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Nice Boy Shares Toy

A dispatch from David Levinthal’s doll-house diorama factory, where the photographer plays with the line between real and pretend

Jeremy Sigler
May 24, 2018
Collection of the artist
Detail, Untitled, 1987, from the series Wild West.Collection of the artist
Collection of the artist
Detail, Untitled, 1987, from the series Wild West.Collection of the artist

When I arrived at photographer David Levinthal’s loft in Manhattan’s Flatiron district, the elevator opened and I was greeted by two small dogs. They were at my feet wagging and barking, demanding my attention and blocking their solid, broad-shouldered owner, from getting in close for a handshake. The rest of the space was taken up by toys. Not the stained, germ-infested relics you find in a preschool or on a foldout table at a yard sale. We’re talking high-level connoisseurship. I felt like I’d just entered The Metropolitan Museum of Rare, Imported, Limited-Edition and Vintage Toys. A boy’s heaven.

I turned my attention to a tall shelf dividing the loft’s open floor plan that appeared as a shrine to the artist Kaws. “He’s a very dear friend whom I’ve known for over 20 years,” said Levinthal, as I timidly stepped closer to one of the ominous plastic dolls—part Buster the Clown, part Mickey Mouse—with two big white graphic X’s for eyes, like the ubiquitous crisscrossing threads that remain after the buttons are long gone. I could tell Levinthal was pleased by my interest, the same way a gardener is pleased by anyone who takes the time to study his azaleas.

Levinthal introduced me to his assistants, Erin Hudak and Ryan Oskin, who were hard at work finalizing a multivolume book for an upcoming retrospective. “Erin has worked with me for over 12 years. I would be totally lost without her,” Levinthal confessed. “Ryan, too, is an invaluable asset—he just got back from Germany where he was overseeing the production of the books.” Levinthal, who was born in 1949, then cracked a smile and commented on the inanity of trying to catch typos. like the single rogue comma that has accidentally been left in italics. We all agreed such a fail is indeed monumental enough to ruin a 400-page monograph. The book (distributed by D.A.P./Artbook) will be released in synch with David Levinthal: War, Myth, Desire, a retrospective set to open on June 1 at the George Eastman Museum in Rochester, New York (through January 1) that will include photographs from most of Levinthal’s major series going back to the early 1970s: Hitler Moves East (1972-75), Modern Romance (1983-85), The Wild West (1986-89), Desire (1991-92), Blackface (1995-98), Barbie (1997-98), Baseball (1998-2004), and History (2010-18).

After standing frozen, mesmerized by everything in Levinthal’s old-school loft for a while, I began to relax and let my eyes wander onto other shelves and other surfaces, where toys were consuming just about every millimeter of available space. “I have a lot of vintage tin toys from the 1930s, ’40s, and ’50s,” said Levinthal, as he continued to lead me around the loft from spot to spot. “Most are windup toys, and some are battery-operated toys from postwar Japan. They are so beautifully designed and clever. Sam used to enjoy them a lot when he was young.” As he said this, we came upon Sam, who is not a toy but the photographer’s 14-year-old son. He was home from school on a weekday morning, laying on the couch with one of his legs in a cast propped up on a throw pillow. I smiled, and he sort of grinned back at me.

Levinthal’s wife, Kate Sullivan, (a cake designer who appears frequently on the Food Network’s Ridiculous Cakes) then came up, apologized multiple times for interrupting us. A few days earlier, Sam had broken his leg while they were on a family ski vacation in Utah. His binding didn’t release (the typical story), and he wound up strapped into one of those bright orange toboggans, being carefully hauled in a sled off the mountain by the ski patrol, packed into a waiting ambulance, and rushed to a nearby emergency room. There he was intercepted by a local orthopedic surgeon (who happened to be a family friend) who had already cleared out time to operate (Sam is doing fine). Levinthal fished his iPhone from his pocket, scrolled through numerous pictures until he found an X-ray of Sam’s fractured tibia. A clean break. Why, I wondered, had Levinthal not rushed back from Utah in a creative fervor, charged into his studio, and re-created the dramatic rescue scene—building a Rocky Mountain diorama, airbrushing a snowy sky backdrop, creating figurines of Sam and his heroic rescuers, equipped with their tiny orange toboggan?

Why not? Because Levinthal does not expose his family photos or family drama, for starters. His art deals with iconic characters and events. He deals in the ready-made, making what is already made—staging what is already festering in our collective memory. Pop archetypes, like the Lone Ranger, in the exact clean (I kind of wanna say gay) blue uniform we expect to find him in, or a blurry Wayne Gretzky in his No. 99 mesh jersey raising the Stanley Cup over his head.

Some icons loom bright, like the Lone Ranger or the New York Ranger, while others in the Levinthal family albums are the kinds of images parents hide from their children, and that society hides from its members—like innocent young Jewish women in a blurry ambiguous fog being tortured and probably executed by Nazis. Or an old racist blackface tin doll, from somewhere in the Deep South, of an obese African-American woman with distorted glossy red lips filling 90 percent of her face.

What do we recognize (and even empathize with) in a doll, that we are entirely unable to see or feel in a fellow human being? This is the mystery of Levinthal’s work. But one aspect of his work that is not a mystery is that it begins and ends with (if you don’t mind a little rhyme): the boy’s joy for the toy.

Levinthal’s collecting is the work’s starter, a sort of liminal phase that catalyzes and shapes the photographic process. “I remembered my love of the old wooden trains and tracks that I played with as a child; they were made by Brio, a Swedish company,” Levinthal told me. As he spoke, he seemed to drift into a haze, his face going blank but somehow retaining the ghost of a smile. “I bought so many Brio trains and pieces on eBay that we could literally cover most of our floor with them, and run them all over the house. Once a curator was visiting and talking with me about collecting, and Sam, who I think was 3 at the time, spoke up and asked her if she would like to know about his toy car collection, which was followed by a long discourse.”

The mention of Sam’s toy cars caused me to reflect on my own toy cars growing up. I had this shoebox full of matchbox cars. Unlike Sam and his father, my collection never really grew to epic proportions. It was always the same old cars—a little replica of the Starsky & Hutch hotrod undercover cop car and a boxy yellow stock car that had been somewhat squashed by my dad one morning when he was heading off to work (he was a pediatrician, now retired). I mentioned that my father was also a model railroader/collector—whose train set kept growing exponentially until it took up most of the house, and who impulsively bought out every piece of Märklin product (prized German trains) from every last hobby shop in Baltimore’s greater metropolitan area.

The mention of my father prompted Levinthal to tell me about his father, Elliot, who had died in 2012 at 89 after living a truly impressive life. He had been in the schools of engineering and medicine at Stanford University, and went on to do government work and invest in Silicon Valley. Elliott Levinthal’s biography is long and highly detailed, but I will try to be brief: Back in the 1950s, he was a pioneer of magnetic resonance imaging of the hydrogen atom, and laid the groundwork for nuclear resonance, developing some of the first defibrillators, pacemakers, and cardiac monitors. In the ’60s, he joined Stanford’s genetics department where he worked in exobiology, examining the question of extraterrestrial life and designing experimental missions to … (drumroll) … Mars (cymbal crash). Levinthal’s pedigree, you might say, is not so much art photography, as Martian photography (cymbal crash). According to Levinthal, “he wound up at NASA, becoming a member of the photo interpretation team of the Mariner 9 Mars Orbiter missions and deputy team leader of the 1976 Viking Lander camera team.”

An obituary published in the Stanford alumni magazine, which Levinthal kindly forwarded me, noted that his dad eventually got into artificial intelligence and served as director of defense sciences at the government’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, or DARPA, where he even pioneered early automation and robotics. And there’s so much more: from backing start-ups, filtering spinal fluid to treat Alzheimer’s patients, and giving large donations to underprivileged Stanford students in the creative writing department.

“But most of all,” Levinthal said, “my father was a family man. When we were young we often took these great family trips in one of our many station wagons up to Lake Tahoe. In 1962, he had some science meetings in Brussels, and my mother, sister, and I sailed to England on the SS United States. Prior to the trip, I had read Andre Maurois’ History of France and A History of England. So you have to imagine, I was a fairly precocious child. Although my sister would have been more likely to use the word obnoxious.” Levinthal was getting nostalgic. “Sam and my father were very close,” he said with a hint of pathos in his voice. “One time he asked my father if he could take a rocket ship to New York and pick him up, so that they could spend time together.”

Levinthal then told me about his father’s final days. “One night I received a call from my sister, telling me that I should probably come out to see my father ASAP. I told Sam, who was about 7, that I would be leaving in the morning to see grandpa, who was very sick. He asked if grandpa was going to die, and I said yes, I think so. Sam’s middle name is Elliott, after my father, and I was putting him to bed when he said, ‘It’s really hard when someone who you share a name with dies.’ ”

By now, Levinthal had walked me across the giant loft to an area where a sculpture by the late Ed Kienholz had once sat in a crate for months. It had been left there temporarily by the loft’s previous owner, the art dealer Salvatore Ala. Mere mention of this highly influential west-cost sculptor made me think of other more contemporary L.A.-based sculptors, like Charles Ray, who seems to share Levinthal’s enthusiasm for toys. I pictured Ray’s red hook-and-ladder firetruck (a Nylint Aerial blown up to the size of a real fire engine) that Ray had devilishly parked in front of the Whitney Museum’s Breuer building for the duration of the 1993 Whitney Biennial. I remembered another L.A. toy maker, Chris Burden, who died in 2015. He began his career as a kid playing with adult toys (i.e., a loaded rifle), but slowly transformed into an adult playing with kid’s toys: In the 1990s, he secured a cadre of grad students, and put them to work in a Topanga Canyon sweatshop for about three years, assembling a trademark metal ERECTOR Set bridge big enough and strong enough (expertly engineered, in fact) to support the full weight of a Hummer. (I may be exaggerating.)


Artists have come a long way with toys, dolls, and comics since Claes Oldenburg’s scale-shifting Geometric Mouse (after Mickey), which began to appear in various materials and sizes in the ’60s. And there are countless other examples. Yet sculptural as his approach may be (given his hands-on construction of dioramas in total miniature three-dimensional sets) Levinthal’s work does not seem to stem from Rodin, but from the contemporaneous tradition of large-format studio photography that first took the art world by storm in the 19th century. His work is even more perfectly aligned with the zeitgeist of highly conceptual photo-based cultural production that hit New York in the 1970s and ’80s. He is a Pictures Generation artist, if ever there was one.

His first deeply ironic “product shots,” made when he was a graduate student in the photography department at Yale University, are close-ups of red, green, yellow, purple, and orange Chückles jelly candies (on the wrapper the umlaut is two googly eyes). And he even shot Hostess Twinkies, but these images are yet to resurface, and to the best of my knowledge, are not included in the retrospective or box-set catalog. (Alas, student work.) Graphic and conceptual as works by Jack Goldstein or John Baldessari, they are nonetheless historical, rooted in, and at the same time rebelling against … Donald Judd.

Or consider Levinthal’s very early doll photographs from 1972. In these photographs (not to be confused with his later Barbie series), Barbie and Ken (and a dark-skinned, naked G.I. Joe doll with a dangling gold chain around his neck) convey so much sexual tension and racial frustration that they are almost inappropriate to describe. Let’s just say, they graphically try to do what every “boy” has ever tried unsuccessfully to do with Barbie and Ken: get them to make whoopee.

Levinthal was, no doubt, one step ahead when it came to the complex dynamic of lighting and framing dolls and other toys (products in general) to appear at home inside a photographic still. His action figure gestalt hit its stride with Laurie Simmons’ feminist doll-house-y kitchens of the late 1970s, which successfully captured the total isolation of the suburban housewife alone with her groceries and tranquilizing American Dream—and peaked, eventually, in 1987, when the up-and-coming indie film director Todd Haynes made his now campy classic Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story, a filmed Barbie doll puppet show/biopic.

Levinthal himself truly broke through in 1977 with a hit book, long before there was much criteria or context in New York to discuss pictures with dolls instead of humans. As he told me, “artists like Richard Prince and Cindy Sherman discovered my work through my book long before I arrived on the scene in New York in 1983 and began showing in galleries.”

This first book happened after Levinthal had the good sense to team up with his classmate from Yale, Gary Trudeau (the brilliant political cartoonist), which led to the publication of Hitler Moves East: A Graphic Chronicle, 1941-43. The book received much acclaim and had broad, not just insider artworld, appeal. Conceived, you might say, as an entirely new genre of war journalism, it was made by combining archival Third Reich documentation with a ton of 1/35-scale molded plastic green army men (a common toy back then), and various lifelike model tanks placed in meticulously constructed settings designed to closely resemble specific WWII battles.

In Hitler Moves East, one finds oneself studying details that seem more real and true than ever, perhaps because they have been modeled so dexterously, lit so enticingly, and then photographed with such impeccable clarity and precision. Take for example, the extended curvy rim of the Stahlhelm, the German steel helmet first worn by the Imperial German Army designed to replace the traditional boiled leather Pickelhaube.

Levinthal attributes the work’s emotion, at least in part, to his use of Kodalith, the sepia-tinted film paper he discovered during the summer of 1970, when he was taking an intensive photography workshop at Rochester Institute of Technology. “Les Krims was among the first photographers to utilize Kodalith paper,” said Levinthal. “By diluting the developer, he was able to create a mysterious vintage quality.”

I had been frustrated by my sister’s Barbie dolls and, like Levinthal, I too had always wanted to remove their Barbie-ness.

Levinthal’s second technical breakthrough came later, when he made the leap to the ultimate large-format camera. “I used a 20 x 24 Polaroid for almost 20 years,” Levinthal told me somewhat boastfully, as it is the undisputed heavyweight of cameras. “It was very similar to shooting digitally today, because the Polaroid would allow me to see things right away and make changes. After 90 seconds, I’d peel the print away from the negative and see the result, and I’d be able to slightly move a figure or adjust the lighting, and take another shot. With the very narrow depth of field that I was using, a very slight change in focus would make a significant difference in the overall effect.”

These subtle, nuanced tweaks, essentially in a narrow depth of field, seem to be key to the Levinthal effect, which cannot be easily copied. It is here that Levinthal creates his unique dramatic aesthetic, where he plays with the line between real and pretend, allowing the viewer to cross over. While looking through the camera’s viewfinder, and then the carefully cropped print, the mysterious machinations of the imagination go to town, and the viewer enters right into combat, while remaining at the safe distance of a voyeur. This is when something oddly out-of-body seems to happen. The photographs conjure an endorphin-surging moment of shock as that which occurs when the body produces its own relaxant and pain blockers, at a moment of extreme trauma.

Levinthal’s war images (from a Viking stabbed by a sword, to a cowboy pierced by an arrow, to a Marine mowed down by a Browning M1919A6 LMG … to an NHL hockey goalie being shot at by a 100-mile-per-hour hockey puck) all produce a similarly hypnotic feeling of being on a slow-motion Ferris wheel while on morphine.

But Levinthal’s training at Yale shows far more than a geeky technological fascination with big cameras and sepia photo paper. “The Yale photography program at that time was part of the graphic design program, and was really just getting started,” said Levinthal. “It was also quite small. There were only four students in my class.”

At the time, Yale’s shabby little photo department had one great jewel, a professor named Walker Evans. Evans was an American photographer and photojournalist, and one of the most influential artists of the 20th century. Levinthal was among the last to be in his graces, during his fragile final years. “Walker held a seminar which often dealt less with photography than with a general philosophy about images, and his talks were filled with literary references.” Levinthal, along with his classmate, Jerry Thompson, became very close to Evans, and Thompson began to print for him and to basically take care of him. After graduate school, Levinthal and Thompson shared an apartment in New Haven, where Evans was a frequent guest, which is when and where Levinthal really got to know him.


I really got to know Levinthal the second time I met him. We shared an Uber out to his studio in Jersey City, and made our way through a giant converted industrial warehouse, which is now a state-of-the-art, high-security facility. Levinthal unlocked the heavy steel studio door and clicked on the lights, revealing towering racks of toys, dolls, and intricately modeled dioramas, as well as computers, lamps, tripods, umbrellas, cords, extremely valuable digital cameras on an array of tripods, backdrops, and bins filled with all sorts of supplies.

Where was I? I had the sensation I’d just walked into not just a movie set, but a miniature Universal Studios, where one might promenade past five or six different films, period pieces, all being made simultaneously. It was as if I was passing from set to set, each populated by its own crew and actors and lord knows how many extras—hundreds, thousands of them in every human pose.

I passed a model of a Roman gladiator whipping his horses galloping out in front of his chariot; a medieval set for a knight errant, in head-to-toe armor propped on his armored stallion holding his long spire in a near vertical position; a set for a sinking Titanic in the ominous night surrounded by dark-blue icebergs; a western saloon a moment before a shootout staring Jessie James; and a snare-drum-tapping scene of General Custer leading his men (all on horseback) over a rocky ridge down into some sort of bloodbath.

Despite all the make-believe activity, there were no other actual humans! I asked Levinthal, expecting that he’d confess to using a large team of unionized fabricators who’d all been told to disappear for a few hours. “Mostly I come here by myself,” said Levinthal. “I no longer use a Polaroid. I’ve switched over to a Hasselblad camera with a digital back that I connect to an Apple computer with a cinema display. But over the past few years I’ve begun to work with built and painted dioramas that I have custom made.”

“Really?” I asked. “So you now have professionals manufacturing one-of-a-kind toys just for you? How does that work?”

“My eBay purchases led me to meet some of these dealers, with whom I developed a relationship,” he explained. “On one occasion I met a model maker who offered to build some dioramas based on images that I supplied to him. In other words my ideas were merely an outline or a starting point for him.”

By now I had immersed myself in one of these custom-made, table-sized dioramas. It was based on General Custer, riding towards the Little Big Horn. I was fixated to the point that I could hear the horse hoofs and feel the silent anticipation of each infantryman preparing mentally to kill or be killed. But then I snapped out of it.

“Can you tell me what sort of reading or preparation goes into staging a diorama like this?” I asked, imagining Levinthal in the library with a giant stack of history books piled up around him. “In junior high, I read all of Bruce Catton’s books on the Civil War. I even joined the History Book Club, because they offered as a membership gift the two-volume West Point atlas on U.S. military history,” he recalled.


Toys. A few evenings later I was talking with a friend about my recent trip to Levinthal’s studio and we wound up reflecting on our own experiences growing up with Barbie dolls and little toy soldiers. I thought about something Levinthal had told me, regarding his Barbie-themed work. He had spoken about trying to use abstraction in photography to “remove the Barbie-ness.”

I said to my friend that I had been frustrated by my sister’s Barbie dolls and that, like Levinthal, I too had always wanted to remove their Barbie-ness. My little green soldiers, on the other hand, had a convincing center of gravity, and a transfer of weight. They were poised for action.

I stood up from the table and spread my knees far apart and carefully lowered myself into my most convincing Rambo stance, pretending to have a really heavy machine gun in my hand. And then I went and sat back down. (I was a little out of breath from just that one held half squat.) “The Barbie blocked me out!” I said. “Mainly because I couldn’t get her legs apart. Or make her stand up properly. I couldn’t find her center of gravity.” My frustration was with her anatomy and mechanics, with her lack of complex believable pelvic and hip rotations.

My friend then set me straight. “The Barbies,” she replied, “come to life in another way: the camper, the accessories, the clothes. The naked doll is just there as a starter. The concept of the toy is that it gives you this tabula rasa to build on.”

Indeed, my friend, who had much more experience with Barbie than I, had a very good point. She’d not only experienced the yuppie fun of building an upwardly mobile lifestyle from the ground-zero starter kit, but she’d also had plenty of rebel fun cutting off her Barbie’s hair, drawing on its body with a Sharpie, and eventually burning off its head.

“So this is then the hypothetical question,” I asked her. “When you play with a doll do you enter its body? Do you enter another dimension? Does your imagination take you through a portal? Do you become the doll? Or do you stay exactly where you are? And remain who you are?”

For Levinthal, I guess the answer is both. He tries like mad to make that doll disappear. And then when it finally does, even just for a split second, he welcomes it back, with open arms, and celebrates its “beautiful and clever design.”


The below slideshow contains images some may find offensive.

Jeremy Sigler’s latest book of poetry, My Vibe, was published by Spoonbill Books.

Jeremy Sigler’s latest book of poetry, Goodbye Letter, was published by Hunters Point Press.