PRINT February 1999


Julien Levy

AS WE APPROACH THE FINAL MONTHS of this century, art critics and historians are increasingly compelled to identify and list the most important events that have occurred in the world of art over the course of the past hundred years. Histories differ, of course, depending on who provides them. Artists tend to chart progress through the accomplishments of other artists, whereas historians seem to prefer seeing styles develop logically in a seamless chronological sequence. The contributions made by curators in this historical flow have been well documented in books devoted to the most important art exhibitions of the century, and even collectors have been given credit for the important role they played in shaping modernist taste.

But how about the art dealers? There is no anthology or history of twentieth-century art that adequately acknowledges their contribution to its development (nor, to my knowledge, is one in preparation). Dealers, after all, represent the principal liaison between an artist and his or her collector. Indeed, gallerists are usually the first to see an artist’s work (either because the artist approaches them, or because they seek out the work through studio visits). As a result, they frequently find themselves at the cutting edge—literally, in some cases—deciding which artists should be shown to the public (and thereby given a chance to carve out their own places in history) and which would be better off forgotten. Moreover, being so close to the formative process, dealers are often the first to identify and define stylistic trends that are only picked up by museums years, sometimes even decades, later. Finally, although it is rarely acknowledged, the formal, iconographic, and especially commercial values we initially assign a particular artist’s work are greatly influenced by the way in which that work is first presented by the artist’s gallery.

Such power rests in the hands of relatively few individuals. If a history of twentieth-century art were written with a focus on the role played by dealers, it would be easy to formulate a list of the essential chapters: Alfred Stieglitz, Marius de Zayas, Paul Rosenberg, Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler, Samuel Kootz, Julien Levy, Peggy Guggenheim, Betty Parsons, and Pierre Matisse; Sidney Janis, Ileana Sonnabend, and Leo Castelli—those are the names that immediately come to mind. Scattered articles (and in some cases, even books) have been written on several of these dealers, and now Ingrid Schaffner and Lisa Jacobs flesh out another chapter in the history I proposed.

Jacobs and Schaffner’s Julien Levy: Portrait of an Art Gallery shares its title with the show they organized and mounted late last year at the Equitable Gallery in New York. Although published after that exhibition closed, this book was intended to serve as its catalogue. Following the structure of the exhibition, Portrait of an Art Gallery is organized around a variety of themes: “Abstraction,” “Ballet, Cartoon, and Cinema,” “Dream,” “Fetish,” “Magic Realism and NeoRomanticism,” “Photographies,” “Play,” “Sex and the Sexes,” and “Surrealism” (loosely reflecting the divisions that Levy had isolated and defined in his own writings on Surrealism). Until now, the accomplishments of Julien Levy (1906-81) have been known primarily through his two books: Surrealism, the first work on the subject to be published in America, appeared in 1936, and his autobiography, Memoir of an Art Gallery, appeared in 1977. For this reason, the more objective view presented in this volume—which includes essays by several writers—is a welcome contribution to the literature on this important and influential dealer of Surrealist art.

Since he is best known for his support of Surrealist painters and sculptors, it may surprise some to learn that Levy began his career by selling photographs. But as Schaffner’s essay reveals, he had a vested interest: In 1930, a year before his gallery opened, Levy purchased from Berenice Abbott partial ownership of ten thousand prints and nearly two thousand glass-plate negatives by the French photographer Jean-Eugène-Auguste Atget. Naturally, Levy needed some sort of outlet to liquidate his investment, so opening his own gallery was a logical option. Although the Depression was in full swing, the timing couldn’t have been better: He had just come into a sizable inheritance after his mother’s death, and because his father was a wealthy real estate developer in New York, finding a place to set up shop wasn’t difficult.

In the fall of 1931, Levy opened a gallery in a modest storefront on Madison Avenue at Fifty-seventh Street. His first show was a survey of American photography, an exhibition intended as an homage to his role model in the business, Alfred Stieglitz, whose own establishment at the time, An American Place, was located down the street, on Madison Avenue at Fifty-third Street (in a letter to his wife, Levy even joked about naming his gallery “Place of Levy”). In December 1931, he opened a show of photographs by Nadar and Atget, an exhibition that, from a financial standpoint, did surprisingly well (in letters to friends he reported breaking even and suggested he might yet turn a profit).

Levy’s next show would be even more successful, for it would bring him the fame and publicity he sought: In January 1932, less than three months after his gallery had opened for business, he held the first exhibition of Surrealism in New York (preceded only two months earlier by “Newer Super-Realism,” a show held at the Wadsworth Atheneum, in Hartford, Connecticut, and organized by one of Levy’s former classmates from Harvard, Arthur Everett Austin Jr.). Levy’s exhibition was given the title “Surréalisme” (intentionally emphasizing the French spelling) and featured paintings, photographs, books, collages, and assemblages by some of the best-known artists then associated with the movement in Europe (complemented by a few of Levy’s own discoveries in America), including Herbert Bayer, Jean Cocteau, Joseph Cornell, Salvador Dali, Max Ernst, Man Ray, László Moholy-Nagy, and Pablo Picasso. During the exhibition, the gallery also held a film screening (another of Levy’s interests), showing Fernand Léger’s Ballet Mécanique (1924), Jay Leyda’s A Bronx Morning (1931), and Man Ray’s L’Étoile de Mer (1928).

Surrealism was unquestionably Levy’s great aesthetic preoccupation—one that would hold his interest long after his gallery had closed and the movement itself had become moribund. In the seventeen years of his gallery’s existence, Levy would go on to show the work of Giorgio de Chirico, Peter Blume, Alexander Calder, Victor Brauner, Maria Martins, Picasso, Marcel Duchamp, Dorothea Tanning, Eugene and Leonid Berman, Paul Delvaux, René Magritte, Pavel Tchelitchew, Yves Tanguy, Kay Sage, Wolfgang Paalen, Matta, David Hare, and Alberto Giacometti—a nearly complete list of the greatest artists who worked (if only temporarily) in a Surrealist style.

Naturally, the focus of this book is on Levy’s gallery and his Surrealist associates. It begins with a touching tribute written by Dorothea Tanning, a gifted Surrealist painter (whose first exhibition was held at the Julien Levy Gallery) and, as her essay will attest, an equally gifted writer. (I would advise readers to search out her Birthday [Lapis Press, 1986], which, I think, is one of the great autobiographies written by an artist.) The book’s longest essay, by Schaffner, provides the most complete account yet of Levy’s activities during the years in which his gallery was open. Also included is an essay by Carolyn Burke, biographer of Mina Loy, the brilliant English poet whose daughter Joella became Levy’s wife in 1927. For many years Levy’s most trusted confidante (Burke amusingly entitled her essay “Loy-alism”), Loy also acted as his Paris-based representative in the early ’30s. Another essay by Steven Watson, a well-known cultural historian, concentrates on Levy’s personal and professional relationship to a group the author calls the “Harvard Modernists” (who, like Levy, either attended school at Harvard or taught there). Lisa Jacobs rounds out the presentation with a collection of reminiscences and personal reflections on Levy written by a number of his closest surviving friends and colleagues. She also provides a complete chronology of exhibitions that were held at the Julien Levy Gallery.

The general neglect accorded dealers of modern art might very well be the indirect result of their financial success. Apparently, historians are inclined to think that dealers have already reaped the reward of their profession, so why give them any additional recognition? In opening his gallery, Julien Levy was not seeking fortune (that was something he already had), but, rather, fame. And how can we begrudge him that, when it is an aspiration that he shared with virtually every artist who showed in his gallery? Levy’s well-earned position as one of the great dealers of modern art comes from his commitment to the artists he believed in, either because he felt they possessed a talent worthy of public attention or because they worked in a style he wanted to encourage and support. For Levy as for all of the great dealers, though they owned and operated commercial establishments, making money was by no means the sole objective. By offering a more nuanced look at the individual tastes and quirky passions that drove these influential dealers, publications like Portrait of an Art Gallery begin mapping out the critically neglected avenues through which modern art first made its way into the world.


Ingrid Schaffner and Lisa Jacobs, eds. Julien Levy: Portrait of an Art Gallery (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press), 192 pages.