Sunday, January 3, 2021

Happy Birthday Jack Levine

Jack Levine, Jewish Cantors in the Synagogue, 1930. Ars Judaica, 3:79

Jack Levine. The Feast of Pure Reason, 1937.

Jack Levine. Adam and Eve (Eve Offers Apple), ca. 1981. Oil on canvas, 48x42in, Jewish Artists & the Bible, p31

Happy Birthday Jack Levine (1915-2010)!

Today is the birthday of the American-Jewish artist Jack Levine  (January 3, 1915 – November 8, 2010), a Social Realist painter and print maker known for his satires on modern life and political corruption, and for his sensual and sometimes comic biblical narratives. Levine made works on Jewish themes all of his life. His Cantors in the Synagogue is a fine drawing of 1930 when he was only 15 years old. In the 1930s he began his Street Scene paintings which aimed to capture the rough mix of Boston's immigrant life in city neighborhoods.

Jack Levine, Street Scene no. 1, 1938. Boston Museum of Fine Arts. Photo: Samuel Gruber 2018.

Born to Lithuanian Jewish parents, Levine grew up in the South End of Boston and attended Harvard University (1929-33) where his artistic abilities were recognize. In 1932 his drawings were included in exhibition at the Fogg Art Museum, and in 1935 twenty drawings were added to the museum's collection.

Later in life, he painted scores of canvases of biblical scenes, including many variations on the Adam and Eve story and also the Planning of Solomon's Temple.

For the present age of income inequality and continuing systemic racism and  overt police violence against Black Americans, we should remember Levine for his scathing portrayals of plutocrats and their political and military cronies, as well as his strong series of paintings in response to the police violence against civil rights protesters in Birmingham, Alabama. He continued to include politics and social critique overtly and by association in his works through most of his career. 

Jack Levine, Birmingham ‘63, 1963

Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco

Jack Levine, The Arrest, 1983.

The Hunter Museum of American Art. Read more about The Arrest here.

His 1937 painting  “The Feast of Pure Reason,” that shows a police officer, a capitalist and a politician as cronies at a table, with bloated faces "oozing malice,"remains just as much an indictment of today's power structure as it was more than 80 years ago.

In his New York Times obituary he is quoted as saying “It is my privilege as an artist to put these gentlemen on trial, to give them every ingratiating characteristic they might normally have, and then present them, smiles, benevolence and all, leaving it up to the spectator to judge the merits of the case,”Read his full 2010 New York Times obituary here.

Levine was in the Army from 1942 to 1945 after which he painted painted Welcome Home, mocking military power. Later when the work was shown in Moscow he was investigated by the House Un-American Activities Committee.

Jack Levine, Welcome Home, 1946

Jack Levine, The Reluctant Ploughshare, 1946. The Brooklyn Museum.

Together with his Boston-born Harvard classmate Hyman Bloom, Levine helped create an alternative American Jewish modernism to the the New York School. He and Bloom preferred expressionism over abstraction, and remained true to narrative and social engagement. In this they were much more influenced by American Social Realists and inter-war German expressionists and satirists than their New York contemporaries who were more inspired by the formal trends of France. Levine hated abstraction. He is quoted as saying (I don't know the source): "I’m not a child of Cézanne, I’m a child of Daumier. I have a right to be. It’s a free country."

I suspect that over time, Levine's work - especially that of his early decades - will continue to grow in renown and influence. 

A documentary film about Levine titled Feast of Pure Reason was made in 1989. He died at his home in Manhattan, New York on November 8, 2010 at the age of 95. It can be rented here:


Read more about Jack Levine in Samantha Baskind's "Midrash and the Jewish American Experience in Jack Levine's Planning Solomon's Temple," in Ars Judiaca (2007), available here.