David Levine, a painter and illustrator whose macro-headed, somberly expressive, astringently probing and hardly ever flattering caricatures of intellectuals and athletes, politicians and potentates were the visual trademark of The New York Review of Books for nearly half a century, died Tuesday morning in Manhattan. He was 83 and lived in Brooklyn.
His death, at New York Presbyterian Hospital, was caused by prostate cancer and a subsequent combination of illnesses, his wife, Kathy Hayes, said.
Mr. Levine’s drawings never seemed whimsical, like those of Al Hirschfeld. They didn’t celebrate neurotic self-consciousness, like Jules Feiffer’s. He wasn’t attracted to the macabre, the way Edward Gorey was. His work didn’t possess the arch social consciousness of Edward Sorel’s. Nor was he interested, as Roz Chast is, in the humorous absurdity of quotidian modern life. But in both style and mood, Mr. Levine was as distinct an artist and commentator as any of his well-known contemporaries. His work was not only witty but serious, not only biting but deeply informed, and artful in a painterly sense as well as a literate one. Those qualities led many to suggest that he was the heir of the 19th-century masters of the illustration, Honoré Daumier and Thomas Nast.
Especially in his political work, his portraits betrayed the mind of an artist concerned, worriedly concerned, about the world in which he lived. Among his most famous images were those of President Lyndon B. Johnson pulling up his shirt to reveal that the scar from his gallbladder operation was in the precise shape of the boundaries of Vietnam, and of Henry Kissinger having sex on the couch with a female body whose head was in the shape of a globe, depicting, Mr. Levine explained later, what Mr. Kissinger had done to the world. He drew Richard M. Nixon, his favorite subject, 66 times, depicting him as the Godfather, as Captain Queeg, as a fetus.
With those images and others — Yasir Arafat and Ariel Sharon in a David-and-Goliath parable; or Alan Greenspan, with scales of justice, balancing people and dollar bills, hanging from his downturned lips; or Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. carrying a gavel the size of a sledgehammer — Mr. Levine’s drawings sent out angry distress signals that the world was too much a puppet in the hands of too few puppeteers. “I would say that political satire saved the nation from going to hell,” he said in an interview in 2008, during an exhibit of his work called “American Presidents” at the New York Public Library.
Even when he wasn’t out to make a political point, however, his portraits — often densely inked, heavy in shadows cast by outsize noses on enormous, eccentrically shaped heads, and replete with exaggeratedly bad haircuts, 5 o’clock shadows, ill-conceived mustaches and other grooming foibles — tended to make the famous seem peculiar-looking in order to take them down a peg.
“They were extraordinary drawings with extraordinary perception,” Jules Feiffer said in a recent interview about the work of Mr. Levine, who was his friend. He added: “In the second half of the 20th century he was the most important political caricaturist. When he began, there was very little political caricature, very little literary caricature. He revived the art.”
David Levine was born on Dec. 20, 1926, in Brooklyn, where his father, Harry, ran a small garment shop and his mother, Lena, a nurse, was a political activist with Communist sympathies. A so-called red diaper baby, Mr. Levine leaned politically far to the left throughout his life. His family lived a few blocks from Ebbetts Field, where young David once shook the hand of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who became a hero, as did his wife, Eleanor. Years later, Mr. Levine’s caricature of Mrs. Roosevelt depicted her as a swan.
“I thought of her as beautiful,” he said. “Yet she was very homely.”
As a boy he sketched the stuffed animals in the vitrines at the Brooklyn Museum. He served in the Army just after World War II, then graduated from Temple University in Philadelphia with a degree in education and another degree from Temple’s Tyler School of Art. He also studied painting at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, and with the Abstract Expressionist painter and renowned teacher Hans Hofmann.
Indeed, painting was Mr. Levine’s first love; he was a realist, and in 1958 he and Aaron Shikler (whose portrait of John F. Kennedy hangs in the White House) founded the Painting Group, a regular salon of amateurs and professionals who, for half a century, got together for working sessions with a model. A documentary about the group, “Portraits of a Lady,” focusing on their simultaneous portraits of Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, was made in 2007; the portraits themselves were exhibited at the National Portrait Gallery.
Mr. Levine’s paintings, mostly watercolors, take as their subjects garment workers — a tribute to his father’s employees, who he said never believed that their lives could be seen as connected to beauty — or the bathers at his beloved Coney Island. In a story he liked to tell, he was painting on the boardwalk when he was approached by a homeless man who demanded to know how much he would charge for the painting. Mr. Levine, nonplussed, said $50.
“For that?” the man said.
The paintings are a sharply surprising contrast to his caricatures: sympathetic portraits of ordinary citizens, fond and respectful renderings of the distinctive seaside architecture, panoramas with people on the beach.
“None of Levine’s hard-edged burlesques prepare you for the sensuous satisfactions of his paintwork: the matte charm of his oil handling and the virtuoso refinement of his watercolors,” the critic Maureen Mullarkey wrote in 2004. “Caustic humor gives way to unexpected gentleness in the paintings.”
Mr. Levine’s successful career as a caricaturist and illustrator took root in the early 1960s, when he started working for Esquire. He began contributing cover portraits and interior illustrations to The New York Review of Books in 1963, its first year of publication, and within its signature blocky design his cerebral, brooding faces quickly became identifiable as, well, the cerebral, brooding face of the publication. He always worked from photographs, reading the accompanying article first to glean ideas.
“I try first to make the face believable, to give another dimension to a flat, linear drawing; then my distortions seem more acceptable,” he said.
From 1963 until 2007, after Mr. Levine received a diagnosis of macular degeneration and his vision deteriorated enough to affect his drawing, he contributed more than 3,800 drawings to The New York Review. Over the years he did 1,000 or so more for Esquire; almost 100 for Time, including a number of covers (one of which, for the 1967 Man of the Year issue, depicted President Johnson as a raging and despairing King Lear); and dozens over all for The New Yorker, The New York Times, The Washington Post, Rolling Stone and other publications.
Mr. Levine’s first marriage ended in divorce. Besides Ms. Hayes, his partner for 32 years whom he married in 1996, he is survived by two children, Matthew, of Westport, Conn., and Eve, of Manhattan; two stepchildren, Nancy Rommelmann, of Portland, Ore., and Christopher Rommelmann, of Brooklyn; a grandson, and a stepgranddaughter.
“I might want to be critical, but I don’t wish to be destructive,” Mr. Levine once said, explaining his outlook on both art and life. “Caricature that goes too far simply lowers the viewer’s response to a person as a human being.”