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From Toys to Art: Learning from David Levinthal

David Levinthal War Games Corcoran Gallery of Art museum DC
By Lauren Wright, (BA, Art Studies 2015; Curatorial Intern and former Curatorial Seminar student)
David Levinthal War Games Corcoran Gallery of Art museum DC

David shows the audience an infamous picture of himself as a young boy, captivated by a set of cowboy and Indian figurines. (Jane Pierce)

When my classmates and I first met photographer David Levinthal, we became comfortable very quickly—David has a penchant for telling amusing stories from throughout his career that put everyone at ease. Those attending the Dudley Memorial Lecture on May 9th, 2013 were treated to a few of those same anecdotes, from David as well as Roger Rosenblatt, who introduced the talk.

Rosenblatt is a writer and longtime friend of the artist, and the repartee between the two of them throughout the evening was a perfect example of Levinthal’s good humor.

War Games explores a serious theme that Levinthal seems to constantly return to; however, much of his work over the years has gone in quite different directions. In 1999 David was asked to create photographs to honor Barbie’s fortieth birthday, though he revealed that he was hesitant at first. It was not until he recognized his chance to become a “fashion photographer” that he embraced the opportunity.

David Levinthal War Games Corcoran Gallery of Art museum DC

Barbie #42, 1997 (David Levinthal)

David Levinthal War Games Corcoran Gallery of Art museum DC

Barbie Millicent Roberts 1998-99 (David Levinthal)

The resulting photographs intimately flatter the doll’s figure and clothing (as if she were an actual model)— a contrast to the photojournalistic eye of the war photographs. His wide range of subjects is a testament to the skill with which David brings plastic to life.

After a semester of learning about David’s work, I was delighted to see a series I was not familiar with in his presentation. (Space (2007)) is the emotional opposite of series like I.E.D. and Mein Kampf: the photographs are whimsical, featuring spaceships and astronaut figurines that are really quite adorable. Their rich colors are enhanced by the 20”x24” Polaroid film, and they emphasize the simple innocence of the toys much more than other series do.

David Levinthal War Games Corcoran Gallery of Art museum DC

Untitled, from the series Space, 2007 (David Levinthal)

My favorite story comes from the early days of Levinthal’s career, when he was a college student working on Hitler Moves East with Garry Trudeau. They worked with childlike enthusiasm, purchasing smoke bombs from a local theater supply shop and growing grass inside David’s apartment to achieve maximum realism. This culminated in a huge explosion of smoke, and the photograph below. Forever making jokes, Levinthal had this to say about the situation: “I’m not even sure we had 911 those days, so that was probably helpful.” He sometimes describes incidents in which things went wrong, but thankfully this wasn’t one of those situations. Instead he successfully produced this photo and began a transition from the early works, which show toys rearranged on his linoleum floor, to photographs that are sophisticated and deceptively real looking.

David Levinthal War Games Corcoran Gallery of Art museum DC

Untitled, from the series Hitler Moves East”, 1975 (David Levinthal)

Levinthal continues to make photographs on the subject of war even today. As a Corcoran undergraduate, it was incredibly inspiring to hear from someone who started out as a humble art student and has since been working successfully for many decades. Two of his most recent photographs, which are stunningly larger than life, are currently on display in War Games, on view at the Corcoran through October 27, 2013.