There’s still time to nominate local icons for Best of D.C.
”David Levinthal: Baseball”
The first time I ever saw a David Levinthal photograph was maybe a half-dozen years ago, at the Corcoran Gallery of Art. It was a small, grainy, black-and-white image that depicted four soldiers at the edge of a grassy depression. The rifle-toting figures were surrounded by a thick smoke, and all were in various states of distress. One was tossed upside down; another leaned back with both arms up the air; a third was thrown up and off the ground entirely.
For a long moment, I was transfixed. Then something entered my mind: The photograph seemed too good to be true. For one, how could it have been taken? Had the photographer been blown to smithereens? And why weren’t the soldiers’ faces more detailed, when every single blade of grass seemed to be distinct?
I would soon realize that I had been taken in by Levinthal, an artist who has spent the past three decades photographing toys—in this case, realistic-looking World War II figurines. Most artists, to one degree or another, create a tension between perception and reality in their work. But in this image, Levinthal clearly demonstrated both technical skill and conceptual boldness, managing to imbue inanimate—even frivolous—objects with palpable human pathos.
While viewing “David Levinthal: Baseball,” an exhibition of Levinthal’s most recent work at Conner Contemporary Art, I thought back to my moment of confusion at the Corcoran. The Conner show features 10 large-format Polaroids and Cibachromes in which Levinthal has photographed plastic and porcelain statuettes of baseball players. All made between 1998 and 2004, the works offer an early preview of a book that is slated for release next year. Had I been looking at Levinthal’s work for the first time, I would have been impressed by the new pieces’ technical virtues—their realistically blurred backgrounds and immediately convincing tableaux. But viewed in the context of Levinthal’s long career, Baseball seems trifling.
Much of Levinthal’s past work has been both serious-minded and visually persuasive. The war image I was so drawn to at the Corcoran came from perhaps his best-known project, the 1977 book Hitler Moves East: A Graphic Chronicle, 1941–43, co-authored with Doonesbury cartoonist Garry Trudeau and filled with dozens of seemingly hard-bitten combat scenes that tell the story of Germany’s invasion of the Soviet Union. A subsequent Levinthal series, Mein Kampf, used toy figures to construct a grim, darkly lit vision of Nazi Germany, including a miniature death camp.
In other works, Levinthal has used toys to plumb the mysteries of sex and desire. His Modern Romance series (1984–1986) presented a seedy, alienated flesh-world of prostitutes, johns, cheating spouses, and voyeurs. Two later projects used toys to depict flesh itself—or, to be accurate, pseudo-flesh—along with various related fetishes. Like his pictures of “combat,” Levinthal’s images of female “skin,” usually photographed against stark black backgrounds, are convincingly realistic. Indeed, in an interview, Levinthal recalls being asked at the Paris opening of his 2000–2001 series XXX, “Which of these are real and which are the toys?” He seemed pleased to learn of such confusion.
Whatever the subjects of Levinthal’s prior series, they all shared a spirit of inquiry that elevated them above straightforward portrayals of toys. Baseball, on the other hand, appears motivated primarily by wistfulness. Most of the series’ subjects are figurines dating from the ’50s and early ’60s of Levinthal’s boyhood, plastic renderings of then-contemporary players such as Hank Aaron, Yogi Berra, and Willie Mays, as well as one star from a previous era, Babe Ruth. An additional pair of figurines is of more recent vintage: porcelain statuettes of Jackie Robinson and Ozzie Smith, manufactured with a greater degree of realism than their plastic forerunners.
With each photograph, Levinthal obviously took pains to assemble a believable setting. Visually, he achieves a good degree of success. Miniature grandstands, often consisting of carefully tailored pieces of cardboard and foam core, offer an unexpectedly impressive illusion of depth. Even in isolation, the backgrounds are lovely as abstract forms: aqua and pink behind Smith, a succession of lavender, green, and beige behind Eddie Mathews. In one image of Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher Don Drysdale, the light has been adjusted to a convincingly Southern Californian cast. Levinthal has made it easy for baseball fans to guess the identity of the pictured players: Smith is seen leaping off the ground to snare a line drive; Robinson is pictured making one of his dynamic slides; Ruth is shown calling his shot in the 1932 World Series.
Each view, in other words, is iconic—presumably, like much of Levinthal’s work, a comment on modern American myth-making. Yet two works from the artist’s The Wild West (1987–1989), which are on display at Conner along with one piece from XXX, reveal exactly how faint a comment that is. Like Baseball, The Wild West involves both midcentury
collectibles—this time plastic Western figurines—and fond memories from Levinthal’s childhood. But the tone is much different.
In one image from the series, a man dangles from a noose secured from a tree branch; in another, a rifleman screams in pain, an arrow piercing his side; in a third, a bonneted woman looks out longingly into an undifferentiated horizon, standing in hazy sunlight so red that it could easily be an approaching sandstorm. The scenarios are weightier than Baseball’s, yes, but more important is the fact that the toys Levinthal photographed are typical playthings: broad types rather than specific individuals.
The figures of The Wild West are iconic in both senses of the word: classic, conventionalized Americana. And the conventions they present are what make Levinthal’s scenes of violence and dread interesting. Viewed from the present day, the real world it mimics includes quite a few more racial and geopolitical complexities than the sanitized, Anglocentric view that was presumed by ’50s-era toys. Levinthal’s Western works are tinged with just enough irony to force viewers to pick apart the idyll: How real was it? How did it come to be? How does it compare with contemporary society?
The central figures of Baseball are individuals—mythical, in some sense, but, thanks to the careful efforts of the anonymous toy designers decades ago, too fixed in their specificity to draw the viewer into a creative relationship. Levinthal has acknowledged that the series is “much more homage than ironic.” It was a mistake to tip the balance: As Levinthal noted in the same interview, when The Wild West opened in New York, the project “had a lot of implied irony for people,” whereas visitors to the Museum of the American West in Los Angeles saw the same works “as more of an homage.” The narrowness and complacency of Baseball makes it hard to imagine its viewers having such disparate reactions.
The toys’ real-world details—the peeling paint, the surfaces that are too highly reflective to stand in for flannel or cotton uniforms—might imply something about the increasingly tarnished image of the national pastime, or, in Robinson’s case, about its troubled past. But they scan more emphatically as signifiers of nostalgia and collectibility: These are well-loved, valuable objects. Beyond suggested comparisons of, say, players’ salaries and drug use in the ’50s and today, Levinthal’s depictions of them offer little to stimulate viewers’ minds as art.
So is this just a commercial gig? Probably not. Levinthal is too talented an artist to be in it merely for the money, even though it’s safe to assume that photographs of toy Willie Mayses will be bigger sellers than shots of toy Adolf Hitlers. In the hands of an artist less talented than Levinthal, creating a series of photographs this well-made and visually attractive might be achievement enough. But for a man who’s already picked fights with war, misogyny, and racism, creating fan-friendly images of athletic superstars is a purely minor-league project. CP