Let us now caricature the caricaturist, who is David Levine, sitting slumped in pin-striped pants in his little loft on upper Broadway.

"I'm a sloucher," he says with an ease that verges on fatigue, a fatigue that verges on resignation. He has the inflection of a New York boy, even at 52 and famous, the artist who rescued caricature from the walls of Tsardi's and put it - his at least - on the walls of museums including the Hirshhorn. And most recently in a book, "The Arts of David Levine," along with his watercolors.

Levine is the bringer of mixed blessings whenever he picks up his Pro-Quill pen. Like the little boy who pointed out that the emperor wore no clothes, Levine leaves his subjects naked, but certified as powerful and famous.

Lillian Hellman burgeons with smugness; William Buckley is a mummified vole roused from nightmare. And the politicians! As if they weren't tenuous enough as media images, Levine explodes all the subliminal iconography of sad, cold eyes and terrible grins to leave us with the sense that one more touch of the pen and they might dematerialize altogether.

Levine knits his fingers behind his head, claiming, "I confirm what some people already feel and think," and his body sprawls in the sooty diffusion of winter light in Manhattan.

For all his addiction to tennis, since his late 30s, it's a body built for leaps through scissoring subway doors, there to squint through The New York Times with his opaque brown eyes.

"That's about all I read," he says. "I didn't even read New York magazine when I worked there." Why not?

"I don't know. It's not my kind of things."

Feet flop on bony ankles, a little belly winkles his blue Oxford shirt against his belt, his shoulders huddle for warmth or privacy-a body built for shrugging, too, in this city, from Levine's studio with the Borax sprinkled against the roaches to the crazy guy shouting at the oranges downstairs at the Fairway market.

And why not shrug? Who among us is good enough never to disappoint?

"I went down in an elevator with a woman who works in the garment industry," Levine says. "She said, 'People don't sew well anymore. The stuff falls apart.' It's true. You have to make sure you don't let yourself do things sloppily. People working down on Sixth Avenue, they don't understand the contribution they make, they don't understand why I want to paint watercolors of them."

Isn't this touch of the Protestant work ethic a bit startling in the house artist of The New York Review of Books, with what he calls "a socialist bias toward capitalist government."

No: "Why give the work ethic to the Protestants?"

It belongs as well to socialism-but a socialism of Levine's youth, not the one that arose in the '60s when halcyon prosperity provided the luxury of radical protest which worried more about things like "the quality of life" than wages, security and control of the workplace.

Levine was the only child of a garment manufacturer with one loft on Sixth Avenue. His mother was a nurse.

Growing up in Brooklyn, "I was always in trouble as a kid. Steal ing candy, in trouble at school, throwing rocks at the Botanical Garden."

Break any windows?

"Sure I broke windows, it's all windows over there."

At the same time, Levine was hanging around museums, poring over the great vomic book innovators who peaked in his boyhood, such as Will Eisner of "The Spirit," and making a name with his drawings of Disney characters and schoolyard pornography.

"I was voted the school cartoonist. But when war broke out I did a drawing of kids marching out of the Erasmus Hall High School arch, under a statue of Erasmus with tears falling from his eyes. The faculty adviser said it was imprudent and not what was wanted. Everybody was supposed to want to go off to war, but they never told us about the casualties, they'd never show pictures of dead GIs in the newsreels."

Rancor floats in his face, a purplish upper lip rising under his nose, which ia a cantilevering of cartilage with nostrils peering downward like gargoyle's eyes. He lends himself to caricature, and has done several of himself, so "people can't say 'He does everybody else but he doesn't do himself.'"

He wanted to be a comic book artist, but his parents sent him to Philadelphia's Tyler School of Art to study painting. After a tour in the Army "guarding sporting goods in Egypt," he became a painter, studying briefly with abstract expressionist doyen Han Hoffman, acquiring, mostly a powerfully outspoken dislike of abstract expressionists and the artists of his generation.

"I do not like abstract art," he says. "Between the WPA and the GI Bill, we created an enormous opportunity for untalented people."

In 1960, Esquire's Clay Felker saw and liked some Levine drawings. Soon he was drawing for both Esquire and the New York Review. He opened 1968 by drawing the covers on both Time and Newsweek. He became a celebrity, but stayed inside his shield of dark New York parochialism a satisfaction with rewards too subtle to be perceived by gallopers from the talk shows to the literary brokering in the Hamptons.

At the same time, he took up tennis, and he's not shy about finding stars to play with. He's fond, too, of telling reporters how when he first heard of the Robert Kennedy Pro-Celebrity tennis tournament, "I called George Plimpton. I said, 'Can I play? After all, I'm a celebrity.' George said: 'Of course you can, David.' Then he called back and said 'Ethel says no.'"

For all the acid rendering he's made of the Kennedys, Levine might fare better were he not to say then: "I don't trust the Kennedys at all. I don't trust any of their liberal stances."

And you can see from the look of long-tried innocence on Levine's face that in his ideal world, you can portray a family as vapid buffoons, attack them in public and then be disappointed when you don't play in their tennis tournament. No wonder his shrug is so articulate.

No wonder, also, that Levine has taken for his tennis hero the classic bad boy of the court, Ilie Nastase.

"All people think of is his demeanor," he says, fascination making his eyes go hard. But he is so good that he can get himself into trouble, then get himself out. He will not answer the ball twince the same way, just to make it interesting for himself."

If, then, David Levine could be 12 years old again, and put down his rocks for a tennis racket, would he build a game like Nastase's?

"I play like him now!" he exclaims. "I will not do the thing that wins, but the thing which is interesting. I'm not a killer, but I'm told that I look good, the points are interesting, I look like I'm winning even when I'm losing."

A watercolor waits above his desk-someday he'd like people to know that the same person does both the watercolors and the drawings-but today the job is a caricature of Sholom Aleichem, the writer. He picks up his Pro-Quill, opens his ink bottle with tidy subway gestures.

A power saw yelps in a neighboring loft, and pretty soon the karate school downstairs will be thumping and grunting. Where else but New York would an artist of Levine's prestige work in this room of scabby linoleum, the cartoon of the cockroach on the wall, furniture that looks like it came out of a 1956 DeSoto or the emergency room of a bankrupt hospital.

But then, it's not very far from his father's old loft in the garment district.

He starts drawing in the shading on the Aleichem caricature-shading he picked up from comic books, not the 19th-century Thomas Nast tradition he's so often prasied for reviving. He draws line after line of it.

"I must have drawn a billion of these," he says, a statement which rests somewhere between boast and complaint-but that's what the shrug is for.