Well, he wasn't always old. Levin's joint book and exhibit, Nudes: An Artist's Inquiry, spans 50 years of work, so at some point he was a young man painting young women. The book begins with a quote from the art historian Sir Kenneth Clark, who declares that a nude's failure to elicit erotic feeling from the spectator indicates "bad art and false morals." Then there's a photo of Levin as a child with his mother, both nude, and the confounding (and never expanded upon) first line: "As a little boy I was with my mother and father in a nudist colony, and ever since I've been curious about bodies."
The book is cultural inquiry and self-inquiry. Who loves the nude? Is Levin's obsession of 60 years inescapably cultural, "a case of objectification, of the killing gaze" (as he quotes Dutch theorist Mieke Bal), or can obsession be exceptional, maybe even the psychological residue of Levin's "exceptional mother's" suicide when he was 12? Is the nude itself the stuff of exception; as in, does the figure void of trappings equal fundamental reality stripped of the superfluity of social markers? Perhaps the body, he speculates, is our most meaningful subject matter. I haven't yet seen proof that he is wrong.
Levin paints nudes on the side. His primary work is in social realism; he paints everyday conditions to reveal structural conditions, so the nude body without context is the conceptual opposite of his standard practice. He begins by establishing that he is writing about an ancient subject in an anxious time. Entities that might give critical thought to representation (museums and galleries) have backed away from hanging nudes, and entities whose only thoughts are to profit (advertisers) deal in soft-core porn. Levin had trouble selling his nude paintings at all until a collector bought a slew of 20. But being "a family man," he reportedly hung them in his basement stairwell, beneath one bare bulb.
He suggests that female artists act as a counterpoint in answer to male artists, but the person affected by the work of the male artist in this case is not the woman artist, but the woman at large. Questions of whether art expressing male sexual arousal might harm women are nuanced but numerous. The premise that the experience of emotion should beget unbridled expression seems naive coming from a social realist who traffics in the fact that that feelings do not blow unattached in the wind but are tied to culture, and the act of their expression ties into culture once more.
There is also the problem of Levin’s repeated axiom of role reversal as social correction: “Why don’t women just paint nude men?” He tests the same hypothesis in his paintings, depicting, for example, a woman lying nude on a bed while a man stands over her, then a man lying nude in bed while a woman stands over him.
Levin narrates his career in nudes in terms of an arc from anxiety and "hormonal imagination" toward understanding and consideration. First are his "Disturbing Nudes" from his youth, usually grotesque or depicting sexual acts. Then there's "Mostly Couples," then "Nudes from Life," then a "Myths" section that's really out of left field.
Finally come the "Contemplative Nudes." Levin elevates these most. For him, they represent an ethical and artistic culmination. He supplants his own interiority into some paintings, like the women painted sitting on the edge of their beds introspectively, "a mood that I often feel when I hesitate to get up and face the world," he writes, quoting Flaubert: "Madame Bovary—c'est moi." It is I.
Levin and I share a favorite of his works. "Bedroom Bargaining," which shows a man and a woman standing in nude debate in a bedroom. "There is such equality between the couple," he writes. "Yet the image is full of ambiguity." The room is bare, the walls are blank, the bodies, of course, are nude. This time it feels true that inside all the bare space, one can imagine.