About Julien Levy
Born in New York City, Julien Levy (1906–1981) attended Harvard University to study literature but switched to the Fine Arts Department. His studies included a course on museum practices taught by Paul Sachs and Edward Waldo Forbes, both of the Fogg Art Museum. Professor Chandler Post was another important formative figure for Levy, due to his keen interest in popular film. In 1927, just a semester shy of graduation, Levy left the university in 1927 to sail to Paris with Marcel Duchamp with the idea of making a film with him.
“Mr. Levy’s enthusiastic approach toward the subject of photography is contagious and should bring a large following to his gallery in due time.”
—Art News, 1932
The film was never made but Levy had an eventful year in Paris, where he discovered Surrealism and Eugène Atget’s (Looking at Atget
) photographs of the city—experiences that had a profound formative impact upon him. He also married Joella Loy, the daughter of poet Mina Loy, who introduced him to a world of cultural figures living in Paris.
Returning to New York with his bride, Levy worked briefly in his father’s real estate business before securing a job at the Weyhe Gallery, where he gained practical knowledge on how to operate a gallery and organized the country’s first solo show of work by Atget. In November 1931, Levy inaugurated his own gallery at 602 Madison Avenue, devoted to the work of living artists—particularly those working with photography and cinema. By his own account, Levy set out to unearth and explore all the manifestations of the camera and to create a fertile, lively, and playful environment at the gallery. The gallery also showed painting and sculpture – Levy was Salvador Dalí’s American dealer for many years – which he was far more successful in selling.
The Julien Levy Gallery operated from 1931 to 1948 and brought to light an impressive roster of international talent at a time when few galleries or museums exhibited photography. It was often the first to present photographs by many artists now considered the most creative and influential of their time, such as Henri Cartier-Bresson and Lee Miller, and was at the forefront of the wider recognition of photography as an art form. Levy also exhibited objects by the twentieth-century master Manuel Álvarez Bravo, and developed a relationship with the painter Frida Kahlo, who was the subject of a series of his own photographs that are featured in the exhibition. Levy did not shy away from exhibiting nearly all forms of photography, including commercial work, color pictures, and press photography, along with images made as works of art.
“Those of us now prospering in the world of photography owe homage to Julien Levy.”
—Lee Witkin, 1977
During the gallery’s first year, Levy boldly exhibited recent photographs by Paul Strand, Man Ray, Brassaï, André Kertész, and George Platt Lynes, keeping or buying a few examples by each artist for his personal collection. The list of the artists to whom Levy gave their first New York exhibitions illustrates his remarkable eye for talent and made him a key figure in shifting the cultural avant-garde from Paris to New York. The 1930s was a tremendously fruitful and diverse decade for photography, with several styles competing for attention. Despite this, Levy was not successful in establishing a market for photography at the gallery. He did live to see his dream realized, however. By the time of Levy’s death in 1981, the medium was beginning to find an enthusiastic audience and the field has grown exponentially since then.