David Levinthal: Toying with the Past?

June 4, 2019
A photograph of a horse on it's back legs with a man next to it.

David Levinthal, Untitled from the series Wild West1989, instant color print, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of an anonymous donor, 2018.3.190, © 1989, David Levinthal

Photographer David Levinthal is renowned for his meticulous use of toys and plastic figures to create images and tableaux that reflect different aspects of American culture. His innate ability to see America through a sharply focused lens, shines a light on how we shape our times and how our times shape us. 

I look at my work as a narrative that taps into each individual’s own identity.

For more than forty years, Levinthal has explored themes of what it means to be American. The exhibition American Myth & Memory: David Levinthal Photographs showcases seventy-four color photographs, created between 1984 and 2018, from two recent gifts to SAAM of more than 400 photographs by the artist. The images, drawn from six of Levinthal’s most well-known series, will be on view through October 14, 2019. In Modern Romance, Levinthal explores how movies and television shape notions of intimacy, privacy and desire. In American Beauties, Levinthal uses toy figures dressed as 1940s pinup girls to evoke an innocent nostalgia while also raising the more serious allusion to the societal objectification of women. Barbie takes on the complex mythology of the iconic doll and the surrounding cultural resonance of her celebrity. Baseball also explores the myth of celebrity and the legends that represent America’s “national pastime.” Wild West explores the powerful appeal of the American West and the lasting impact of its associated archetypes—cowboys, Indians, gunslingers, and lawmen. Finally, History, Levinthal’s most recent series, examines the relationship between history and myth using references from photojournalism to art history to depict events that span from the nation’s founding through the Vietnam War.

“I find objects and I try to animate them in a sense through my photographic work and breathe life into them, so that when you look at the photographs the last thing you think of is that they are toys,” said Levinthal.

His images explore the cultural prominence of these quintessential American subjects and mass media’s role in mythologizing them. Through his lens, Levinthal hints at the fallibility of collective memory and the deceptive myths it can engender, prompting us to consider the societal ideals and stereotypes lurking beneath our most familiar cultural touchstones.

Join us on Friday, June 7, at 6 p.m. for a discussion with Levinthal and Joanna Marsh, the museum’s deputy education chair and head of interpretation and audience research, as they take a deeper dive into Levinthal’s work, his process, and the role photography plays in the construction of the American collective memory. If you cannot make it in person, you can always watch the webcast of Levinthal and Marsh’s conversation.

A photograph of two people looking at a piece of artwork on a wall.

Installation photograph of American Myth & Memory: David Levinthal Photographs, photo by Libby Weiler 


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