- Historic Sites
William Auerbach-Levy’s genius as a caricaturist lay in what he chose to leave out.
June/July 1986 | Volume 37, Issue 4
Perhaps oftenest repeated was his Jimmy Durante story, described in his book Is That Me? A Book about Caricature as follows: “When he arrived I had a pad and pencil in my hand as he came through the door. That very moment I saw an angle that amused me and I recorded it then and there. He came in, we shook hands, he took his overcoat off and said, ‘Well, what do you want me to do?’
“ ‘Nothing,’ I said, ‘I’m all through—I made the drawing as you came in.’ ”
And he would conclude with an imitation of the comedian’s gravelly New Yorkese: “I knew I was easy to caricature, but not as easy as all that!”
Besides indicating Auerbach-Levy’s familiarity with celebrities, the story provides a very real comment upon his approach to caricature, his ability to create his effect through what was essentially the power of suggestion. He was a minimalist. “Leave out more than you put in,” was his motto, and so Beatrice Lillie is depicted in one drawing without eyes and in another without a mouth; nothing lies beneath Eugene O’Neill’s shaggy brows; and George Gershwin is mostly cigar. Auerbach-Levy’s near contemporary Al Hirschfeld often employs a similar “negative” artistry. Hirschfeld remembers that he and Auerbach-Levy would often cross paths backstage, drawing the same stars of the same hit plays, but there was no cross-pollination. Their drawings never looked alike, although each seemed the definitive caricature of the subject.
When Auerbach-Levy died in 1964, his fame was based on his caricatures. But throughout his life, he also worked as teacher, painter, and master of the copperplate etching. He never taught caricature; his classes at the National Academy of Design School and the Art Students League were classes in life drawing. “To learn to be a caricaturist, learn to be an artist,” he once said. “Caricature is an absolutely individual problem with every artist. It would not be right for me to teach my way—everyone must develop his own way.”
Just so. A closing note: Auerbach-Levy loved games. Besides poker, he was an unbeatable checkers player (intercity champion at fifteen) and an avid tennis player. But of course, the best game was caricaturing itself. Auerbach-Levy always made it look easy; that’s what champions do.