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Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Jack Levine

Jack Levine
We all read the newspaper, maybe not daily, but often enough to usually be aware of what's going on in our local communities if not in the world at large. Sometimes we get a little roiled up about what we read and spout off to our spouses regarding some outrage in our minds. A few of us may even rise to writing letters to the editor. And, having done so, our rancorous rage at least temporarily vented, we settle back in our Lane recliners and let it go at that. No, I don't own stock in the company.) I wonder though, how many of us have ever picked up brushes and painted our outrage? I never have. But then, I've never written a letter to the editor so I guess I've never been mad enough. At any rate, when we begin to talk about this type of outraged, artistic behavior, aside from some very talented political cartoonists up and mucking about at the moment, the name of only one painter comes to mind--Jack Levine.

Feast of Pure Reason, 1937, Jack Levine
Jack was born in 1915, a Jew, in the rough and tumble, bare-knuckles precincts of South Boston and Roxbury, Massachusetts. He studied art at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. One of his first works, The Feast of Pure Reason grew out of his memories of the crime, corruption, and immorality rampant in the streets of his boyhood bailiwick. In New York, he quickly became a part of the Social Realist Movement. With the start of WW II, he quickly became a part of the US Army. When he returned, he found the art world of SOHO and Greenwich Village awash in the abstract splatters of the New York School. Though his style had always had much of the loose, painterly qualities of the so-called "action painters," the Abstract Expressionist ridiculed his work. In 1946, he met their criticism head-on with a painting titled Welcome Home, a work dripping not with paint, but sharp irony and brutal jabs at the government as well as the art establishment of the time. And while it didn't exactly endear him to the powers that be, it did secure him a place of respect in the same art community he so often satirized in his paintings.

Welcome Home, 1946, Jack Levine
As the forties melted into the fifties and sixties, Jack took on mobsters, corporate presidents, movie moguls, and stuffed-shirt, banana republic generalissimo. His immortal Gangster's Funeral, from 1953, is a perfect example. Any resemblance to persons living or dead is purely intentional. At first glance, the painting would seem to be in step with the Abstract Expressionism, but closer study reveals much more the influence of the old masters, from the Mannerists, right up through the Baroque, and Picasso, with brief adieus to Rembrandt and the Flemish painters. His later work, up until his death in 2010 at the age of 95, aimed pointed barbs poking at crooked cops and crookeder politicians. Levine also paid homage to Titian and Rubens as he satirized classical myths and even Old Testament figures from a unique, Jewish point of view. So, the next time Congress, the Pentagon, or Barack Obama does something that ticks you off, don't write to the editor, unleash your brushes, draw their picture, and squirt some paint in their faces.

Gangster's Funeral, 1953, Jack Levine

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