Ear­li­er this week, Saman­tha Baskind wrote about some of the artists she inter­viewed for Ency­clo­pe­dia of Jew­ish Amer­i­can Artists. In the first chap­ter of her newest book, Jew­ish Artists and the Bible in Twen­ti­eth-Cen­tu­ry Amer­i­ca, she fea­tures the artist Jack Levine. Below, she dis­cuss­es her expe­ri­ence inter­view­ing Levine for the book. She will be blog­ging here for the Vis­it­ing Scribe series all week.

The first time I spoke with Jack Levine was on Octo­ber 26, 2004. This was before the Inter­net made find­ing peo­ple easy, and so I con­sult­ed a New York City phone book at a local library in Cleve­land. I com­piled a list of all the J. Levine’s liv­ing in Man­hat­tan (and there were a lot of them) and called each with the pref­ace, rolling off my tongue quick­ly before I could be hung up on: Hel­lo, I’m look­ing for the artist Jack Levine.” After five wrong num­bers a gruff voice answered in the affir­ma­tive: That’s me.” I was effu­sive, explained my pur­pose (a book I was writ­ing), and we imme­di­ate­ly began to talk. I found Jack self-dep­re­cat­ing on that call, and always, and when I asked him why he replied, It’s all right. It makes you more meaningful.”

Jack Levine, Plan­ning Solomon’s Tem­ple, 1940.
Oil on masonite, 108 in. The Israel Muse­um, Jerusalem.

A few months after that first tele­phone call, I vis­it­ed Jack at his Green­wich Vil­lage home. What I thought would be an hour or two stay turned into an entire day’s con­ver­sa­tion. We sat in his liv­ing room, clut­tered with vol­umes of art his­to­ry books piled up on shelves and the floor. Art he made and that he trea­sured hung on the walls around me. Can­did and charm­ing, Jack shared mem­o­ries and ideas about his life and art. He spoke of his child­hood as the youngest of his Jew­ish, Lithuan­ian immi­grant par­ents’ eight chil­dren. Jack told me that his par­ents planned to name him Jacob, after his pater­nal grand­fa­ther, but his Amer­i­can­ized old­er broth­er insist­ed that the new­born be giv­en the more Amer­i­can sound­ing name: My old­est broth­er con­fused the whole thing, because I guess he felt patri­ot­ic.” Ret­ro­spec­tive­ly, Levine not­ed: It’s ridicu­lous. I ought to be alright with the name Jacob.” 

While I cer­tain­ly knew Jack was a con­sum­mate drafts­man and painter, I soon learned about his vast knowl­edge and love of art his­to­ry. We walked up steep stairs to his third-floor stu­dio, a bright open space illu­mi­nat­ed by sky­lights. Jars of col­or­ful paint were stacked on shelves and on avail­able counter space, paint­brush­es scat­tered the floor and were stuffed in mis­cel­la­neous con­tain­ers, and more books over­flowed on shelves and tables. He was work­ing on three can­vas­es: a dense­ly paint­ed image of a lion that he had been play­ing with for years, a por­trait of Moses hold­ing the Tablets of the Law, and a scene pop­u­lat­ed with fig­ures that was tak­ing the form of one of his vin­tage dis­cours­es on human fol­ly. As the sun began to set and I pre­pared to leave, with sev­er­al audio­tapes full of mate­r­i­al and a hand­ful of pho­tographs of Jack, I told him how much I enjoyed our day togeth­er. To which he replied with a twin­kle in his blue eyes: You would have enjoyed it more if I was­n’t nine­ty years old.” 

Jack Levine, Moses on Sinai II, 1991.
Oil on can­vas, 7263 in. Pri­vate collection. 

On July 24, 2010, after learn­ing that he was quite ill, I vis­it­ed Jack again to say good­bye and to pep­per him with yet more ques­tions (he died a lit­tle over three months lat­er). He still pos­sessed his dead­pan wit; after fin­ish­ing a cup of water he stood up and said, I need to use the bath­room. I’ll stag­ger over there now.” Although he was weak, we walked to his favorite restau­rant for lunch, an Ital­ian place around the cor­ner from his brown­stone where Jack ate near­ly every­day, always greet­ed by the wait­ers with enthu­si­asm. Even though it was a swel­ter­ing New York sum­mer after­noon, he wore his fedo­ra and sport coat; as usu­al, he would not leave his home with­out them on. We talked about print­mak­ing, some of the artists he admired, and why he paint­ed Jew­ish subjects.Jack believed that the over the ages the Sec­ond Com­mand­ment pro­hib­it­ed Jew­ish art and he want­ed to do some­thing for his peo­ple by fill­ing that gap. Chan­nel­ing William Wordsworth, he told me that this would be the last time we would be togeth­er: I’ve been lone­ly as a cloud and it’s time it stopped.” He recalled old friends that day, includ­ing Raphael Soy­er, a close friend of Jack’s and the artist on whom I wrote my first book.

Raphael Soy­er was a top­ic we addressed on more than one occa­sion. Jack because he was so fond of Soy­er, and I because I wel­comed the per­son­al insights after all the years spent research­ing and writ­ing about him. Dur­ing my first vis­it to inter­view Jack I sat in his liv­ing room under a Soy­er draw­ing and he shared a sto­ry about a vis­it he paid the old­er artist short­ly before his death. Jack remem­bered that in 1987, while keep­ing Soy­er com­pa­ny at his bed­side, he took his friend’s hand and kissed it: Raphael’s hand was the only artist’s hand I ever kissed. In fact, the only oth­er person’s hand I kissed was my father’s.” As I pre­pared to say my final good­bye to Jack this sto­ry came to my mind, and I felt com­pelled to bestow on him that same gift of admi­ra­tion and respect. And so I kissed Jack’s hand, one that had paint­ed rich, pow­er­ful, and lumi­nous can­vas­es for near­ly a cen­tu­ry. His hand lin­gered in mine and the warmth in Jack’s tired eyes betrayed his affec­tion even as he gruffly said Oy vey.” Jack was still Jack and for that my heart swelled.

As I left, Jack watched me through the win­dow. I final­ly tore my eyes away and walked through the West Vil­lage, unabashed­ly cry­ing. An extra­or­di­nary man with a remark­able his­to­ry and the last great liv­ing fig­u­ra­tive artist of mid-twen­ti­eth-cen­tu­ry Amer­i­can art would soon be gone. 

Saman­tha Baskind is Pro­fes­sor of Art His­to­ry at Cleve­land State Uni­ver­si­ty. She is the author of sev­er­al books on Jew­ish Amer­i­can art and cul­ture, which address sub­jects rang­ing from fine art to film to comics and graph­ic nov­els. She served as edi­tor for U.S. art for the 22-vol­ume revised edi­tion of the Ency­clo­pe­dia Judaica.

Relat­ed Content:

Saman­tha Baskind is Dis­tin­guished Pro­fes­sor of Art His­to­ry at Cleve­land State Uni­ver­si­ty. She is the author or edi­tor of six books on Jew­ish Amer­i­can art and cul­ture, which address sub­jects rang­ing from fine art to film to comics and graph­ic nov­els. She served as edi­tor for U.S. art for the 22-vol­ume revised edi­tion of the Ency­clopae­dia Judaica and is cur­rent­ly series edi­tor of Dimy­onot: Jews and the Cul­tur­al Imag­i­na­tion, pub­lished by Penn State Uni­ver­si­ty Press.