Published: March 2005
As Paris had been the seat of artistic innovation prior to the Second World War, by the late 1940s, New York City had become the world’s art capital—a title owed not only to the many artists who had fled from Hitler, Stalin, and Mussolini, but to American art dealers and collectors like Julien Levy, a Manhattan gallery owner whose passion for European artists’ work helped launch modernist art culture in America.
The Harvard-trained Levy opened his New York gallery in 1931, in the midst of the Depression, and closed it 18 years later. With the prestigious American photographer and dealer Alfred Stieglitz as his mentor, Levy began by focusing on photography, but soon added paintings, sculpture, and other media to his gallery. His endorsement of surrealism, a burgeoning artistic, literary, and cultural movement that melded dreamlike fantasies with realistic images, provided exposure to artists including Salvador Dali, Max Ernst, Man Ray, and Arshile Gorky.
Surrealism came to dominate modern art in the 1930s and ’40s, emerging from Cubism and Dadaism, movements that were espoused and developed by Picasso, Miro, and Duchamp. Its influence later inspired American artists like Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, and Willem de Kooning to create a new American art movement called abstract expressionism. Influenced by the theories of Freud, the surrealists created images as confusing as dreams. In his 1924 Manifeste du Surréalisme, the French poet, artist, and movement founder André Breton described surrealism as a means of melding conscious and unconscious experiences, uniting dream and fantasy with the rational world, and creating what he termed “an absolute reality, a surreality.”
The McMullen exhibition includes 115 works from the collection Levy left upon his death in 1981. The title of the exhibition, Accommodations of Desire, is drawn from a Dali painting that Levy once owned and counted among his favorite works of art.
As revealed in art endearingly inscribed to him, Levy was a friend to the artists he represented. He collaborated with them, making surrealist films, composing a surrealist history, and even helping to create a surrealist funhouse for the 1939 New York World’s Fair, photos of which are on display at the exhibition. The project to which he was most dedicated, however, was the acquisition of surrealist art—books, paintings, sculpture, toys, seashells, photographs, drawings, records, prints, cabaret posters, even chess sets. A selection of these works is presented here.
Accommodations of Desire will be on display at the McMullen Museum of Art from January 15 to March 24, 2005. The texts that accompany this online @BC exhibit are drawn from the Museum’s display cards.