Daniel Levine, born and bred in New York City, studied photography and painting at SUNY Buffalo – at which time he also became involved with Hallwalls and CEPA Gallery where he followed directly the generation of Robert Longo, Cindy Sherman and other “Pictures Generation” artists. His own paintings and works on paper, often seen as “monochrome,” in fact reflect a wider range of popular-culture inspired sources and self-invented practices. He has exhibited widely for the past two decades in rarefied gallery contexts.

John Zinsser: Daniel, I’ve known you for 25 years, and your “attitude” is the one thing that remains unflinching: about life and about art. That, in turn, informs the way people read your work.

Daniel Levine: That’s a funny response, because my paintings are inherently internalized. It’s one of the limitations of monochrome that I embrace. Yet outside influences become sources for my work, and provide a kind of “structure.”

I often find myself obsessing on something obscure—that begins to resonate. Like, recently, there’s this one particular version of a song from a Grateful Dead bootleg from a 1969 Fillmore West set, “Doin’ that Rag,” I had never encountered. I never came across this on vinyl, so it was never part of the shared history of my generation—it’s easily found now, in the age of the internet. It never related to the all-important “physical object” of the LP. 

Anyway, it’s the most traditional of traditional songs – rather hokey and could almost be based on some outdated form: minstrel or medicine show in source and format. In this version, it loses its grip on traditional narrative sense—it becomes strangely structured. It becomes non-linear. And the beauty of it is that it doesn’t really work; the song stumbles and breaks apart. And due to the spirit of 1969 Fillmore West, there’s a moment where it becomes a completely redefined, non-narrative abstraction. The song goes from being accessible to a general public (an outward narrative) to something ethereal (an internal narrative). 

Also, for the last year I've been somewhat obsessed with “Rome” by Danger Mouse and Daniele Luppi. It's a real soundtrack to a nonexistent spaghetti western (and performed by the original musicians of the Morricone scores, as well as contemporary singers)—a 1960s musical form, identifiable in an instant as an archetype, but modernized as both homage and a redefining of an era.

And that’s how I think of abstract painting – you need a structure, a “chassis,” for the public to hold onto, but there’s something inside of it that’s more elusive. I want my paintings to be the equivalent of slowly falling down a deep well.

JZ: Do you cite any traditional art historical influences?

DL: In my world, Philip Guston, John McLaughlin and Myron Stout are the “Father, Son and Holy Ghost.”

JZ: Where does that leave Agnes Martin?

DL: (Laughs.) There’s a Guston painting, "Beggar’s Joys," that’s very much of the real world, lowbrow in the best sense, with its Bowery gutter title. It brings all the ideals of modernism down to a diametrical opposite level. It relates to the conflicts every artist deals with every day in the studio: the outside world vs. the inside world, accessibility to an audience. I think that that’s inherent in abstract painting, especially so-called “monochrome” painting. You have to give the viewer a way to enter the work.

JZ: What enables the viewer to enter your work?

DL: Well, we are, after all, dealing with aspects of elitism—and abstract painting has always been marginalized and, at times, ridiculed by the public. These qualities of its inherent reception have always attracted me. 

JZ: Do you title your works?

DL: It’s hard to compete with a title like "Beggar’s Joys," but perhaps "The New Maid" or "You and You" may be worthy.

Z: Why title your works?

DL: I mean, people have names for God.

JZ: So, “naming” the absolute, ineffable quality of something?

DL: Yes, but also inviting a viewer’s own history, their “baggage.”

JZ: So it’s not so much that you’re connoting a verbal construct with a visual construct—it’s that you’re inviting people into a visual world?

DL: No reason to cut off dialogue. Especially since my paintings aren’t as “outwardly friendly” as yours are. You’re the “friendly” abstract painter – the “A” side of a great single; I'm the “B” side, in a minor key.

JZ: I certainly like accessibility—and I like to make a pop version of “inwardness” that is “outward” in its signifiers. 

DL: I did use an Agnes Martin title, "On A Clear Day," which ended up being my most optimistic painting.

JZ: It’s interesting to attach adjectives such as “optimistic” to the practice of abstraction, since its 20th century identity was largely framed in nihilistic or existential terms. We can now consider ourselves to be “representational” painters—representing a culture, an identity. We’re a generation that already had this pre-received “form” available.

DL: And as far as finding influence, there’s usually a lot more to glean from the low points.