Times Art Writer

"I made quite a splash in the '30s, but since then I've become less and less known," says the 70-year-old painter in David Sutherland's new film, "Jack Levine: Feast of Pure Reason." His recent obscurity makes Levine an ideal subject for Sutherland, who champions nettlesome American artists whose careers have long since crested.

Sutherland caught Paul Cadmus before it was too late. Now he does the same for Levine in a 58-minute film to be screened tonight at 8 and Saturday at 3 p.m. at the County Museum of Art.

A political satirist, Levine hit his stride while painting big-headed, small-minded power mongers at a gangster's funeral or double-dealing in smelly closets. Far more than a caricaturist, the Boston native also has painted empathic portraits and sumptuously exotic interpretations of Jewish lore, during a period as a self-proclaimed "propagandist for the Old Testament."

Sutherland puts Levine's life together collage-style, patching his Works Progress Administration stint, a choked-up testament to his deceased wife (painter Ruth Gikow) and reminiscences on art and baseball with art historian Milton Brown between backward looks at his painting and the on-the-spot creation of a portrait of his daughter, Susanna.

The result is a thoroughly engaging picture of Levine, as fractured in form but fundamentally sound as his best paintings.

Levine's artist-as-outsider lament is such a cliche that it's tiresome, and it's tough to take seriously a claim that "I want to remain the mean little man I always was" from an artist so obviously crying for recognition.

But exposing the humanity of that stance is surely part of Sutherland's mission. He wants us to like his chosen artists even as we renew respect for their contributions. On both counts, he is successful.

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