Art Daybook; ‘Dallas, 1963’ by David Levinthal
The piece: “Dallas, 1963”
The artist: David Levinthal
Where: Museum of Fine Arts, Houston in the show “David Levinthal: Photographs 1972–2016,” through Feb. 15
Why: Few moments in modern history have been as much of a benchmark, in multiple ways, as the 1963 assassination of President John F. Kennedy. The release of classified government documents this week, regardless of what they contain, isn’t likely to quell the conspiracy theorists. Or dim the public’s fascination with that day when America’s Camelot moment ended. Photographer David Levinthal’s monumental inkjet print, made in 2014, captures the enormity, not so much of the assassination but of the power it still holds.
All you need to see is the pink pillbox hat, the topper to Jackie Kennedy’s iconic Chanel suit - and maybe the flag on the black limo - to know what you’re viewing.
Levinthal has used action figures, toys and figurines to stage dreamy photographs of imagined or real histories since he was in graduate school decades ago, collaborating on a book with cartoonist (and Doonesbury creator) Garry Trudeau.
Levinthal had stashed a die-cast model of the Kennedy limousine, from a line manufactured by British company Corgi Toys, in a closet so many years that he eventually gave it to an assistant, thinking he’d never use it. “The figures were not well done at all,” he said.
But after he switched from Polaroid to digital film a few years ago, enabling him to play more with an image’s depth of field, something compelled him to buy another one on eBay. After first staging the photograph with a backdrop of buildings, he subbed in some grassy hill props left over from his previous “Custer’s Last Stand” project. Bingo.
“The moment I took that photograph I knew I’d done something special,” Levinthal said. “It’s going to be remembered as one of my great photographs.”
Curator Malcolm Daniel appreciates how Levinthal’s images employ materials as seemingly innocent as toys to reflect dark moments of history and culture. “If it was all fun, they would not be terribly meaningful,” Daniel said. “It’s that really unsettling combination with the dark subjects - the troubling things that are part of popular culture, whether it’s TV shows, the figures themselves, Hollywood interpretations or a false history we’ve taught ourselves.”