D.C.’s Smithsonian with David Levinthal Photos: “American Myth & Memory”

Elaine A. King
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The Smithsonian American Art Museum’s exhibition “American Myth & Memory, curated by Joanna Marsh features the uncanny fictional photographs by American photographer David Levinthal.  Born in San Francisco, California, in 1949 he was shaped by the United States ‘Golden Age’ of television and the proliferation of commercial advertising during the prosperous economy of the 1950s and 1960s. 

Untitled from the series, Barbie (1998), Polaroid Polacolor ER Land Film, 20 x 24” © 1998, David Levinthal. Gift of an anonymous donor

Since childhood he has used toys to stage complex, invented enactments of battles using G.I figures and German toy figures that has gradually evolved into broad social commentary.  In 1977 he and fellow student from Yale, Garry Trudeau collaborated to produce the celebrated book Hitler Moves East, 1977 that is considered today as a groundbreaking classic of modern photography.  Levinthal’s imaginary style of photography has influenced the early Post-Modernist artists Richard Prince, Cindy Sherman and Sherrie Levine who also scrutinized media imagery and myths of their era.  Sherman credits Levinthal’s photographs with “pushing photography away from the sternly mimetic documentary style of the 1960s toward a more playful, artificial relation to the world.”

No Man’s Land from the series, History (2014), inkjet print, Smithsonian American Art Museum, © 2014, David Levinthal. Gift of Donald Standford Rosenfeld, Jr

In the Smithsonian’s exhibit the viewer is witness to six of his most celebrated series created between 1984 and 2018 including Modern Romance, the American Beauty, the Wild West, Barbie, Baseball and History. In the 70 color images displayed (selected from the nearly 400 given to Smithsonian American Art collection), Levinthal presents iconic events and characters that helped to shape American Post World War II society.

Dallas 1963 from the series, History (2013), inkjet print, Smithsonian American Art Museum, © 2013, David Levinthal. Gift of Donald Standford Rosenfeld, Jr.

His signature approach is that of taking a close-up image of fabricated tableaus bathed in dramatic lighting with very little depth of field.  Levinthal’s use of diminutive toy figures to investigate significant topics or people is fascinating and throughout his diverse oeuvre he crosses the boundary between the realm of the actual and fictitious so to highlight American myths and stereotypes.  According to the Smithsonian American Art’s Press Office, “In doing so, Levinthal encourages us to consider the stories we tell about ourselves—what it means to be strong, beautiful, masculine, feminine, and ultimately, American.”

Since the 1970s, Levinthal, has been investigating the relationship between history and pop culture through cleverly constructed miniature, three-dimensional fictional environments of toys.  He believes “Toys serve as icons for what’s going on in society. Toys are intriguing, and I want to see what I can do with them. On a deeper level, they represent one way that society socializes its young.”  In what at first purports to be playful, Levinthal delves into themes as race and religions, beauty, war, sexuality and voyeurism.  Many of the photographs resemble scenes from film noir filled with darkly themed narratives despite being shot in color.

Untitled from the series, Wild West (sepia), 1998, instant color print, Smithsonian American Art Museum © 1998, David Levinthal.Gift of an anonymous donor.

His most celebrated body of work is perhaps the Wild West Series produced between 1987 and 2012. Levinthal is aware that a large part of our national identity was intensely shaped by the ubiquitous presence of the West in film and popular culture during the 1950s and 1960s. In this series Levinthal explores the myth about the American Western expansion and the Native American Wars.  He is cognizant that mythologizing of the West was done through Hollywood and 20th century advertising, depicting the cowboys as heroic liberators and trailblazers.  Peculiarly Native-Americans are almost absent in his tableaus as are any depictions of the atrocities committed upon them.

“The truth is that Hollywood lied to you. In reality, life in the Old West played out far differently than the stereotypical settings seen in many classic Spaghetti Westerns.”

Levinthal perception of Hollywood’s myth of the West that dominated popular culture for decades parallel’s Nida Sea observation: “Hollywood’s rendition of cowboys, Indians, gunfights, and outlaws paint a romanticized version of what people believe Old West life was like because the idea of a gritty frontiersman who maintained law and order with his peacemaker was the stuff of box office gold.  The truth is that Hollywood lied to you. In reality, life in the Old West played out far differently than the stereotypical settings seen in many classic Spaghetti Westerns. In fact, the clean-cut cowboys portrayed by actors such as John Wayne are a far cry from what cowboys were truly like or how they really lived.”[1]   

Untitled from the series, American Beauties (1990) © 1990 David Levinthal. Gift of an anonymous donor.

However, this myth of the West was fervently rejected in the 1980s during the era of Revisionism.  The Smithsonian American Art Museum mounted a controversial exhibition The West as America, Reinterpreting Images of the Frontier, 1820–1920.  “Republican members of the Senate Appropriations Committee were angered by what they termed the show’s “political agenda” and threatened to cut funds to the Smithsonian Institution.[2]

In The Wagon Train, 2018 he diverges from earlier work in which he totally fabricated the set and photographed the fixed figures within the setting.  Here Levinthal uses one large pre-built diorama to show diverse compositions that he generated from one diorama. Additionally the intricate actual 3-D diorama is on view in the exhibition.

Iwo Jima, from the series, History (2013), © 2013 David Levinthal. Gift of Donald Standford Rosenfeld, Jr.

Levinthal returned to his W. W. II interest years later. Inspired by the iconic photograph taken by Joe Rosenthal on February 23, 1945 depicting six United States soldiers raising the U.S. flag on Mount Suribachi during World War II’s Battle of Iwo Jima, Levinthal’s image titled Imo Jima, 2013 is part of his History series.  It is captivating in its realness of depicting this momentous historical moment. The six marines raising the flag appear ever so life-like despite they are merely miniature toy soldiers.

David Levinthal’s Baseball Series depicts several of the game’s legends in which he captures in his small photographs the theatrical moments and inner strength of the players with its minimal details and dramatic lighting.  Intriguingly only in the sports section are people of color highlighted in a positive manner. This is very telling given the struggles that African-Americans had to experience in their climb to success and respectability.   

Museum visitor view Hank Aaron image, Untitled from the series, Baseball (2004), Polaroid Polacolor ER Land Film, 24 × 20” © 2004, David Levinthal. Gift of an anonymous donor. Photo credit: Libby Weiler.

The restaging of “Hank” Aaron’s moment right after he hit his record-breaking 715th home run on 8th April 1974 and broke Babe Ruth’s record is remarkable!  Not only is this Caravaggio like light-dark composition with a dark background and illuminated forefront main stage compelling but also is symbolic of a black man taking the record title away from the famous white Babe Ruth!  In a similar image Levinthal portrays a likeness of Rickey Henderson, the man who as of September 2018 continues to hold the NLB stolen base record with 1,406.Known as the “Man of Steal,” this fictional photo encapsulates this Oakland player’s ready to bolt and win again attitude.

In several of the images from the “Untitled” Barbie Series we find white, trim affluent women in elegant clothes, trim bodies and sleek hair.  Barbie was one of the first USA toys to have been marketed strategically to fit the values of its time on T.V. advertising. In an era of the MeToo movement, the portrayal of women in Levinthal’s Barbie as well as American Beauty Series, reminds us of a time when women were objectified and branded on television.  His photographs are a reminder of how far society has evolved in its attitude in rejecting the popular culture singular prescription of women and definition of white beauty.

L to R: Untitled from the series, Barbie, 1998, Polaroid Polacolor ER Land Film, 24 x 20″, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of anonymous donor © 1998 David Levinthal.

Untitled from the series, Wild West, 1988, Polaroid Polacolor ER Land Film, 20 x 24″, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of an anonymous donor © 1988 David Levinthal.

Untitled from the series, Baseball, 2004, Polaroid Polacolor ER Land Film, 24 x 20″, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of an anonymous donor © 2004 David Levinthal.

There is no moralizing in David Levinthal’s staged photographs—they function as an open tableau inviting viewers to observe and draw their own conclusion.  He recognizes that observers will bring their own sense of history and collective memory when examining this work about the myths and stereotypes the media has fed us.   This exhibition is open to critique for some and for others it may reinforce engrained stereotypes!

By Elaine A. King, Contributing Writer

David Levinthal Photos: “American Myth & Memory”

Smithsonian American Art Museum

Through October 14, 2019

Elaine A. King is a freelance art critic and curator, based in Bethesda, MD and Cataumet (Cape Cod), MA.

[1] Sea, Nida “11 Things You’ve Always Thought About the Wild West That Are Totally Wrong,” 2019.

[2] Kimmelman, Michael, “Old West, New Twist at the Smithsonian”, The New York Times, May 26, 1991.

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