Portrait of an Art Dealer

From 1931 to 1949, Julien Levy’s New York gallery played an essential role in the shift of the avant-garde from Paris to America. It championed experimental film and photography and served as a venue for artists fleeing Europe and Hitler. It presented the first New York exhibitions of artists such as Henri Cartier-Bresson, Joseph Cornell, Frida Kahlo, Salvador Dalí, Arshile Gorky, Lee Miller, René Magritte, and Dorothea Tanning, all the while promoting a vision of art at its broadest. There were “idea shows” suggested by such critical thinkers as André Breton and Marcel Duchamp, as well as shows about fashion, design, dance, popular culture (Walt Disney and Gracie Allen both showed here), and even music (including a performance by Paul Bowles). In bridging the gap between Gilbert Seldes’s early modern model of the “seven lively arts” and today’s more academic “visual studies,” the activities of the Julien Levy Gallery spark electric. It is also a place to watch as the identity of the art gallery as a commercial institution takes shape, from a near-curiosity shop (books, prints, and lampshades were among the first wares) to a contemporary art gallery: naked, white, and modern. All this history argues for the need to read Levy’s memoirs afresh. But there remains a simpler reason for picking up Memoir of an Art Gallery: Julien Levy tells it as he lived it, with wit and appetite. This is a book that deals in sensual adventure, which is exactly what you hear in Levy’s voice, whether written or spoken.

The first time I heard Levy speak was in a WABC radio recording, aired on June 11, 1938, and now in the collection of the Museum of Broadcasting. People who knew Julien Levy often speak of his voice, which I listened for and heard twice in the course of researching the exhibition “Julien Levy: Portrait of an Art Gallery.”1 Named after the memoirs now being introduced, “Portrait of an Art Gallery” aimed to conjure the dynamism of a transitional period in American art history through the doings of this maverick art dealer. In the WABC broadcast, Levy was defining the art movement with which his name was synonymous: “Sur-RAIL-ism.” Or so he pronounced it, in a voice inflected as much by his upper-middle class New York upbringing, as by his years doing business in Paris, as well as by cigarettes, cocktails, and a sophisticated sense of culture. In short, it was deep, smoky, and a little affected. The next time I heard his voice, it had aged a few decades, and now when Levy said the word, it was as if a train was rumbling right through the middle of it: surrrrrrrRRRAILLLLLLism. He was narrating a short film called Surrealism Is…, in which he also starred. The film was made as a project with students at SUNY Purchase, where, late in his life, Levy had plans—which never came to pass—to establish a Center for Surrealist Studies. The class appears to have been psychedelic in form: hippyish-looking students conducting experiments in creative automatism outdoors in the open fields around Levy’s house, or playing indoors with his collection of Surrealist art and other curiosities.

Levy presides over the film, a grand wizard imparting his life’s work to a new generation. For that is what his commitment amounted to—much more than just the art of his day, something he sold as part of his job, Surrealism was an avocation to which he was dedicated. You hear it in his recital of the movement’s definitions, poems, and erotic prayers.

“A little more than green and less than blond,” he intones after Paul Eluard and Benjamin Péret’s 1925 proverbs. “What is Day?,” an indoctrinated student recites from a 1928 dialogue. “A woman bathing nude at nightfall.” You see it in Levy’s surroundings; besides being chock full of art treasures—there are Max Ernst’s collages and frottages, Alberto Giacometti’s sculpture On ne joue plus, and Dali’s painting Accommodations of Desire—the shelves are loaded with the kinds of optical devices, found objects, and natural artifacts through which the uncanny expressed itself every day to properly attuned Surrealists. The movement’s love of games is evinced by a chess board, evocative of the ones made by artists for the gallery’s 1944 exhibition “The Imagery of Chess.” Indeed, Levy liked to imply that where he failed as a businessman, he succeeded as a collector. But this seems too modest an account of the active devotion with which Levy practiced Surrealism during his entire life. “Pop art is a neo-Surrealism,” he concludes toward the end of the film.

A rakishly elegant man in his youth, Levy in the film appears (and sounds) aged into a regal wreck of the figure described by the dealer James B. Meyers: “Julien Levy reminds me of Antonin Artaud, probably because I had seen a photograph of Julien with a shaved head, which Berenice Abbott had taken years before in Paris. He is intelligent and handsome with a profile rivaling that of the great actor John Barrymore.”2 (Note Barrymore’s bad behavior in the memoir to come: he pees on a painting by Max Ernst.) The shaved head also deserves further comment. Levy claimed that he was following a folk wisdom to rejuvenate his scalp by rubbing bear grease into it. He also liked to say that Marcel Duchamp had put him up to it, by saying that shaved heads were quite the thing among the radical chic in Paris in 1928.

Levy’s devotion to Surrealism was seconded only by what he called his “hero-worshipping” of Duchamp and Alfred Stieglitz, whom he claimed as his godfathers in art. Both men were high priests of early Modernism. Prone to sermonizing and wearing capes, Stieglitz instructed Levy (along with the countless other acolytes who would sit at his feet) to be reverent, especially of photography—then a new medium of dubious aesthetic standing. More profanely, Duchamp inducted the young man into the living pleasures of bohemia when he invited him to tag along on a trip to Paris. On board ship, the two men speculated on the makings of a self-lubricating mechanical woman and discussed plans to shoot a film using Man Ray’s equipment. As told in the memoir, the film was never made, but the trip altered the course of Levy’s life. Both Stieglitz and Duchamp were also artists, dealers, publishers, curators, writers, and lovers of printed matter—all inclinations they passed along to Levy. Besides running a gallery for almost nineteen years, Levy wrote extensively (including a beautiful proto-history of Surrealism in 1936 and monographs on Eugéne Berman and Arshile Gorky)3 and helped create exhibitions throughout his life (such as “The Disquieting Muse” at the Contemporary Art Museum in Houston in 1958). All of his own shows were accompanied by brochures that announced not only the exhibition but a high sense of style as well. As an artist, Levy was purely an amateur, but he did make a few short Surrealist-style films in the 1930s, including a romp with Max Ernst set at Caresse Crosby’s mill retreat outside Paris, and exquisite portraits, full of motion, of Mina Loy shopping at the marché aux paces and of Lee Miller.

Memoir of an Art Gallery proves Julien Levy to be an excellent raconteur as well. He knows the value of exaggeration and elision when it comes to crafting the better story. And this is precisely how the book is constructed—tales of luminaries like James Joyce and Giorgio de Chirico, and incendiary episodes such as “Duchamp’s Kiss” and “Walpurgisnacht Chez Tzara.” Each chapter becomes its own piece in a lapidary account that leaves, as all remembrances do, gaps and fissures. To till in some of these gaps, let’s add a little more family background. Julien Sampson Levy was born in New York on January 22, 1906, the oldest of three, with a brother Edgar (Ned) and sister Elizabeth. His mother, Isabelle Estelle Isaacs, had been orphaned as a child and was raised by an uncle, who would co-found the first English-language newspaper for Jews in America. For generations, the Isaacs had been a prominent Jewish family; Rabbi Samuel M. Isaacs read over Abraham Lincoln’s funeral cortege when it passed through New York. Levy’s father, Edgar, who was also raised in the city, had first studied art before becoming a successful lawyer and real estate entrepreneur. He and his partners, including Isabelle’s cousin Stanley Isaacs (later a borough president of Queens), were among the first to develop luxury apartment buildings along Park Avenue. Later in life, Edgar’s real estate empire would obviously aid his son’s desire to set up shop in Manhattan. Both parents, in fact, seem to have had much to do with Levy’s becoming an art dealer. And though Julien depicts his father as a philistine, the elder Levy collected art and dabbled in painting, and also seems to have had a genuine sympathy for his son’s interest in art. Furthermore, as much as Julien sides against his conventional parent and acts like a bohemian, he never truly rejected Edgar’s bourgeois tastes or values. He was, as most Surrealists were, an armchair radical.

Julien’s mother doted on her oldest son. When as a boy he contracted rheumatic fever, the family moved to Scarsdale, where Levy attended the progressive Roger Ascham School before enrolling at Harvard University. Harvard, unlike the rest of the Ivy League, admitted Jews; Levy’s mother had attended Harvard’s sister college Radcliffe, where her ties later proved useful in helping her son find his way out of an English major and into the study of art. During the summer of Levy’s freshman year, his mother was run over and killed. According to the local newspaper’s obituaries, “Mrs. Levy, accompanied by a Mr. Jacobson, was walking toward Mamaroneck road when an automobile…bore down upon them, crashing into both. The automobile knocked Mrs. Levy down passing over her.” “As she lingered over her fatal injury, her one concern was the welfare of her husband and children,” another one wrote, “and her sole regret was that they would be deprived of such service and comfort as might have been able to render to them, had she been spared a few years more.” Still a third noted that “Mrs. Levy was a member of the Women’s Club and frequently seen in productions by the Wayside Players and the Fireside Players.”

Buried in these shards are a woman’s creative aspirations. But what is most glaring is the fact that, however violently it rent through his life, Julien’s mother’s death reads largely as an absence from his memoirs. It’s the absence filled, or at least marked, by the intense attachment Levy formed for his mother-in-law, the poet and painter Mina Loy, whose own glamour and sense of personal drama were part of the mythology of the Paris scene during the 1920s.4 The fact that she was the widow of one of Duchamp’s heroes, the Dada poet and boxer Arthur Cravan, who disappeared at sea, only heightened her mystique. More than a muse (and less than a mother), Loy is certainly a complicated figure in Levy’s early life as an art dealer and as a husband to her daughter Joella. During their marriage, Joella efficiently ran the day-to-day operations of the gallery in New York, while Loy (flightily) acted as Levy’s agent in Paris. Nurtured by both, Levy was indulged as a son, lover, boss, partner, and proud father of three sons—until Joella left him in 1937 due to his drinking and philandering. At the time of his death, Levy was reported to have been at work editing the voluminous correspondence he kept up with his mother-in-law throughout the rest of her life.5

But the story is getting ahead of us. Back at Harvard, after his mother’s death, Levy continued on the path she had set for him, which notably included Paul Sachs’s king-making course for museum professionals, “Museum Work and Museum Problems.” There he met Alfred Barr, Jr., Philip Johnson, and Lincoln Kirstein, all to be affiliated with the Museum of Modern Art, and A. Everett (Chick) Austin, Jr., the future director of the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford, among others. Of this institution-bound group, Levy distinguished himself by quitting a semester before graduation in order to try to get a job in the movies (he was besotted with Gloria Swanson). When running errands as a prop boy for Columbia Studios in New York failed to match his aspirations, however, he returned to his initial interest in art. Knocking around the galleries with his father, Levy met Duchamp, who was then acting as Brancusi’s agent. The two formed a friendship, and in February 1927 Levy embarked with Duchamp for Paris on that fateful trip. Returning six months later, he arrived home with his new bride Joella and, among other things, their wedding gift from Brancusi, The Newborn, a bronze head now in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art. Levy’s Paris plunge instilled an ambition to open his own gallery in New York—an ambition that his father agreed to support, provided his son serve a proper apprenticeship. And so from 1928 to 1931, Levy worked as an assistant at the Weyhe Gallery, which specialized in rare books and prints, and where he had his first experience as a dealer, presenting photographs by Eugène Atget.

On November 2, 1931, Julien Levy opened his own art gallery with tribute to Alfred Stieglitz and American photography. Following that, he went on to present a basically European avant-garde aesthetic and culture, thereby establishing himself as the middleman between artists and collectors, a pioneering purveyor of wares to the Modernist institutions being developed by his former classmates. Throughout the 1930s and 40s, all of the major museums interested in acquiring cutting-edge contemporary art bought from Levy. It is interesting, then, to take note of the prejudices that attach themselves to Levy’s mercantile enterprise. Writing for Vogue, one journalist described him in nearly Fagin-esque terms: “His keen and almost glittering eye, focused on the Parisian scene, may discover this decade’s Cézanne at any moment—a possibility that keeps him and his clients slightly feverish at all times.”6 Written in 1938, this statement serves to remind us that the Germans were certainly not alone in their anti-Semitism. Levy, for his part, resented the secondary status accorded dealers within the echelons of the art world, which clearly benefited from their vision and risks.

Then again, he himself did not always give credit where it was due. One of his gallery’s claims to fame is that in January 1932 it hosted “Surréalisme,” the first exhibition devoted to the movement in New York. This much is true, but it short-shrifts the importance of Chick Austin’s earlier “Newer Super-Realism,” held at the Wadsworth Atheneum, albeit to less public fanfare than Levy’s show, which won a huge New York audience and national press. The two shows ended up being collaborative in that they shared many (though not all) of the same works. But the fact remains that Austin’s show was its own initiative, and by opening on November 15, 1931, it could rightfully claim to be the first exhibition of Surrealism in America.7

There are several other claims worth tempering. The first is small and involves Levy’s “discovery” of Joseph Cornell. It’s an excellent story about Cornell—and he probably was a most gray young man—stopping by the gallery to look at photographs, only to become, at the behest of the dealer, the first home-grown American Surrealist. What’s missing, however, is any indication of how deliberate and thorough Cornell was in his haunting of New York’s art world. Perhaps Levy, like most of Cornell’s contacts, had no idea how well-connected this most discrete of artists was. If anything, Cornell may have seen in the dealer a potential advocate for his own interests in photography and collage. Indeed, over time, Cornell worked hard to distance himself from his original identification with Surrealism, which he came to see as a form of black magic. (And he seems to have never forgiven Levy for scheduling all of his gallery exhibitions around Christmas time, the better to flog Cornell’s collage objects as toys for adults.)

Then there’s Levy’s purported rescue of Eugène Atget’s great photographic archive of Paris. Levy slightly glorifies his early investment in and enthusiasm for the work, at the expense of Berenice Abbott’s essential role. An American photographer based in Paris, Abbott physically prevented this vast collection of plate-glass negatives and prints from being pitched in 1928 into the dustbin of history. Long after Levy’s interest had waned, she continued to make it part of her life’s work to care for and promote the archive, finally landing it a place in the Museum of Modern Art, where it exists as the Abbott-Levy Collection, in 1968. Still, to be fair, Abbott was no less proprietary against Levy’s claims, and Cornell’s championship by Levy was absolutely critical to launching his career, so these revisions to Levy’s memoirs have more to do with tone than with fact.

And who knows if, as a fledgling gallerist, Julien Levy actually invented the gallery press release and the cocktail party opening? No such patents exist. But the dealer’s claims to priority seem worth defending. Levy’s gallery certainly made art openings, which had hitherto been insular affairs for collectors, into public events that anyone could attend simply out of interest in seeing something new. This is one of the greatest pleasures of Memoir of an Art Gallery: its snapshot depictions of a cultural scene in which, it seemed, anything could happen. Between the wars, not only was the art world much smaller, but with the economy in Depression there was considerably less at stake. There were opportunities for experimentation, and openness in general about what culture could be. Pay attention to all that Levy embarks on, either in hopes of making money or achieving fame. Among his freshest schemes were: Swiss Cheese cloth (his plan to print photographs onto utilitarian objects and materials);8 the curved gallery wall (his second gallery location featured an undulating wall upon which works of art seemed to unfurl as viewers moved by them); the gallery caravan (in 1941, Levy took his stock on the road to San Francisco, then Los Angeles, in hopes of drumming up West Coast collectors); Salvador Dalí’s “Dream of Venus” (a Surrealist funhouse for the 1939 World’s Fair); and “The Carnival of Venice” (the gallery’s 1933 exhibition of photographs by Max Ewing of celebrities, socialites, and friends aping in front of a painted Venetian backdrop—Warholian photo-booth-ography thirty years before Pop!).

On a much darker note, throughout the gallery’s history there are the undercurrents of accident, alcohol, guilt, and depression that appear twisted into this memoir’s silences. Most tragically, in recounting Arshile Gorky’s suicide, Levy isn’t altogether clear that it occurred only a month after he had injured them both in a car crash in which Gorky’s neck and painting arm were both broken. Levy recounts the episode like a cineaste’s dream, starting with chickens and brakes squawking, and ending with the closing of the Julien Levy Gallery in 1949, a year after Gorky’s death. Here, as in some other places, Levy’s account seems too pat, too remote, to convey the true shades of personal memory. It also downplays the downspin of his business, which had been growing steadily out of touch with the latest advancements in art. Uninterested in Abstract Expressionism, Levy stood by Surrealism, to be eclipsed by dealers who maintained more current visions: Pierre Matisse, Sidney Janis, and Betty Parsons among them. But such is the case with good story telling and storytellers—they invite further unraveling.

First published in 1977, Memoir of an Art Gallery closes with Gorky’s last words, echoed here by Levy in tribute to the history of his gallery: “Good-bye my ‘loveds’.” However, the story hardly ends here. Levy’s 1944 marriage to his second wife, the sculptor Muriel Streeter, ended in divorce. On January 20, 1957, in Bridgewater, Levy married Jean Farley McLaughlin, to whom he dedicated this book, and who remains devoted to preserving her husband’s memory. Until he died in 1981, at the age of seventy-five, Levy remained an engaged emissary of Surrealism. In his later years, he cultivated a Stieglitz-like habit of wearing capes. No doubt he cut a daunting silhouette on his regular visits to New York, where he kept up with contemporary art (he saw Surrealism in the work of artists as diverse as Joseph Beuys and Tom Wesselman) and collaborated with his fellow dealers (including Richard Feigen and Leo Castelli) to show and sell work from his collection. In the late 1970s, Levy was introduced to curator David Travis of the Art Institute of Chicago. Apparently, when the gallery closed Levy had a lot of leftover photography inventory, notably hundreds of works by Jacques-André Boiffard, Lee Miller, Robert Parry, Man Ray, Maurice Tabard, and others. Forty years later, these prints emerged from storage to constitute a virtual missing history—occluded from both photography and Modernism—of Surrealist photography. During Levy’s lifetime, a large number of works were acquired by the AIC to form the Julien Levy Collection. More recently, in 2001, the Philadelphia Museum of Art acquired through gifts by Levy’s widow and Lynne and Harold Honickman all of the remaining photographs from Levy’s estate to establish the Julien Levy Collection of Photographs.

What became of other effects of the gallery’s history? Key elements found their way to private and public collections: Cornell’s L’Egypte de Mlle Cléo de Mérode cours élémentaire d’histoire naturelle to the Robert Lehrman Collection, Washington, D.C.; Max Ernst’s Vox Angelica to the Daniel Filpacchi Collection, Paris; Dalí’s Persistence of Memory to The Museum of Modern Art, New York; Giacometti’s On ne joue plus to the Nasher Sculpture Center, Dallas; Gorky’s New Hope Road to the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; Frida Kahlo’s Self-Portrait Dedicated to Trotsky to the National Museum of Women in the Arts, Washington, D.C.; Pavel Tchelitchew’s Phenomenon to the Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow; Dorothea Tanning’s Guardian Angels to the New Orleans Museum of Art, and so forth out into the world.9

And what of the papers? In compiling his memoirs, Levy gathered his archives around him, including brochures, reviews, and other related ephemera, to work in a small writing studio on his Connecticut property. It’s unclear how the fire began, but much of the material was destroyed either by flames or water. Whatever could be swept up was saved in a storage area attached to the house, and considered basically inaccessible due to its poor condition. This is not to say that all was lost, and indeed, recent efforts to process what does remain have turned up some astounding stuff. By way of example, let me end with my own story. Last year, I was working on a book about Salvador Dalí’s “Dream of Venus” pavilion, a story in which Levy naturally plays a leading role. I had all but completed my research when the treasures started emerging from the nooks and crannies of Jean and Julien’s house. They included such things as a gramophone record called Dream of Venus (labeled as a recitation by actress Ruth Ford and an accompanying chorus for the World’s Fair), a typed manuscript for the same (“Behold! I am Venus! I am the most beautiful woman in the world!”), a list of rejected names for the concession (“Dalí Trance Forms” and “Dalí’s Wet Dreams” among the lamest), and, most astonishingly, photographs of a strange studio session that involved dressing live models in dead seafood for an unrealized photo-mural. And it didn’t all offer itself at once, but as if summoned piece-by-piece, just in time to fuel the narrative I was in the process of constructing.

You might call this surreal and leave it at that: Julien himself evidently cherished such coincidences. The real point is that much remains to be known and written about Julien Levy, about his life, his work, his influence as an important American art dealer, and his far-reaching, often arcane interests. His memoirs only begin to tell the tales.



  1. Co-curated by Ingrid Schaffner and Lisa Jacobs, “Julien Levy: Portrait of an Art Gallery” was presented by the Equitable Gallery (now AXA) in New York from August 14 to October 31, 1998. The exhibition was accompanied by a book of the same title, published by The MIT Press.
  2. John Bernard Myers, Tracking the Marvelous (New York: Random House, 1981), 43.
  3. Originally printed on multi-color papers and in different colors of ink, and published by Caresse Crosby’s Black Sun Press, Levy’s 1936 Surrealism (conceived as a kind of user’s guide to the movement) was reprinted as a serviceable paperback by Da Capo Press in 1995.
  4. Cf. Carolyn Burke, Becoming Modern: The Life of Mina Loy (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1996).
  5. Grace Glueck, “Obituary,” New York Times (February 11, 1981).
  6. Sallie Faxon Saunders, “Middle Men of Art,” Vogue (March 15, 1938), 102.
  7. For a thorough discussion of the two shows, see the excellent article by Deborah Zlotsky, “Pleasant Madness in Hartford: The First Surrealist Exhibition in America,” Arts Magazine (February 1986), 55-61.
  8. Here Levy deals another slight to Berenice Abbott, when he credits her only as a helpful young woman who took pictures for him; her studio stamp is clearly visible on all of the prototypes for Levy’s photo-objects. These are now in the photography collection of the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
  9. Many works in Levy’s personal collection were sold at auction by Sotheby’s in November 1981.