NEWPORT BEACH — David P. Levine was pursuing a major in marketing at USC when he had a revelation that eventually changed his life.
"We were in the middle of the Depression," the courtly, soft-spoken Levine, 86, recalled recently. "I could see that my parents had lost most of their money. And I got the philosophy that you might as well do something that you like because if you're doing something just to make money . . . it doesn't always work."
What he liked was being outdoors, camping and fishing. Art didn't interest him "in the slightest." But after he dropped out of USC, an impulsive decision to accompany a friend to a life-drawing class--and the encouragement he received there from a teacher--sparked a lifelong passion.
A selection of his paintings, drawings, prints and photographs from the 1930s and '40s, reflecting Depression-haunted urban Los Angeles and daily life in rural Mexico, is at the Tobey C. Moss Gallery in L.A. through April 30.
At the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, Levine studied with Barse Miller and other regionalist painters and became aware of art with a social agenda, including the work of such then-contemporary figures as German graphic artist Kaethe Kollwitz and Mexican social realists David Alfaro Siqueiros and Jose Clemente Orozco.
After a postgraduate year painting urban sights in New York (he missed California's hills and streams too much to stay there longer), Levine settled in Los Angeles in 1937.
Equipped with watercolors and a folding easel, he seized on such subjects as the fragile tracery of a burned-out house or objects washed away by the 1938 Los Angeles River flood (he started these paintings while standing in the water in his rubber boots and finished them in the studio).
In those years, his penchant for suggesting narrative content was fed by a city struggling with hard times. The moody atmosphere of a work from 1936, "The Stranger," is created by empty expanses of uncut grass and stucco walls, a shadow and a looming fence, and a lank, anonymous drifter.
"I had leanings toward liberal [ideas but] I never did very much that was politically obvious," Levine said last week at the Newport Beach home he shares here with his wife, Florence. "I felt that if I could get the universality of things, and my feeling of what was reality, it would be more important."
"Skylights and Rooftops" is something of an anomaly: a more formal study in the volumes and planes visible from a rooftop. The flat white window openings represent the blinding reflection of the afternoon sun--a technique Levine said was influenced by the paintings of Charles Burchfield.
Beginning with the prizewinning watercolors he exhibited at the Los Angeles County Fair in 1938, Levine showed his work actively. He had a one-man show at the Stendahl Galleries in L.A. in 1940 and participated in group shows at the Los Angeles County Museum, the San Francisco Museum of Art, the Carnegie Institute in Pittsburgh and other institutions, though he never achieved national prominence.
Hoping to meet Siquieros, Orozco and Diego Rivera, "los tres grandes" of the mural movement, Levine and Florence took a train to Mexico City in 1940. When they went to Siquieros' house, armed with a letter of introduction, "his wife opened the gate and looked at us through the narrow little opening," Levine recalled, "and said, 'Oh, he's not here. He's gone.' "
They never did meet any of the three painters. But the couple did make friends with artists working at the Taller de Grafica Popular, the graphic arts workshop that became an influential disseminator of social realist imagery.
Though he couldn't speak more than rudimentary Spanish, Levine--a compact man with high cheekbones--said people took him to be a Mexican married to an American.
On a tip from their friends at the Taller, the couple settled in the village of San Miguel de Allende, where they paid $35 a month to a retired opera singer for a spacious 15th century house equipped only with braziers for cooking. They roamed the countryside joyfully.
While other visiting artists concentrated on what Levine euphemistically calls "picturesque" imagery, he preferred to paint "the real Mexico . . . the dignity of the people and the kindness of their hearts."
In such paintings as "Earth to Earth"--a man carrying a tiny coffin on his head, followed by several straggling women--Levine conveyed the day-to-day struggles of the people he observed.
Nagged by rumors that anyone who didn't register for the U.S. military draft in 1941 would be drafted into the Mexican army, the Levines returned to Los Angeles, where David toiled extra-long days as an artist for a company manufacturing warplanes--and started ignoring his own art.