The art history of Buffalo is rich and marked by sign posts some of which are established as far back as the late 17th century with representations of Niagara Falls or even earlier in the rich culture of the Iroquois Nation. We establish traditions and continue their practice today. In 1892 the painter Lars Sellstedt formed the Buffalo Society of Artists, with 400 members. Louis Sullivan and Daniel Burnham were commissioned to design office buildings in 1895. President McKinley’s assassination sealed the significance of 1901 and the Pan-American exposition. This event symbolized national acknowledgement of the city’s expanding industrial power. It provided an opportunity for an industrial power, strongly entrenched in transportation, milling, manufacturing and heavy industry, to turn towards the development of a cultural infrastructure which would match the city’s growing business reputation. An electrified exposition illuminated national acceptance for the city as leaders of a civilized municipality. The dedication of the Edward Bodhead Green’s designed Albright Art Gallery (1905) and the building of the Larkin Administration Center (1906, demolished in1950) by Frank Lloyd Wright demonstrated Buffalo's desire to be recognized as a center of contemporary American culture. As we delve into the past, we hope that we are adding layers of meaning and entry points. A lens to look at this experience is our creative development, holding out individuals and artistic movements as totems or wayfinders for understanding.
At the turn of the century Buffalo, New York now served as a home-base to an impressive number of professional American artists. Among them were Claire Shuttleworth, Mildred Green, Evelyn Rumsey Lord, Charles Reiffel, Raphael Beck, and the East Aurora Barbizon painter, Alexis Fournier. The community with accumulating wealth and the new art gallery served as a magnet, bringing large numbers of professional artists to enjoy the vitality of an established center for arts and culture. Some came to paint portraits of the wealthy and to sell their work in a growing regional market while others came to teach or work commercially – and paint. The rapidly growing artistic community, in turn, created an interest for others to become professional artists. 1909 brought the arrival of one of the most interesting artists; the painter and illustrator Alexander O. Levy. Levy, like others, came to work commercially and by 1913 was established as the art director of the Larkin Company. During the 1920s he arguably rose to be Buffalos best known artist with an international reputation, exceeding the reputation of Charles E. Burchfield, who had just arrived in 1921 to design wallpaper in Buffalo at the M.H. Birge & Sons Co.
Born in Bonn, Germany, Levy grew up in Cincinnati in the 1880s. He was a child prodigy; at age eight he won a city-wide art prize awarded by the local newspapers; at twelve, he turned down a scholarship to study the violin in Europe. In his teens, Levy studied at the Cincinnati School of Music and the Cincinnati Art School under the artist Frank Duveneck.
Levy moved to New York City in the 1890s. His career began by preparing Spanish-American War snapshots for publication in the Scripps-Howard newspaper chain. Between 1902 and 1908, he attended the New York School of Fine and Applied Art. There Levy took art classes from William Merritt Chase and Robert Henri, both of whose influences show up in Levy’s work.
In 1909, Levy moved to Buffalo, New York as art director for the Matthews-Northrup Company and in 1913 for the Larkin Soap Company, which was at its pinnacle of corporate growth. When he was hired by Larkin the company was ascending to a corporate powerhouse, having worked with the great marketing mind of Elbert Hubbard within the design aesthetic of Frank Lloyd Wright. Levy arrived at a position at a company of great minds, through an artistic excellence. By virtue of his illustration, he became well known for work which appeared in The Saturday Evening Post, Saint Nicholas Magazine and The Century.
Levy drew on the excellent training which he received as a student in Cincinnati and New York. Frank Duveneck, his teacher in Ohio, taught his students to use blended colors and to stress textural unity and color. This characteristic can be found in many of Levy’s paintings, particularly in the 1920s. Levy once told a visitor to his studio that he "limited his palette to three colors in order to give a unity to the tonality of his painting which would be otherwise impossible to obtain.” From William Merritt Chase, Levy absorbed an approach to “en plein air” painting as well as an insistence on working rapidly. Chase, it is said, would admonish his students, “take as much time as you need…take two hours if necessary” to paint a scene. Levy’s son Alan had remarked on the speed with which his father painted. Most of Levy's canvases, the large major ones, were completed within a day or, only a few hours. This influence provided Levy with colors which are strong, clean and his brushwork is free and loose. As with other students of Robert Henri this teacher’s impact on Levy was an Ashcan-like style with mysterious, moody dark coloring. Also from Henri and a result of the depression, was a concern for painting the less fortunate, and this returns in Levy’s work of the late 1930s.
By the 1920s, Levy was on his way to earning attention and national recognition as a creative artist. However, a strong individualist, he belonged to no school of artists and his work had a unique quality different from any of his contemporaries. He developed an Art Deco style into the composition of his paintings. Art Deco, conceptually organized in Europe was defining the style of the products, industrial and domestic. Although hundreds of books and a handful of exhibitions during the past century have explored this style in the world of objects, it has rarely been considered in painting. Edward Lucie-Smith, one of the few art historians to explore Art Deco in a painting context, looked at four ways to make this argument. In his book, Art Deco Painting, he suggests we look at, “style, subject matter, the relationship to the development of the Modern Movement, and … their social function.” He further defines this as works that, “use silhouette,” and are “sharp-edged and restless.” Beyond these identifiers of style he looks to the subject matter for definition including, “classical allegories, portraits, genre scenes, landscape and still-life.”
Although including a handful of American artists working in the 1930s, such as Charles Sheeler, Georgia O’Keefe and Ralston Crawford, Lucie-Smith relied primarily on European artists. But during the period between World War I and World War II, Americans and American imagery also captured the Art Deco aesthetic. Levy exemplified this. Levy’s compositions play on the relationships among independent entities in creating a complex whole, rather than a single thought. Although set in a field of an almost nouveau dreamy space, his figures are strong and separate. Using a thick outline, the ‘object’ in his work is reliant on juxtapositions. Not just in figural work, this composition extends to his landscapes. His landscapes let nature take the lead and pushes figures (when present) to a subtle background – always leading with bold outlining on what he holds out to be the star of a painting. With his basis commercial design and painting, Levy went after a style of work with a social awareness, grounded in a progression of art and composed of clear lines. His work answered the criteria established by Lucie-Smith.
He painted women with peacocks and parrots, trees and strange forests peopled with tiny figures, shortened to emphasize their insignificance in the grandeur of nature. Some of his best paintings are his figural works which include representations of mountaineers, market women, the poor and the occasional representations of society women. He painted everything with self-confidence, energy and originality. In these paintings, he uses color for its decorative value rather than to recreate reality. Peyton Boswell, the prominent New York art critic of the 1920s, praised Levy's work. He described Levy as a, “fantasist, expressing visions that originate in his brain and are free of natural encumbrances." A Buffalo critic described Levy's art as coming “from within, out, and not from without, in.” In the 1920s, contemporaries called attention to Levy's enthusiasm, versatility and uniqueness of vision.
In 1923, Levy had his first major exhibit at the Ainslie Gallery in New York City. The Ainslie show led to growing recognition and further success. He had one-man shows at the Cincinnati Art Museum (1924), the Babcock Gallery in New York City (1925) another show at Ainslie (1929) and two shows at the Albright Gallery in Buffalo (1929, 1923). He also exhibited works at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, the Art Institute of Chicago, the Detroit Museum of Art and the Carnegie Institute in Pittsburg. In 1928, The American Federation of Art designated one of his paintings, "The Mountaineer, as one of the fifty best in America. He sold work in Europe, particularly in France and England. He created an Art Deco mural for the Larkin Administration Building and painted several large murals in other Buffalo business offices. International Studio devoted an article to his work and Levy was well on his way to becoming a highly successful studio artist.
Buffalo critic and now Director of the Burchfield Penney Art Center, Anthony Bannon, has noted Levy's eclecticism. Bannon pointed out that Levy's color ranged widely from a dark limited color scheme to “daring gauche hues.” He also noted that Levy drew his forms from, “Art Deco, Art Nouveau, Mannerism and the picturesque Ashcan School.” Above all, the Levy paintings are suffused with a love of life. No two are the same and it is rare that any two people, upon viewing a group of Levy, can agree on which they prefer. Despite his pluralism, the artist’s work is unified by a vitality, optimism and uniqueness of style which sets him apart from his teachers and contemporaries.
Alexander Levy was a great romantic. He loved women; he loved nature and he loved the common man.
The Great Depression hurt most American artists, and the market for regional art all but evaporated, and Levy’s work in national and international exhibitions almost halted by the late 1930’s. A number of factors explain his almost disappearance from the national art scene by the late 1930s. Under the impact of the economic crisis, Levy changed his style. His work became more realistic, his brushstrokes tighter and his focus switched from fantasies to a concern with social problems. He did a series of sensitive paintings of American Blacks. He also painted church and temple windows, building murals on historic and religious themes. One view given the volume of his work, could be that Levy enjoyed unprecedented, unbridled success. Another one sees him on the brink of misfortune.
He just didn’t see it coming: his success became the key to his failure. Problems arose for Levy. His completely opposed all forms of abstract art. In 1932 Levy had become involved in a conflict with the management of the Albright Art Gallery whom he accused of “class bias” and “ignoring the interests of local artists.” This conflict, at a time of the Albright Art Gallery’s growth as a center for modern American abstract art, did not bode well for the reputation of a prominent artist. As an enthusiastic member of the Chicago-based "Society for Sanity in Art", he served as its Western New York president. His rigid attitude led to a split in the Buffalo Society of Artists in 1933, when his position so angered the proponents of abstract art that they broke off to form the Patteran Society. He continued to be a fierce proponent of artists concerns and exhibited in the annual Buffalo Society of Artists annual exhibition until his death in 1947. Though outside of these salons, his opportunities had largely vanished.
Levy's work began to -have a revival in the 1970s. In 1975, the United States government selected one of Levy's 1930s paintings, Negro Spiritual, to be part of a travelling bicentennial exhibition of American art. This work was later purchased by the Van Gogh Museum in the Netherlands. The next year, 1976, the Everson Museum of Syracuse, New York held an exhibit of Levy's work mainly from the 1930s, from the collection of his son, Alan Levy. The catalog of this exhibit described Levy as a "mature, outstanding artist who developed, through his own experimentation, skill and vision." In 1982, the Dana Tillou Fine Arts of Buffalo, New York held an exhibition of paintings and works on paper that explored work done before 1930. The response to this gallery exhibition resulted in a sold out show on the first night.
There has been a great revival in the history of Buffalo, recovering from economic decline. Levy’s work is part of this revival. Thirty years after the last exhibition to focus on his work, a deep exploration of Levy’s work and Buffalo in the Art Deco period will be the focus of an exhibition opening at the Burchfield Penney Art Center November 14, 2014. . His work, deeply American, is a discovery and an excitement.
Lucie-Smith, Edward. Art Deco Painting. 2nd. London: Phaidon Press Limited , 2000. 7-36. Print.
Scott Propeack, chief curator, Burchfield Penney Art Center
Albert Michaels, PhD, SUNY Buffalo State