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He uses small toys and props with dramatic lighting to construct mini environments of subject matters varying from war scenes to voyeurism to racial and political references to American pop culture.
Levinthal was born in 1949 in San Francisco, California. He received a Scientiæ Magister in Management Science from the MIT Sloan School of Management (1981), an MFA in Photography from Yale University (1973), and a BA in Studio Art from Stanford University (1970). He was the recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship from the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation in 1995 and a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts in 1990–1991.
His work is included in the permanent public collections of the Art Institute of Chicago, the Centre Pompidou in Paris, the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Museum of Modern Art, and the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City. He has had solo exhibitions in New York City, Los Angeles, and Portland, Oregon.
Levinthal has produced a diverse oeuvre, utilizing primarily large-format Polaroid photography. His works touch upon many aspects of American culture, from Barbie to baseball to X-rated dolls. He uses small toys and props with dramatic lighting to construct mini environments of subject matters varying from war scenes to voyeurism to racial and political references to American pop culture.
He creates miniature scenarios using shoeboxes, cardboard, and foam core to make miniature offices, hotel rooms, pool halls, foyers and narrow corridors. These shadowy and dark scenes expose the secrecy and intimacy of small spaces. Levinthal is particularly interested in exploring the different emotions that each scene produces, such as reactions to an office corridor in contrast to those to a hospital or a private bedroom. Indeed, there is an inherently voyeuristic aspect to these early works.
Other series include Modern Romance, exposing the isolation of urban life; the Wild West; Barbie, a cross between portraits and a fashion show; and the politically charged series Hitler Moves East, Mein Kampf and Blackface. This latter series consists of close-ups of black memorabilia, household objects infused with African-American stereotypes, and caused such a controversy that the Institute of Contemporary Art of Philadelphia was forced to cancel the exhibition while still in its early planning stages. Most of Levinthal’s series stem from his experiences as a child with popular culture. His early encounters with his family’s color television in contrast with daily reality have also marked his work. The subjects of Levinthal’s work, the toys and dolls themselves, are often confused with real live people, causing his audience to question the ambiguity found in this dialectic between artificiality and reality.
With the use of photography, Levinthal animates his small toys, sometimes to the point of artificially created movement. On his toy use, Levinthal said that "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." Furthermore, Levinthal is aware of the power of toys: “Ever since I began working with toys, I have been intrigued with the idea that these seemingly benign objects could take on such incredible power and personality simply by the way they were photographed. I began to realize that by carefully selecting the depth of field and making it narrow, I could create a sense of movement and reality that was in fact not there.
- Diawara, Manthia. David Levinthal: Blackface. Santa Fe: Arena Editions, 1999
- 'Untitled, from the series The Wild West. 1989' in MoMA collection
- Artfacts.Net: David Levinthal
- Hallanan, Blake. "Toy Story"