On View: Alexander O. Levy

Blast Furnace Bethlehem Steel (1916)


In 1909, at age twenty-eight, Alexander O. Levy moved from New York City to Buffalo, lured by the promise of gainful employment as art director for the Matthews-Northrup Company. As a young boy, he had won first prize in a newspaper art contest in Ohio, and, at fifteen, he worked as a newspaper artist in the Spanish-American War. Buffalo, now at the peak of its economic and industrial prominence, would become the artist’s permanent home. It was a time of great wealth and prosperity in the city, and the market for regional art was strong.


Throughout his lifetime, the resolute traditionalist freely explored a variety of styles, refusing to be confined by a single art movement. He had taken lessons in New York from William Merritt Chase and Robert Henri, whose realist and Ashcan influences, respectively, can be seen in his work. From both teachers, he adopted a rapid alla prima [a painting technique in which layers of wet paint are applied to previous layers of wet paint] style of painting that often utilized a brooding tone.  

Levy soon left Matthews-Northrup to work as an artist and mural painter for the Larkin Soap Company and as a freelance illustrator for such publications as the Saturday Evening Post, Saint Nicholas Magazine, and the Century. He gained a degree of recognition on the national art scene with solo exhibitions at Manhattan’s Ainslie and Babcock Galleries and the Cincinnati Art Museum, among others.


During the Great Depression, the market for regional art dried up and acclaim declined. In 1932, now a staunch realist with a tighter, more rigorous painting style, he charged the Albright Art Gallery with "class bias" and "ignoring the interests of local artists." This can almost certainly be attributed to his rejection of modernist advances in art—embraced by the Albright—that had occurred since the turn of the century. He became the Western New York president of the Chicago-based Society for Sanity in Art, whose members strongly opposed all forms of modernism, including cubism, surrealism, and, later, abstract expressionism. He was on the wrong side of history—at a time when the Albright was establishing a national reputation for modern art, Levy’s anti-modernistic fervor didn’t help his career. His old-school rigidity created a rift within the Buffalo Society of Artists—of which Levy was an active member—causing proponents of abstract art to break off and form the Patteran Society. Nonetheless, Levy maintained involvement in the local art community until his death in 1947—at which point he might easily have been forgotten.


But that didn’t happen. In the 1970s, Levy’s work began getting renewed national and international attention. His Negro Spiritual painting became part of a traveling bicentennial exhibition of American art, and was later purchased by the Van Gogh Museum in the Netherlands. The next year, the Everson Museum of Syracuse mounted a Levy exhibition. Collectors were once again actively acquiring his work, and, in 1982, an exhibition of paintings and works on paper at local gallery Dana Tillou Fine Arts sold out in its first day.


Levy’s work in a variety of media and styles can be seen in two concurring exhibitions starting this month. The Burchfield Penney Art Center (BPAC) has amassed work from a variety of private and public sources for Alexander O. Levy: American Artist, Art Deco Painter, which promises to be something of a retrospective. The second exhibition, several blocks down Elmwood Avenue at Benjaman Gallery, is titled Alexander Levy: An Exploration of Influence. It will feature a selection of Levy’s paintings, drawings, and prints alongside work created by regional contemporaries Alexis Jean Fournier, George Renouard, Charles Burchfield, Claire Shuttleworth, and others.


Benjaman is a commercial gallery that has long dealt in historic local art. The decision to coordinate an exhibit of Levy and his contemporaries with the BPAC exhibition reflects a growing interest among area collectors in the work of artists from our region. Benjaman also plans to exhibit paintings by Ashcan School artists John Sloan and Arthur Bowen Davies, as well as period works by Art Deco artists Erte and Anthony Nelle.


"When I first found out about the upcoming [BPAC] exhibit for Levy I knew I wanted to be involved in a variety of ways," says Benjaman Gallery director Emily Tucker. "I was happy to loan a selection of works to the museum, but I also have such a passion for Levy that I wanted to extend the exhibit to our own gallery." Growing up as the daughter of art dealers, Tucker couldn’t help noticing what art her parents valued personally. "For as long as I can remember, the large [Levy] winter landscape, Under the Hollow, was the focal piece in my parent’s living room," she recalls. "I often found myself getting lost in that painting, always finding new details to appreciate."


Tucker inherited her affection for Levy from her mother, who collected and cherished his art. It has the "combination of technique and creativity" that the gallerist looks for in paintings that will maintain their value over the years," she notes. "Levy painted people you want to know more about and places you want to spend an eternity in."


Alexander O. Levy: American Artist, Art Deco Painter opens November 14 at the BPAC and runs through March 29, 2015. Alexander Levy: An Exploration of Influence opens in Benjaman Gallery November 15 and runs through January 18, 2015.





Bruce Adams is an artist, educator, writer, and Spree’s art critic.

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