Jack Levine, social realist artist who defied artistic trends, dies at 95

By Matt Schudel
Wednesday, November 10, 2010; 12:04 AM

Jack Levine, 95, an artist who built a career out of mocking the rich and powerful in his boldly executed social realist paintings, died Nov. 8 at his home in New York City. The cause of death was not reported.

Mr. Levine retained an edge of social satire throughout his work, which sometimes got him in trouble with the authorities and with his patrons. His vigorously painted canvases reflected the radicalism of his youth and his view that the high and mighty of society, whether military officers, businessmen or police officers, should be held accountable for their arrogant ways.

He found early fame - and controversy - with his 1937 painting "The Feast of Pure Reason," which was acquired by New York's Museum of Modern Art and stirred up a ruckus among its well-heeled supporters. The painting depicted a well-fed businessman, politician and police officer in conversation, as if they were part of a corrupt underworld cabal.

With "Pure Reason," Mr. Levine "exploded like a skyrocket as an artistic prodigy at the age of 22 and was immediately established in the ranks of those who were then called Social Realists," art historian Milton Brown wrote in 1989.

Along with Ben Shahn and Raphael Soyer, Mr. Levine was considered one of the foremost artists of the social realist movement, a group of artists concerned with pointing out the inequities of modern society.

Mr. Levine's defiance also extended to the manner in which he painted. He resisted every trend of 20th-century abstract art and steadfastly painted in an animated realistic style that derived from his studies of old masters. He was deeply influenced by the satirical works of 19th-century French artist Honore Daumier and admired the paintings of German expressionists George Grosz and Oskar Kokoschka.

"His nervous, flickering brushwork brought every inch of the canvas to life," a Time magazine critic wrote of Mr. Levine in 1953, "and created an illusion of space filled not only with figures but with air, odors and heavy thoughts."

After serving in the Army during World War II, Mr. Levine returned home and continued to tweak the mighty with one of his best-known works, "Welcome Home." The 1946 painting, now at the Brooklyn Museum, shows a general gorging himself at a banquet table, joined by well-dressed businessmen and a socialite in a low-cut dress.

When the painting was shown at a State Department exhibition in Moscow in 1959, President Dwight D. Eisenhower personally intervened to keep the painting on display - even though he did not like it. Soviet citizens flocked to see the painting, and several congressmen called for Mr. Levine to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee.

Mr. Levine continued to paint until the end of his life and often painted portraits of historic Jewish leaders. In general, though, his art reflected his political views, including "Birmingham '63" about racial injustice and a late painting critical of former Republican speaker of the House Newt Gingrich.

With his thinly veiled social commentary, Mr. Levine seemed to represent an earlier time when artists were expected to be front-line radicals leading a proletarian rebellion.

"I made quite a splash in the art world when I was just a kid," he said in a 1985 documentary, "and it seems to me that every year since, I have become less and less well known."

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