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  • Julien Levy: Making It Surreal
  • Kristine Somerville

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Julien Levy, c. 1932, Jay Leyda, Gift of Lynne and Harold Honickman, Philadelphia Museum of Art

[End Page 75]

Art is life seen through a temperament.

—Walter Pater

In the spirit of the Surrealists, Julien Levy rejected reasoning and sought the unpredictable in deciding to open an “arte shoppe” during the darkest days of the Depression. The market for fine art was nearly nonexistent, yet Levy felt that the depressed economy offered an opportunity for experimentation and openness. Simply put, there was little to lose.

While most of New York City’s surviving galleries were selling French Impressionism, Levy filled the rooms of his fourth-floor Madison Avenue brownstone with modern, mostly Surrealist paintings that he’d collected during his first trip to Europe in 1927. Intrigued by their “perverse gaiety,” he adopted the Surrealists’ sensibility. The movement’s shift in perspective led away from the material world toward what Levy considered the “more real than real world behind the real.” It was a “revolution in consciousness” that he thought was appropriate to the postwar years. He claimed, “Surrealism is not a rational, dogmatic, and consequently static theory of art.” Infused with the world of dreams, it also offered him the opportunity to break away from his bourgeois background.

Levy’s work for nearly twenty years would elevate the role of the contemporary gallerist to that of facilitator between artists and collectors, as well as helping define a movement and moving the center of the avant-garde from Paris to New York. Throughout the ’30s and ’40s all the major museums acquired cutting-edge art from Levy. But ultimately he would be his own best client and amass a vast collection of paintings, photography and sculpture.

Julien Sampson Levy was born in New York in 1906, the oldest of three. His father, a real estate developer who built apartment buildings on Park Avenue, collected art and dabbled in painting, instilling in his son a genuine interest in both. Levy attended the progressive Roger Ascham School before enrolling at Harvard, where he hung his dorm-room walls with original works by Marc Chagall, Paul Klee and Egon Schiele. His initial ambition was to become a novelist, but after nearly flunking freshman composition, he took a life-changing class taught by Paul Sachs entitled “Museum Work and Museum Problems.” [End Page 76] Sachs successfully turned art history buffs into museum directors and administrators, teaching them the practical side of running an institution. Many of Levy’s classmates went on to distinguish themselves in the museum profession, but he knew he wasn’t suited for such a career: “I judged myself as somebody incorrigibly rebellious against the kind of tact and politeness it takes. Somehow or another I have to be my own boss.” Levy dropped out of Harvard his senior year to work as a prop boy on a Gloria Swanson movie for Columbia Studios in New York.

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Self-Portrait in the Julien Levy Gallery, 1934, Remie Lohse, Gift of Lynne and Harold Honickman, Philadelphia Museum of Art

Levy recalled of his early search for a professional identity, “I didn’t have the discipline, but I found my way somehow into the most extraordinary lucky coincidences.” One such coincidence occurred in 1927 while he was visiting a Brâncuşi exhibition at the Brummer Gallery with his father and met artist, dealer and impresario Marcel Duchamp. “The painter who refuses to paint,” as Levy dubbed him, became his lifelong friend. Levy accompanied Duchamp to Paris, where his pale, ascetic [End Page 77] good looks and passion for art gained him access to the Montparnasse crowd of expatriates.

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Max Ernst and Dorothea Tanning and Muriel and Julien Levy Playing Chess, The Julien Levy Gallery, 1945, International News Photo, Gift of Lynne and Harold Honickman, Philadelphia Museum of Art

He returned to New York married to poet-artist Mina Loy’s daughter Joella, “the most wonderful jeune fille in the world.” He also brought home one of his first important acquisitions: Salvador Dalí’s The Persistence...


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pp. 75-84
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