Leon Kelly; New York show of a little-known Philadelphian

If Leon Kelly (1901-1982) is unknown to most museum-goers and scholars who follow American art, he has only himself to blame.  The PAFA-trained artist and Philadelphian, born and bred, spent the last forty years of his life in isolation.

Leon Kelly "Gigantic Umbrella" (1940), oil on canvas, 51 x 24 7/8
Leon Kelly “Gigantic Umbrella” (1940), oil on canvas, 51 x 24 7/8

The Philadelphia Museum of Art has one Kelly painting that I’ve seen hanging among other Surrealist works.  For an overview, go to Leon Kelly; American Surrealist at Francis Naumann Fine Art through June 5 (with a reception Thursday, April 23, 6-8 pm); the exhibition is  accompanied by a major monograph.

Kelly showed in Philadelphia during the 30s and was one of the city’s modernists in the circle of Arthur B.  Carles.  Julian Levy exhibited his work in New York and through Levy he met numerous European Surrealists (Max Ernst, Salvador Dalí, Yves Tanguy, André Masson, Pavel Tchelitchew) as well as Arshile Gorky and Joseph Cornell.

Alfonso Ossorio "Here and Now" (1963), 78" by 37" by 6", mixed media/wood
Alfonso Ossorio “Here and Now” (1963), 78″ by 37″ by 6″, mixed media/wood

Given the growth of scholarship and the market in American art it’s a bit hard to believe that there are still artists of stature to be discovered, although I can think of several who, while known, are never seen.  When’s the last time you saw a work by Alfonso Ossorio (above), another artist in the Surrealist circle, whose last museum exhibition was at the Parrish Art Museum on Long Island in 1997; or John Graham (below), whose work doesn’t fit nicely into categories but whose influence on other artists was significant?  Graham’s last museum exhibition was in 1987, organized by the Phillips Collection, although I saw it at the Neuberger Museumat S.U.N.Y., Purchase. It was an effort to get there without a car (I went with two colleagues from New York, Barbara Krulik and the late John Stringer), but well worth it.

John Graham (1881-1961) "Woman in Black" (1943), Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh
John Graham (1881-1961) “Woman in Black” (1943), Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh

If the Whitney won’t organize a proper exhibition of Levy’s work, perhaps PAFA will.