I love stupid paintings, decorated transom, stage sets, carnival booths, popular engravings, old fashioned literature, erotic books with non-existent spelling, the novels of our old grandmothers, fairytales, children’s books, old operas, silly refrains and naïve rhythms.

-Arthur Rimbaud, Alchemy of the Verb, 1873 (translated by John Ashbery)

Gallery-hoppers once made beelines to the Julien Levy Gallery. It was the place to see advanced contemporary art, according to the collector and Museum of Modern Art curator James Thrall Soby. As Soby reminisced in his unpublished memoirs: “[Julien Levy] was for a long time the only New York dealer who handled the work of the Surrealists and Neo-Romantics…. Nor did he neglect some of the best younger American painters, sculptors and (a very rare inclusion in the early 1930s in New York) photographers. It was at his various galleries in the 57th street area that I first saw the paintings of Ben Shahn, the photographs of Atget and Walker Evans and of many other artists whose names now seem secure in art’s ever-changing constellation.”1 Upon arriving in New York from Paris in 1941, Leo Castelli recounted, he “immediately got involved with people who were, like me, interested in the Surrealists, who were very fashionable, the latest thing.”2 At the top of his list was Julien Levy.

In October 1937, the gallery opened at the second of the four locations it would have during its eighteen years in New York. Leading into the space was a magnificent curved wall, “the shape of a painter’s palette.”3 Vogue enthused: “The newly-planned walls are broken up artfully, dipping and waving and straightening out again. The rug is dark wine, the walls white, the effect naked and modern.”4 Pictures hanging on those walls took on a cinematic sequencing, directed by the dealer. Accelerated by the viewer’s advance, the curve rapidly dissolved one image into another, like frames in a film screened through a projector. A gallery press release announced that pictures “present themselves one by one, instead of stiffly regimented as they would be on a straight wall.”5

Films and photography had been regular features at the gallery’s first location. Not classic American photography – moments frozen on the straight side of realism – but rather an avant-garde and European aesthetic. Levy’s taste was experimental, the images he chose often blurred by passages of movement and time, the very properties of cinema. Since his college days, the movies were Levy’s first love: in 1927 he sailed across the Atlantic with Marcel Duchamp, intent on making a film with Man Ray. And in 1941, lured by the siren call of Hollywood, he took his gallery on the road with a “caravan” series of exhibitions for a season on the West Coast. In a cast that over the years included Joseph Cornell, Salvador Dalí, Max Ernst, Alberto Giacometti, Frida Kahlo, René Magritte, and Dorothea Tanning, who all debuted in New York at Levy’s gallery, the star of the gallery’s final location was one of Surrealism’s most decisive harbingers of Abstract Expressionism, Arshile Gorky.

In light of its contemporary reputation and this montage of achievements, Levy’s enterprise during the 1930s and early 1940s can be seen to anticipate the great New York art galleries of the late 1940s and the 1950s, those under the direction of such dealers as Sidney Janis, Sam Kootz, and Betty Parsons. In league with Peggy Guggenheim, Pierre Matisse, and Curt Valentine, Levy promoted the European avant-garde and Internationalism in America; his successors, in turn, promoted an American school of art, Abstract Expressionism, to an international audience of museum directors, collectors, connoisseurs, and critics. What Vogue admired in 1938 as Julien Levy’s stylishly modern good taste in white walls became the de rigueur backdrop for serious painting and sculpture. Betty Parsons recalled the stark white interior of her gallery when it opened in 1946: “In those days galleries mostly had velvet walls and very Victorian decoration. I decided to hell with that…. When you’re showing a large painting by Jackson Pollock, the last thing the work needs is a plush velvet wall behind it.”6 Levy codified the rituals of contemporary gallery commerce, from sending out press releases and snappy announcement cards, to throwing opening-night cocktail parties. The gallery routinely published brochures with essays by famous writers and critics, who established an instant context for an artist’s works. Levy created a buzz that attracted the smart set, collectors, curators, press, other artists, who then generated reviews, gossip, speculation, and – most significant for the artists whose work was on view – interest and sales. In short, the Julien Levy Gallery made art lively.

But it wasn’t all famous names and tasteful surroundings. There emerges another image of the gallery, this one less modern, retardataire, even. For each naked white wall, Levy’s gallery also had is scarlet side, with a “Harvard red room which took the place of red velvet…. I’ve always kept that color for painting.”7 In such a room, Levy would show old American theatrical posters, American folk art, drawings for interiors by design students, costume designs for the ballet, and would sell books and periodicals. In pursuit of commercial opportunities for his artists and himself, he kept portfolios of portrait photography with hopes of landing paying sitters. He sought mural commissions for decorative interiors by his artists. He even offered a line of his own photo objects, trompe-l’oeil wastebaskets and lampshades.

These “kinick kinacks,” as Levy called them, hark back to the historic origins of art dealing, to the curiosity shops and antiques trade. An eighteenth-century French dealer’s card exemplifies the diversity of interested that captivated early collectors:

Gersaint, jewelry merchant…sells all of the latest metalwares and objects of taste, jewels, mirrors, cabinet paintings, pagodas, Japanese lacquerware and porcelain, seashells and other artifacts of natural history, pebbles, agates, and all kinds of strange and curious merchandise in general, in Paris, 1740.8

Two hundred fifty years later, this bricolage of bric-a-brac seems closer to the marché aux puces than to the Leo Castelli Gallery.9 But for Julien Levy in the 1930s and 1940s, such a display was evidently surreal. And although he may not have gone so far as to deal in bijoux and bibelots, he did show the work of Joseph Cornell, whose collage boxes are filled, like miniature Wunderkammern, with just such a world of “strange and curious” things.

Levy’s was quintessentially a Surrealist sensibility, undivided in its affections for high and low art and artifacts. As Soby remarked, “Indeed he was as close to being an official Surrealist himself as one could come without signing one of André Breton’s guidelines to the Surrealist faith.”10 But Levy’s personal identification with the French art movement does not fully explain the paradoxical position of his gallery. Simultaneously forward- and backward-looking, the gallery is emblematic of shifts taking place in the arts world and in art commerce just before the boom of the American postwar period. This essay will consider Levy as both a singular and a representative art dealer in America between 1931 and 1949, when galleries changed from upholstered enclaves and salon-style sanctuaries to fashionable forums with an expanded public, when contemporary artists began to have the cachet of old masters, and when dealers gained new authority within a system of showing and selling directly related to museum collecting and exhibiting. It will also consider Levy’s particular affinities, ambitions, and legacy, and what made his enterprise unique.

The Economy of Art Dealing

Like the rest of the economy during the early 1930s, the American art market was in a depression. In August 1931, just months before the Julien Levy Gallery opened, The Art News reported rhetorically: “Today there is a slump in the art trade of Great Britain and American brought about by large numbers of collectors who are in the habit of buying art [who are] temporarily ceasing to make purchases.”11 An art gallery is by nature an expensive proposition. Aside from its dealing in luxuries, there is the basic cost of rent. Here, Levy had an indisputable advantage in that his father, Edgar, was a powerful New York real estate developer, who during the Depression had many primary locations available to let. On April 3, 1931, Julien wrote to his mother-in-law, Mina Loy, who would serve as his Paris agent during the first years of his gallery: “I have found a beautiful location, size about 20 feet x 50 feet, with a good show window, very bon marché because of the depression, and I am on the point of signing the lease.”12

Having secured a space, the dealer pays the cost of shipping, insurance, framing, if not outright buying works of art, and then of photographing, and printing announcements, catalogues, and press releases. On top of this, there are “optional” expenses of a gallery assistant’s salary, opening-night parties, artist’s stipends, and professional fees for outside writers and curators. From sales income, the dealer stands to make fifty percent if the work comes directly from the artist, but only a portion of that if another dealer is involved. Although no comprehensive gallery records survive, it seems that Levy’s policy was to collect from the artist a work from each exhibition for his private collection, in addition to which he frequently purchased another work or two.13 When, as in the case of Alberto Giacometti and René Magritte, there were few other sales, Levy would be his own best client.

Price tags from the 1930s indicate that the business prospects for the Julien Levy Gallery could not have been less auspicious. An insurance checklist from Levy for loans to the Harvard Society for Contemporary Art in January 1932 values Atget photographs at $10 apiece, Moholy-Nagy photographs at $15, an Ernst painting at $250, and a Dalí at $450. The high end of Levy’s market was represented by Picasso – two tiny paintings at $1,800 each – and Pierre Roy – a $1,500 painting – which Levy had on consignment from other galleries. In the best of times, Levy’s income from any of these sales would have been nominal. With the market in recession, a gallery specializing in contemporary art seems to have been an insupportable venture.

And yet it was a time for wealthy young men to embark on visionary ventures. Alfred H. Barr, Jr., was the first acting director of the Museum of Modern Art; Arthur Everett (“Chick”) Austin, Jr., as director of the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford, established the Avery Memorial Wing for modern Ballet. All were expressing ambitions to institute the avant-garde in America. Even the Whitney Studio Club changed its identity, becoming the Whitney Museum of American Art in 1931. As reactions against the old cultural establishment, with its spectacularly failed investment in the status quo, these efforts might even be seen as an extension of New Deal aspirations. At the very least they indicate how opportune it was to try something new, perhaps because there was so little to lose. By his own account, Levy, a young man from New York’s upper middle class who had been happily seduced from family business by bohemia, was in it for fame.

Atget and Ambition

Julien Levy’s first inklings of becoming an art dealer can be traced to one body of work, the golden-toned photographs of turn-of-the-century Paris by Jean-Eugène-Auguste Atget. “You remember the photos?” Levy wrote to Mina Loy on March 12, 1930. “Of every concievable [sic] subject in or around Paris, doorways, stairways, brothels, courts, trees, street vendors, fairs, shop windows, corsets and umbrellas. All taken with beautiful quality, selection, and composition.” Levy had been introduced to Atget during his 1927 Paris trip through Man Ray, who lived near the photographer. At the time, Levy purchased as many prints as Atget would sell, and as many as he could ferret out at antiquarian booksellers’. In 1930, Levy suddenly had more Atgets than he knew what to do with, having just acquired a partial interest in Berenice Abbott’s archive of more than ten thousand prints and nearly two thousand glass-plate negatives.

After the photographer’s death in August 1927, Abbott, who had been Man Ray’s assistant, rescued Atget’s oeuvre from the proverbial dustbin of history by acquiring all of the material that remained in the studio from Atget’s friend André Calmette. One of her first projects with the material was to coordinate a monograph in French on Atget, which she brought with her to New York in 1930. Levy was then working as an assistant to Carl Zigrosser in the upstairs print room at the Weyhe Gallery, and presumably because of his established interest in the work, Abbott took the book to him in hopes of finding an American publisher. She got that, and more, according to Levy’s news to Loy:

[Bernice] will tell you that I have arranged an exhibition for next year of her Atget photos. And I have also bought a part interest in them. They will be hard to exploit as the public in America is decidedly not photo-minded, but I think they are very beautiful, the kind of work of genius that doesn’t appear every day, and the problem of managing them to the best advantage will mean two years fun at least. And if they are half as successful as they deserve to be, my reputation as a person, a connoisseur, an art dealer, man in public life, etc. will be made. Also Berenice’s reputation as a photographer will be more than merely boosted, and she should make a tidy sum of money. IF they are half as successful as they desrve [sic] to be.14

In Levy, Abbott found the support to secure financially the Atget archive that was in her keeping. As a photographer, she had already assumed the artistic charge that she would maintain over the archive, organizing the material, making prints, and storing the glass negatives. She further expressed her deep affinity for Atget by lecturing extensively on his work and, even more explicitly, by undertaking in 1929 a project to document Manhattan, as he had Paris, in photographs. Through Abbott, Levy had found the start of a career, and he set out to make his mark as a New York art dealer representing the work of Atget.

As detailed in his correspondence with Loy, Levy’s experience coordinating the Atget show at the Weyhe Gallery is a preview of coming attractions, expectations, and disappointments at the future Julien Levy Gallery. The summer her spent making selections for the Weyhe exhibition was a period of intense fulfillment, of rapturous engagement. What familiarity he had with Atget’s work promptly developed into greater intimacy; he “cheated” on his wife, Joella, who was living in Scarsdale until the young couple’s New York apartment was renovated, to “work at [the photographs] evenings, staying in town overnight about twice every week. Always discovering new and exciting ones.”15 To his mother-in-law, he happily confessed, “My photographs are giving me a heavenly summer…. There is nothing I could ask for better than to roll myself between sheets of Atgets, each new one I find (and there are thousands) is a revelation.”16 Years later, when an interviewer suggested that Atget was essentially a Romantic, Levy snapped to the defense of his first love in photography: “I don’t know whether you mean it in an insulting way or what”; but he conceded that Atget “probably was.” most paintings,” if not more so. But seeking to promote the work in advance of the exhibition led to one of Levy’s first professional disappointments. The editors at Hound and Horn, the literary magazine founded by Lincoln Kirstein, were enthusiastic. Unfortunately, however, as Levy explained to Loy, “when Mr. Kirstein heard of the project he flatly said NO. He had only just then decided that nothing but American contributions would be accepted in the future.”18 Levy did manage to place Atget’s work in Ezra Pound’s literary magazine Pagany.19 The next sign that selling French photographs in American was not going to be easy came from the Museum of Modern Art. During the summer, Levy feverishly fantasized to Loy of Atget’s incipient fame: “Even if I am left without one in my possession, I dream of saying 20 years hence ‘I once had them all alone in my room, and now they can only be seen in a Museum (or morgue).’”20 Alfred Barr shared Levy’s admiration for Atget and advocated photography as an art in its own right, worthy of museum exhibition and collection. And yet early autumn found Levy faced with a cooler reality. He wrote Loy, “The only set-back being that the trustees of the great Museum of Modern Art have refused photography in general as art. Had counted on a promise from the director to show my Atgets. And that cursed museum has come to dictate the taste in contemporania of most of N.Y. and even of Am.U.S.”21 In 1969 the same “cursed museum” would purchase the entire Abbott-Levy collection of Atget’s negatives and photographs.

Impatient for some evidence of recognition, while constructing dream galleries in the air, Levy joked to Loy, “I am perpetually irritated that things take three of four days to materialize. As soon as I think of the project it should be done, rise whole and sweet from the mental energy I generate. I am already spending the money we haven’t gottened, and tomorrow I will be a suicide because nobody comes into the gallery we haven’t yet gottened.”22 His reluctance to develop a project, to nurture an artist’s reputation over time, would prove among Levy’s foremost professional liabilities. As a dealer, he was too often ready to lose interest in those things that did not garner instant support, as Atget’s photographs did not. Where his vision was radically was radically ahead of the market, Levy succeeded as a collector, not a dealer. After two early shows at his gallery failed to popularize Atget’s prints, they were essentially consigned to storage. (This would be a source of bitterness for Abbott, whose active and steadfast responsibility toward the work led to its sale to the Museum of Modern Art; she resented having to share the proceeds with Levy.23) Such was the fate of photography in general, which was soon supplanted by painting and sculpture as the Levy Gallery’s focus. Unlike Alfred Stieglitz, for example, Levy was unable or unwilling to commit himself to the long-term project of preaching, proselytizing, and performing the little miracles that it takes to challenge resistance, alter perceptions, and create public acceptance of new art. He experienced a rush of irritation toward potential Atget customers, as he told Loy: “Everybody admires [Atget’s photographs] but nobody seems willing to pay a price for one. The feeling is that any photograph is just a snapshot and only worth its association value, no more than that. If you concieve [sic] of a promising sales program, do communicate.”24

It was not all dark premonitions. Although he was not as successful as he had hoped, Levy did experience the first thrill of sales in his introductory exhibit of Atget’s work. In late July, even before the Weyhe show officially opened, he boasted to Loy that “the first primed and mounted specimens were delivered to me here at the gallery, and within an hour I had sold 10 TEN, to two utter strangers (or almost utter).”25 Midway through the exhibition, he reported: “This week we received rather good publicity and the photographs have begun to boom. I have made back all expenses in the two weeks, no profits yet, but expect sales to multiply as the days go on, and that will be all profit as there are no further expenses to expect.”26 There is no account from Levy tallying the score of the Atget show. By the end of the exhibition, on December 6, he had, according to his correspondence to Loy, at least broken even, received some good press (“Really of course in these days of depression praise rather than shekels is the best one should expect”) and made some new connections (“I am having my quota of amusement and meeting many important personages through the exhibition”).27 The experience buoyed him sufficiently that he could announce to Loy his intention to open a gallery. On January 2, 1931, less than a month after the Atget show ended, he wrote: “I enter upon the money my mother left me – Jan. 22 at the age of 25. I am seriously thinking of taking a chance on my immature inexperience because the state of affairs is too opportune to pass up. I may invest the money in buying pictures, objects, etc. to stock my destined Arte Shoppe. Perhaps I may leave Weyhe.”

A Bid for the Future

Dear Mr. Stieglitz,

Greetings! I have so much to tell you, and to ask you, and many pictures to show you. I am more anxious for your approval than that of any man I know.28

Shortly after coming into his inheritance, Levy quit Weyhe. He wrote confidently to Loy on March 16, 1931: “I plan to open a gallery of my own, called the PLACE OF LEVY…. I am concentrating chiefly on photography as the ‘supreme expression of our epoch’ always a secret passion of mine, i.e. any supreme expression, but I am glad to take anything else that may be cornered.” And again in April: “I do not plan to have only photographs, but pictures, sculpture, and even kinick kinacks. But photographs are a bid for the future, for uniqueness and publicity.”29 Levy’s vision was not unique. Sharing her husband’s ambition and informing his plans, Joella Levy encouraged him, in an undated letter, that it was time to act on the opening of a photography gallery. (From her tone, it seems that photo galleries were the rage among the aesthetically inclined of Levy’s generation.) She advised him of her choice for the best location – 602 Madison Avenue, at Fifty-seventh Street – and urged him to sign the lease.

On November 2, 1931, the Julien Levy Gallery opened at that address, with American Photography Retrospective Exhibition. Announced in the brochure as a “concise restatement of work since the daguerreotype,” the show was a tribute to New York’s high priest of photography and art dealing, Alfred Stieglitz, whose work was displayed along with that of five of his artists. Levy was too young to have experienced Stieglitz’s Little Galleries of the Photo-Secession at 291 Fifth Avenue, “291” for short. Between 1905 and 1917, the gallery had hosted a roster of ground-breaking exhibitions: of photographs of Alvin Langdon Coburn, caricatures by Marius de Zayas, New York studies by Francis Picabia. During the late 1920s, however, Levy had made routine visits to Stieglitz’s successive spaces, the Intimate Gallery (1925-1929) and An American Place (1929-1946), whose name one cannot help hearing echoed in the mock “Place of Levy.”30

The interior of Levy’s gallery was modeled in part on Stieglitz’s immaculate aesthetic. The front room was painted white, but instead of hanging the pictures on plaster walls that would require maintenance after each exhibition, Levy installed an inventive system of wooden moldings designed to hold photographs sandwiched between reusable sheets of glass. This would obviate the costs of framing and touch-up. The back room, reserved for paintings, was painted red. This touch of the old in the midst of the new perhaps reflects on his previous employment at Weyhe, an altogether different type of gallery. The evenings at Stieglitz’s may have been inspirational, but the days at Weyhe provided Levy with practical experience. “It made an apprenticeship for me,” he later said of the years he had worked under the print connoisseur and future curator at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, Carl Zigrosser.31 During Levy’s employment at Weyhe, there were shows of woodcuts by Alexander Calder and watercolors by Rockwell Kent; the mainstay there, though, was books.

Books and periodicals played an important role also at Levy’s gallery, attracting their own public, Bothered by browsers, gallery assistant Allen Porter interrupted himself in a letter to Agnes Rindge, the Vassar College art historian who was part of the gallery’s inner circle of clients and collaborators: “This is all very disjointed on account of I’m here all alone and I have to keep getting up and answering sill questions like are those books for sale. My God, do they think this is an educational institution?”32 There were buyers. Levy’s reputation as a dealer seems to have been as much for art as for books, whose prices at the time were comparable to those of photographs. He sold issues of La Révolution Surréaliste ($7.50 a copy) to Harvard University, and poetry and prose to his colleague Pierre Matisse, who purchased Louis Aragon’s Le Paysan de Paris ($3.00), René Crevel’s Le Clavecin de Diderot ($2.00), and Paul Éluard’s La Rose Publique ($2.75).33 Levy was a distributor for Minotaure, the art magazine that launched Skira as a high-end fine-arts publisher. And when Camille Dausse, a physician in Paris who exchanged his services to artists for books, decided to sell his substantial library of Surrealist material, he approached Levy to act as his agent to the Museum of Modern Art.34
Stieglitz had diversified interests, too. He was a photographer, an art dealer, and a publisher. (Among Levy’s papers was an undated brochure from Weyhe announcing that, in collaboration with Stieglitz, the gallery would carry back issues of his journal Camera Work.) For all its personal adaptations, Levy’s opening program and plan remain essentially an homage to Stieglitz. It was wise strategy for the twenty-five-year-old novice to affiliate his enterprise with the established authority in the field. After an exhibition of paintings buy the popular portraitist Massimo Compigli (whose sales were intended to compensate for photography’s negligible market35), Levy presented the historic French photographers Atget and Nadar, both of whom were still little known in America.36 Atget earned the highest ordination when a reviewer for The Art Digest compared his art to Stieglitz’s.37 If Levy’s first step as a dealer was to stand on the shoulders of this art world giant, his next several shows marked strides in new directions.

Fame, Fashion, and Film

Having staked his opening bid for “uniqueness and publicity” on photography, Levy was granted both, when, in January 1932, his gallery presented the first exhibition of Surrealism – titled in the French, Surréalisme – in New York. Featuring painting, sculpture, collage, photography, and books, the show instantly earned the Julien Levy Gallery the distinction of being the place to see sensationally new art. And with the first New York appearance of work by Salvador Dalí, there was publicity galore.38 Dalí’s Persistence of Memory was reproduced in virtually every review, with one perplexed critic at The Art Digest going so far as to poll New York’s psychiatric community: “The limpness of the clocks, one of them found, expressed impotence. Another felt that it was an excellent rendition of potence, because time … meant power, which could be transformed into anything, even saddles on which one might mount and ride off to victory in the distant hills.”39 Writing on a “bewildering” exhibit, the critic for The New York Times demurred: “One of the most entertaining exhibitions of the season (possibly the most profound) is in progress at the Julien Levy Gallery.”40

The public success of the show gave Levy the fame that he prized over fortune, and plunged the young dealer into activity that turned the next years at the gallery into an extended definition of Surrealism. The course had been inadvertently forecast by Chick Austin, whose Newer Super-Realism at the Wadsworth Atheneum was in fact the first exhibition of Surrealism in the United States, having preceded Levy’s by two months.41 Austin asserted: “Sensational, yes, but after all the paintings of our present day must compete with the movie thriller and the scandal sheet,” and added, “We do not hesitate to dress in fashion because we fear the next year the mode will alter…. These pictures are chic. They are entertaining. They are of the moment.”42 Over the years, Levy’s gallery would make art fashionable, and take him to Hollywood.

During the 1930s and 1940s, the arts mixed freely. Perhaps, again, with fewer rewards at stake, artists, dancers, dress designers, and choreographers could risk losing their identities in collaboration. Representative was the 1937 exhibition, organized by Lincoln Kirstein and held at the Levy Gallery, of the Ballet Caravan Collaborators of the School of American Ballet. The exhibition showcased set designs by Paul Cadmus, choreography by Lew Christianson, and music by Paul Bowles and Virgil Thomson; and displayed a Sears, Roebuck catalogue, from which costumes had been ordered, and a seventeenth-century commedia dell’arte engraving, which inspired one dance’s imagery of Harlequin. Amid this creative hubbub, one can see the period as a throwback to pre-modern culture, when fewer distinctions separated high from low, art from decoration, beauty from pleasure. Austin, for instance, observed the liaison between Surrealism and fashion. Levy also represented the now almost forgotten, but then fantastically popular, Neo-Romantic figurative painters, who merged Picasso’s Blue Period with classical de Chirico to conjure an attractive ambience of pathos and ruin. They were also available for mural commissions. Eugene Berman turned James Thrall Soby’s dining room into a theatrical setting, an at-home version of a folly at Versailles. The cultural ideals were in many other respects elitist, dictates by young barons such as Kirstein from their privileged, and self-made, posts. For the amount of hybridization, this cultured imagery could even be called baroque. At the same time, the general readership for the arts seems to have been quite sophisticated. Open a contemporary issue of Harper’s Bazaar or Vogue and you will find an essay by Jean-Paul Sartre, models posed in a tableau by de Chirico or photographed by Man Ray, ads for Elsa Schiaparelli designed by Dalí, and items about the Julien Levy Gallery, where there was always something amazing going on.

Where else could you view paintings by Gracie Allen with such titles as Behind the Before yet Under the Vast above the World is in Tears and Tomorrow is Tuesday, or Eyes Adrift as Sardines Wrench at Your Heart Strings?43 Where could you shop for prints by Picasso and constructions by Cornell, commission a photographic portrait from Edward Weston, George Platt Lynes, or Lee Miller, and see Frida Kahlo, dressed in full Mexicanista, installing her first exhibition in New York? Where could you buy a Magritte? And when Pavel Tchelitchew’s Phenomena, a sensational allegory of the contemporary cultural universe, studded with miniature portraits of Gertrude Stein, the poet Charles Henri Ford, and Joella Levy, to name merely a few luminaries, traveled from Paris to London, where did it stop in New York for one week only, but at the Julien Levy Gallery?

Carl Van Vechten, Mr. and Mrs. Nelson Rockefeller, and George Gershwin were among those who RSVP’ed to a private screening of Un Chien Andalou held at the gallery on November 17, 1932. This was the second evening of film hosted by Levy that fall, when he also took office as president of the first Film Society of New York. Modeled after clubs in France, the Society sent out a prospectus in the summer of 1932:

Beginning in January, THE FILM SOCIETY will show to its private membership on one Sunday evening a month… motion pictures of excellence, not ordinarily to be seen even in little playhouses, or forbidden for public performance by the censors, and revivals important to the history of the motion picture.

The first program, held on January 29 of the following year at the Essex House, included an animated color cartoon by Walt Disney, an abstract film of light waves produced by music, and G.W. Pabst’s Die Dreigroschenoper in a French version. Four more equally diverse programs appeared through May, with the American premiere on March 19 of Luis Buñuel’s L’Âge d’Or, “the first surrealist film of feature length.”44 In preparation for this event, Levy contacted Mina Loy: “If Bunuel gets in touch with you bargain with him…. Impress on him [that] I probably can do better than our offer by renting them to other similar organizations which are in process of appearing like mushrooms these days, and sharing the profits with him.” After a successful screening, Levy reported to Loy: “Presenting L’Âge D’Or was most exciting. We didn’t know if our show would be the success of the year, or if we would be run out of town. The former proved true and the film is still the only topic for dinner conversation all about New York.”45

The Film Society folded after its first season. Levy continued to show artists’ films at his gallery, most notably Cornell’s Rose Hobart and Goofy Newsreels, collaged from found footage the artist was buying by the pound from distribution warehouses in New Jersey. The short-lived Society was officially reincarnated in 1937, when the Museum of Modern Art appointed Iris Barry, founder of the London Film Society and formerly on the board of directors of the New York Film Society, to head its new Film Library; this would eventually become the Museum’s Film Department.
Museum Versus Gallery

This progression of events demonstrates the dynamics between gallery and museum. Although Alfred Barr had included both film and photography departments in his preliminary plans for the Museum of Modern Art, his board initially opposed these areas of collecting. One can imagine that the reputation of photography at the Museum was significantly besmirched through association with the ill-fated Murals by American Painters and Photographers exhibition of 1932. Organized by Kirstein, who asked Levy to curate the photography section, the show was an invitational that turned disastrous when several advisory committee members resigned in objection to perceived leftist imagery; one contributor, for instance, had “mixed ticker tape with pigs and financiers.”46 Not until 1937 would the Museum seriously broach the subject of photography again, with a major survey curated by Beaumont Newhall. Levy lent several works to the show, which covered much of the ground he had explored in the early years of his gallery.47

With his Surreéalisme of 1932 and many subsequent solo shows of Surrealist artists, Levy’s activities laid the groundwork for the Museum of Modern Art’s 1936 exhibition Fantastic Art, Dada, Surrealism. Compare his New York premieres of Dalí and Tchelitchew in 1933 with the museum’s exhibitions of their work in 1942; his 1933 Cartier-Bresson show with the Museum’s 1947 exhibition; his 1945 Gorky show with the Museum’s 1962 exhibition; or his 1932 Cornell Show with the Museum’s 1980 retrospective. The list could go on, as so many of the artists Levy responded to as emerging talents would become the subjects of major museum surveys. But this is the role of the gallery, a fast and light operation with easy access to artists and the work insider their studios. The ponderous machinery of a museum, with its labyrinth of departments and administrations, its public and fiscal responsibilities, moves slowly and cautiously, and ruminates on what happens in the galleries. Levy, ever outspoken about his aversion to museum bureaucracies, may not have been exaggerating when he said that Barr was “jealous” of his freedom as a dealer.48 Barr’s brilliance was often encumbered and embattled by opposition from inside and outside the museum. When key works in the Fantastic Art exhibition were suspected of being communist, for example, Barr had to defend to his colleagues their inclusion in the subsequent tour of the show.[footnote49] On the other hand, a museum has the power and resources to grant an artist the public and historic interest that takes time to establish. And in this respect, although Barr may have envied Levy’s independence, Levy would have enjoyed the acknowledgement a museum receives for consecrating subjects that his gallery took the risk to originate. If the museum exhibition, which takes a minimum of a year to organize and which can fill entire floors, is a full-length novel or an encyclopedia, the gallery exhibition is an essay, composed in a relatively compressed time and space. Still, the number of shows Levy produced each season is remarkable, especially since they were so brief in duration, often only two weeks; today, gallery exhibitions run usually for at least a month, sometimes two. One museum man of Levy’s generation operated with the light speed of a gallerist and the historicizing vision of a curator. As director of the Wadsworth Atheneum, Chick Austin moved on a maverick course that, in relation to Levy and Barr, stands outside the usual dealer/curator/director constructs. Austin was a magician. (In truth he was, performing as Osram the Great to benefit the Atheneum’s art classes for children.) He pulled ideas, brilliantly full-blown, out of his hat almost faster than they could be contained by his trustees or absorbed by the public. Austin’s museum was his theater: in 1929 he screened silent movies to foster interest in film as an art form; in 1930 he showed photography; in 1931 he premiered the Neo-Romantics in Five Young Painters and Surrealism in Newer Super-Realism; in 1934 he held the first American retrospective of Picasso. And that was just the beginning. Austin even managed to scoop Kirstein, when, in October 1933, he brought George Balanchine from Paris, eventually to found the School of American Ballet in Hartford. It lasted only a few days there before bursting like a bubble, having floated too far from the rarified atmosphere of New York, where it would thrive under Kirstein’s aegis.

During the 1930s, Levy and Austin shuttled art and exhibitions between New York and Hartford. The dealer regularly borrowed works from the Atheneum and the director made major acquisitions through the gallery – most significant, in 1933, the Serge Lifar collection of ballet sets and costume designs. (Their correspondence reveals another aspect of Levy and Austin’s transactions, with Levy frequently resorting to humorous desperation, “Dear Chick: I must have some consideration given to our bill or I’ll take an overdose of Luminol. Wasn’t I empathetic enough when I spoke to you verbally?”50) The exchange was more than mercantile; Levy credited Austin, for instance, for adding a touch of theater to one of his exhibitions by proposing a black wall as a backdrop for the pictures.51

As the art world in Levy’s day was much smaller than it is today – there were probably fewer than fifteen galleries in New York at any one time in the 1930s, and only three or so concentrating on contemporary art – the boundaries between dealer and curator, gallery and museum were more fluid. Several of Levy’s exhibitions toured to (or from) public institutions: Eight Modes of Painting, curated by Agnes Rindge, appeared at Levy’s gallery on a tour organized by the College Art Association; Abstract Sculpture by Alberto Giacometti traveled to the Arts Club of Chicago; Constructions in Space: Gabo went from the Wadsworth to Levy to the Vassar College Art Gallery; and Documents of Cubism appeared at the Wadsworth Atheneum and the Smith College Museum of Art.


In the late summer of 1941, Levy took his gallery on the road, with what he called in his autobiography “a traveling gallery, a caravan of modern art.”52 He headed west, and set up shop first in San Francisco at the Courvoisier Galleries, the official dealer for Walt Disney’s animation art. Levy had already presented Disney’s cels in New York, in a series of very successful shows. In San Francisco, he presented a dealer’s version of Duchamp’s traveling boîte-en-valise: highlights from his New York stable, including group shows of Neo-Romantics and Surrealists. The next stop was Hollywood, where he established himself on Sunset Boulevard and opened with Dalí. The show was tantalizingly framed by the gallery announcement: “These paintings are to be shipped to New York for exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art and will be available in Hollywood for one week only.” To Soby, on the receiving end of Dalís, Levy wrote that so far “Hollywood is exciting and the Gallery is alive and selling.”53 He also confided his financial motivation in leaving New York: to save on rent and sell off some of the old gallery stock.

Banking on glamour to attract publicity and customers, Levy next organized a Hollywood show of work by the Art Deco modernist Tamara de Lempicka, Baroness Kuffner.[foonote=54] Eugene Berman, who was in Santa Barbara preparing an exhibition of his work for the city’s Museum of Art, reported acidly to Soby: “We’re having a heat wave and the temperature is near 90˚. Julien opened his gallery a few weeks ago with a terrible exhibition of Lempicka and big opening party and terrific crowds. Now it’s the Neo-Romantic show, much less flashy and not so swank, but it’s a good exhibition and on the whole Julien is doing much better than expected, since Hollywood is such a difficult place for business.”55

Levy was not the only New Yorker attracted to the local industry and industrialists of celluloid dreams. Out West, he met many colleagues from back East. Imagining that Hollywood might naturally respond with enthusiasm to his experience with photography and fashion, Man Ray spent the war years in Los Angeles in exile from Paris.56 The Dada collectors Walter and Louise Arensberg had been living in Los Angeles since 1921, attracting Duchamp for visits in 1936, 1949, and 1959, as well as a steady stream of curators and museum directors hoping to land a bequest of the couple’s collection.57 (René d’Harnoncourt won, for the Philadelphia Museum of Art.) In 1941 and 1943, Chick Austin was in Hollywood to found Gates Theatre Studio with Edgar Bergen, Charles Coburn, Walter Huston, and others. Salvador Dalí went there to stage the dream sequence for Alfred Hitchcock’s 1945 movie Spellbound, and again in 1946 at the invitation of Walt Disney to collaborate on Destino, an unrealized animated film based on a Mexican ballad. In 1945, MGM tapped twelve artists for a competition, won by Max Ernst, to paint a Temptation of Saint Anthony as a prop for the movie Bel-Ami. Despite these flirtations between art and film, artists and actors, dealers and directors, when William Copley went west in 1947 and exhibited the work of Cornell, Ernst, and Man Ray, he could not sell a thing.58 His gallery closed the following year.

Gallery Versus Gallery

In 1938, Vogue profiled seven Fifty-seventh Street galleries, each with “a personality as sharp and distinct as any movie star.”59 The lineup reveals Levy’s colleagues and competition at the peak of his gallery’s success, beginning with Durand-Ruel, the gallery “that sold the French Impressionists to the Americans.” The walls were “covered in dull brown velvet,” which the writer found “curiously soothing,” as were “the same Negro attendants who have been opening the doors” for great collectors for years. Alternatively, there was Wildenstein, behind a Louis XVI façade, “brought, stone by stone, from France,” where “a gallant Frenchman escorts clients the length of the marble hall into a beautiful Louis-Quinze room… furnished to what would have been Marie Antoinette’s taste.” At Marie Harriman’s, the surroundings went ignored, because of the “best-looking art dealer…best skier and best bowler on Fifty-Seventh Street”; but the fare was strictly School of Paris. Levy’s specialties were “Surrealism, the photography of the mind,’ and Neo-Romanticism, ‘the camera of the soul.’” His gallery was “principally for the sophisticated and the young,” in marked contrast to the neighboring (and no doubt intimidating) bastions of conservative art commerce.

Not on Vogue’s shortlist was the Pierre Matisse Gallery, which opened just before Levy’s, in late October 1931, with an exhibition of Georges Braque, Jean Lurçat, and Georges Rouault. Having served his apprenticeship at the prestigious Valentine-Dudensing gallery of modern European art, and as son of Henri (whose Museum of Modern Art retrospective opened one month after his son’s gallery), Pierre had impeccable credentials. And while Levy had to “adopt” his patrimony, claiming Stieglitz and Duchamp to be his godfathers (“I didn’t bring them into the church. I just, in my mind, said, ‘I want theiur belssings,’ and I consider them my inspiration”60), Matisse was a blueblood, who would establish the first blue-chip gallery of modern art in New York. The two dealers operated within different, at times overlapping, echelons. Matisse showed only established figures; Levy took his chances. Many artists who had a start in New York at Levy’s gallery, including Calder, Giacometti, Matta, Tanguy, and Gorky, went on to enjoy sustained careers and become the new old masters with Pierre Matisse.

“Idea Shows” and Duchamp

Compared with Matisse’s gallery, with its museumlike program, and from today’s perspective, Levy’s seems more an alternative space than a typical commercial gallery. In the early 1930s, he established diversity with forays into film and photography and with innovative group shows. Later on in the decade, he relied on an increasingly conceptual program and featured a number of what he called “idea shows,” some curated by artists. In 1938, Levy organized Old and New “Trompe l’Oeil,” mixing F.G. da Bibiena and William Harnett with Berman and Dalí. One of his favorite writers, Henry James, inspired The “Picturesque” Tradition in American Painting of the Nineteenth Century, a 1943 show of landscape paintings. The same year, Through the Big End of the Opera Glass focused on miniature works by Cornell, Duchamp, and Tanguy. For the 1944 Imagery of Chess exhibition, Levy commissioned boards and pieces from the artists, several of whom also participated in a competition at the gallery. This was something of an early Happening, with the reigning “World Champion of Blindfold Chess,” George Koltanowski, scheduled to play in simultaneous matches against (blindfolded) Barr, Ernst, Levy, Dorothea Tanning, the architect Frederick Kiesler, and Dr. Gregory Zilboorg. (The champion beat everyone but Kiesler, who managed a draw.) And in 1945, Objects of My Affection featured works by Man Ray selected by Man Ray.

Looming large behind these projects was Marcel Duchamp: from the trompe-l’oeil of his Rotoreliefs, to the museum-in-a-suitcase of miniature reproductions of his own art (the boîte-en-valise), to his binary intrigue with the conceptual play behind a game of chess and a work of art. In addition, Duchamp advocated specific artists to Levy, such as the painter Gar Sparks and the sculptor Maria Martins, who was also the model for the supine female figure in Duchamp’s last work, the tableau Étant Donnés.61 Levy had known and admired Duchamp (he blatantly called it hero worship62) since 1926, when Levy persuaded his father to buy a sculpture by Constantin Brancusi, whose interests Duchamp was representing in America. Like Stieglitz, Duchamp impressed Levy as dealer, artist, and impresario. And just as Stieglitz had influenced the first years of the Levy Gallery, so would Duchamp inspire its second phase.

Duchamp had been an active member of the Dada movement in New York throughout the teens and twenties; during the forties he functioned as a spiritual presence, detached yet omnipresent. The city was full of his European colleagues, among them artists and intellectuals who had fled the German occupation: Berman, Breton, Ernst, André Masson, Amédée Ozenfant, Kurt Seligmann, Tanguy, Ossip Zadkine. Breton, who never learned to speak English, presided over the Surrealists in exile, with the Euro-centric Levy Gallery serving as his base of operations. (The scholar Anna Balakian recalled that when, as a graduate student, she wanted to meet Breton, Levy provided the introduction at his gallery.63) Duchamp, a Surrealist sympathizer, contributed to Breton’s projects – he designed the catalogue and created an extraordinary installation from one mile of string for Breton’s 1942 First Papers of Surrealism exhibition, for instance – without ever being the initiator.64 Even in the midst of Levy’s most Duchampian exploits, the artist’s involvement was indirect. When the matches were on during the Imagery of Chess exhibition, Duchamp declined to play, preferring to act as referee.65

In his unpublished memoirs, Soby paid a retrospective visit to the Julien Levy Gallery, where he found Levy engrossed in yet another game of chess with Duchamp, the implication being that this was the dealer’s most cherished diversion.66 A perceptive assessment, for it does seem that, more than the satisfaction of running a business, what Levy enjoyed about being an art dealer was his interaction with the players, the challenge of coming up with successful strategies for exhibitions, the pleasure in handling the pieces themselves – particularly if they were artworks by Man Ray, Ernst, Atget, Tanning, Gorky, or Dalí.

Abstraction and Architecture

That the Pierre Matisse Gallery survived the 1940s and the Levy Gallery did not is more than just a tribute to Matisse’s greater business acumen. It also reflects changed that Matisse’s powerful gallery effortlessly weathered but that would compromise Julien’s “Arte Shoppe.” Levy’s identity was inextricably linked with Surrealism as a contemporary art movement, and by the 1940s its hold on current imagination was beginning to wane. Its passage and substitution occurred essentially in one place, Peggy Guggenheim’s Art of This Century. The New York heiress’s museum and gallery opened in October 1942 with a landmark exhibition of Surrealist art, made iconic in the photographs taken of it by Berenice Abbott. Important works by Ernst, Duchamp, Giacometti, and Paul Delvaux were installed by Frederick Kiesler in a custom-designed interior. Paintings were hung projected on the ends of baseball bats, against radically concave wooden walls. Biomorphic furniture – Kiesler’s specially designed “seven-way units” – served as everything from sculpture pedestals to seating for viewers. What is not apparent from photographs of the exhibition are the kinetics: spotlights on timers flashed on several pictures simultaneously, while the rest were plunged into a darkness periodically pierced by the amplified sound effects of a train screaming through a tunnel. At the time, Levy was out of commission; he had enlisted in the army, and his gallery’s interests were being carried on at Durlacher Brothers by the dealer Kirk Askew, whose passions were the Baroque and Neo-Romanticism. (Upon Levy’s return to business, in March 1943, many of his artists, including one of his biggest sellers, Tchelitchew, would defect to Durlacher.) Guggenheim was the new Surrealist on the block, and her electrifying fun house blasted away most recollections of Levy’s elegantly curved white walls.67

Art of This Century produced the next wave of change, in 1943, with a Spring Salon for Young Artists, selected by Barr, Duchamp, Mondrian, Soby, and others. This included work by a young painter who was visibly wrestling with what appeared now to be the European old guard of Surrealism. In November, at the bejest of her advisor Howard Putzel, Guggenheim gave Jackson Pollock his first one-artist show. The brochure essay by James Johnson Sweeney charged American painters to follow Pollock’s lead and “risk spoiling the canvas to say something in their own way.”68 Clement Greenberg’s review saw in this artist an end to Picasso, Miró, and even Mexican mural painting as overpowering influences: American art had finally achieved a new, native influence.69

Of course things are never that simple. The first artist of the New York School, Pollock, arrived at his innovations not, as Greenberg suggested, through esoteric study of “that American chiaroscuro that dominated Melville, Hawthorne, Poe… Blakelock and Rider,” but through avid appreciation of Surrealist automatism in the works of Matta, Ernst, and Gorky, those exiles from abroad who established themselves in New York through the Julien Levy Gallery. Levy opened at his final location in March 1943 with an exhibition of drawings by Matta (the Chilean artist’s second show at the gallery) and gave Gorky his first New York show there in March 1945. André Breton’s brochure essay for the latter, entitled “Eye-Spring” (after a complex metaphor of time that turns a watch spring into a “wire of maximum ductility” located inside an “opaque case”), echoed Sweeney’s claims for Pollock. In Gorky, too, there was “an art entirely new… the proof that only absolute purity of means… can empower a leap beyond the ordinary and known to indicate… a real feeling of liberty.” Yet while Pollock’s abstraction was being touted locally in terms of an emerging American cultural nationalism, Gorky’s was being advanced as a last victory organized by the general himself, Breton, who, allied with Levy, was determined to defend the dwindling ranks of Surrealism.

In March 1947, Town & Country published a veiled portrait of the Julien Levy Gallery, written by a gallery assistant, Eleanor Perényl.70 She plays “Frances” to Levy’s “Mr. Jellicoe,” a man who “generated a constant tension. With his pale, ascetic good looks, he made Frances think of a perpetually fallen angel.” Illustrated with a cartoon by Saul Steinberg, Perényl’s essay describes a day at the gallery during its declining years:

Just now, they were in the doldrums… The opening had been successful. Mr. Jellicoe’s friends, who went to all the openings anyway, liked and understood the kind of dreams and magic he was so unsuccessful in selling to the general public. But in the next day or so, the atmosphere had slowly flattened. Boiled down, the sales amounted to one or two drawings, kept in a portfolio in the office, and an almost-sold small painting in the exhibition itself.

Legacies and Monuments

Peggy Guggenheim closed her gallery in May 1947, having given Pollock four solo exhibitions. Levy, who had given Gorky five solos, closed in 1949 (not quite a year after the artist’s suicide). Curiously, despite so many brilliant shows involving so many famous and infamous artists (to say nothing of writers, curators, dancers, filmmakers, and just plain personalities), Levy’s achievements have been subsumed by Peggy Guggenheim’s Art of This Century. Perhaps this is due to her quick, succinct transformation of her program, in just five seasons, from Surrealism into Abstract Expressionism. Levy, his former openness to possibilities notwithstanding, was adamantly a Surrealist to the end.

Both Levy and Guggenheim were passionate collectors, but the scope of their acquisitions was distinctly different. Working with a string of advisors over the years (most notably, the English art historian Sir Herbert Read), Guggenheim amassed a world-class collection of modern art, primarily from the postwar period. In 1949 she opened the doors of her Venetian villa as a public museum. Levy’s vision for his legacy took form in the late 1970s with a proposed Center for Surrealist Studies of Alternative Thinking and Expanding Experience, whose nerve centers would be the Levy collection and library. He proposed the package as an endowment to the State University of New York, Purchase, where he was teaching a seminar, “Surrealism Is…” The Center called for an ambitious and imaginative interdisciplinary program, involving art (for a “Surrealist Contemplation Room,” students would create a “constantly changing exhibition of two separate surrealist paintings, one classic and one recent”); literature (“in connection with the French department the Center will undertake the translations of key surrealist works [to be] serialized in the Quarterly”); cultural studies (one planned symposium was on “The Image of Woman in Surrealist Art”); psychoanalytic studies (readings in Freud and Lacan); theater (staging Les Mamelles de Tirésias, Ubu Roi, and other plays); film and video (Buñuel, Cornell, and Hans Richter, as well as Robert Altman, Judy Chicago, and William Wegman). The program’s agenda set out to prove that, far from being dead, Surrealism had never lost its vitality. The course “Surrealist Behavior” would study “the development of certain actions as art,” from Arthur Cravan to Joseph Beuys.71

The architecture and language of Levy’s proposal can be seen as elaborations of an earlier project undertaken with Ian Woodner Silverman for a Surrealist House, an installation for the 1939 New York World’s Fair. The 1970s Center proposal opens: “Step right up and get inside your mind, and meet yourself crossing the frontal LOBE… seeing is disbelieving. Conceive before you think.” The carnival barker likewise beckoned to the 1939 World’s Fair pavilion: a “’Funny House’ from a new angle,” featuring “whispers,” a “pneumatic wall,” “Hallucination,” and “Rocking Floors.” Upon reaching the top of an “Audible Staircase,” visitors would experience the “Sensation of Falling.”72 This idea in particular (“the public will be catapulted”), with its specter of imminent lawsuits, may have discouraged Fair sponsors from adopting the plan. In any case, the house was replaced by Dalí’s Dream of Venus pavilion, with Levy in close collaboration as the artist’s dealer and representative in New York.73

The Surrealist Center had no such apotheosis after the project was scrapped, for a murky complex of reasons.74 Levy’s art went to his Connecticut home, upon his death in 1981, the bulk of his collection was dispersed at auction., leaving no marker or monument. There is one important exception. During the 1970s, Levy’s sleeping beauty of a photograph collection was acquired through purchase and gift by the Art Institute of Chicago. Amid the famous – Atget, Imogen Cunningham, Walker Evans, André Kertész, László Moholy-Nagy, Paul Strand – were the then virtually unknown Ilse Bing, Jacques-André Boiffard, Francis Bruguière, Lee Miller, Roger Parry, Emmanuel Sougez, Luke Swank, Maurice Tabard. (There was not a single print by Stieglitz.) For the curator, David Travis, researching the collection for the Institute’s 1976 exhibition was rewarding detective work that disclosed an alternative history of photography conditioned on the intervention of Surrealism and film.75 With its original vision intact, Chicago’s Julien Levy Collection remains the dealer’s greatest legacy.

Gentle Fadeout

Balancing fashionable fare with less known works, offsetting shows that sold poorly with sure hits, Julien Levy kept his gallery in business for almost twenty years. During the Depression and then during wartime, with neither collectors nor cash in abundance throughout, it was necessary constantly to invent and reinvent a market. In this respect, Levy’s mercurial program, and his forays into decorative arts, commercial and portrait photography, and the entertainment industry, were resourceful efforts to keep his shop open. These activities also had the advantage of being newsworthy to the popular press. In addition to receiving constant notice in The Art Digest, The Art News, and The New York Times, the gallery received regular coverage in Vogue, Harper’s Bazaar, Life, Newsweek, and Time. The December 1940 exhibit of cartoonist Milton Caniff’s original drawings for Terry and the Pirates fetched full-page illustrated features in Life and Newsweek, both boasting of Terry’s tony affiliations with “the swank New York gallery of Julien Levy.”76 There one was as likely to spot a Gorky as a Kahlo, a Cornell as a cartoon, a ballet dancer as a blindfolded chess champion, all participating in a transformative history of the gallery by “one of New York’s most fashionable art shops.”77


  1. “The two New York galleries that both Chick Austin and I frequented most were those of Julien Levy and of Durlacher Brothers” (James Thrall Soby Papers, The Museum of Modern Art Archives, addenda VI, unpublished manuscript, chap. 9, p. 22).
  2. Quoted in Robert Pincus-Witten, Leo Castelli: Gentle Snapshots (Zurich: Edition Bruno Bischofberger, 1982), p. 20.
  3. Julien Levy Gallery press release for Review Exhibition, October 1937, The Museum of Modern Art Library, Artist and Gallery Files, “Julien Levy Gallery.”
  4. Sallie Faxon Saunders, “Middle Men of Art,” Vogue, March 15, 1938, p. 102.
  5. Levy Gallery press release for Review Exhibition.
  6. Quoted in Laura de Coppet and Alan Jones, The Art Dealers (New York: Clarkson N. Potter, 1984), p. 23.
  7. Paul Cummings, interview with Julien Levy, May 30, 1975 (transcribed by Deborah M. Gill), Archives of American Art, p. 14.
  8. Quoted in Gerald Reitlinger, The Economics of Taste, vol. 2 (New York: Hacker, 1982), p.v. “À la Pagode, Gersaint, marchant jouaillier sur le pont Notre Dame, vend toute sorte de clainquaillerie nouvelle et du goût, bijoux, glaces, tableaux de cabinet, pagodes, vernis et porcelaines du Japan, coquillages et autre morceaux d’histoire naturelle, cailloux, agathes, et generalement toutes marchandises curiuses et etrangères, à Paris, 1740.”
  9. Allusions to the marché aux puces and to curiosity shops are relevant for Levy also because of his strong personal connection with Mina Loy. Her Paris apartment was decorated with treasures from the city’s flea markets; the lampshades she made and sold at her shop often incorporated found objects. (See Carolyn Burke’s essay in this catalogue.) The lampshades may have inspired the trompe-l’oeil objects Levy hoped to produce. As he described them in an interview, these were photo objects with images of light bulbs and chandeliers reproduced on the shades. See Charles Desmarais, “Julien Levy: Surrealist Author, Dealer and Collector,” Afterimage, January 1977, p. 5.
  10. Soby Papers, unpublished manuscript, chap. 9, p. 22.
  11. "Art and the Slump,” The Art News, August 19, 1931, p. 19.
  12. All quotations from letters written by Julien Levy to Mina Joy are from unpublished correspondence, and are reprinted here with the kind permission of The Julien Levy Estate.
  13. "As for whatever contracts I make with the artists – Next time I will send you copies of a full legal contract to be used, – for the moment my terms are flexible, but usually I pay all ordinary expenses of exhib. catalogue, insurance, shipping… and in return ask my choice of a picture. To approximate my expenditure on extra framing when necessary, and douane [customs] and extra shipping (not in your regular shipment) I ask either cash or an extra picture” (Julien Levy to Mina Loy, September 9, [1935]).
  14. Julien Levy to Mina Loy, May 9, 1930.
  15. Julien Levy to Mina Loy, May 30, 1930.
  16. Julien Levy to Mina Loy, July 31, 1930.
  17. Desmarais, “Julien Levy,” p. 6.
  18. Julien Levy to Mina Loy, August 11, 1930.
  19. On March 16, [1931], Levy informed Loy, “Two of your poems have been placed in Pagany (I sent you a sample copy. It was not a good number but it included my Atget’s [sic]).” See Pagany: A Native Quarterly, vol. 2, no. 1 (Winter 1931), n.p.; four reproductions of Atget photographs are credited to the Weyhe Gallery.
  20. Julien Levy to Mina Loy, July 31, 1930.
  21. Julien Levy to Mina Loy, September 22, 1930.
  22. Julien Levy to Mina Loy, July 31, 1930.
  23. See Maria Morris Hambourg, unpublished interview with Berenice Abbott, April 19, 1978, The Museum of Modern Art, Department of Photography.
  24. Julien Levy to Mina Loy, May 30, 1930.
  25. Julien Levy to Mina Loy, July 31, 1930.
  26. Julien Levy to Mina Loy, n.d.
  27. Julien Levy to Mina Loy, n.d.
  28. Julien Levy to Alfred Stieglitz, September 11, 1931, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University.
  29. Julien Levy to Mina Loy, March 16, [1931]; Julien Levy to Mina Loy, April 3, [c. 1931].
  30. Unlike other acolytes, Levy remembered getting a word in edgewise with Stieglitz. “I used to always go and stay hours and hours in his gallery and talk to him in the evenings with a sandwich and a cup of coffee” (Cummings, p. 11). Levy said he became “quite intimate” with Stieglitz a few evenings ago. He was not the usual bore that he has been these last few years, but was very soft and inspired, quite nice and fascinating. He talked a great deal about you…. He also told us about his ‘love-diary.’” Unpublished correspondence in the Julien Levy Estate from Stieglitz to Levy suggests a mentoring relationship between older dealer and younger. In 1933, Stieglitz told Levy he wanted to discuss the business at An American Place, which he was having difficulties keeping open. And in 1936 he tanked Levy for sending him a copy of his book, Surrealism, and congratulated him on a job well done.
  31. Cummings, p. 9.
  32. Allen Porter to Agnes Rindge, n.d., Agnes Rindge Claflin Paperes, Special Collection, Vassar College Libraries.
  33. Pierre Matisse Gallery Archive, Julien Levy Gallery file, handwritten invoice, January 1943.
  34. Levy ultimately did not handle the sale of Dausse’s library, which was purchased by Walter P. Chrysler, Jr., chairman of the Museum of Modern Art’s Library Committee. In 1936, Chrysler gave Dausse’s and Paul Éluard’s libraries to the Museum, thus establishing one of the most significant museum collections of Surrealist books and ephemera in America. See Philip Boyer, Jr., “Rare Surrealist Data a Gift to Museum Here,” New York Herald Tribune, November 29, 1936.
  35. In a 1935 letter to Mina Loy, however, Levy complained that after two shows at the gallery, Campigli was not the financial success he had hoped for.
  36. This, the first exhibition of photographs by Nadar (Gaspard Félix Tournachon) in America, included only some original prints. It consisted primarily of reprints by the photographer’s son Paul, who carried on his father’s studio in Paris.
  37. "Stieglitz and Atget created the ‘honest’ photograph; Hill and Nadar the ‘psychological’ portrait” (“Pioneers of the Camera,” The Art Digest, December 15, 1931), p. 18.
  38. Although practically every reviewer quoted André Breton, whose definition of surréalisme was translated in the exhibition brochure, only a few observed the emerging talent of Joseph Cornell, whose work made its public debut with the exhibition, most conspicuously on the front of the brochure. This untitled collage image has since become an icon of the movement: Levy used it on the jacket of his 1936 book and it appears on the frontispiece of Dickran Tashjian’s A Boatload of Madmen: Surrealism and the American Avant-Garde (1995).
  39. "Freudian Psychology Appears in the First American Surrealist Show,” The Art Digest, January 15, 1932, p. 32.
  40. Edward Alden Jewell, “A Bewildering Exhibition,” The New York Times, January 13, 1932, p. 27.
  41. Levy’s claim that he organized the first Surrealism show in America must by qualified by the fact that Chick Austin presented an earlier show with much of the same material, Newer Super-Realism, at the Wadsworth Atheneum from November 15 through December 5, 1931. See Deborah Zlotsky, “Pleasant Madness in Hartford: The First Surrealist Exhibition in America,” Arts Magazine, vol. 60 (February 1986), pp. 55-61; this excellent article compares the two shows and their receptions.
  42. Zlotsky, “Pleasant Madness,” p. 59. In light of Austin’s observation, it is interesting to note that when Levy presented his exhibition, Surréalisme, he put “scandal sheets” in direct competition with paintings by including front pages form the New York Evening Graphic and Daily Mirror. These featured collage illustrations of the 1926 – 1927 scandal involving underage “Peaches” and her millionaire “Daddy” Browning.
  43. Julien Levy Gallery brochure for Paintings by Gracie Allen, September 1938: “As we all know, Gracie Allen has been making pictures for years, but these are her first on canvas. When she turns her undoubtedly surrealist mind to painting the results are indescribable, but Gracie describes them as ‘surrealistic.’” And Allen herself discussed her work: “There’s no use hiding one’s extraordinary talent under a bushel basket, even though George [Burns, of course] says that’s where we should hide the pictures.”
  44. Film Society brochure, Program Three, March 19, 1933.
  45. Julien Levy to Mina Loy, n.d.; Julien Levy to Mina Loy, March 27, 1933.
  46. A. Conger Goodyear, The Museum of Modern Art: The First Ten Years (New York: A. Conger Goodyear, 1943), p. 39. Goodyear described another mural: “Al Capone entrenched behind money bags, operating a machine gun, with President Hoover, J.P. Morgan, John D. Rockefeller and Henry Ford as his companions.
  47. Levy and Newhall covered similar ground. In Paris, Newhall visited the studio of Paul Nadar, through whom Levy had acquired material for his Nadar exhibition six years previously. Newhall, too, appealed to Stieglitz to bless his exhibition with loans and interest in the project. As he had done with Levy’s first show, Stieglitz declined the honor, offering to lend only photogravure reproductions of his classic images taken from Camera Work. See Beaumont Newhall, Focus: Memoirs of a Life in Photography (Boston: Bulfinch, 1993), pp. 44-55.
  48. Levy claimed that “Alfred Barr used to complain – in fact he was quite bitter… ‘Julien Levy’s always doing what I want to do, and he’s doing it two or three years before me. It’s not that I didn’t want to do it at the same time as Julien did, but it takes me three years to get the museum machinery running, and it takes Julien three months.’” (Desmarais, “Julien Levy,” p. 20).
  49. Clipping from New York Herald Tribune on the controversial “fur-lined cup movement,” January 2, 1937, and Alfred H. Barr, Jr., to Museum President, January 13, 1937, The Museum of Modern Art Archives, scrapbook.
  50. Julien Levy to Chick Austin, n.d., A. Everett Austin, Jr., Papers, The Wadsworth Atheneum Archives.
  51. "Dear Chick: The Gallery is now running double blast. The painting is finished and your black wall looks superb. Am eternally grateful for the suggestion” (Julien Levy to Chick Austin, n.d., A. Everett Austin, Jr., Papers).
  52. Julien Levy, Memoir of an Art Gallery (New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1977), p. 255.
  53. Julien Levy to James Thrall Soby, October 27, [1941], Getty Research Institute, Resource Collections, box 3, folder 16, no. 910128.
  54. Her husband, the Baron Kuffner, seems to have financed Levy’s California caravan expedition. See Levy, Memoir, p. 87.
  55. Eugene Berman to James Thrall Soby, October 27, [1941], Getty Research Institute, Resource Collections, box 8, folder 2, no. 910128 II. In an earlier, undated letter (in the same folder), Berman noted that San Francisco “didn’t prove a great success, materially speaking and the Levy Gallery and we all need it very badly.”
  56. See Robert Berman and Tom Patchett, Man Ray: Paris-LA (Santa Monica, CA: Smart Art, 1996).
  57. I thank Naomi Sawelson-Gorse for sharing her incomparable knowledge of this period in California. See her essay “Hollywood Conversations: Duchamp and the Arensbergs,” in Bonnie Clearwater, ed., West Coast Duhamp (Miami: Grassfield, 1991).
  58. Copley gives an excellent account of his Hollywood gallery’s short but memorable history, which includes encounters with a monkey and Stravinsky, in CPLY: Reflections on a Past Life (Houston: Institute for the Arts, Rice University, 1979).
  59. Saunders, “Middle Man,” pp. 102, 154, 155.
  60. Cummings, p. 11.
  61. "Julien Levy has added two new painters to his gallery: Howard Warshaw and Gar Sparks. The latter was discovered by Marcel Duchamp” (“Gallery Notes,” View, vol. 6, nos. 2-3 [March-April 1946], p. 28).
  62. Levy described his attitude toward Stieglitz and Duchamp: “These people, as I met them, I hero worshipped” (Cummings, p. 11).
  63. Anna Balakian, discussion with the author.
  64. Duchamp’s cover for the 1942 exhibition bears an interesting correlation to Levy’s photo objects of the 1930s. The front cover of the catalogue is an extreme close-up of a stone wall, the back a close-up of a piece of Swiss cheese. Levy’s trompe-l’oeil projects included fabric printed with an image of Swiss cheese (a pun, he wrote Mina Loy in an undated letter, on “dotted-swiss cheesecloth”), and with images of rocks (for pillowcases; the rocks would make the soft pillows look hard). See Cummings, p. 17.
  65. In the 1950s, Duchamp would assume a more active role in the art world, this time as advisor, consultant, and independent curator for Sidney Janis, who opened his New York gallery in September 1948. Duchamp organized the major international exhibition of Dada held at Janis’s gallery in 1953. See Calvin Tomkins, Duchamp: A Biography (New York: Henry Holt, 1996), pp. 377-379.
  66. Soby Papers, unpublished manuscript, chap. 9, p. 23.
  67. In response to an article about the eccentricities of space at the Guggenheim Museum, a writer a few years ago reminded The New York Times of Levy’s achievement: “He designed his gallery with curved walls, showing single paintings on each curve. In that way, each piece of art was seen alone, to be studied at any angle, with no other painting pulling one’s eye away from it” (Casey I. Herrick, “Letters,” The New York Times, December 4, 1943).
  68. James Johnson Sweeney, Jackson Pollock, exhib. cat. (New York: Art of This Century, 1943).
  69. Clement Greenberg, “Art Review,” The Nation, November 1943.
  70. Eleanor Perényi, “Art’s Sake,” Town & Country, vol. 101, no. 4294 (March 1947), pp. 126, 198, 200.
  71. All quotations from drafts for the prospectus are reprinted with the kind permission of the Julien Levy Estate.
  72. The Audible Staircase was to feature a steep spiral “with microphones hidden in the wall and connected with a loudspeaker in the main hall where the public can hear reproduced the unconscious remarks, heavy breathing and laughter of those who are climbing the dark winding stair.” The loudspeaker was to be labeled “What will you say on your wedding night?” The pavilion seems to have been modeled after the carnival-style installations of the London International Surrealist Exhibition of 1936. Indeed, the London show seems to have inspired also Peggy Guggenheim’s 1942 exhibition.
  73. Levy was only one of many sponsors behind Dalí’s Dream of Venus pavilion. As reported in The New Yorker, it was “promoted and financed by a group of substantial men,” including “William Morris, the theatrical agent; Julien Levy; Edward James, an art collector and a Dalí fan; I.D. Wolf of the Pennsylvania State Exhibit at the Fair; W.M. Gardner of the Gardner Display Company; Ian Woodner, an architect; and Philip Wittenberg, a lawyer.” The article went on to mention Gracie Allen, whom Morris’s agency represented: “Last fall it seemed a good idea to Miss Allen… to have an exhibit in New York of the paintings she had executed in her spare time from the microphone, and the show was held at the galleries of Julien Levy, who is a sensitive man with a flair of the unexpected.” See Margaret Case Harriman, “A Dream Walking,” The New Yorker, July 1, 1939, pp. 22-27.
  74. In 1977 it was reported that ground had been broken for the $12 million visual arts instructional facility, which would house, among other things, a Surrealist Center (Luisa Kreisberg, “Surrealism at SUNY,” The New York Times, April 24, 1977). There are no records accessible of what later transpired, but it seems that Levy withdrew the project when works in his collection, which were being stored temporarily at the University Art Museum, were damaged by a flood.
  75. Travis, assistant curator of photography at the time of the gift, recently recounted in an informal discussion with the author that his most valuable tool in researching the Levy Collection was the Paris telephone book. Many of the photographers were only experimenting with the medium, and had not gone on as professional artists. The critical importance of Levy’s vision of photography is ostensibly the subject of Rosalind Krauss and Jane Livingston’s L’Amour Fou: Photography and Surrealism (New York: Abbeville, 1985), the catalogue of an exhibition organized by the Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., to which the Art Institute of Chicago lent many works form the Levy Collection.
  76. "Terry and the Pirates Invade New York Gallery,” Life, January 6, 1951, p. 35.
  77. "Terry and the Pirates Storm Art Gallery in New Adventure,” Newsweek, December 16, 1940, p. 48.