In her own words...

"The Julien Levy I Knew"


He not only dwelt in New York, occupied New York, breathed New York, possessed New York. He was New York. This was the Julien Levy I knew in the final eight years of his gallery activity. The Julien Levy Gallery had already brought, mostly from France where radical things were happening to art and ideas, a stunning series of visual explosions whose seismic vibrations were felt in studio lofts and galleries all over town and as far away as California. By the time the Museum of Modern Art got around to its famous exhibition Fantastic Art, Dada, Surrealism in 1936, the Julien Levy Gallery had given New York four years of surrealist shocks, such as the Dalí exhibition I walked in on one day in 1941, where both Dalí and his wife occupied the place like an invading army. Incidentally, Julien told me later that his first two Dalí exhibitions did not sell even one picture. He would say things like this with consummate irony, but very offhandedly, as if expecting you to know that such is the art dealer's way of life.

Before saying that Julien was sophisticated you would have to define his kind of sophistication. Was he an Ulrich, Musil's sardonic, jaded young esthete, or Proust's Swann or even Dorian Gray without the portrait? Fantasies that tumbled in my mind and that would have made him laugh. Yet, his persona was a magnet for adjectives. They swarmed around him, clung to his profile (lovely to draw), hair (shiny and black), silhouette (slim, gracile), the ensemble elegant, suave, debonair, elusive, without any of them, or even all of them together, pinning him down. When Walter Pater said, "Art is life seen through a temperament," he was surely anticipating Julien Levy. This temperament gave him the air of an extraterrestrial emissary, fascinated and amazed by everything he saw and heard. And read: the off-beat, the occult, the enigmatic, the happened-on treasure of the day. How natural that he should find in Joseph Cornell a mirror of his own thoughts!

I would like to convey, without effusion and very exactly, my disarray and euphoria in that delicious amalgam those two emotions produce, when the great Julien Levy came to look at my work. Disarray, because there was so little to see. I had stammered my confession about that when he phoned. But he said, "So I'll look at the two and a half." Euphoria because, of all the gallery activity on Fifty-seventh Street, where everything happened in those days, it was the Julien Levy Gallery that was truly making art history, the place where it was "at." The prospect of seeing one's own work on its walls was, well, breathtaking. The day came, and after looking at the "two and a half," Julien said, unbelievably, "From now on you're in my gallery." He paced the studio (my back room). "The first thing is for you to meet some people," he was saying as he strode around. "Next time I have a cocktail I'll call you." Oh, yes!

But weeks, months passed, winter came and went. Of course, I mused sadly, it was too good to be true. Until one spring day and the phone, "I'm having that party. Can you come?"

1942. A May afternoon as only May afternoons can be in the city. And an apartment in Chelsea, all dark wood and those wonderful slatted shutters peculiar to old New York. A Recamier sofa, an iron sleigh-bed breathing Paris, a Bellmer doll, the Duchamp window and, scattered everywhere, objects, pictures, books and more pictures. Indeed, coming time, you were so overwhelmed with vertigo that it was hard to register Julien's easy, smiling introductions to — as I remember them — Yves Tanguy, Max Ernst, Kurt Seligmann, Kay Sage, Bob Motherwell with beauteous wife Maria, Virgil Thomson, Max Ernst, Consuelo de Saint-Exupery, Peggy Guggenheim, Sylvia Marlowe, Max Ernst...Doesn't the repetition say it all? Because, quite simply, this was a new door for me to open, and it was Julien Levy who held the key, who did it all, not deliberately — he didn't believe in plans — who very nonchalantly launched my art and found me a life companion....

     –excerpt, pp. 15-16.


About this work

“The Julien Levy I Knew” is a preface to Julien Levy: Portrait of an Art Gallery, Ingrid Schaffner and Lisa Jacobs, eds.,  Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press, 1998, pp. 15-19.