Daniel Levine: “Marker,” at Some Walls, Oakland, July 1- August 26, 2012.
Daniel Levine: “Untitled #1,” 2011-2012, oil on cotton, 9″ x 8-13/16″
Daniel Levine has made a lot of white (and other color) paintings over the past couple of decades.
Youthful memory: the first time some jerk, upon overhearing talk about abstract painting, held up a blank sheet of paper and jokingly claimed, "Look, it’s a landscape in a snowstorm." Haven’t we all heard this one? It wasn’t funny then, and it hasn’t improved with age. Tell that one to Camille Pisarro.
But still, what is it about abstract painting reduced to a (almost) single color, small in size, with exposed canvas and a relatively thin surface?
In an interview with John Zinsser in NY Arts Magazine, Levine answers, "…my paintings aren’t as "outwardly friendly" as yours are. You’re the "friendly" abstract painter – the "A" side of a great single; I’m the "B" side, in a minor key."
The minor key is of course often thought to evoke a sad or blue edge in music; this isn’t 100% true, and in some non-Western cultures definitely not the case, but generally this notion otherwise applies. The minor key doesn’t call attention to itself; it’s content to take a back seat, to deliver the goods on the sly, to engage the listener more contemplatively. For example, in the rock genre, think of The Beatles’ "Eleanor Rigby," or Bob Dylans’s "All Along the Watchtower," or Neil Young’s "Like a Hurricane": all of these songs have a slightly ominous, distant feel, as if holding back a bit and slowly building and unfolding. Not many great rock albums try to grab the reader with a first track song in a minor key. The sound and message may ultimately be no less momentous or epic than a typical I, IV, V three major chord head-nodding, toe-tapping basher, but it’s a lot less in your face, and invites a less visceral and more sensitive physical and emotional engagement requiring the listener’s awareness, observations, and reflection.
Daniel Levine’s paintings might also be called "low key."
Information, observations, thoughts:
Five painting’s, sent from Manhattan to Oakland for this exhibition, hang in a single row on a wall: Welcome to California!
They are dated 1991, 1997, 2000, 2004-2006, and 2011-2012; many have lists of dates handwritten on the back recording successive work sessions.
They are: acrylic and ink on cotton over panel (1991); gouache on cotton over panel (2000); and oil on cotton over panel (1997, 2004-2006, 2011-2012).
The cotton used in each is often a slightly different color from the others, and of a looser or tighter weave.
The smallest is 8-15/16 x 8-3/4 inches, and the largest is 12 x 11-7/8 inches; all are close-to-square vertical rectangles.
Each are stretched over panels of different depths, with thinner or thicker profiles that are closer to or further from the wall.
- Some are noticeably painted with brushes, others are very smooth; some looked rolled or scraped, many are made by pressing a loose piece of canvas into wet paint and transferring the paint to the painting in progress, layer after layer.
- Surfaces vary from matte to shiny, thick to thin, pristine to crackly.
Prior to painting, each canvas is taped about one eighth or one quarter of an inch in from all four outer edges, creating a border of exposed fabric around the inner painted plane that, once the tape is removed, sits physically on the canvas’s surface; just a thought: it’s as if the rotated square in Malevich’s Suprematist Composition: White on White is pulled out of the painting, adjusted and straightened, and repositioned squarely in a shift from painted picture to painted surface.
Each painted rectangle is unique but bears a family resemblance, the white crisp-edged rectangle’s precise presence an update to the stenciled hands at Lascaux and Altamira.
One might say that all of these paintings are white, but to say that they are simply "white" is misleading. While in Western culture white often represents purity or innocence, in Asian, Slavic, and ancient Egyptian cultures white represents death. Can any color other than black be this extreme? White light is the effect of combining the visible colors of light in suitable proportions—it is everything, but white paint can’t comprise the suitable proportions of light. Picture any of these:
Artist’s colors: Chinese, Cremnitz, Flake, Foundation, Lead, Radiant, Safflower, Titanium, Transparent, Zinc.
Decorator colors: Ghost white, Snow Ivory, Seashell, Cornsilk, Old lace, Cream, Beige, Linen, Antique white, Champagne, Eggshell, Bone, Vanilla, Navajo white, Ecru.
These color names telegraph difference. Although for convenience sake Levine’s paintings might be called monochromes, as they tend towards Monochrome Painting, let’s not choose convenience. Let’s say that Levine’s paintings are not reductions from or to anything, not representations of anything but simply themselves, works made by an artist from skeleton to skin, packed with tissues and organs of material and touch, and invested with the breath and fluid of idea, intention, and process, all the essentials any painting needs.
Levine’s paintings are not programmed or artificial; there is no sameness here, no production. He cannot be accused of enacting the quote often attributed to Albert Einstein: "Insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results." Instead, they seem as natural and new as each full moon.
To make a painting is to want something new to look at; painting is, by definition, difference. Levine’s paintings exploit convention—rectangle, paint, surface, wall—and embody determination, even perhaps orneriness—sleight-handed repetition, subtle variations, long distance perseverance and endurance. In Levine’s work are found the pleasures of making and looking, of realization and surprise.
What is for the viewer? A painting must be visual, a thing worth looking at, and it must be conceptual, a thing worth thinking about. A work of art is evidence of the artist’s values. In Levine’s case there is craft, care, attention to detail, patience, and nuance. They are physical and delicate, matter of fact and intimate. Small differences loudly resound. White offers fullness and a sense of light and presence, not void. The artist risks our time and indulgence, a request worth meeting; the empathic viewer will participate, but no matter, the paintings continue to be made and to exist. This is what the artist does, to which he bears witness, and which in turn is witnessed. As an object, a picture, and an idea, the painting is something to be looked at and to be held in the mind, in the present and as a memory. What Levine makes and presents seems to follow naturally, to make sense, to seem intuitively clear and logical, to be part of living activity.
In Alexander Pope’s (1688–1744) An Essay on Criticism, written in 1709 and first published in 1711, we find fair guidance for the artist and how to look at his work, in that Levine follows the nature of light, the qualities of paint, the paths of process, and the hints of direction that longevity, making, and long looking open and indicate. As when looking at a painting, one must slow down to read:
First follow NATURE, and your Judgment frame
By her just Standard, which is still the same:
Unerring Nature, still divinely bright,
One clear, unchang’d and Universal Light,
Life, Force, and Beauty, must to all impart,
At once the Source, and End, and Test of Art.
Art from that Fund each just Supply provides,
Works without Show, and without Pomp presides:
In some fair Body thus th’ informing Soul
With Spirits feeds, with Vigour fills the whole,
Each Motion guides, and ev’ry Nerve sustains;
It self unseen, but in th’ Effects, remains.
Pisarro, Camille. The Louvre under Snow. National Gallery, London
http://www.nationalgallery.org.uk/paintings/camille-pissarro-the-louvre-under-snow (July 3, 2012)
Zinsser, John. In Conversation: John Zinsser Interviews Daniel Levine. NY Arts Magazine. 2012.
http://www.nyartsmagazine.com/conversations/in-conversation-john-zinsser-interviews-daniel-levine (June 15, 2012)
Pope, Alexander. An Essay on Criticism. 1709.
http://poetry.eserver.org/essay-on-criticism.html (June 20, 2012)