R.I.P. David Levine

David Levine, one of the greatest caricaturist of our time, passed away this week.


For forty years, David Levine’s drawings of politicians, writers and other cultural figures formed the visual identity of the influential intellectual tabloid The New York Review of Books (and beyond) and made a lasting impression of our times. While many caricaturists are comfortable to revel in the pleasures of distortion and exaggeration alone, leaving opinion to their accompanying writers, Levine used his illustrations to express his own opinions. He wasn’t just making drawings, he was making a point.

Beyond his signature cross-hatched, pen & ink caricatures, he was a painter of extraordinary watercolors too; many of Coney Island. He was a master of watercolor media and exhibited those works in galleries and museums. It’s remarkable to see such different successes coming from the same artist.

“More than any other caricaturist, Levine has a fine eye for fraud. Let a statesman parade false affability, false humility, or false sorrow, and Levine will make it into a mask… Levine is a man of protest—passionate protest. And these drawings, more than anything else, are a social history of protest—especially as the artist felt it.” – John Kenneth Galbraith

“Levine is one of America’s assets. In a confusing time, he bears witness. In a shoddy time, he does good work.” – John Updike

Working Pictures

Great pictures work because they are designed to work. They don’t just happen by luck or by accident. In this Working Pictures series, elements and decisions of picture design are closely examined to better understand how images are made to “work.” 



Wisely chosen concepts wedded to artful images make for memorable and effective pictures. The communication success of an image is the result of the decisions made regarding these factors.  


The above image, perhaps David Levine’s most famous, is a perfect example of how illustrators can combine two topics into one picture, to create a singular, memorable and poignant image.

In 1966, President Lyndon Johnson, recuperating from gall bladder surgery, raised his shirt to reporters to show the scar from his operation. The surprising move appeared in all the nation’s newspapers. David Levine, subverted that instantly recognizable image by using it for a commentary on LBJ’s role in the Vietnam War. In his drawing he switches the scar with a map of Vietnam (which at that time too, was recognizable). The country’s shape, after all,was perfectly suited to act as a scar! The result was a revelation; The Vietnam War was President Johnson’s scar. The seamless connections created in the image made it effective then, and stands the test of time today; a brilliant visual concept. 


Further Observation


Self Portrait by David Levine

An appraisal from the NY Times: http://www.nytimes.com/2009/12/31/arts/design/31levine.html


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