“Heroes, Sluts & Servants”: A Virtual Discussion (2022)

David Levinthal
Untitled (From the series Barbie), c. 1997

See the Facebook Live Chat with David Levinthal, March 3, 2022

See the Facebook Live Chat, March 10, 2022. Lisa Parish + Robert Hirsch discuss Jewish and Black depictions in Levinthal’s work.

Join the Facebook Live Chat, March 17 @ at 6:00 p.m.-6:30 p.m. Robert Hirsch + Veronique Cote + Lisa Parish + David Levinthal.

Fundamentally, David Levinthal is a collector. He gathers Americana—toys and tchotchkes representing American identity—and photographs them in constructed worlds as part of personal fantasies or nightmares. His most beloved work speaks of American heroism and masculinity, featuring toy soldiers in the midst of battle and exalted sports icons in victorious poses. It is the mythical Americana of his childhood placed in idyllic landscapes from his imagination, reminiscent of the televised Westerns of the 1960s.

Over a prolific and lengthy career, Levinthal’s exploration of cultural artifacts eventually branched out from male heroes to include pinups, barbies, and blackface dolls, noting the dark side of American idealism through material culture. The glorious kitsch of vintage collectibles carried the nostalgic memories of iconic pasts, but they also bore witness to the stereotypes and prejudices of their time. As such, archival inquiry, the process through which we reinterpret cultural artifacts for contemporary audiences, is an essential tool in understanding many of the perplexing social problems of our modern world. It is the process Levinthal embarked with his more controversial series: Blackface, Hell’s Belles, XXX, Barbie, and Mein Kampf, for example.

CEPA does not shy away from a comprehensive exploration of the societal implications of Levinthal’s body of work. His more disputatious series beg the question of appropriation and lack of lived experience, with a white man commenting on female and Black representations; however, the photographer becomes an archivist who strives to ignite dialogue. Indeed, artifacts that generate warm nostalgia for the majority population have the opposite effect on minority voices. Nevertheless, Levinthal serves as the illustrator and hopes for the public to start a conversation. He states that his work “attempts to create a dialogue about racism [and sexism].” CEPA aims to assist by bringing in collaborators with various voices to talk about the work from their diverse perspectives. Together, we seek to balance the discourse by providing critical interpretations of Levinthal’s images and the pop culture they document through various lenses.

This exhibition offers its viewer a politically engaged perspective on the archive cannon allowing for a collective reflection on values, ideas, and differences represented in material culture. Note that David Levinthal’s artistic vision supports this concept as it was (still is) his goal to preserve and document for future generations to use and debate.

The images in the Heroes, Sluts, and Servants exhibit were selected from the UB Art Galleries’ collection by two scholars: guest Curator Robert Hirsch who focused on the Hitler Moves East series, establishing the historical framework for this publication, and Chief Curator Véronique Côté, who surveyed the topic of representation (or misrepresentation) of gender and race in material culture. Indeed, if history is to reflect the truth, we must scrutinize it from all angles.

Véronique Côté, Chief Curator

Exhibit Location

CEPA Gallery
FLUX & Focus Galleries
617 Main Street
Buffalo, NY 14203

Exhibit Dates

Friday, January 14, 2022
March 19, 2022

Closing Brunch Reception
March 19, 12:00-4:00pm

Free to the public

Exhibit Times

Wednesday, Friday, Saturday
12:00 p.m.–4:00 p.m.
4:00 p.m.–7:00 p.m.

Publication for Sale from David Levinthal: Heroes, Sluts and Servants

Essays for David Levinthal: Heroes, Sluts and Servants

David Levinthal: Provocative Storyteller, by Robert Hirsch


By Robert Hirsch

A Big Country on a Small Screen

David Levinthal (b.1949) grew up during the Cold War when the United States and the Soviet Union struggled for supremacy. School children were taught to “Duck and Cover” under the threat of a nuclear attack. The explosive growth of the new medium of television in the 1950s produced children’s programs with manly, larger-than-life heroes such as Davy Crockett, Roy Rogers, and Sky King, along with abundant WWII programming. Levinthal came of age during the turbulent 1960s that experienced the Cuban Missile Crisis (1962) and saw the rise of the Civil Rights movement, feminism, gay rights, and resistance to the Vietnam War, all of which challenged the existing power structures, and entered American homes via the television.

Levinthal is a prolific storyteller, a bard giving our stories back to us in new provocative forms. Utilizing commercially produced toy figures and playsets, he creates tableaus representing post-World War II societal realities and American myths. Throughout his career, Levinthal meticulously pursued archetypal topics that he examined with analytical research reinforced by his education at Sanford (BA 1970), Yale (MFA 1973), and MIT (MBA, 1981).

Each of Levinthal’s bodies of work expresses the tenor of their times, which includes turmoil and power structures surrounding social allegories. His imaginative interpretations deliberately “poke the bear” to give us a mirror to see ourselves. After all, how can one advocate for social progress if one does not acknowledge and discuss distressing subjects?

Hitler Moves East (1972—1975)

While at Yale Levinthal collaborated with Doonesbury cartoonist and fellow graduate student Garry Trudeau, to create Hitler Moves East: A Graphic Chronicle, 1941-43, a history of Nazi Germany’s hegemonic aspirations to invade the Soviet Union. Their intention was to conquer the East to steal the land and possessions of the inhabitants, then enslave and murder them, especially the Jews who they considered to be sub-human vermin with scheming intentions. Levinthal and Trudeau’s guided storytelling approach, which was both methodical and spontaneous, was indicative of the blossoming genre of staged art photography. It was an “immersion into a realm between fantasy and reality.”1 These characteristics came to define Levinthal’s oeuvre.

Levinthal reflects: “This was my first significant body of work that would become the root of all of the work that shaped my career as an artist. Over time, I realized that it was the purest, and the most honestly raw body of work that I would ever do. I was taking those pictures and making those Kodalith prints2 and there were no external forces at work to pressure me. Things like sales, major galleries, the whole ‘art world’ as we know it today didn’t exist then for photography. The series and the book gave me a focus and a realization that I was doing something special. Each succeeding body of work built on each other and I developed skills that I would refine and extend over the years.”3

What we see emerging is Levinthal’s directorial methodology that makes the studio the creation site for exploring our social narratives. Its key features include constructing dioramas with toy figurines, use of close-ups and selective focus to generate specific points of visual interest. There is an intimacy about a shallow depth of field that makes the subject matter more personal. Many of these methods could have been subconsciously absorbed from watching TV productions in the 1950s and 1960s.

Toys are a means through which we enculturate our young and pass on, for good or ill, our stories and values. Through play, children act out the narratives they have absorbed and also ones of their invention – creating new worlds in their own image. Levinthal’s work echoes this process.

In Hitler Moves East Levinthal’s tight composition and shallow depth of field,4 controls the viewing distance, isolating his subject matter while directing attention to what is figuratively important in each composition. All at once this both liberates the subject from its original context and lends it a sense of historic authenticity, giving the perception that these grainy, monochrome images with a limited tonal range might have been actual World War II photographs. Simultaneously, they are ambiguous, blurred fragments of a scene, which can

induce an illusion of movement into inanimate objects and introduce a sense of absence and lost time. Such nebulous space leaves the remainder to be filled in by the viewer. This tactic acts as an emotional, historical, philosophical, and psychological tool of inquiry, which opens up the narrative. This encourages a viewer to examine compositions as a sequence of events, slowing down and/or speeding up, stimulating both experience and memory. This asks us to investigate the subject matter for what we think it to be while deliberating what it could culturally and personally represent.

This notion that less is more, limiting what one can clearly see, encourages one to look and think harder while enabling the background color scheme to influence emotional response, which Levinthal enhances through backdrop materials made of spray-painted velum that is dramatically lit from behind. Levinthal summarizes: “Reality thus becomes that which we feel to be real, that which strikes an emotional chord within us.”5

Process wise, Levinthal “loved that Kodalith paper was the antithesis of the Zone System6 and that prints were developed not by time, but by eye. I loved the sepia tonality of the prints. There was a sense of time with the Kodalith paper, vintage but contemporary at the same time.” This investigational mindset would lead him to experiment with other print mediums, especially Polaroid.

Levinthal claims that most of his projects “come about by happenstance.” However, with the benefit of hindsight, one can see how Hitler Moves East is the first of a life’s work examining intersecting themes of power, agency, and exploitation.

Mein Kampf (1993-1994)

A direct descendent of Hitler Moves East is Mein Kampf. As a precocious 11-year old, Levinthal recalls watching the 1961 trial of Adolf Eichmann, the architect of the Nazi Final Solution of the Jewish Question, a euphemism for the mass murder of European Jews. He must have absorbed the horrified reactions of his parents and their friends as television brought the Holocaust into the homes of American Jews. Levinthal states: “I grew up in a secular Jewish tradition. I refer to it as the City College of New York (CCNY) leftist Jewish

intellectual world. My father was a physicist who moved to California to study at Stanford where he became a faculty member so the intellectual aspect of being Jewish, stressing education and accomplishment were predominant. In conducting the project research, visiting Auschwitz and Birkenau made me more aware of being Jewish, not in a religious way but in a cultural and historic way.”

The Holocaust was the grim culmination of centuries of antisemitism, the rejection of human equality for Jews who were believed to be a separate, sub-human “Jewish race” from white Europeans. Adolf Hitler and his willing executioners relied upon this rejection of human equality for Jews to enslave and murder them on an industrial scale.

The project’s power comes from actual historic images, which Levinthal recreated for heightened emotional effect. Unlike their black-and-white sources, Levinthal relied on Polaroid’s vivid colors and glossy surface to bring into the present the actual events of his reenactments, thus confronting viewers with the terrors of Hitler’s genocidal Final Solution.

In Levinthal’s work, past and present merge and we hear the echo of history. Hate-filled rhetoric has again been awakened across this country with antisemitism on the rise. People who thought the horrific things that happened in Europe would never happen in the United States have been taken aback. Unfortunately this has not been the case as hate crimes against Jewish people in New York City alone have dramatically increased, giving Mein Kampf an unfortunate renewed contemporary urgency.7

1 Email from David Levinthal to the author, January 18, 2020.

2 Kodalith paper was a thin, semi-matt, orthochromatic graphic arts (litho) material designed to deliver high contrast black-and-white results with dense blacks. It was subverted by experimental makers to make gritty representational images because its tone, texture, and tonal range could be subjectively visually controlled in the darkroom by a combination of time and temperature under a red safelight.

3 All the David Levinthal quotes and references in this essay, except where noted, are from numerous email conversations between Levinthal and the author from December 2019 to March 2020, which have been lightly edited and condensed for clarity and space.

4 Depth of field is the distance between the nearest and the farthest objects that are in sharp focus, which can be controlled by the focal length of the lens and its aperture.

5 Levinthal, David, “Hitler Moves East,” Camera Austria 33/34 (1989): 56.

6 The Zone System is a photographic technique for determining optimal film exposure and development, formulated by Ansel Adams and Fred Archer around 1939-1940 and is the foundation of the photographic fine print aesthetic.

7 “Antisemitic hate crimes in New York increased by nearly 50% since 2020 – NYPD,” www.jpost.com/diaspora/antisemitism/antisemitic-hate-crimes-in-new-york-increased-by-nearly-50-percent-since-2020-nypd-688444

Heroes, Sluts, and Servants: Mis/Representation in Material Culture by By Véronique Côté

Heroes, Sluts and Servants:Mis/Representation in Material Culture

By Véronique Côté

At a time when all across the nation, minority populations are beginning to question their invisibility, the issue of critical authority and misrepresentation within traditional archives that permeates the work of David Levinthal seems to be imbued with a renewed relevance. If what we see, read, and learn is dominated by the voices of white men, then the foundation of our collective memory and all of the artifacts within it are likely to exclude or misrepresent minority voices, subcultures, and the creative exploration that can come from differences.

David Levinthal’s deployment of cultural icons, symbols, and imagery through material culture—manufactured objects used and produced by a group of humans—to represent underlying sociological trends relies on a process called archival inquiry. Gathering objects from a nostalgic childhood and presenting them in adult situations such as war zones and boudoirs, Levinthal questions the process of enculturation by which children are educated to think within societal norms. While collecting figurines such as blackface dolls or placing barbies in salacious situations, he could not escape his male gaze and the nostalgia of childhood fantasies. However, he was fully aware of the problematic nature of these representations. He approaches this controversy with poise, grandiosity, or humor in the hope of initiating a dialogue. Undeniably, Levinthal’s action-packed dioramas of cowboys, soldiers, and Barbies connote the fantasies of a young boy of the Atomic Age. Nonetheless, they are the refined work of an adult scholar reflecting, not without wistfulness or self-criticism, on the idiosyncrasies of his cultural upbringing.

In that sense, engaged reflection on the archive/cannon allowing for a collective re-evaluation of values, ideas, and differences is needed to activate the work thoroughly. Note that Levinthal’s artistic vision supports this concept as it was (still is) his goal to preserve and document for the future generation to use. 

These are not just sentimental images of a bygone era; they bear witness to an ugly past filled with racism, sexism, and prejudice. The depiction of women and people of color in David Levinthal’s work comes from a time of extreme chauvinism we too often ignore in our love for Kitsch. Nonetheless, the contrast is evident between the male and female roles represented in his photographs: men are heroes, soldiers, and sports icons, while females are either virgin mothers (Passion series 1993) or sex dolls in boudoir costumes to be gazed upon (Barbies 1997-1998, Hell’s Belles 1989-1990, and XXX series 2000-2001). Meanwhile, African Americans are grotesque figures in void landscapes (Blackface series 1995-1998). Females and POC are servile, subjugated, objectified tools, while male figures are idealized. For black men, the only path to exaltation is athleticism (Baseball series 1998-2004). 

We cannot discuss Levinthal’s work without talking of the white male gaze. He knows it. He is ready for this debate, and so should you be! A series of recent “culture wars” honed in on the arrogance of formal institutions in their selection and presentation of artifacts, making museums and galleries not only the politicized arbiter of “official culture”, but also placing them in the crosshairs of unresolved social issues through an often usurped (colonial) authority. Yet, pop culture is not innocent in the noxious misrepresentation and exclusion of minority voices as American consumerism tends to pander to the majority. In that sense, the public’s interpretation and reaction to the work, “what you do with it”, is key to the activation of Levinthal’s images. As the nation reels from the effects of a global pandemic and cries out for an end to racial injustice, the voices of collaboration must be elevated if communities are to thrive, if meaningful change is to happen, and if history is to reflect the truth. 

CEPA cannot rewrite history, but we propose the creation of a public forum that features the diverse voices of those who are represented in much of Levinthal’s documentation of pop culture, letting them interpret the significance (or insignificance) of the artifacts, centering their perspectives in the dialogue. We do not shy away from a heated debate. Levinthal serves as the willing illustrator

What Lies Beneath: The Message Behind Blackface Memorabillia by Lisa Parrish

What Lies Beneath:The Message Behind Blackface Memorabillia

By Lisa Parrish

David Levinthal’s Blackface series (1995-1998) features Polaroid photographs of ceramic memorabilia imbued with racial stereotypes. Racialized portrayals of grinning African-Americans in servile poses were prevalent during the Jim Crow era, which lasted from 1877 to the mid-1960s. The commodification of Black bodies was seen on everything from canned soup and drinking glasses to detergent and games. This form of racism could be bought everywhere, from five-and-dime stores to street vendors. Levinthal’s amplified images skillfully capture how manufacturers and advertisers used blackface iconography to habituate the public to stereotypes and reinforce negative notions about African-Americans. 

For this series, Levinthal uses these stereotyping and caricatured objects which force the viewer to explore a more truthful portrayal of African-American culture. These offensive figures, depicting Black people as darker than black with features exaggerated to the point of grotesqueness—huge noses, bulging white eyes, and protruding red lips still haunt our psyche at garage sales and antique stores across the U.S. However, what is poorly understood through flea market sales and museum exhibitions, such as Levinthal’s is how these monstrous images and the derogatory ideology they represent relate to the difficulties experienced by African-Americans. These typifying images worked hand-in-hand with racist policies to uphold systems of discrimination by reinforcing the view that people of color are less intelligent, less human, or otherwise “less than.” 

Although racist memorabilia demean and delimit African-Americans, it is important to consider Levinthal’s Blackface series in the context of racism and the Jim Crow era, during which laws prevented people of color from voting and owning property. In the fight against racial prejudice, the dehumanizing “collectibles” in Levinthal’s series can help teach tolerance, promote social justice, and encourage us to acknowledge the past, however painful and wrong. 

Critics of Levinthal believe that his magnification of blackface objects in photographs fails to provide context and misses opportunities to convey how hurtful these degrading caricatures are to African-Americans. Moreover, the continued nostalgia for objects, such as ‘mammy’ or Aunt Jemima jars, perpetuates incorrect beliefs that Black people are cartoonish by nature and incapable of rising above their history of enslavement, a period when they were considered three-fifths a person. When organizations or individuals collect and place value on material culture that denies the full humanness of others, they allow these relics of the past to infiltrate and corrupt contemporary culture.

Blackface objects have power; they negatively influence society and minimize the painful lived experiences and heartache that enslaved people and their descendants bore and still bear. What lies beneath blackface memorabilia is not innocuous entertainment; underneath is the traumatic impact of unrelenting and unimaginable suffering. Upon closer observation, there are many disheartening similarities between the memorabilia in Levinthal’s series and the anti-Semitic propaganda caricatures that appeared in German newspapers, such as Der Stürmer. Like the stereotyped depictions presented in Blackface, the portrayals of Jewish people in Der Stürmer commonly utilized cartoonish features and misshapen bodies. 

The objects photographed by Levinthal were created not to celebrate a community that contributed to American culture through inventions, the performing arts, and countless other ways; they were crafted as part of an apartheid system that perpetuated and profiteered from human misery. While some may see this material culture as harmless, there is another side to blackface imagery, as exemplified in the case of Bert Williams, born in 1879. Williams was an internationally famous African-American entertainer in the Vaudeville era who wore blackface. He was also a gifted student who was forced to abandon studying civil engineering at Stanford University. Williams was lauded for his portrayal of a shiftless and dumb “coon” named Jonah Man but was trapped playing roles of lazy and unintelligent black men. 

The legal codification of discriminatory laws and the semantic encoding of “blackness” in the popular imagination occurred in the milieu of minstrel shows like the ones in which Williams performed. Well-known comedic actor W.C. Fields knew Williams and said that “Williams was the funniest man I ever saw and the saddest man I ever met.” Williams is pertinent to this review of Levinthal’s Blackface series because his life superbly highlights the circumstances of many black people during the height of the popularity of blackface collectibles. Regardless of visitors’ reactions to these objects, museum goers are prompted to interact with images whose larger context they very likely do not understand—blackface memorabilia is hate in its rawest form. The objectification of African-Americans through blackface memorabilia and exhibitions is not just a glimpse into the past; it is a loud commentary on the deep sadness experienced by Williams and people who look like him—a burden that many still carry every day.

If accompanied by a larger conversation about why such objects exist and how they were used, Levinthal’s Blackface series has the potential to be genuinely educational and to help audiences better understand a painful part of America’s history. Discerningly, the Blackface series allows the museum goer to see and mentally untangle the depths of deep-seated anti-Black racism, transcend those biases, and see their own higher moral values reflected.

Sponsors for David Levinthal: Heroes, Sluts and Servants

David and Eva Herer
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