Leon Kelly (1901-1982) is admired as one of America’s most talented surrealist painters. He exhibited alongside Salvador Dali, Yves Tanguy, Max Ernst, Marcel Duchamp, Arshile Gorky, Roberto Matta, and Eugene Berman at the premier gallery for Surrealism in America, the Julien Levy Gallery. However, it is widely acknowledged that along the path to a deep understanding of Surrealism, Kelly mastered many artistic styles. He skillfully moved from a modernist approach to Impressionism, through Pointillism, Purism, Fauvism, Geometric Abstraction, Analytical Cubism, and in the 1960’s, a bold, more robust Baroque style of painting and drawing.
Kelly’s talent was clear from childhood, particularly his ability to draw. At 13, he took private painting lessons from Albert Jean Adolphe at the School of Industrial Art, now the University of the Arts, in Philadelphia. He enhanced his artistic education by copying Old Master paintings and drawing animals at the Philadelphia Zoo. Several years later, Kelly briefly studied sculpture with Alexander Portnoff before joining the Quartermaster Corp at the Army Depot at the outbreak of World War II.
Kelly’s family’s financial situation changed in 1920 when his father’s tailoring business failed and his parents divorced. The young Kelly was now forced to support his mother and grandmother and over the next four years, he worked evenings at a bakery. With his days free, Kelly studied anatomy at the Philadelphia School of Osteopathy and mastered an understanding of the human body by dissecting a cadaver. Around this time, he met the artist Earl Horter with whom he studied etching. Horter had an important collection of European modern art which exposed Kelly to artists such as Brancusi, Matisse, Picasso and Braque, among others, and opened his mind to the new artistic movements in Paris. Kelly enrolled at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in 1922 where he flourished under the guidance of Arthur B. Carles. Kelly’s artistic talents were apparent and according to the artist’s family, Carles declared him to be his best student. Works in the exhibition from this early period include a group of pastel floral still lifes, an oil Landscape, Fairmount Park (1923), a cubist pastel The Three Pears from the same year, and several geometric abstract watercolors.
In 1925, Kelly traveled in Europe for four months on a Cresson Fellowship. After his return to Philadelphia, he enrolled again at the Academy. Soon thereafter, Kelly moved to Paris where he lived for the next six years. While living in his apartment at 19 rue Daguerre he painted The Musician, a work that reflects Kelly’s engagement with Analytic Cubism as practiced by Pablo Picasso, Georges Braque and Juan Gris. In this painting, Kelly has depicted the musician from multiple, fragmented viewpoints and, as typified by this form of Cubism, he simplified the color palette to not distract the viewer from the formal structure.
Although his finances during this period were bleak, Kelly’s intellectual and cultural life were rich. He met Henry Miller, James Joyce and the well-known anarchist and art critic Felix Feneon. At this time, museums and important collectors began purchasing his works and he received the patronage of Albert Barnes. While exploring the current modern styles, Kelly continued his practice of copying old master paintings at the Louvre. In 1929, he married his French girlfriend Henriette D’Erfurth and the two moved to Philadelphia the following year.
Over the following decades, Kelly continued his exploration of the styles and techniques he was exposed to in Paris. Examples included in this exhibition are his 1941 biomorphic oil The Snail, an image inspired by the organic nature of its subject, and the 1949 drawing Rape of the Sun Virgin which suggests the artist’s understanding of Purism, a style championed by Amedee Ozenfant and Le Corbusier. In this drawing, objects are depicted in their purest form without extraneous details. During this period, Kelly’s paintings were included in numerous exhibitions, both group and solo, primarily to favorable reviews. In October 1934, several of his works were among those included in the Second Regional Exhibition of Painting and Prints by Philadelphia Artists at the Whitney Museum in New York. At this time, Kelly created studies for a mural, now lost, in the School Administration Building under the Philadelphia Public Works of Art Project. Despite these accolades, times were difficult and by the end of the decade, Henriette, who was lonely and did not speak English, returned to France and the couple divorced.
Kelly then began to see Horter’s ex-wife Helen, a painter as well, and the two married in 1941. The previous year, Helen had contacted Julien Levy whom she knew through her brother-in-law and suggested an exhibition of Kelly’s drawings. Levy recognized Kelly’s talent immediately and included Kelly’s work in his gallery located on 57th St. in New York. The first exhibition in 1941 was held at the Art Alliance in Philadelphia and was followed the next year with a solo show in New York. Kelly’s second solo exhibition at Julien Levy Gallery was held in 1944. In a letter to Kelly, Tanguy reported that when Alfred Barr, the first director of the Museum of Modern Art, saw the exhibition, Barr declared that Kelly was one of the best American draftsmen.
Surrealism, a movement which sought to release the creative potential of the unconscious mind, was now fully occupying Kelly’s canvases. His works were filled with enormous mosquitoes, beetles and skeletal figures, all meticulously rendered, to create a place beyond the conscious. The desolate landscape and abundant plant and insect life of Long Beach Island, where Kelly and his family now lived, provided ample subject matter for the artist. The transitory, fleeting nature of birds was of particular interest to Kelly and he often included them in his works, such as in the 1953 watercolor Reclining Moor and a Bird, now on view. For Kelly, birds have a “silent and mystic relationship … to the elements. They come and go like the spiritual counterparts of human beings, or like the first trial of a new soul. Down from infinite space to stand for a moment like strange messengers, or like a glance at a face in the mirror that will never be seen again.”
A turning point in Kelly’s style came in 1946 when he accepted a position as a drawing teacher at the Brooklyn Museum of Art School. He had become frustrated by the dependence of American artists on European traditions and the Museum’s Peruvian textile collection provided him with an exciting visual vocabulary that rang truer to his American roots. Kelly’s exploration of these textiles led to a brightening of his palette and the adoption of broad, flat planes of color that were void of shadows as in Man with a Plant (1951) and The Egyptian with a Candelabrum (1956). For the artist, his study of Peruvian culture “…provided for me an unusual feeling of detachment of the figures and objects from a positive earthly connection.”
Kelly continued to show with Julien Levy until the gallery closed in 1949 after which he was represented by the Hugo Gallery. In 1950, choreographer George Balanchine and dancer George Volodine attended the opening of Kelly’s solo exhibition at the Hugo Gallery. Their friendship led to a decade long collaboration on costume and set designs for the ballet “Flame” as well as other productions. This was a solitary time for the artist as he was living alone for periods of time on Long Beach Island due to strains in his marriage. Out of this period of quietude came The Lunar Series, two drawings from which are included in this exhibition: Architect of the Lunar Cathedral (1957) and Ball Players and the Lunar Beach (1958), both inspired by the artist’s emotional response to the moon’s pale rays of light over the landscape.
A grant in 1960 from the William and Noma Copley Foundation allowed Kelly to live in Majorca for a year, a place of interest to the artist who was already including Spanish objects in his still life paintings such as those seen in his 1956 Bread of Malaga and Fruit. Two other paintings included in this show reflect his time in Majorca: The Mallorcan Bread (1961) and The Wine Pitcher and Mallorcan Melon (1961).
In the early 1960’s, Alexander Iolas, the owner of the Hugo Gallery, suggested to Kelly that he explore Greek Mythology, a subject that appealed to the artist. Despite his stylistic evolution, Kelly still admired the works of the Old Masters that he had copied as a youth and at the Louvre. In the large scale mythological drawing Mars Emerging from the Bowels of Satan of 1961, Kelly’s skill as a superb draftsman is clear. The exaggerated musculature of the male body demonstrates an understanding of the late works of Michelangelo and suggests a knowledge of William Blake.
Kelly was also shown at the Zabriskie Gallery, and in the last year of his life, in a solo exhibition at the Washburn Gallery. His work is held in many museum collections including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Whitney Museum of American Art, Museum of Modern Art (NY), Smithsonian American Art Museum, Philadelphia Museum of Art, Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Museum of Arts, Boston, Yale University Art Gallery, Wadsworth Athenaeum, Cantor Arts Center, Stanford University, Sheldon Museum of Art, Newark Museum, among others.