Surreal Life


Left: Tajan auctioneer Wilfrid Cazo. Right: Galerie 1900-2000's Marcel Fleiss and David Fleiss and auctioneer Wilfrid Cazo.

The “Hommage à Julien Levy Part 2” sale at Tajan on June 8 was laid-back yet stately, a schvitzy, slacker minuet. Levy (1906–81) is most famous as the dealer who brought the Surrealists to New York in the ’30s and ’40s. He exhibited Salvador Dalí, Max Ernst, and Frida Kahlo, among others, many for the first time in the US, and “discovered” Joseph Cornell, who was working for him at the time. The transition between Surrealism and AbEx could be said to have occurred in his gallery at 15 East Fifty-Seventh Street.

Why was this material for sale in Paris? According to Marcel Fleiss, who, along with his son David, was the auction house’s hired expert and is the proprietor of Galerie 1900–2000, “The Levy estate gave the sale to Tajan on the stipulation that we be the experts, because we were the only ones who could identify much of the material. They tried Sotheby’s, Christie’s, and Phillips in New York, but they just couldn’t do it.” The Fleiss team were also the experts for first part of the “Hommage” in October 2004, which raised €6,500,000 ($8,175,021) and evoked, as the Tajan press material puts it, “the atmosphere of a Wild West showdown.”

Stepping into Tajan’s quarters, located a few blocks behind the Madeleine in a former bank, is like returning to 1925. The two-story space has a big, etched-glass skylight and a double staircase with coiled bronze cobras at the base of each balustrade. All this period charm underscored the Jazz Age strengths of the Levy collection. The sale lasted four-and-a-half hours, with two short breaks during which everyone rushed out to the courtyard and nearby cafes to smoke cigarettes and talk on their cell phones. When I breezed in at about 4:30 PM, the mood in the room was torpid. About twenty people were sitting in the audience and a passel of eight or nine young women in little black dresses was working the phones. Fleiss pere et fils were seated up front to the left of the auctioneer, M. Wilfrid Cazo, who is youngish, bearded, and frisky. “Que dit-on?” he kept saying to a given price. The big event, as Marcel Fleiss told me, was the Pavel Tchelitchew drawing Untitled (Portrait of Joella), 1937, estimated at €1,800–2,000 ($2,273–$2,525) going for €44,000 ($55,557). “The Tchelitchews in the 2004 sale sold for nothing,” he said.

In the second part, devoted to catalogues, magazines, and gallery announcements, the room, already hot from the skylight and lack of air conditioning, began to percolate. But there’s a market for this kind of modernist ephemera—especially in Paris and at a low-key celebrity sale such as this. Back issues of View and The Little Review were a steal, some going for under €100 ($126). The invitations and catalogues also remain alluring, like brilliant Conceptual Art games. Standouts were Salvador Dalí’s invite card “I sleep in a sensational art nouveau bed from which flows an uninterrupted fountain of milk” of 1936, estimated at €500–600 ($631–758), which went for €1,300 ($1,641). Another Dalí invitation, for a “one-week-only” 1941 Levy gallery show in Hollywood, was estimated at €100–120 ($126–$158) but sold for €800 ($1,010). Appropriators and time-traveling artists, take heed: This stuff is great source material.

The third part, comprising drawings, began at 7 PM, and here the effect was of a slow summer movie gradually coming up to speed. The tall, elegant French decorator Jacques Grange sidled in, and proceeded to peel down to a baby blue polo shirt and slacks. Anonymous jacketed men came and sat next to him, and it was ambiguous whether they were also bidding for him. Grange eventually won a beautiful drawing on blue paper by Eugène Berman and a very expensive—for this sale, at least—1929–30 Max Ernst collage titled . . . Et Tout est Inhumain. He may also have gotten more, but it was all done with such supreme understatement and savoir-faire that it was rather hard to tell.

The pack of young people on phones swelled to fourteen or so, and international interest—especially English-speaking—rose to a dull roar. Salvador Dalí’s drawing Sperme, 1939, depicting shooting cocks and luscious labia, and a small, fluorescent Matta painting (shown at Levy’s gallery under black light—how cool!), both far surpassed their estimates. Cazo introduced with “beaucoup d’interet” a classically aerated 1944 Gorky drawing. Estimated at €30,000–40,000 ($37,900–$50,534), it leapt from €50,000 to €100,000 in one and ended up at a whopping €180,000 ($227,390).

Plenty of attention was also paid to to lesser known female Dadaists and Surrealists such Mina Loy and Léonora Carrington. Work by Loy, a poet and painter married to the Dadaist writer and boxer Arthur Craven (and Levy’s mother-in-law), is particularly sought-after these days, and a small drawing sold for over six times its high estimate. I was drawn to strange figurative drawings by Muriel Streeter, who not many people seem to have heard of—not even the Fleisses. Only Marie Difilippantonio, the curator of the Levy archive from Newtown, Connecticut, could explain: “She was Levy’s second wife and very beautiful. After she divorced Levy, she had a full artistic career, painting cacti in Arizona.”

All in all, the sale was a French reinflection of American material and revealed a great deal about one of the most essential chapters in American art history, which in this period was becoming the dominant narrative of Western art history. Levy’s role in this was central, and the fact that such incunabula is now being dispersed in Europe suggests that the tables have turned yet again.