the recent death of Jack Levine, at 95 years old, serves as a reminder that the artistic currents and social issues that confronted him and his contemporaries are illuminating in their reflection of our present condition. It was an era of painting that transitioned two wars and the total letdown of the much promised “peace dividend” which was bundled into a grab bag of freedom as material consumption. The notion being that a society that consumes, and is relatively sated by it, will be pacified enough not to pose too many questions. Willem de Kooning, Jack Levine and Andrew Wyeth are three examples of contrasting visions that exemplified the range of inspiration during the post-war era. Each one represented a major school or movement in which its painter is a leading figure….
De Kooning was the radical abstract expressionist; Levine the the vein of social realism; Wyeth from an older tradition of meticulous thoughtful representation as a form of magic realism. The labels of emotional, humanistic and reflective/poetic do not really satisfy, but they were marked as such by the art buyers of the time.
Born in Rotterdam in 1904, De Kooning came to America in the 1920′s influenced by the turbulent Vincent van Gogh and the early calm abstractionist Piet Mondrian. Eventually, turbulence won out and immediate emotional responses on canvas aroused reaction that ranged from intense admiration to outright rage, though most critics credited him with great sincerity and earnestness of purpose. For the sheer violence he transmitted to canvas, he knew no peer.. De Kooning described art and the process of art with the following quote: “Art never seems to make me peaceful or pure. I always seem to be wrapped up in the melodrama of vulgarity”.
Paintings like Levine’s “Inauguration” on the other hand, represented something the viewer could identify with, though only obliquely. It might be said to represent the general spirit and mood of American political life at a typical ceremonial moment. Levine, born in South Boston in 1915, was raised with early memories of slum life and then was swept up in the wave of social protest that marked the 1930′s. As an aspiring painter he was first influenced by the modern Frenchmen Soutine and Rouault. As a critic, Levine turned to satire and sermon.
In his critical approach and his concern with the ways of human society, Levine was rooted from a broad tradition that first flowered with the so-called Ashcan School of American realists soon after the turn of the century. In the 1930′s, a second generation that brought forth new lights such as Ben Shahn and Philip Evergood added political fervor and sometimes even revolutionary dynamite to the mixture- as well as a sharper, harsher, more personal style of painting.
With Andrew Wyeth, we go back to an even older tradition and one that many at the time pronounced dead. Born in 1917, the son of illustrator N.C. Wyeth, he was trained by his father in the craft of meticulous representation that had made the Wyeth name famous. But something more went into the homegrown young student than just that. Before his fathers time, American painters like Thomas Eakins and Winslow Homer had painted from nature in a way that combines precision with depth of portrayal and a sense of brooding atmosphere. Much of this somber poetry reappears in the work of the second Wyeth, who painted homely and familiar scenes that had undertones that brought intimations of wider meanings.