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On Meeting Jack Levine
January 24, 1973
Recollection of Richard Terrell
Emeritus Professor of Art, Doane College
(Associate Professor at time of original writing)
This discussion of a meeting between myself, colleague Dave Bean, and Jack Levine was written shortly after returning from New York in January 1973, where we were visiting gallery directors to secure loans for a national invitational purchase exhibition funded by the Woods Charitable Fund, Lincoln, Nebraska. The discussion is based on notes and immediate impressions following the meeting.
The meeting was arranged by Lila Kaufmann, the mother of one of our students and a personal friend of Levine's. The artist's studio was on the third floor of an old building in New York's Greenwich Village. He had been there in the village his entire career, and I felt considerable anticipation at the prospects of meeting an artist I admired so much, and whose paintings commanded prestigious amounts of money in the New York art market.
Levine is of moderate height, and my recollection is that he appeared somewhat frail and disheveled. His shoulders were rounded, his back bent. His manner was casual, dry, courteous. He dies not have the look of a "famous person," whatever they are supposed to look like. Nevertheless, I was aware of the significant achievements of the man, and, in the beginning I felt like people do on a first date - - "What do we say to each other? What do we talk about?"
Canvases were stacked along one wall, and two were placed on easels. They were works in process. "I really don't know what to tell you," he said, "but these are a couple of things I'm working on."
The one canvas was medium sized, and portrayed a tough looking policeman standing behind a black captive. The policeman's face is hard, brutal, and familiar if you've looked at Levine's paintings before. The painting was part of a series of works begun years before, centered on America's racial crises. A much larger work portrayed a bandwagon of political figures - - delegated to a convention. Burst of color played against a darkened background, and the forms suggested paunchy, stupid-looking people. The technique was skilled and beautiful, used in the service of depicting corruption.
I realized, at one point, that my change-over to working in acrylic had separated me from the recognizable odor of oil paint, and I rather enjoyed getting re-acquainted with it. We began to talk about the craft of painting, and I asked him about acrylics and whether he used them. (Acrylic was a new, much-hyped medium at the time. Some promoters were even declaring the "death" of oil painting!)
"No. Not too many really know much about the older methods, so I don't mess around with these new-fangled things. Everybody has a right, of course, to do what they want. That's fine. But for me, it's important to know what has been known, and for that I have to look to the people who discovered it and knew it - - Rubens, Titian, Rembrandt. A lot of studio artists think they can just overlook what has been done. But these guys I mention, they knew what painting was about. I'm involved in my thing, but it's grounded in the craft of painting as it developed with the great painters."
"The trouble with the avant-garde thing is that it rejected what was part of man's knowledge without learning about it first. You have to know a thing before you go about rejecting it and saying it's no good for you." I could understand this as I looked at Levine's paintings. They were modern in theme and technique, but the heritage of the old masters was underlying the whole process. "Painting is a craft. You have to understand the stuff to work with it. Nobody's going to learn it by referring to people who rejected the great painters without knowing what they did. If a person wants to paint, it seems he ought to learn from the works of those who knew what the craft of painting involves."
"Actually, when I started out I admired the work of Chaim Soutine. But I didn't want to paint like Soutine. I wanted the knowledge of the men Soutine himself admired. You know, these other men - - Titian, Rubens . . ."
As teachers, we asked Levine for some observations on modern methods of art education.
"Well, you guys are teaching, and that's alright, you know. But from what I can see, and I mean no offense, it really is messed up. I mean, too much of the process is turned around. I've seen placed where they start right off trying to teach people to draw like, say, Matisse. Sure, they want them to be creative and modern. But they skip right by the knowledge of the things that such artists themselves had to learn. They don't communicate what the student has to know-the skills involved in drawing, painting. Maybe they don't teach it because they don't know it themselves. If they don't it might be because their teachers had rejected a knowledge that they never really explored either. Sure, students have an impatience with these disciplines. A lot of them think it's unnecessary work, delaying them. But I think they feel that way largely because this is what their teachers did, too. They rejected what has been known without knowing it. Picasso, you know, can really draw. I mean really draw. He does it his own way, but he knows what the figure is about and the skills involved in drawing it. But you can't take Picasso's drawings and start teaching figure drawing from there. You have to get down to what has been known. Picasso said it, you know. Somebody told him that he could draw as good as Raphael. So, Picasso says "if I can draw as good as Raphael then I have a right to draw as I please."
"And that's the difference between a man who knows what's known rejecting something and some young squirt who rejects it without ever having looked to see what's there."
What did Jack Levine think of modern tendencies toward "minimal" statements in art, the negation of communication, the pursuit of bizarre technical effects?
"Like I say, everybody has a right to do what they want, what's right for them. Technique? You have to have it, sure. Painting is craft, discipline. But for me there's more to it than just surface. I look at it this way. Where's the concern for man? We've got to have that, too."
How did jack Levine get started? How did he go about the task of living from his painting?
"Actually, I was pretty well-known nationally very early in my career. I knew I could make it from my work, so I never messed around much with teaching. And, too, I was lucky and got some breaks."
"But I also had skill going for me."
(Note: During the course of this conversation, Levine noticed something about the gesture of the hand of one of his characters in a painting, went over to the canvas and drew an altered gesture with a piece of white chalk or oil stick. Many years later I saw a reproduction of this same painting that I had seen in progress in a large, coffee-table book of Jack Levine's art. The most powerful idea that stuck with me from this meeting was Levine's emphasis on "knowing what has been known." This had a powerful influence on my own approach to teaching both studio and art history courses over the years. - - RT, 2011)