Jack Levine, Welcome Home, 1946, Oil on canvas, 40 x 60 inches
I’ve been thinking recently about Jack Levine. How as a young artist I loved his work. My dad used to say, when people would see my work hanging in our house, “My son’s copying Jack Levine.” Ben Shahn too, I might have added. These artists were famous in the 30’s, 40’s, and 50’s.
Figurative painters who dealt with human, often social concerns. In what seemed a remarkably pluralist art world back then (even up until the early 60’s), Levine had a big career. He had one of his major paintings in every NYC Museum. MoMA has three.
Not that I’ve ever seen them hanging on their walls! What happened? What made an artist who was as smart and ambitious as Levine clearly was (he was not some clueless reactionary) become largely invisible for the last 50 plus years?
Looking back at Levine I was struck by what a modernist he was, especially in his early and middle years. Yes, he had a huge interest in the long history of painting (as most painters I admire do), in the old masters, and especially Rembrandt, and he took a great deal from Chaim Soutine. But then, so did de Kooning.
Still, Levine was no anti-modernist; he struggled to integrate Cubism (he particularly loved Braque) and, indeed, Abstraction into his work. He was however an artist who was not willing to completely give up the particularity of the figure and its use in some dramatic narrative or allegorical way.
The great Max Beckman, who I think of oddly in a somewhat related context, suffered a similar fate in not being considered as truly great a “modern painter” as, say, Matisse or Picasso… though I think Beckman is very much their equal.
I think Greenbergian Modernism, and the fatuous hegemony of his “progress in art” rhetoric, has put nails in the coffins of all sorts of serious and interesting representational artists for most of my lifetime.
Paul Cadmus who I knew toward the end of his life (and loved as a person) was another terrific artist, well known up until the 50’s, then temporarily erased, only to be revived in recent years for his “sexual politics” but clearly not as an important painter.
I knew Jack Levine a bit too, toward the end of his life. He was very sweet to me, though clearly a curmudgeon and plenty pissed off (for good reason) about what had happened to his reputation in his lifetime.
I am reminded of something said about Picasso in his later years; the two things you couldn’t mention to him were “death” and “Abstract Expressionism.”
Mark Greenwold, And Now What? 2016-17, Oil on linen, 40 x 44 inches
Born in Cleveland in 1942, Mark Greenwold is best known for his laborious artistic process which mirrors the psychological intensity of his paintings. His work is in the permanent collections of major museums across the United States including the Hirshhorn Museum of Art, the Smithsonian Institution, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Morgan Library, and the Whitney Museum of Art.