"David Levinthal: Make Believe" features approximately forty photographs spanning Levinthal’s career from 1975 to the early 2000s. Levinthal, a significant figure in American postmodern photography, stages intriguing tableaus with toy figures and miniature dioramas to photograph. Levinthal creates miniature environments in which he touches upon various subject matter from the isolation of urban life to the horrors of war.
“In Levinthal’s uncanny tableaux, collectible toy characters come to life by acting out scenes from popular culture, war stories, and highly charged political moments within constructed dioramas of his own design,” said Rory Padeken, assistant curator. “With his characteristic use of close-ups, shallow depth of field, and soft focus, Levinthal animates his objects and obscures the distinction between artifice and reality.”
"David Levinthal: Make Believe" features twenty-eight photographs donated to the museum in 2011–2012 by longtime SJMA supporters Katie and Drew Gibson. This exemplary collection features the finest examples of Levinthal’s work from various series throughout his career, selected by the artist especially for the Gibsons. Also included in this collection is a rare set of four images from the series “Airport,” originally commissioned by the City and County of San Francisco, Airport Commission in 1996. SJMA’s collection of works by Levinthal rivals the holdings of the artist’s work at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.
Levinthal’s fascination with toy figurines stems from childhood. Growing up, Levinthal staged epic, imaginary battles on his bedroom floor between American GIs and German toy soldiers. As a young boy growing up in the 1950s, immersed in Hollywood westerns, Levinthal was enamored by the romance and grandeur of the Wild West and reenacted scenes of the American frontier using cowboy and Indian figurines. Such childhood pastimes filled with enacting the great wars of the world, imagining life as a cowboy out on the range, and playing secret agent James Bond, would shape the way Levinthal approached the world through photography.
This exhibition showcases Levinthal’s interest in a diverse range of subject matter, from the isolation of urban life to the horrors of the Holocaust to the celebration of America’s most beloved sport, baseball. Many of Levinthal’s other series, also included in the exhibition, are drawn from American popular culture: mythologies of the Wild West, Barbie, American beauties, and X-rated dolls. Included in the exhibition are photographs from Levinthal’s seminal 1977 photo book, "Hitler Moves East," a collaboration with cartoonist Garry Trudeau, which features a series of imagined battle scenes from World War II’s Russian front. This landmark series established Levinthal’s reputation and influenced a whole generation of American photographers including Richard Prince, Cindy Sherman, and Sherrie Levine.
Thanks to Drew and Katie Gibson, Mike and Kathy Levinthal, Donald Rosenfeld, and David Levinthal for their generous support of the Museum’s permanent collection and of this project.