The Julien Levy Gallery
Summary of The Julien Levy Gallery
The Julien Levy Gallery - only one of a few art galleries in Manhattan during its time - was a major destination throughout the 1930s and 40s for popular Surrealist art, photography and experimental film. Such artists who enjoyed solo exhibitions at the Levy included Giacometti, Tanning, Ernst, Magritte, Kahlo, Ray, Cornell, and probably most prominent of all, Arshile Gorky. Many of the 20th century's most revered works of Modern art passed through the Julien Levy Gallery doors at one time or another, making the gallery a fundamental resource for those artists who went on to define Abstract Expressionism.
Background of Julien Levy
Julien Levy (1906-1981) began his foray into the avant-garde arts during his years as a student at Harvard. Among the impressive list of his classmates from the mid-1920s include Alfred H. Barr, Jr., James Thrall Soby and Philip Johnson. As part of this Harvard group, Levy became an avid art promoter and collector, and expressed a particular affinity for film and photography. Levy also possessed a deep affection for European Surrealism; a passion that would have a profound impact on the artists he represented in future years.
Levy Travels to Paris
Levy dropped out of school in 1927 and boarded Paris, a transatlantic steamer headed for Le Havre, France. On board he met Marcel Duchamp and the two quickly became friends. It was through Duchamp that Levy was able to meet and befriend many in the Parisian art world, including the photographers Eugene Atget and Berenice Abbott, who was Man Ray's personal assistant at the time.
Relationship with Eugene Atget
Eugene Atget died the same year Levy arrived in Paris, and with help from Abbott, Levy was able to purchase the entire catalog of Atget's photography, which included 2000 prints and 10,000 glass-plate negatives. Like many American artists and dealers who were born around the turn of the 20th century, Levy was deeply fascinated with 19th-century Parisian art and culture, and preserving Atget's catalog was a way for Levy to preserve a photographic record of Paris from the past century.
After three years in Paris, Levy returned to New York and made the decision to become an art dealer. Together he and Abbott put together a show of Atget's photography at the Weyhe Gallery, and soon after Levy attempted to sell the entire catalog to MoMA. Both the Weyhe show and his offer to MoMA were met with lukewarm responses.
Remarkably enough, nearly 40 years after MoMA's Acquisitions Committee refused Levy's offer of the Atget photography catalog, they finally agreed to purchase the collection in 1969. This seemingly revelatory gesture by MoMA indicates precisely how far ahead of his time Julien Levy was in identifying significant artwork.
Opens the Julien Levy Gallery
In November of 1931 Levy opened his new gallery in midtown Manhattan with a photography exhibition that included works by his friend and mentor, Alfred Stieglitz. Quickly discovering that photography was hard to sell, Levy shifted his gallery's focus to Surrealism and to showing the work of artists like Dalí, Ernst, Ray and Cornell.
The Gallery's Legacy
As Abstract Expressionism was beginning to flourish in New York, Levy's gallery was a haven for other styles of art that heavily influenced the Abstract Expressionist artists. Levy's true passions were photography first, with both Surrealism and experimental film following closely behind. On constant view at the gallery were paintings by Gorky, Ernst, Picasso, Kahlo, Tanning, Matisse and Magritte, as well as collages and sculpture by Giacometti, Cornell and Noguchi. The artists, scholars and critics who eventually defined Abstract Expressionism in the 1950s spent much of their time at the Levy Gallery, which many viewed as a brief escape to a small piece of pre-1940 Paris, right in the heart of Manhattan.