The late 1920s and 1930s were crucial years in New York’s rise as an international artistic center. Cultural contacts between Europe and the United States multiplied. American artists who had studied in Paris returned with fresh ambitions; dollar rich patrons were willing to finance new initiatives; the First World War had unsettled European artists and gallerists, many of whom settled in New York. They were joined by others who fled the Nazi threat. Manhattan was turning into a Mecca of modernism where a multi-national cohort of artists, dealers and investors mixed and mingled.
By our standards the art world was relatively small. At any one time in that epoch, there were probably fewer than fifteen galleries active in New York with only a handful concentrating on contemporary art. A pioneering role was played by Alfred Stieglitz’s 291 Gallery on Fifth Avenue. Operational since 1905, the gallery introduced the Parisian avant-garde to an American audience. In modernist Manhattan, Stieglitz was the Godfather.
A characteristic aspect of this period was the interaction between European gallerists and a generation of aspiring American artists. Stieglitz had set a pattern. His exhibition program consisted of introducing French modernists while simultaneously pushing a circle of up-and-coming local artists. Over time, the American presence became more prominent.
In the process, calls rang out to challenge “conservative” museums and establish an institution devoted to modern art. On November 8, 1929, New York’s Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) opened its doors. Under guidance of its first director Alfred H. Barr, a productive working relationship was established with Manhattan galleries. In the midst of these developments towered the figure of Julien Levy.
The Harvard Experience
Born in New York on January 22, 1906, into an affluent Jewish family (his father was a real estate developer and art collector), Julien Levy attended Harvard where he studied English literature before changing to the subject of museum administration under Paul J. Sachs, one of seven founding members of MoMA.
He began his foray into the avant-garde during his years at Harvard. The environment was an inspiring one. Fellow students from the mid-1920s onward included Alfred Barr; James Thrall Soby who built up a famous collection of modern art at the Wadsworth Atheneum, Hartford; and Arthur Everett “Chick” Austin, who would become director of the Atheneum and organizer of the first Picasso retrospective in America.
A member of this Harvard group of modernists, Levy became an avid collector with a lasting affinity for film and photography. Eager to exploit his own creative potential, he became frustrated by his father’s refusal to back him financially in making experimental films. He dropped out of Harvard in 1927 (one semester prior to graduation) and went to Paris intent on working with Man Ray.
Ironically, it was Edgar Levy’s love for art that caused his son’s departure. In 1926, alerted by Julien, he acquired from the Brummer Gallery the marble Bird in Space (1923), the first in a series of iconic sculptures created over time by the Romanian-born French artist Constantin Brancusi.
It was on that particular occasion that Julien first encountered Marcel Duchamp, the legendary Dadaist artist and Surrealist sympathizer who represented the sculptor’s interests in America.
Brummer Gallery (East 57th Street)
A significant development in the art market of the early twentieth century was the role played by American collectors and their European suppliers. This occurrence was hurried along by the crippling economic effect of the First World War. The Old Continent was for sale.
Joseph Brummer was a Hungarian sculptor who, having left Budapest’s Academy of Fine Arts in 1904, settled in Paris. In 1909 he launched into a career of selling antiques, opening a gallery on Boulevard Raspail. When his brothers Imre and Ernest joined him, they traded as Brummer Frères.
With the onset of World War I, the property of all Austro-Hungarian and German enemy nationals was sequestered. Joseph and Imre moved to New York where they opened a gallery at 55 East 57th Street and cooperated until Imre’s death in 1928.
After the war, Ernest reopened his business in Paris. Until the beginning of the Second World War when Ernest joined Joseph in New York, the two branches worked together. The brothers flooded the American market with classical works of art and antiquities, but Joseph had other interests too.
At his premises he organized some of New York’s earliest exhibitions of contemporary French art. Joseph brought avant-garde art to Manhattan, including paintings by Picasso and Henri Rousseau (who painted his portrait in 1909), and sculptures by Aristide Maillol, Jacques Lipchitz, and others. His 1926 Constantin Brancusi show drew wide critical approval.
Weyhe Gallery (Lexington Avenue)
The meeting with Duchamp was a crucial moment in Julien Levy’s career. He left Harvard, joined Duchamp in February 1927, and set sail for Le Havre. Also making the journey was Robert McAlmon, author, drinking pal of James Joyce, and founder of Contact Editions in Paris where he published work by Hemingway and Gertrude Stein, amongst others.
During the crossing Levy and Duchamp became close. Once in Paris, the latter introduced his young friend to many figures in the Parisian avant-garde. He also joined the circle of expatriates. At a party thrown by Peggy Guggenheim, McAlmon introduced him to London-born artist and poet Mina Loy (her father had escaped anti-Semitism in Budapest). She was accompanied by her daughter. Levy and Joella Loy married in August 1927. From the outset, he was entranced by his mother-in-law’s artistic gifts and would help to promote her poetry and visual art throughout her career.
After three years in Paris, the couple returned to New York where Julien started work as an assistant in the print room of the Weyhe Gallery. Also known as Weyhe Gallery & Bookstore, this establishment was a print and art bookshop established in 1919 by German-born Erhard Weyhe who, after running a book business in London’s Charing Cross Road, had moved to New York just before the outbreak of the First World War. The firm operated from 1919 to 1923 at 710 Lexington Avenue, and from then on in a four-story townhouse further down the road at no. 794.
The Gallery served as a meeting place for dealers and collectors who were interested in modern art. When Levy arrived as an apprentice, the Gallery was directed by Weyhe’s assistant Carl Zigrosser, the son of an Austrian immigrant (later in his career Carl worked as Curator of Prints and Drawings at Philadelphia’s Museum of Art).
The Gallery specialized in contemporary prints and drawings, but Weyhe also collected and sold sculpture. At the time of Levy’s employment, Zigrosser organized in February/March 1928 the first solo exhibition of Alexander “Sandy” Calder’s wire sculpture. The event received considerable press coverage. Weyhe provided Levy with the practical experience of running a gallery, organizing exhibitions, and dealing with individual artists.
On November 2, 1931, funded by an inheritance from his mother, Julien opened the Levy Gallery at 602 Madison Avenue with an American Photography Retrospective Exhibition. The show was a tribute to Alfred Stieglitz, but Levy quickly realized that photography would not finance the running of the gallery and he was forced to shift his focus to modernist art.
On January 29, 1932, he presented the first exhibition of Surrealism in New York. Paying homage to Paris by naming the exhibition Surréalisme, the multi-media show featured painting, sculpture, collage, and photography. Levy introduced European artists to New York, whilst at the same time championing the work of young American painters.
The interaction between established European and young American artists was intriguing. In the period leading up to the exhibition, Joseph Cornell visited the gallery. After viewing a collection of collages by Max Ernst, he hurried home to construct his own works. For the cover of his book on Surrealism (1936), Levy used a Cornell collage of a boy trumpeting the word “Surrealism” that had been on display at the 1932 exhibition.
The show put the Levy Gallery on the map. Salvador Dali’s presence was largely responsible for the excitement. Key attraction was The Persistence of Memory (1931) which Julien had acquired during his stay in the French capital. It became the most discussed painting in the United States since Duchamp’s Nude descending a Staircase at the Armory Show in 1913.
Mina Loy was Levy’s mentor. She acted as his Paris representative and for the next five years she arranged the purchase and transportation of Surrealist art to Levy’s Gallery. In doing so, she became a central figure in the American reception of Surrealism.
Loy exhibited her own paintings at the Levy Gallery in 1933. Julien was keen to promote female talent and mounted exhibitions by Lee Miller, Katherine Dreier, Leonor Fini, Dorothea Tanning, and others. Though the Gallery struggled financially, it developed a far-reaching reputation. In 1937, business was moved to 15 East 57th Street, where Levy mounted the first solo exhibition of the work of Frida Kahlo in November 1938. His eye for talent never let him down.
Mina Loy’s move to New York in 1937 ended her work as the gallery’s agent. Levy and Joella divorced in 1942, after which he remarried the artist Muriel Streeter. By that time, the world had changed. The bright Manhattan’s days of cosmopolitan exchanges were fading and so did Julien Levy’s passion as a gallerist. In 1949 he shut up shop, taught art history for a while, and retired to a farm in Connecticut where he wrote the Memoir of an Art Gallery (1977). He died there in February 1981.
As a gallerist, Levy set a blueprint by codifying the rituals of commerce (from press releases to boozy opening nights) and interaction between collectors, curators and critics to generate reviews and publicity. He also initiated a competitive working relationship with MoMA that was repeated in other major art centers where gallerists acted as scouts for new talent.
By the very nature of the institution, museums worked retrospectively. Having made an assessment of events and activities, curators looked beyond the immediate towards context and continuity. Levy’s Surréalisme of 1932 and subsequent solo shows of Surrealist artists laid the groundwork for MoMA’s comprehensive exhibition Fantastic Art, Dada, Surrealism in 1936/7. Although the event was rife with controversy and arguments between rival factions among the participants, it was nonetheless a groundbreaking attempt by Alfred Barr to present Dada as a historical movement.
Illustrations, from above: Berenice Abbot’s portrait of Julien Levy in Paris, 1927 (The MET, New York); Bird in Space, 1923 by Constantin Brancusi (The MET, New York); Portrait of Joseph Brummer, 1909 by Henri Rousseau (National Gallery, London); Wire Portrait of Erhard Weyhe, 1928 by Alexander Calder (Whitney Museum of American Art); curved walls in the Julien Levy Gallery at 15 East 57th Street, late 1930s; The Persistence of Memory, 1931 by Salvador Dalí (Museum of Modern Art, New York); Joseph Cornell’s cover for Julien Lev’s book Surrealism (1936: Black Sun Press); and Frida Kahlo’s first American solo exhibition in November 1938 at the Levy Gallery, East 57th Street.