathologically unable to stand up for himself. Levine agrees. It goes with his fear of authority, he says.
“If you’re going to write this as a Greek tragedy, the fatal flaw is David’s inability to confront the situation,” says Sorel. “You would think it would occur to him to get something on paper because ‘this may not be the last time I get screwed.’ No! And so, finally, he gets blind, they don’t need him anymore, and they don’t even tell him that they’re getting somebody else—he just opens up the paper and finds out that somebody else is there You can’t help being angry at David too. Because David, who keeps talking about his days in the Communist Party, should of all people have known the nature of capitalism! I mean, it’s almost laughable.”
It seems there is blame to go all around, but I just came away from this article thinking, what a damn shame. It shouldn’t be like this. Levine is a true master, one of a kind. This is a lousy way to go out.
Credits: That’s Al Hirshfeld’s drawing of The Odd Couple when it was on Broadway (Matthau and Carney), and the Levine drawings are: John Updike, Henry Kissinger, and Pauline Kael.