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“One dreams in black and white—or I do, with a little color occasionally as emphasis.”
Julien Levy, 1979
In celebration of the centenary of the birth of Julien Levy (1906–1981), one of the most influential and colorful proponents of modern art and photography and an impassioned champion of Surrealism, the Philadelphia Museum of Art will present a major exhibition and publish a comprehensive book surveying Levy’s collection of photographs. Dreaming in Black-and-White: Photography at the Julien Levy Gallery will be on view from June 17–September 17, 2006. More than 200 photographs, some exhibited for the first time in five decades, will be drawn from more than 2,000 images acquired by the Museum in 2001 in part as a gift from Levy’s widow, Jean Farley Levy, and with a major contribution from longtime Philadelphia residents and philanthropists Lynne and Harold Honickman.
“Julien Levy’s love of photography was a lifelong devotion, so it is especially gratifying to celebrate his centenary with this choice selection of photographs at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, where Levy’s collection joins perfectly with our strength in the art of his heroes and mentors, Alfred Stieglitz and Marcel Duchamp,” said Anne d’Harnoncourt, Director of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. “His gallery was a driving force during one of the most dynamic periods in American art history, and he was a key figure in shifting the cultural avant-garde from Paris to New York. A list of the artists to whom Levy gave their first New York exhibitions illustrates what a remarkable eye and mind he had, and this exhibition is a tribute to his legacy.”
Levy emerged in the 1930s as a prominent art dealer who mounted the first exhibition in New York devoted to Surrealism. He operated his art gallery in New York City from 1931 to 1948. Levy exhibited photography at a time when the medium was rarely shown in galleries and almost never in museums, and he was often the first to present photographs by many artists now considered the most creative and influential of their time, including Henri Cartier-Bresson and Lee Miller, to whom he gave their first solo exhibitions. In addition to organizing exhibitions devoted to painters and sculptors such as Max Ernst, Salvador Dalí, Leonor Fini, Alberto Giacometti, and Yves Tanguy, Levy boldly exhibited the photographs of Paul Strand, Man Ray, Brassaï, André Kertész, and László Moholy-Nagy, among many others. Together with the photographer Berenice Abbott, Levy preserved and exhibited Eugène Atget’s photographs, giving Atget the widespread American reputation that influenced generations of photographers.
Dreaming in Black and White, on view in the Berman and Stieglitz Galleries, will include works by more than 60 photographers exhibited by Levy, among them American masters Walker Evans, Man Ray, Charles Sheeler, Ralph Steiner, and Joseph Cornell, as well as lesser-known artists like Thurman Rotan and Luke Swank. Levy’s international interests are also represented. He traveled to France and Germany in search of the most interesting photographs by artists of his day, such as Henri Cartier-Bresson and Moholy-Nagy. His gallery also exhibited works by the 20th century master Manuel Álvarez Bravo, and Levy developed a relationship with the painter Frida Kahlo (1907–1954), who was also the subject of a series of Levy’s own photographs.
“This extraordinary collection of photographs is a fitting tribute to Julien Levy’s combination of high standards and flexible taste, and it is a joy for the Museum to show so many of these images to the public for the first time,” said Katherine Ware, Curator of Photographs at the Alfred Stieglitz Center, in the Museum’s Department of Prints, Drawings and Photographs. “Certainly the foremost characteristic of the collection is its ability to delight. Laying aside art-historical considerations, the photographs themselves are treasures, whether one prefers the restrained beauty of Walker Evans’s buildings, the immediacy of Henri Cartier-Bresson’s pictures snatched from life, or the unadorned but riveting images of preening boxers captured by an unknown photographer.”
Levy’s collection includes a cache of ephemeral pictures of every sort, from bygone celebrity portraits and press photos to film stills and everyday snapshots. These “found objects” were a major part of his gallery program, and are given their due in the exhibition. “One thing Levy clearly liked about photographs was their presence everywhere around him,” said Peter Barberie, the Horace W. Goldsmith Curatorial Fellow in Photography at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. “He did not hesitate to pick up those he found attractive. So although he honored Alfred Stieglitz’s careful selection of serious artistic work and the tradition it fostered, he also valued anonymous things, like an unknown photographer’s small, crystal-clear record of some onions.”
Levy’s confidence in the importance of photography was prescient, and his prediction about the interest it would generate during the 1930s was correct. But he was mistaken in thinking that collectors and the public would purchase photographs as works of art. The gallery, which operated from 1931–1949, sold only a few photographs during its entire run, and Levy quickly learned to rely on sales of paintings to keep it solvent.
The Museum’s Curator of Photographs, Katherine Ware, and Peter Barberie, the Horace W. Goldsmith Curatorial Fellow in Photography at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, organized the exhibition. The accompanying book will present a survey of this long-hidden collection for the first time. Essays will illuminate Levy’s pivotal role in bringing Surrealism to the United States, and his role as a gallerist and tastemaker at a crucial juncture in the development of photography. The publication will include reproductions of rich archival material related to Levy’s gallery and the collection, including exhibition announcements and correspondence with artists, along with a generous selection of color reproductions, illustrating Levy’s keen instinct for images, many of them unfamiliar works by well-known artists.
The exhibition and book are made possible by The Horace W. Goldsmith Foundation with additional support from Furthermore: a program of the J. M. Kaplan Fund. The book is also supported by an endowment for scholarly publications established at the Philadelphia Museum of Art in 2002 by The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and matched by generous donors.
Film at the Julien Levy Gallery
In conjunction with the exhibition, the Museum will present a series of films made by artists affiliated with the Julien Levy Gallery. The films will be presented on three Friday evenings, June 30 (themed Photographer-Filmmakers), July 14 (Avant-garde Circles), and July 28 (Hollywood Idols), thanks to the generous funding of the Women’s Committee of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. All screenings are free with Museum admission.