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Leon Kelly; An American Surrealist


June 7, 2009   ·   10 Comments

Leon Kelly Ancient Priest (1950) oil on canvas, 15 x 22 in.

Seeing the survey of Leon Kelly’s work at Francis Naumann Fine Art (April 16- June 5, 2009) I was confronted with the challenge of resurrecting the reputation of a largely-forgotten artist.

Leon Kelly Nocturnal Encounter (1953) oil on canvas, 20 1/4 x 16 in.

Leon Kelly Nocturnal Encounter (1953) oil on canvas, 20 1/4 x 16 in.

The Philadelphia-born and trained Kelly contributed to his neglect by spending the last forty years of his life in isolation on Long Beach Island, off the coast of New Jersey and populated largely by birds. But the real quandary facing those who would insert him into American art history is the stylistic diversity of his work throughout his career. Kelly’s case is not that of Philip Guston, who went from early representational painting to a coherent body of abstract work and then to a late but equally coherent group of figurative paintings in comic book style; nor is it the situation of Francis Picabia or Giorgio de Chirico whose late styles appeared to repudiate their earlier ones.

There’s no question that Kelly was accomplished and it’s not difficult to see why Julien Levy exhibited and championed his work of the 1940s and 50s, which was widely seen in the US in solo shows and important group exhibitions such as the Carnegie International, American Paintings and Sculpture at the Art Institute of Chicago and the Whitney Museum’s biennial exhibitions. While varied even during this period, it was generally characterized by intense and disturbing imaginary beings represented with a high-keyed palette. But the broader view of his career offered at Francis Naumann Fine Art revealed an artist who responded to both contemporary and earlier painting to the detriment of an identifiable artistic personality of his own.

Leon Kelly The Plateau of Chess (1945), oil on canvas, 14 ½ x 20 in.

Leon Kelly The Plateau of Chess (1945), oil on canvas, 14 ½ x 20 in.

The paintings from the 1920s and early 30s were essentially student work; Kelly studied Cezanne, Cubism, De Stijl and figuration in the manner of Edward Hopper and tried out their styles; it does not help Kelly’s reputation to exhibit them. Then in the 40s and 50s Kelly produced a body of painting that, while of varied style, was consistent enough in its fantastical and Surrealist affiliation to present a coherent vision. In 1959 this fell apart; the paintings from then on included some identifiable with Kelly’s invented beings but others included representational still lives and figure paintings, some paintings in a vaguely Cubist style and a group of huge mythologies in the style of Italian mannerism, but with none of the personal adaptation that Thomas Hart Benton brought to the same mannerist sources.

Leon Kelly Ancient Priest (1950) oil on canvas, 15 x 22 in.

Leon Kelly Ancient Priest (1950) oil on canvas, 15 x 22 in.

Even many of Kelly’s Surrealist paintings exhibit rather too much of his study of other artists, whether Masson, Dali or Ernst. But Kelly’s most original paintings are the group showing anthropomorphized but imaginary beings, often with insect-like heads and appendages, which in the 1950s he began to set against backgrounds that resembled geometric abstract paintings. These works are Kelly’s singular contribution to American painting, and were I to exhibit Kelly I would concentrate on them. He used a broad range of saturated colors that distinguishes his paintings from those of other Surrealists and his creatures, even when they remain close to life (with birds), convey Kelly’s intensely-personal vision.

Leon Kelly Bird and Quadriped (1953) oil on canvas,16 x 13 in.

Leon Kelly Bird and Quadriped (1953) oil on canvas,16 x 13 in.

Which is not to ignore the drawings, which I think are actually Leon Kelly’s best work. The exhibition included drawings in charcoal, ink, pastel and watercolor but the largest group, in pencil, demonstrated Kelly’s extraordinary virtuosity allied with his strange and personal forms. Some were executed with such a fine touch that they resembled silverpoint, a medium Kelly taught (according to Martica Sawin in Leon Kelly; American Surrealist , ISBN 978-0-9800556-1-0, the handsomely illustrated catalog on the artist released in connection with the exhibition.)

Leon Kelly Vista of Solitude (1945) pencil on paper, 15 x 11 in.

Leon Kelly Vista of Solitude (1945) pencil on paper, 15 x 11 in.

The best of Kelly’s Surrealist drawings are as fine as any produced by the expatriate European artists who showed with Julian Levy at the time. There is no question that Leon Kelly’s strongest work belongs in any museum that wants to convey a complete picture of twentieth century American art, and I suspect that younger artists who create their own imaginary beings (Mark Price comes to mind) will find him an honored forebear.

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10 Responses to “Leon Kelly; An American Surrealist”

  1. I don’t really understand why it does not help Kelly’s reputation to show his earlier work. His landscape in the style of Cezanne, for example, is a phenomenally accomplished painting, one worthy of inclusion in the concurrent “Cezanne and Beyond” exhibition at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Besides, early pictures like this allow viewers to get an idea of an artist’s aesthetic origins, and sets the stage from his evolution through Cubism to Surrealism (as Andrea Kirsh traces in her review). Also, to say that his affiliation with earlier painting styles was a detriment to the progression of his artistic career is somewhat inaccurate and misleading, for like many of his contemporaries (Gorky, for example), these sources led logically and systematically to the Surrealist style that Kelly embraced in his maturity, and which continued in his work for some thirty years, a source of inspiration that sustained his creativity to the very last days of his life (this is the reason the catalogue that accompanies the exhibition is subtitled “An American Surrealist”). Any person who takes the time and makes the effort to consider the work seriously–as has Andrea Kirsh–is to be commended, for it is only in this capacity that the entirely of Kelly’s accomplishment can be truely understood and appreciated.

  2. Elizabeth Fiedorek says:

    Here are some of the reasons I disagree with you:

    For one thing, there are legions of artists who don’t fall neatly into one category yet maintain relevance throughout their careers: Miro, Rauschenberg, Duchamp…I find it hard to trust any artist who doesn’t test the boundaries of their given artistic practice. (And that’s essentially what the artist is asking us to do. Trust them, that is.)

    I also find fault with your assumption that an artist shouldn’t show pieces that work directly from the influence of others. Sherrie Levine’s “After” series has been showing up everywhere recently. She’s a different artist, to be sure, but it’s a limited viewpoint to suppose that only artists who directly address the conceptual strictures of art historical quotation are dealing with the past. It’s the appropriation era, baby. And besides, as a painter, I learn a lot from seeing how others have dealt with the legacies of those before them. I like to think the past can be liberating if occasionally overpowering.

    That said, I want to check out Leon Kelly’s work.

  3. Andrea Kirsh says:

    I’m happy to face disagreement, and especially pleased if the review sends readers to Kelly’s work, which deserves attention. I certainly think the early work that responds to a series of modernist movements is crucial to Kelly’s development; I was suggesting (and should have done so more clearly) that until his own reputation is firmly re-established it would be better to concentrate on his mature work. As to the diversity and quality of his production after 1959, I leave that up to viewers.

    The extent to which modern and contemporary art is valued for its “originality” (even if the originality consists of flagrant appropriation) is an interesting one, and deserves serious discussion. I’d be open to participating in the discussion in a face to face context. Would someone like to organize such a situation?

  4. Elizabeth Fiedorek says:

    I do agree with you that artists are easier to digest if you focus on one aspect (in Kelly’s instance, the meatiest part) of their practice at a time. I saw a show of late work by Rauschenberg, for instance, that was entirely different from the work I’d seen at the Met for the “Combines” show in 2006. Truly prolific artists benefit from a variety of exhibition approaches. And no exhibition can encapsulate a life’s work.

    I’d be open to a discussion in a face to face situation. I’ll be out of town for a week or so but send me an email if you’d like to coordinate something.

  5. Mimi Mannel says:

    I began studying Leon Kelly since I saw two pieces of his Long Beach Island work in the Noyes Museum in New Jersey a few summers ago. In the meantime, I found out he was my grandfather’s cousin.

    Being a painter myself, I am sorry I never had a chance to meet with him. Does anyone know where we might be able to see his work locally in the Philadelphia area? My family is very interested… Thanks!

  6. Andrea Kirsh says:

    The Philadelphia Museum of Art owns a small Kelly which is usually on view with the Surrealist holdings, and a large work was recently on loan and on view in the American wing – the first room where they hang modern paintings. For information on seeing other work you should contact Francis Naumann Fine Art.

  7. Mimi- The Newark Museum has a huge painting by Leon Kelly done in 1928 . A gorgeous early abstract piece that would be worth a visit . Especially for a family member

  8. Mimi again-I am also a painter whose grandfather Howard Ashman Patterson was from Philadelphia . who studied at PAFA from 1910-1913

  9. Diane says:

    I have a Leon Kelly I might be willing to sell but don’t know what fair market value is. If you know or are interest please contact me.

  10. Bill Lynch says:

    I’d be willing to help you with pricing. Please contact me at
    Bill Lynch

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