Jack Levine

Painter, Jack LevineI'm sitting at my desk, inexplicably moved at the news that Jack Levine has died at age 95.

I'm not sure why I am so moved. I never knew him. I never met him. His name, his work and his legacy as a teacher at Boston University infused my time at art school there, but it's more than that. I think it has to do with the sheer quality of his work and vision, and with his doggedness in sticking to his vision long after it went out of style.

Raised in Boston's South End, he painted the ills of society, in his own manner, his whole life, and never gave up believing this work needed to be done. He stuck to his guns, with integrity, fierceness and humor. "I'm a mean man!" he says with a smile in an exerpt from 2004 documentary about him, from which I have borrowed the picture above, and which you can watch in the link below.

Looking at his work now, I am struck by its strength in the two areas that count: technical and conceptual. He has a voice, he has an opinion, he has something to express - and by God, he has the tools to express it, with a flair and solidity that puts his work firmly in the upper echelons of fine art through the centuries.

All of my teachers at Boston University were Jewish, and many of them treated their heritage as a subject. Mr. Levine's heads of Jewish elders are as solid as Rembrandts, yet with this peculiar sparkling air about them that is one of Mr. Levine's singular achievements.

Generally considered one of the Boston Expressionists along with Hyman Bloom, David Aronson, Karl Zerbe and others, he's as sharply observant of society as Max Beckmann or Georg Grosz, balanced with an often humorous edge. Next to his paintings of religious figures and corrupt politicians stand his strippers and burlesque dancers, comical in their contrasting sizes and shapes, referencing any number of nudes of the past and containing the aesthetic seeds of modern day painter, John Currin's wildest fantasies (he should lust after a fraction of Mr. Levine's genuineness).

He believes firmly in the power of art to comment, silently yet loudly, on the nature of people, especially those in power. His art is not comfortable but biting. Yet always, like the best of satirists, there is an underlying love. It's as if he were pleading with humanity to "do better", all the while feasting on the spectacle of its failure to do so.

He found a way to synthesize cartoonish proportions with elegant form, volumetric rendering with flat design, agelessness with frank contemporary sensibility, and scathing social commentary with wit and generosity.

I for one am grateful that painted the way he did, eschewing Abstract Expressionism - even if it meant the spotlight turned from him over the decades - and that his legacy is in the world. I'm looking forward to whoever mounts a beautiful, biting retrospective - the Metropolitan Museum in New York, the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. We need to see his voice.

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Jack Levine NYT obituary

Jack Levine documentary & chronology