ABE AS WE'VE NEVER SEEN BEFORE
by ANDY CADEL
Article appeared in Columbia Daily Spectator, New York February 17, 1976
Lincoln's birthday is here and despite popular belief, supporting the local storesâ Lincoln's birthday sales is not the only way to celebrate the occasion.
Levitan Gallery, on Grand Street in Soho has an exhibition of portraits of Lincoln that is guaranteed to make any true patriot proud. The exhibition consisted of twelve huge (6' x 10') charcoal drawings by Chuck Levitan that follow Lincoln's life from his younger years through his presidential term, to the final mourning of his death.
Upon first entering the gallery, the viewer is struck by an intense young Lincoln. His wild hair flares to the sides as his stabbing eyes virtually attack the intruder. These menacing eyes enhance the virility created through strong cheekbones, chin and tensed lips.
Chronologically, the exhibit begins with a similar, smooth-skinned, thirty-seven years old Lincoln on the east wall of the gallery. This beardless Lincoln seems to possess the devil-may-care attitude of youth that history has all but forgotten. His face is turned slightly to the viewer's right, but the eyes stare directly slyly at the viewer. Levitan's use of chiaroscuro draws these vital eyes into a position of unquestionable prominence.
Levitan's clever shading devices aid this chiaroscuro to both balance the portrait and to give the work a sense if animation. The shaded left side of Lincoln's face balances well with the shaded and non-shaded area stretches from his chin to his forehead, creating a strong pull across his entire face.
Levitan does well in maintaining a sense of priorities throughout the exhibit. In all the portraits there can be no question that Levitan is primarily concerned with Lincoln as an individual. This is not a case of the clothes making the man for the most part the works do not give any indication of what he is wearing. At most, there are a few lines that indicate a tuxedo lapel or a tight collar, but that are all. Levitan's main focus in all the works is Lincoln's eyes, which consistently give the viewer an indication of the man at each stage of his life.
For example as the sharp eyes of the younger Lincoln show his virility and intensity, the eyes of older Lincoln show his maturity and eventually his death. In a portrait on the east wall of the gallery, Lincoln is shown in a pose that reflects a dream he had on his own death. In this work his eyes are completely shaded in, creating two fathomless chasms in the middle of a heavenly shaded face.
An equally dark background matches the haunting darkness of the eyes. In the midst of this somber background are several apparent signatures of Lincoln. Subtly mixed in with these signatures is that of the artist. The obvious similarity of the two signatures (particularly in the L's) is perhaps a symbolic indication of the solidarity that Levitan developed with Lincoln over the months that he worked on the exhibit. In the later works, Levitan begins to use more of such symbolic means as he incorporates the techniques of abstract art that he considers his true forte.
The truest indication of Levitan's ability in abstract art is found in a rather clever double-image representation of Lincoln. Of the twelve portraits, it is the only one to have virtually no patches of unshaped white. In the center of this work is an arched border, which contains a three-quarter view of Lincoln. In the same area there is a very faint, full frontal view of Lincoln that disappears from sight whenever the viewer's attention lapses.
Although Levitan's abstract ability is not prominent in the exhibit, his talent for designing a cohesive display is clearly evident. After the initial surprise of the dramatic Lincoln who confronts the viewer upon entering the gallery, any wall that one turns toward will present the viewer with a group of Lincoln's portraits displaying a cast variety of power and emotions. Each wall contains portraits showing him in different times of his life and career. In addition to the variety on the walls, the drawings also work together in more elaborate ways. For instance, on the west wall, three of the portraits work together as a study in motion. Moving from south to north, the heads rotate from a three-quarter position to the left, to a full-frontal position, to a three-quarter position to the right.
Levitan also used sources for these portraits-photographs by Matthew Brady and Alexander Gardner to aid his physical display. In one of the photographs Levitan used for a portrait there was a crack in the original photo plate. Rather than remove the crack from his work, Levitan used the line formed by this crack to connect this portrait to the one on its left. This line travels through Lincoln's head into the upper right corner of the neighboring work.
The twelve portraits presently on display were done as elaborate studies for a banner of Lincoln entitled Lincoln Spirit. A copy of that banner (the original presently hangs on permanent display in the Lincoln Memorial) can also be seen at Levitan's present exhibit. The banner shows Lincoln on an empty white background. The right side of his face is made up of bright magenta and light blue, while the left side of his face is dominated by black, white and gray. To balance the seemingly lopsided color arrangement, a vertical rainbow flows from his left eye, which, Levitan says, symbolizes a The rainbow vision, which Lincoln saw in the midst of an era of chaos.