David Levine 1926-2009

December 31st, 2009 | Posted in News

The world of caricature lost one of it’s true giants Tuesday.

David Levine, probably best known for his caricature illustrations for the New York Times Book Review, died on Dec. 29th at New York Presbyterian Hospital from prostate cancer and other ailments. He was 83 years old.

It would not be an exaggeration to say that Levine’s work was as influential on caricature in the 20th century as that of Al Hirschfeld, Mort Drucker or any legend of that art form. His distinctive linear crosshatch style is also one of the most imitated by other artists. His caricatures were sharp, biting social and political satire that showed a deep and thoughtful analysis of the world. He rarely pulled any punches, and is regarded by many as one of, if not the most, important political caricaturist of the last century. He was also a very accomplished painter and teacher.

I’d met Mr. Levine on two occasions. The first was at the National Cartoonists Society‘s Reuben weekend in 2000 in New York City, where he did a talk for the attending cartoonists. That Reubens had the highest attendance of any in the last decade, so I didn’t get to talk much with him amid the crowds.

The first time we met was more low key, and I like to tell the story about how David Levine gave me the best career advice on freelance illustration I’ve ever gotten… in a hotel men’s room.

It was later in 2000 and I was then president of the National Caricaturist Network. The American Association of Editorial Cartoonists happened to be having their annual convention in Minneapolis that year, and I organized an NCN mini-con in Minnesota around a panel discussion on caricature that the AAEC was having as part of their convention programming. On the panel: Philip Burke, David Cowles, Bob Staake and David Levine. The panel discussion was great and there were about 20 NCN members in attendance.

After the panel we met the participants in the area outside the meeting rooms, and I got a chance to talk with Mr. Levine. He told me about how he’d gotten started in the business, his process, some of the favorite things he’d done, etc. He asked about my career goals and we had a nice conversation. I actually hit him up to be a main guest speaker at one of our NCN conventions but he said he really hated to travel to do that kind of thing and that the AAEC really had to twist his arm to get him to come to Minneapolis, but if he ever had a convention in New York that he’d be happy to explore the idea.

A short time later I was in the bathroom when Mr. Levine entered and came up to the urinal next to me. We were observing the male ritual of staring straight ahead into the tiles while engaging in small talk as we relieved ourselves, when he told me the single best piece of advice I’ve ever gotten on doing freelance illustration for a living:

“People.” He said. “That’s the key to making a living and being successful as a freelance illustrator. It’s all about people and building relationships with people.” He went on to say that doing good work was what got you your first job, but continuing jobs was about building relationships of trust and respect with art directors, because they invariably moved on to other art director jobs and passed your name on to other ADs, who would give you jobs and then you’d build a relationship with them, eventually creating a large web of contacts and people who know you were a professional who did not only good work but who did it in the professional manner that appreciated. That was some great advice and I have built my career around it.

As we were flushing and zipping up, he commented: “Shithouse wisdom… it’s the best kind.”

So true. Rest in piece, Mr. Levine… and thanks for sharing that wisdom and your art with the world.


  1. Nast-y Nina says:

    Stop holding back, Tom. Give us the inside info that only you were in the position to find out.

    Was he really a “true giant” of the artform?

  2. Lash LeRoux says:

    Awesome story, Tom. And great advice. Thank you for sharing.

  3. Very sad to hear but thanks for sharing the great bathroom story, Tom. Great advice from Mr. Levine!


New profile pic courtesy of my self-caricature for the Scott Maiko penned article “Gotcha! Mug Shots of Common (but Despicable) Criminals” from MAD 550

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