Jack Levine: The last interview

The painter Jack Levine died at his New York home on Monday, Nov. 8, at the age of 95. He was one of the founding Boston Expressionists, along with his childhood friend Hyman Bloom, another poor Jewish kid raised in the Eastern European immigrant neighborhoods of Depression era Boston. He was a born curmudgeon and New Deal Democrat, attitudes that fed his acid paintings of corrupt politicians and grotesque generals and slimy fat cats. He was considered a realist, a realist long after that was cool, but he resisted the term realist, because he was devoted to making things up even as he skewered reality. It was just that as kids, he and Bloom were rigorously trained in making things look true by Harold Zimmerman at community centers and then, for a time, taken under the wing of the Brahmin Boston art world in the person of Harvard professor Denman Ross. Levine left Boston when he was called to serve in World War II, and never really returned. The thing was he found a woman in New York, married her, and stayed there. But till the end, he seemed to identify himself more with Boston than Gotham. On April 9, 2010, I met him for a chat at his dark Greenwich Village townhouse. By then, he was a spindly old man, with thin, gray hair, large glasses and a hearing aid. He spoke in a gravelly voice, between raspy coughs. “Chronic my doctor says. So I left him.” According to Levine’s gallery, DC Moore in New York, this was the last interview he gave.

“Hyman was born in Latvia and he came here when he was about 10 years old or younger than that. And I was born in a kind of slummy part, the South End of Boston. I was very fond of doing drawings of drunkards because that was Prohibition and there would be guys who had been in the Army and were alcoholics and were wearing really old army overcoats and stuff, and drinking out of bottles of odd shapes. Which I took in. I was aware of that. I also did things about boys torturing Chinese laundrymen, who were very nice people and just trying to make a living. Or it might be a fruiter and the cop is eating apples, they’re not paying for that. I had topics like that, which also turned up in the comic strips. Which were good enough for me at the time.”

On Hyman Bloom: “I just never saw anything like it in my life. He wanted a profound study of the human body. He sort of mastered most of the Michelangelo thing, the muscles, the tendons, the body projections. He was a complete master. He was amazing. I don’t think he could go on with it after so many years. He became adverse because he was very mystical in a way I can’t follow him. He would do things about the decay of human tissue or something like that and was fascinated by it. I realized later that he had come here when he was 10 years old and he’d seen some terrible things in Latvia. Which was not one of the more civilized places at that time.”

Did Bloom ever talk about what he saw? “I think he was probably stunned by it. It was a very traumatic thing. … The Jewish Museum has a bookshop, and I had read a review about the Jews in Lithuania [where Levine’s parents came from]. So I went into a bookshop, and there was a copy of the book, and I looked at it, illustrated with photographs. There was a fine photograph of a schoolyard with Jewish men in business suits chained to the ground, doubled up, and then the fine Lithuanians would go around and shoot them in the head, under the supervision of the German army, Nazis.”

“I was talking about Hyman who came from that. But I did not. I could see he was different than I was. He was horrified by something that I hadn’t been. I wouldn’t pretend I was.”

“We were both in our ways very unorthodox. We didn’t follow anything I could think of. And especially Modernism of any sort. I think Hyman and I, we began our studies at the community house. [Denman] Ross sort of funded us. I don’t want to sound ungrateful, but he had little idea of what we were trying to do. He was an Impressionist very many years ago, and he had no concept of any image except what somebody sees. Which is anathema to us. Hyman and I just, these were figurations of something in our head. I mean if you depended on models you’d never do the Sistine Chapel. It’s simply beyond you. You’re not human enough to do it. And Ross really thought in terms of the human eye, I suppose, is like a camera.”

“Hyman [Bloom] was living in the West End and I was living in Roxbury, which I found kind of tiresome. You know people used to move there because they hungered for country or something like that. My word for it would be banality. That’s what they want. There were no cars there. That’s a move in the right direction for them. At some time or other this movement was established in education of poor people, mostly established by German Jews. I shouldn’t say this but I will because I can’t resist: They didn’t send their kids to study as we did. I think the children of parents who had been—they came to America, they were Europeans. They had a hunger for something, but the German Jews were already fully satisfied. There was one guy who was older than us who was studying at Harvard, and used the wall for fresco and one thing or another. He never achieved that great. It wasn’t a drive that he had.”

“I was living in Roxbury. There was Spaniard who was visiting Boston and he had a letter of introduction to Denman Ross. I was carrying a portfolio of drawings and he was curious to see it them. I let him see them. I was going to Zimmerman to show him the drawings I had done. … So I showed it to him and he had a letter to Denman Ross, he wanted to meet him, and I think he used it as an excuse. But I wouldn’t let him have the portfolio because I was going to see my teacher and he wasn’t my teacher. Didn’t know him at all.”

“The first time I met Ross, and that was the first time the three of us, including Zimmerman, met. And at the time I was 13. I was kind of miffed because he had set up, or he had his secretary set it up, a big drawing table that tilts and there was a photograph of his son in profile. And Ross’s idea was to do a copy of that. It was very alien to me. Alien because I’m left handed. I’m my mother’s son and she was left-handed. All the boys to some degree were left-handed. If you look at drawings in profile drawn by Leonardo da Vinci, you find they’re invariably drawn to the right. It seems natural if you’re painting that way. … If it points left it’s excruciating, it’s inhuman. Although right-handed it’s the natural thing to do.” So Levine reversed the photo’s profile when he drew it to make it more comfortable to draw. “He [Ross] thought that was the most extraordinary thing he ever saw. And I wasn’t even showing off. I was young enough and dumb enough. Just it was more natural to me.”

“His teaching was sort of, he [Ross] invented a whole sequence of scales of color, going from highlights all the way down to black. … And actually he invented a very rigid kind of painter’s palette. And I think he wasted a hell of a lot of paint.”

Ross arranged for Levine and Bloom to have a 1932 exhibit at Harvard. “I think they wanted to have kind of a blast. Ross had spent some money because he was serious about his project. This project was nothing like what he had in mind. And Zimmerman was trained in the Museum School and the antithesis of what he had Hyman and me doing.”

In 1930s, Levine painted Boston neighborhood scenes. “Boston had nothing to do with it. It had to do with Franklin Roosevelt. It had to do with the New Deal. It had to do with the Roosevelt idea of finding work for people in the Depression, much worse that we had now. I did some things on the WPA [Works Progress Administration] and one of the early ones I called ‘The Feast of Pure Reason,’ [1937, pictured above] something I got out of James Joyce’s ‘Ulysses.’ This young man who got attacked by some British police, they were policing Dublin, and they were kind of brutal. Some kind of scuffle and he lost his stick. He might have been a bit of a dandy anyway, even though he was caught up. And Leopold Bloom was walking by, picks up the stick and says, ‘Sir, here’s your stick.’ He says, ‘Stick? What need have I for a stick in this feast of pure reason?’ So I thought that was pretty good. So I did a painting of a banker, a politician and a cop. It’s roughly in the format of a group portrait of Sir Henry Raeburn. I was always about tradition. If it was new I didn’t want to know about it. It’s like wanting new parents. It won’t do. I’d just assume stay with my own people. That’s clearer than I’ve ever been in my life on that score.”

The painting ended up in the collection of New York’s Museum of Modern Art. “At that point I was recognized by Edith Halpert, who had the Downtown Gallery and she decided to take me on as a new artist at the Downtown Gallery. She had a lot of influence. I think she got the Museum of Modern Art to accept it as an allocation from the WPA. It was after all a tax-free organization. They were entitled to allocations, to accept things. So it was there and there was quite a fuss and a certain amount of animosity too because although I may have been 20 years old or so at the time, I was already very bitter. Negligence. When anybody in this country would tell you they want to be an artist, the country gave you an idea that you were despised. There’s still some of that. Nobody’s going to be nice to you. And God help you if you have any notion of what they used to call free thought. You might as well just pack up and go. I think it’s not as bad now.”

Levine recalled people saying of his “Feast of Pure Reason”: “’Obviously, whoever painted that doesn’t like the way things are.’ It’s very basic at a time like that. He’s a young boy from Boston and he did this painting which seems to be a commentary about America and he doesn’t like it. So see how much they like you when you do that. Actually I got fired [from the WPA] because according to the laws and so forth … it was discovered that I was living at home. My father had died some time before that. So I lived with my mother and brothers and sisters. Once I was on the WPA, I got a salary of like $20 a week or something like that. I kicked in for the first time in my life, really, except for when I studied with Ross I got a nominal sum and I kicked in something finally. I this case it was something a little more thanks to FDR. Somebody said that it’s the first time in the history of the world that any government would subsidize the creation of works of art not for its own splendor or whatever but because the artists needed the money. This never had happened in the history of the world. I don’t think the pope ordered art from Michelangelo if he needed some money. The first instance was in the 1930s. It never happened before in any government. You have to respect a government like that. Of course it was destroyed by the Republicans. In a sense, it sort of creates your own form living in a time like that when life is pretty difficult. It’s pretty bad now. I’m sympathetic.”

“At that time I had discovered that book, a German book [‘Die Kunst des 20 Jahrhuderts’ (‘The Art of the Twentieth Century’) by Carl Einstein, published 1926] . It was published in the 1920s and probably was the first scholarly book on let’s say Modernism. It about the movement of Expressionism and being German you’re more interested in Expressionism than non-objectivity or anything as stupid as that. It’s a big thing. I mean if you’re going to paint a portrait of somebody, that’s real motivation. And it can be an editorial thing. I damn well did that. I think as early as it is, it’s the most thoughtful book on something that was going on. After a certain amount of time I managed to nail a copy of it. I think my special enthusiasm at the time, Soutine, he was too young to make it [into the book]. Of course, Picasso made it.”

“I was going to the Boston museum, I was going to the Fogg. I was going here and there. And I’d occasionally take the night bus to New York and go to the Metropolitan. I was trying to see what there was. And I had a real kind of hunger to go to Europe and see some of the things that were there.” Did you go? “No. At the Fogg Museum, especially because of Professor [Paul J.] Sacks more than anybody else, he had a real fixation on Ingres and Degas. He bought many of their drawings and gave them to the Fogg. I thought they were wonderful. And I also thought that Van Gogh was wonderful. … I think the best Titian in the world is at the Gardner Museum, ‘The Rape of Europa.’ You know years after that, going to Europe, going to one museum after the next, I did not see a Titian which even rivals ‘The Rape of Europa.’ It’s great. It’s magnificent. And no amount of Modernism would reach me as a joke of any kind by comparison. I mean, why kid around? The thigh of Europa has a little more to it than you might think. It has a quiver because of the summer breeze. You can’t get over it. Nobody ever did that before or after. It’s not because I’m a guy and sort of crude. It’s just I know of nothing like it. Quite a painting too. It makes painting worth while.”

Levine was drafted into the Army in 1942. “I was on Ascension Island. It was south. You know that huge arm of Africa, about a thousand miles south of that, which is still in the Atlantic. We had a very important purpose. Fighter planes had a short cruising radius. During the winter for example, we wanted to mix with the battle of North Africa. Couldn’t get there. They could not fly across the Atlantic during these battles. They had to fly down to Receife in Brazil, which is the base of the South Atlantic Air Corps, and maybe 1,500 miles east of South America. There were no people there really, just troops.”

Did you come under attack there? “No. There was a German sub out there, we always understood. But the tactical value of the island wasn’t worth it, so they never attacked. Some fighter planes went out because they had heard there was a German sub out there. This was one of the real contemporary German ships and they gave our guys hell. And they came back, there were no fatalities but they’d been shot at.”

How did you end up in New York? “It’s a ridiculous thing. The Metropolitan Museum decided to have an exhibition called ‘Artists for Victory.’ Everything had to be for victory. It was like the last year of the war. And I won the prize strangely enough, and that’s how the Army discovered me. A $3,000 prize and the Downtown Gallery marked up the $1,000 sales price. So the Metropolitan acquired it. That was a painting I’d done of a ‘String Quartet’ [1934-37] before any of this. And they [the Army] decided that they were not going to fool around with me now that they knew that, well, I wasn’t very strong politically I suppose. And I never had a high school diploma, which meant I was stupid as far as they were concerned. They decided to send me to New York, to the North Atlantic division of engineers based in New York with a very congenial guy. If I ever knew where he was, he’d still be my friend.”

At the end of World War II, “I wanted to go home, but at that time I was going with Ruth Gikow. She was like a female counterpart of me. We had similar aspects. The subject of marriage, that just came up. I didn’t raise it. It was bound to happen. So I asked her if she would come home to Boston with me. She said she would not. And, of course, to be realistic about it, she was only known as a New York young artist. And I had at that point two paintings in the Metropolitan Museum. … I could afford to go to Boston because I was national. She was from a neighborhood in New York. She did well enough as time went on, but I could see where it would be too much of a sacrifice for her. So we got married. A couple of my sisters and a brother brought my mother down to attend the wedding. At that point I was out of the Army, of course. It was too brutal and stupid to marry somebody in the armed forces.”

He responded to the war with his 1946 painting “Welcome Home” (above) depicting a general and friends at a fancy dinner. “It’s a comedy. Much earlier I’m being involved by seeing rich people chewing and having a polite dinner. So I called that one a welcoming return of a general, a two-star general, probably not that even, a president of a branch bank which gave him the two stars on his shoulder, that sort of thing. And the complacency and the whole kind of arrogance. Which was not nice to me. When you get in the Army in wartime, up till then you have the Bill of Rights, but once you get in that’s over. You have the articles of war. That’s very candid. You do as you’re told. And there’s no excuse because that’s rebellion, isn’t it? It can’t be fought. It’s a hard reality. Every army in the world has it.”

“That painting was misunderstood. I painted that picture because it was a time of liberation, of freedom. I was no longer a soldier. I didn’t have to wear that funny suit. And I could live, within measure, the way I wanted to. And that was all over. It was an expression of joy, because the two-star general was not on my back. I was joyous. I used him as a butt, and chewing, you know. His delicate wife with one cheek because she hadn’t swallowed. Maybe I did that and maybe I didn’t. I mean if I’m going to have a pretty woman in there I’m not going to spoil it.”

“I never made much money, but I even got a Guggenheim, post service, you know. And there was something else. And I got traveling fellowships. And once or twice we went to Europe and went to museums and so forth because grants were available, then it was the Fulbright. After our daughter was born, I got a Fulbright, and Ruth wanted to go to Italy and that’s where we went, because she loved the idea of Italy. I probably would have preferred to go to England. An agent she had really advised me strongly not to apply for the two of us because the two of us might not get it. That that was a certainty. She held that against me. She really was furious with me. She thought the two of us would get it double and we’d live much better. I didn’t want to take the risk of having to make some other plan.”

Did you teach or have other jobs? “No. I didn’t know what I was going to do in Boston. I had it in mind a sort of more monastic life. Working for no one, except the divinity probably.”

“I think we lived on St. Marks Place until the baby was born. The baby was sharing Ruth’s studio. So we moved to the Upper West Side. Then as things improved slightly we began to improve our livelihood, where we stayed. We were on West 11th St., we had a duplex rental. Then this house came up. The neighborhoods around here were just being developed, cheap. It’s a townhouse and very much in demand. And I own it. So it’s going to be my daughter’s.”

“Of course we were activists, everybody was. We didn’t know anybody on St. Marks Place who wasn’t. … None of them were quite as pure as I was. Ruth certainly wasn’t. She had the consummate New York artist training. She was being taught how to make a living on any basis, as a sales girl, whatever, any kind of side issue, so we could do the shopping. … A certain thing came up and there were slogans, and we marched. There were meetings and one went and one didn’t necessarily sign one’s life away either.”

His painting “Welcome Home” was shown as part of a U.S. State Department exhibit in Moscow in 1959, and the House Un-American Activities Committee charged that Levine and other artists in the show had communist affiliations. “Ben Shahn and I think Philip Evergood were called to Washington to be questioned. They wanted me too. It happened that Ruth and I were in Spain and Franco was dictator still, and were ashamed that friends of ours would know we were spending our money in fascist Spain. That was the greater disgrace. … But my mother, an old lady in Boston, heard about it and she was very frightened.” But Levine wound up not being required to face the committee. “They wouldn’t pay my fare. It was a budgetary thing. They would have to pay my flight. Ben Shahn and Philip Evergood it was train fare. You have to think of these things. … I think it petered out. They were doing it for newspaper clipping anyway.”

“There’s a history of artists being kind of surly about the governments they live under. I don’t think you have to go any further than that. Naturally, we’re not great fans, and we’re not patriots. The very idea of doing something patriotic, I can think of nothing more remote than that. But given that there was a war on and I was drafted and I was under the articles of war, I always said, ‘Yes, sir,’ and I obeyed. It was against Hitler for God’s sake. I mean, you had to be intelligent about it.”

How come around the ‘50s this social criticism strain of art peters out? Why weren’t there more artists making paintings like the Soyer brothers or you or Ben Shahn were doing? “None of them had anything like the experience that we had of being the roughly the right age to go into the Army. In which you were cut off from any communication from anybody who thought the way you did. Every now and then you might see somebody in the Army and you’d nod to each other, you were going through the same thing.”

Did the HUAC crack down, the right wing crack down stamp out politically-engaged art in that time? “That was their intent, the only thing is that they were far from a success that way. I mean several of the leaders of them of the anti-Red whatever became a joke.” Like Joseph McCarthy? “Yeah. … They tried it. I think maybe I’m distorting it. They were trying to get copy, trying to get publicity. That was the real reason.”

In the ‘60s, there was a return of realism with Pop Art. Were you engaged with that or friendly with any of those people? “Doesn’t sound like me at all. If there’s a current movement, I ignore it.”

Are you still painting? “I’m doing something upstairs. It’s a lion in a catacomb. I don’t know where it’s all going. It’s a large canvas. It’s hardly a painting yet. It’s sort of a monochrome. But it may turn out yet.”

Photos of Jack Levine at his home by The New England Journal of Aesthetic Research. Paintings from top to bottom: Jack Levine “Neighborhood Physician,” 1939; “Feast of Pure Reason,” 1937; “Torso,” 1972; “String Quartet,” 1934-37; “Welcome Home,” 1946; “Orpheus in Vegas,” 1984; “Gangster Funeral,” 1952-53.

One Response to “Jack Levine: The last interview”

  1. [...] Levine told me last April: “Ben Shahn and I think Philip Evergood were called to Washington to be questioned. They wanted me too. It happened that [my wife] Ruth and I were in Spain and Franco was dictator still, and were ashamed that friends of ours would know we were spending our money in fascist Spain. That was the greater disgrace. … But my mother, an old lady in Boston, heard about it and she was very frightened.” Levine wound up not being required to face the committee. “They wouldn’t pay my fare. It was a budgetary thing. They would have to pay my flight. Ben Shahn and Philip Evergood it was train fare. You have to think of these things. … I think it petered out. They were doing it for newspaper clipping anyway.” [...]