Hip to Be Square: The Work of David X. Levine

Since the late-1990s, New York-based artist David X. Levine has produced an extraordinary body of work that has continuously evolved. On the eve of his solo booth presentation at the 2014 NADA New York art fair, writer and critic Michael Wilson takes a look at the artist’s influences and – increasingly large-scaled - output over the past five years.

David X. Levine | Mary Brown, 2014, colored pencil and collage on paper, 50 x 52 inches.

While the paint-splattered radio (or its digital equivalent) is a fixture of countless artists’ daily lives, most treat music as little more than a reassuring background pulse, a comforting presence in an otherwise lonely studio. But for David X. Levine, it has often been a driving force, informing not only the subject matter of his work but also the process of its making. Levine’s large-scale drawings in colored-pencil and graphite—to which he sometimes adds elements of collage—are derived from a rhythmic, repetitive application of their materials that suggests the blending of a million beats into a visual Wall of Sound. Levine has also paid tribute to rock, pop, and jazz musicians in many of his work’s titles, alluding to greats from Miles Davis to Amy Winehouse.

David X Levine | Amy Winehouse, 2008, colored pencil and collage on paper, 23 x 20 inches. Private Collection.

David X. Levine | Executive Producers, 2009, colored pencil and collage on paper, 80.5 x 53 inches.

In “Brian Wilson Loves You,” a 2009 exhibition at Steven Zevitas Gallery named for the eccentric Beach Boys founder, Levine paid abstracted tribute to various heroes and heroines including Carol Mountain, a high-school crush of Wilson’s who reportedly inspired the song “Caroline, No,” and Emily Kane, the subject of an Art Brut song about a similarly elusive love interest. Many of the works make use of repeated pattern, again producing a hypnotic effect gently suggestive of romantic obsession. And while the artist does make occasional use of appended images to conjure a more specific allusion (“I Will Take You to the Heights of Carol Mountain” incorporates a snapshot of its subject), in most cases it is shape, color, and texture that do the work of expressing devotion.

David X Levine | I’m Still in Love with Emily Kane, 2008, colored pencil on paper, 55 x 69 inches.

David X. Levine | Will You Take Me to the Heights of Carol Mountain, 2009, colored pencil and collage on paper, 24 x 20 inches. Private Collection.

The scale and chromatic density of Levine’s works gives them the presence of oil-on-canvas paintings, but their maker remains committed to a graphic practice, expending countless hours (and pencils) to achieve opaque fields of saturated color that he buffs to a near-reflective finish. The results are clearly informed by Minimalism, yet betray far too much physical labor, too much sweat, to achieve the standoffishness that that label tends to conjure. Critics have aligned Levine’s technique and aesthetic with those of a notably diverse group of artists, from Matisse to Vija Celmins (and, of course, Warhol), while Levine himself also names guiding lights from Giotto and Picasso to Francis Picabia (he reserves especial praise for 1921’s L’Oiel Cacodylate), and Fred Sandback.

David X. Levine | Suzanne Pleshette, colored pencil and collage on paper, 68 x 154 inches (tryptych).

Over the past five years or so, however, it is not an artist but rather a filmmaker (albeit the “artiest” of them all) who has exercised the most significant influence over Levine’s practice. Jean-Luc Godard’s mastery of collage in its widest sense—his bold mixing of the personal with the political, linear narrative with fragmentary images, concrete sound with amplified color, popular culture and unabashed high seriousness—exhibits a poetry that often seems to elude or elide critical interpretation. It is this apparent irreducibility, rather than any particular formal or conceptual agenda, that Levine admires, and which has become more and more a conscious element of his own practice.

The same period has also seen geometry begin to play a more important part in Levine’s compositions. Three years ago, he began to make compositional use of square and rectangles, inventing ways of making them seem as idiosyncratic as any more organic shape. He achieved this by a programmatic focus on different elements of his work, spending a year concentrating on space, then a year on composition, and finally a year on color. (In describing the latter, he speculates about the possible influence on his palette of the saturated hues of 1960s and ’70s color television.) Finally, through slight modification of a shape’s scale and placement, he has honed the ability to wield it as the key to his own brand of poetic connotation.

David X. Levine | John Wieners, colored pencil, collage and graphite on paper, 61 x 52 inches. Private Collection.

In Levine’s most recent drawings, which include, from 2013, John Surette Led a Boy’s Life, Monster, and September 30, 2013 and, from 2014, Mario Montez and Mary Brown, he continues this focus through composition, color, and shape (making strategic and striking use of white space as well as his signature brights), and via the interplay of modernist, postmodernist, and pop-cultural influences including, increasingly, film as well as music. Given the breadth and complexity of this contextual field, it is entirely unsurprising that, while his art has wit and excitement, it also repays slow and repeated looking.

David X. Levine | John Surette Led a Boy’s Life, 2013, colored pencil on paper, 22 x 34 inches (diptych).

David X. Levine | September 30, 2013, 2013, colored pencil and collage on paper, 60 x 48 inches.

David X. Levine | Mario Montez, 2014, colored pencil and collage on paper, 76 x 200 inches (polyptych).

David X. Levine | MiceK, 2014, colored pencil on paper, 48 x 38 inches. Private Collection.