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11/13/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

David Levine, Legendary Illustrator, Losing His Sight

For four decades, David Levine's acid-tipped portraits of everyone from Castro to Cheney gave The New York Review of Books its visual punch. Now that the greatest caricaturist of the late 20th century is going blind, is he owed more than a fond farewell?

Throughout the year 2006, a great drama unfolded in The New York Review of Books. It didn't take place in one of its famously erudite articles on politics and culture, nor in the characteristically splenetic exchanges on the letters page, nor in a highbrow personal ad in the back. Instead, it occurred graphically, in the caricatures of David Levine, which had graced the publication for the past 44 years.

Levine's drawings--the latest crop around that time included Jimmy Carter, George Soros, and Colin Powell, along with the usual assortment of novelists, scientists, poets, potentates, and academics, dead and alive--still appeared. His customary irreverence was also intact: Vladimir Putin in a king's robe; the lips of Justice Samuel Alito, fresh from his unenlightening confirmation hearings, zippered shut. But to anyone familiar with Levine, something was seriously off. The images were scarcer, cruder, more tentative. Even his signature, the casually confident "DLevine" that always nestled cozily at the bottom, was different: suddenly, it was crabbed and erratic, even illegible. Sometimes it all but tumbled out of the frame.

Few people may have noticed the change, because Levine's older, classic drawings for the Review--there were more than 3,800 of them--still appeared in the magazine, not just amid the articles but in various promotions and inserts: Saul Bellow or Amelia Earhart, looking reproachful or entreating, urging readers to re-up. In Manhattan and Cambridge and Ann Arbor and Santa Monica, where calendars featuring Levine drawings still hung in their usual places, it was as if he'd never left. But when the older work was juxtaposed with the newer, sometimes across the page, the contrast was stark, and sobering.

Simultaneously, two more dramas were under way. One was on Henry Street in Brooklyn Heights, where Levine, now 81 years old, had long lived and worked. Gradually, his universe had grown darker and fuzzier. He could no longer see very clearly without strong light and magnification, or rely upon his hand: the lines that had always been his friends, the spare, crisp ones that defined someone's shape, and the elaborate cross-hatchings that gave him soul, he could no longer control. His ophthalmologist had put it bluntly. "Mr. Levine, you don't look your age," he said. "But your eyes do." His diagnosis: macular degeneration. Medications and injections didn't help. Levine worked on, but laboriously. He abandoned pen and ink for pencil, which, as he puts it, "was more forgiving if I made a mistake." But the results were plain enough. For the first time--except for those very few instances when it had been too tart for the publication's taste--the Review rejected his work.

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