For this long-time admirer, seeing one of David Levine’s sublime and instantly recognizable watercolors of Coney Island on the cover of Gallery Guide was a joyful moment, knowing it heralded more. From December 12 through January 17, Forum Gallery presents “David Levine: The World He Saw,” the first major exhibition of paintings and drawings by Levine since his passing in 2009. Fifty works are on view including more than 25 of his watercolors of Coney Island, many loaned by private collectors and museums.
Renowned as a caricaturist whose insightful drawings were on the cover of The New York Review of Books for more than 40 years, Brooklyn-born Levine spent his summers painting the bathers on Coney Island beach and the architecture on the boardwalk and adjacent streets. Many of the structures that he painted–pavilions, booths, bathhouses, and amusement rides, have since vanished or were demolished.
While photographs of Coney’s past attractions tend to put a “then and now” distance between the viewer and the subject, the immediacy of watercolor and Levine’s mastery of the medium makes us see what he saw. Then is now. The ache in the heart upon viewing his watercolors of Stauch’s Baths, the Bank of Coney Island building and the original Thunderbolt roller coaster is akin to phantom pain for a limb that has been lost.
There are also paintings of rides that are thankfully still with us– the Polar Express, the B&B Carousell–and of elderly women whom Levine affectionately referred to as the “Shmata Queens of Coney.”
“Each year they would say: ‘Ya know, lest veek, dere vuss a men chust like you.’ I would patiently tell them that it was me,” Levine wrote. “The ‘shmata,’ or ‘rag,’ not only refers to the head cloth, but also to the bathing suits – faded and misshapen by molding to aged and deformed bodies that have been out under the sun. They are now comfortable with me sketching in their midst and only occasionally ask to see what I do.”
Walter Bernard, a fellow member of the Painting Group, which Levine co-founded with Aaron Shikler in 1958, wrote this remembrance in the New York Times in 2010: “Watching David work was a revelation. He handled watercolors unlike anybody else. He liked to experiment and, as he put it, ‘play.’ He would draw, redraw, ‘schmeer,’ sponge out and paint again. It was not uncommon to see him rub out a work we’d been marveling over, saying, simply, ‘I didn’t get what I was going after.'”
Levine often painted the 1925 Thunderbolt, which was SBNO (Standing But Not Operating, in roller coaster parlance) since the early 1980’s. The titles of the works are telling: End of Youth, End of Joy, Goya at Coney, and after it was demolished in 2000, The Past.
One of the stories Levine told about the people he met while painting in Coney is this poignant anecdote about End of Joy: “I was seated on a side street, painting the Tinturn Abbey of joy rides, the Thunderbolt. Black and looming, it stood abandoned. A group of children surrounded me. They had just left the beach. Their chattering stopped as they watched my performance. Then, silently, they moved off as a group. When they had walked a short distance, the smallest, a little girl, turned and ran back to me. Without a word, she placed a quarter on my watercolor, then returned to her friends.”
A 72-page, fully illustrated catalogue, with foreword by author and journalist Pete Hamill, accompanies the exhibition.
David Levine: The World He Saw. December 12, 2014 to January 17, 2015. Forum Gallery, 730 Fifth Avenue 2nd Fl. (between 56th & 57th Streets), New York, NY 10019. 212-355-4545. Gallery hours are Tuesday through Saturday, 10am to 5:30pm
Related posts on ATZ…
October 4, 2013: Art of the Day: John Dunivant’s Bizarre Midway
May 22, 2013: Art of the Day: Girl to Gorilla Showfront by Lew Stamm
August 21, 2012: Art of the Day: Out of Disorder (Coney Island) by Takahiro Iwasaki
September 17, 2011: Photography: Floating Above the Coney Island Boardwalk