THE ART OF JOSEF LEVI
The female head has long been the subject of Josef Levi’s creative process. He made this choice instinctively, but also with the understanding that the face, especially that of a woman, is the most immediately expressive part of the human body. The choice was further determined by his deep interest in traditional art of diverse cultures and periods. How could he not be enchanted with the haunting face of the Mona Lisa, with the sullen head of the Virgin from Piero della Francesca’s San Sepolcro Altarpiece, and with the deliciously delicate faces depicted by Hokusai? From these and other great masters he drew inspiration for a personal handling of form and color.
Prior to, say, 2002, it was Levi’s habit to paint on a single canvas two naturalistically conceived female heads confronting each other in contrasting but balanced moods, volumes, surface patterns, and colors – monochromatic and pigmented. He disregarded their original environmental contexts (such as landscapes and interiors) and their devotional functions so that they could share an indeterminate, universal space and exist in infinite time. Ever the experimenter, Levi began to alter his technical approach to painting after 2002 by supplementing handwork with the computer, thereby shifting the balance towards greater abstraction than he had hitherto contemplated. But his subject was unaltered.
In recent years Levi’s art has become more complex. Now with an exclusive and singular use of the computer, he facilitates a deeper expressive power of abstraction in his canvases and works on paper. It asserts itself in a stringent handling of forms and color mixtures not achievable with the brush alone. He flattens heads and abandons line as a means of defining their overall structures. He simply hints at them with the help of large black and white areas. Though he persists in emulating female heads he discovers in traditional paintings, he has begun to include also faces of his acquaintances.
These fictive and real heads he no longer couples but represents singly, which permits him to focus attention on the details of the faces, in particular the eyes and mouth. However, they do not appear as natural elements but as patterns that at times spread more widely over the pictorial field and take the form of bold and vigorous strokes and amorphous shapes of high value colors. They constitute Levi’s personal response to Cezanne’s free use of strokes and colors in his landscapes and portraits.
Paradoxically, expressive content and psychological characterizations are intensified in Levi’s art by the very fact that he has reduced the female head generally to a computerized, abstract rendition of eyes and mouths. (Are not the eyes and mouth familiarly believed to be the most expressive parts of the human face?) With these dynamic forms he conveys a range of moods, among them aloofness, wariness, inquisitiveness and petulance.
Professor Emeritus of Art History, Temple University, Rome 2009
“Still Life” Series & Portrait Commissions
Statement by JOSEF LEVI
As the most expressive part of the body, my work concentrates on the face. The computer is a tool for exploration in creating greater abstraction in my images with minute squares as its basic unit. Original imprint of every face is preserved even with reduction and flattening of forms to their essentials. My interest is to make each face breathe with a life of its own other than that of the initial image.
The portrait work incorporates identical concepts as my work described above. I create paintings as abstract as necessary, according to my intuition, from 3-5 color photos of the client’s choosing. I title everything, including the portraits, "Still Life with " as the reproduction from a book or photo is the considered still life.
Ink on Paper: 30" x 22"
Ink on Canvas: 40” x 30” / 50" x 37" / 70" x 48" / 80" x 57"/ 90" x 75”