"Julien Levy: Portrait of an Art Gallery," Aug. 13-Oct. 31, 1998, at the Equitable Gallery, 787 Seventh Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10019.
In 1927, the 21-year-old Julien Levy told his new friend Marcel Duchamp that he wanted to study film. Duchamp suggested working with Man Ray, and accompanied Levy on an ocean liner to Paris. There Levy soon met and married Joella, daughter of poet Mina Loy, of Lunar Baedeker fame. Brancusi and James Joyce were invited to witness the wedding (Joyce was a no-show at the ceremony). In addition to romance, Paris provided Levy with art and photography that he would import to New York.
The Surrealist art dealer Julien Levy (1906-81) is currently the subject of a captivating exhibition at the Equitable Gallery in midtown Manhattan. Levy is best known for a succession of 57th Street galleries, bravely opened during the Depression (1931) and lasting past WW II (1949). That is the basis of this "portrait" of the gallerist as a young man.
At the Equitable is a lively installation of curving walls and galleries within galleries. The scheme evokes the curved walls of Levy's own gallery, as well as the Minotaur's labyrinth, an appropriately Surrealist-favored myth. On view is a dazzling variety of art from the 1930s and '40s. Levy's remarkably varied interests -- ballet, comics, newspaper headlines, applied art, film and photography -- are given separate sections of the installation. Levy even celebrated the world of Disney, first exhibiting animation art for Snow White in 1938.
In 1932 Levy staged the first Surrealism show in New York, which is a focus at Equitable. It brought Dali's Persistence of Memory to these shores, along with photos by Atget, Tabard and Herbert Bayer. There are also collaborative photos Levy made together with George Platt Lynes. Levy had considerable interest in photography, and his photography collection eventually found an institutional home at the Art Institute of Chicago.
He was the first to exhibit Joseph Cornell, who is well-represented here. Levy also backed the "Magic Realists," or "Neo-Romantics," headed by Pavel Tchelitchew. Levy's big tent was admirably catholic, embracing rivals, independents and Surrealist fellow-travelers like Arshile Gorky, who ranks with Cornell as one of the most important artists he "discovered."
In 1938 Levy showed self-portraits by the beguiling Mexican painter Frida Kahlo -- with whom he had an intimate relationship. Kahlo gave him a native blouse as a love token (not yet tested by FBI labs). It is exhibited here as a relic beneath a Kahlo self-portrait that is wonderfully upright and formal. Frida depicts herself with hair tied in a blue ribbon, a low-budget cigarette holder in her hand and an amusingly tiny dog at her feet.
One of Levy's better theme shows was "The Imagery of Chess" (1944), also partly reconstructed here. Dorothea Tanning's A Game of Chess shows a female foot (the Queen's?) squashing a bishop into the floating board. The roles are reversed in a sculpture by her husband, Max Ernst, displayed nearby, The King Playing with the Queen, in which she is the object of fetishistic domination. Thus, this artistic couple uses the competition of chess for quite opposite views on another Surrealist "game," the battle of the sexes. What then to make of the winsome The Chess Queen, by Muriel Streeter, Levy's second wife?
At the Archives of American Art, a few steps east in the corridor of the adjoining Paine-Webber building, is rare documentation of Levy's plan to adapt Surrealism as a public entertainment, by creating a fun-house in an eye-shaped pavilion for the 1939 World's Fair. Unfortunately, it was not carried to fruition. A letter from Duchamp is also in the cases, reminding us that this eminence grise advised Levy, as well as Peggy Guggenheim. Fortuitously, a centenary homage to Peggy is currently on view at the Guggenheim Museum, enabling us to compare these two gallerists. Coming from privileged New York backgrounds, both played in roaring '20s Paris, then utilized the contacts made there to fashion modern art back home. Both were willing to include abstraction along with Surrealism, and to range from "elite" to "mass" culture. Both cultivated a more ad hoc profile than seems to be the case today, yet managed to attain critical positions in the trans-Atlantic dialogue.
No privileging of media here, as Levy "took Surrealism where he found it." Thus the masterpiece is not the main point, though there are some here -- the Kahlo, the Gorky and Ernst's Stolen Mirror (1941), among the paintings. Rather, we have a visual archaeology of a rich period in which the theatricalities of a self-conscious late Surrealism merged into the first probings of a New York school of abstraction. This is most effectively conveyed in the juxtaposition of Gorky's painterly bravado in Love of a New Gun with a fumage and painting by Wolfgang Paalen.
The catalogue is edited by co-curators Ingrid Schaffner and Lisa Jacobs, who also contribute. It includes essays by Carolyn Burke on Levy and Mina Loy, and Steven Watson on Levy's Harvard connection. There are reminiscences by Dorothea Tanning and others, as well as a chronology of gallery exhibitions, but not of Levy's life. The catalogue is being published by MIT Press.
LEWIS KACHUR is a New York-based art historian and critic who teaches art history at Kean University. He is currently completing a book on Surrealist exhibition installations.