Toys Are Us

David Levinthal’s dollhouse history.

“David Levinthal: ‘1975–1996’ “
International Center of Photography (Uptown)
New York City
Through March 21, 1997

“David Levinthal: ‘Blackface’ “
Janet Borden Gallery
New York City
Through Feb. 28, 1997

Ever since a scandalized Parisian populace greeted the unveiling of Edouard Manet’s Olympia with shocked indignation, controversy has been one measure of seriousness in Western art. Of the two women depicted in Olympia, the lily-white nude courtesan, displayed on a chaise longue, elicited the outcry. Far less attention was given her fully clothed companion, a black maid in a West Indian turban. To a contemporary audience, the picture is still disturbing, but for different reasons. It’s the uneasy conjunction of race and sexuality that rankles, the suspicion that for Manet, the black maid added a kinky allure to the charms of the snide white prostitute.

The Institute of Contemporary Art in Philadelphia has been at the center of some of the recent firestorms concerning artistic expression and its public support. The institute took flak in Congress for the S&M images in its Robert Mapplethorpe show, and for displaying Andres Serrano’s crucifix suspended in urine. Recently, however, it has found itself on the other side of the censorship divide, and race is what pushed it there. It has made news not by mounting a show, but by canceling one before it opened. The show in question, scheduled for this month, was to be devoted to photographer David Levinthal’s Polaroid close-ups of some objects in his possession. These are what is sometimes referred to as black memorabilia–including Aunt Jemima cookie jars, windup minstrel dancers, Amos and Andy faces, and the like–what another avid collector, Whoopi Goldberg, refers to as “Negrobilia.” Two prominent black scholars, Houston Baker and Henry Louis Gates Jr., expressed an interest in writing catalog copy. That neither writer was ultimately able to do so may have doomed the show.

According to one institute curator (as reported by Richard B. Woodward in the Village Voice), the advisory board didn’t feel Levinthal was “critiquing the objects he was photographing. They weren’t transformative enough.” It’s not clear–nor did the board suggest–what might have counted as “critique” or “transformation.” But such is the nervous rigidity of our current aesthetic climate, where ambiguity is tolerated on neither the left nor the right, that when a smaller version of Levinthal’s series “Blackface” opened in New York, at the Janet Borden Gallery in SoHo, some reviewers followed the institute’s lead in thinking that only two questions needed to be posed about these photographs: 1) Are the memorabilia themselves offensive? And 2) If so, does Levinthal condemn them? The New York Times reviewer examined the evidence and convicted Levinthal of “moral indeterminacy”–he evidently hadn’t condemned them vigorously enough. This was precisely the sort of charge that was leveled at Manet in 1869.

A major retrospective of Levinthal’s work, including some images from “Blackface” (1995-96), is now on display at the International Center of Photography on the Upper East Side of New York City. The show, which covers seven different series of photographs taken over the past 21 years, makes clear that some sort of moral indeterminacy has always been at the center of Levinthal’s art. He first created a stir 20 years ago, with a remarkable book of photographs and commentary called “Hitler Moves East.” Levinthal’s collaborator was his Yale art-school classmate, Garry Trudeau, creator of Doonesbury. The black-and-white photographs of German troops moving into the former Soviet Union have the grainy, blurred look of authentic reportage from the Eastern Front and bear an obvious debt to Robert Capa’s work for Life magazine.

W hat was unusual about Levinthal’s images was that he had staged them himself–and not with human models, but with toys. As two soldiers mounted on a motorcycle and cab push inexorably into the frigid landscape–with flour substituting for snow–there’s an uneasy mix of the trompe l’oeil and the trumped up. Other photographers of Levinthal’s generation, such as Cindy Sherman, have testified to the influence of “Hitler Moves East” in pushing photography away from the sternly mimetic documentary style of the 1960s toward a more playful, artificial relation to the world.

“Hitler Moves East” was produced during the final phase of the Vietnam War, and Levinthal has recently suggested that “you come away [from the book] with a strong antiwar statement.” Levinthal’s mock-doc images have none of the chaotic horror of Vietnam. Rather, there’s a soft-focus decorum, and a powerful nostalgia for a simpler, “good” war. These soldiers have driven out of a dream world set far back in an imagined past, one drawn from movies and newsreels. Nostalgia is also the hallmark of Levinthal’s next major series, “The Wild West” (1987-89), which took him in the opposite direction, if only geographically. Again, the medium is toys–heroic cowboys and occasional Indians–bathed this time in muted colors. A cowboy swings his lariat before a rearing white horse and, for a second, you’re caught by the power and careful balance of the tableau. In other shots, Indians with raised tomahawks and spears give rise to a nervous wall panel at the ICP assuring us that Levinthal is “mindful of real history,” and that his work somehow “prompts the viewer’s recollections of our forefathers’ injustices: cultural expansionism, genocide and racism.” This is absurd–if we do think about the white settlers’ misdeeds when looking at Levinthal’s work, it’s only because of how much our cultural dialogue now emphasizes them–and the urge to protect Levinthal from potential charges of political insensitivity is part of the same lock-step aesthetics that seem to follow Levinthal everywhere. It obscures the fact that Levinthal’s territory in the Western series is much the same as in “Hitler Moves East,” a liminal realm of fantasy where the most successful images–like that rearing horse, or a man hanging from a noose on a stunted tree–toe the line between real and make-believe. Whatever wildness remains in this toyshop West–as innocent of political engagement as a child’s playroom floor–derives from a visual imagination stocked with ‘50s movies and a reckless willingness to play these overexposed scenes straight, with neither irony nor commentary.

Levinthal’s photographic forays into romance and sexuality are less sure-footed. The lonely lamp-lit couples in his “Modern Romance” (1984-86), contrived with dolls and miniature props soon after his move to New York City in 1983, effectively evoke the nighttime diners and hotel bedrooms of Edward Hopper and film noir. But Levinthal’s soft-focus experiments with ‘50s bathing-beauty dolls posing on piles of sand (“American Beauties,” [1989-90]) and Japanese mail-order bondage toys (“Desire,” [1990-91]) don’t go much beyond the genres they mimic. Levinthal’s visual games with sex toys are predictably controversial (is he complicit or “critiquing”?) without being particularly disturbing. His latest two series, though, succeed at being both. While the upbeat “Hitler Moves East” skirted any mention of the destruction of the European Jews, "Mein Kampf” (1993-94) explores, in lurid color–especially the Nazi colors of red and black–Hitler’s crimes against humanity. We see “inspections” of nude candidates for the gas chambers, women and children shot beside ditches, rapes, people herded into freight cars–all enacted by lifelike dolls. The images have some of the power of Art Spiegelman’s comic-book version of the Holocaust, Maus, and for some of the same reasons. Given the rote piety of so much Holocaust rhetoric (there’s more of it on the ICP wall panels), openly artificial treatments from such “nonserious” realms as comics and toy soldiers have an unsettling power to thaw and refocus our feelings.

I t’s jarring to move from the lurid theatricality of “Mein Kampf” to the head-on, propless portraits of Levinthal’s “Blackface” series. Again, we have some silly palaver assuring us that Levinthal is aware that these items depict stereotyped images of blacks–as though we suspected that he endorsed them, or thought they were realistic. In fact, the objects Levinthal has photographed are extremely varied, and the galleries might have helped the viewer out by furnishing details about the items’ provenance and use. Nor is the degree of “stereotyping” at all consistent among the items. They range from crudely bug-eyed pickaninnies eating watermelon–their vacant grins echoed by the great smile of the rind–to almost idealized sculpted heads of black children.

Levinthal’s title for this series reveals his interest in a tradition of blackface masquerade that, by the turn of the century, was largely a Jewish province (think of Al Jolson’s The Jazz Singer). While Jewish minstrelsy operated on the premise that black people were inherently funny, it also reflected a complex identification of Jews with blacks–an identification between outsider groups explored by such contemporary scholars as Michael Rogin, in Blackface, White Noise, and Eric Lott, in Love and Theft.

Of course, a layer of burnt cork smeared over the face does not a new identity make. The very luridness of the mask preserved as much distance as it bridged. And yet, these sad-faced, cigar-munching Amos and Andy figures–which seem to date from the time when white actors yielded to black in those roles–have a racially ambiguous pathos. It’s as though their melancholy derived from the excruciating imperative to be blacks performing according to the conventions of blackface. The objects that interest Levinthal, as he points out in a statement at the Janet Borden Gallery, could as well be called “white memorabilia,” since they record, presumably, the fantasies of white people, including the fantasy of assuming a temporary black identity. These Aunt Jemima cookie jars and Amos and Andy faces, dented and scarred with use, stare back at us as unnervingly as Diane Arbus freaks, but with the added accusation, at least to white viewers, that you made us this way.