The Collection of Mireille and James Lévy is a celebration of graceful and poetic forms. The Lévys refined their preference and palate for art through a combination of extensive travels, exposure to art and architecture and distinguished instinct drawn from their Egyptian roots.
Like many successful collections, the paintings and sculptures acquired by Mireille and James Lévy defy strict categorisation. Connoisseurs in the true sense of the word, the couple sought out objects with which they formed a very personal connection, displaying them with finesse and pride in their exquisite homes in Lausanne, Manhattan and Longboat Key. Undeterred by academic classifications, their premise was of 'collecting pioneers of style and time. It goes without saying that we must find the works aesthetically pleasing,' the couple told Architectural Digest in March 1987, 'but what most interests us is that these artists are witnesses to their time.'
The juxtaposition between the formal and expressive, and between colour and form, is what breathes life into the Lévys’ collection. Their art collection spans the work of many of the twentieth century’s best-known artists, from the Dada inspired forms of Jean (Hans) Arp to the Modernist renderings of the human body by Barbara Hepworth and Henry Moore. While much of the collection consists of three-dimensional works, the Lévys embraced all forms of artistic expression, from the fluid two-dimensional forms of the Colour Field painters. Centrifugal, a classic Burst painting by Adolph Gottlieb, sits alongside Number 20, Morris Louis’s towering painting of colourful striations, with both works speaking to the formal investigations into the fundamental nature of painting that engaged many artists during the period.
Over three decades during the 1960s, ‘70s, and ‘80s, Warhol became the ‘Chronicler-in-Chief’ of the American cultural zeitgeist, taking inspiration from the everyday and turning it into high art. The couple embraced the major Pop Art artists such as Andy Warhol and Tom Wesselmann, who had abandoned the prevailing forms of abstraction to develop a ground-breaking form of figurative painting. Warhol’s disco-hued portraits of Marilyn Monroe are particularly fine examples of his unique blend of cultural high-living. In addition to the Pop hedonism of Warhol and Tom Wesselmann, the collection contains several notable examples of the more conceptual concerns that were occupying many artists of the period.
Masterpieces from their collection will be offered in auctions across a number of international sale sites this year, including Paris, New York and London, where a number of outstanding works by leading Russian nonconformists will feature in our Russian Art sale, on 7 June 2021.
While building their remarkable collection, the couple also had a desire to share their love of art with a wider audience. They donated works from their art collection both to major international museum collections and lesser known European institutions; from The Metropolitan Museum of Art in Manhattan, to the Musée cantonal des Beaux-Arts, Lausanne, the Lévys’ generosity was transformational to these institutions’ collections. Now, their largesse continues, as the proceeds from the sale of these works will continue their legacy of extraordinary philanthropy. Many institutions in the United States, Switzerland and Israel, including hospitals, medical research centres, museums and resettlement agencies for Jewish refugees have received donations during the Lévys’ lifetime, and will continue to do so now, through the Foundation Mireille and James Lévy, the primary beneficiary of their joint estate.
Of Egyptian-Jewish heritage, living between Switzerland and the USA and with James overseeing a worldwide network of brokerages, Mireille and James Lévy were citizens of the world whose taste in art reflected their cosmopolitan lifestyle. Most well-known in collecting fields for their donations of Dubuffet works to the Musée cantonal des Beaux-Arts in Lausanne, and of American artworks to The Metropolitan Museum of Art in Manhattan, they were also enthusiastic collectors of Russian nonconformist art. Indeed, their collection included works by the most eminent and illustrious leaders of contemporary Russian art, such as Erik Bulatov, Grisha Bruskin, Igor Kopystiansky, Dmitry Prigov, Natalya Nesterova, all of which are represented in the present sale.
At the centre of the proffered collection is an extraordinary group of works by Grisha Bruskin, a painter, printmaker and sculptor known for combining Jewish folkloristic motifs with recognisable Soviet symbology, creating a new artistic and ideological language. Bruskin’s hybrid, absurd language scrutinises the Soviet state’s weaponisation of art as a form of indoctrination. For instance, in the proffered Memorial (lot 79), the identikit, porcelain-white figures lack individuality and are made only identifiable by the attributes they hold, which act as emblems of culture and success. Their lack of colour or distinguishing features suggest a strong need to conform and eliminate ‘otherness’. This particular approach is also mirrored in the painting Logies, variations (lot 83). Much like the other works in the same series, illegible inscriptions in the background recall hieratic writings as well as propagandistic writings while children surround a central adult figure. One figure holds flags of the USSR’s two great rival superpowers, China and the USA, while another holds an image of American warships, a hint at the heightened tensions during the Cold War and the militaristic aggression between the superpowers. Another child displays the instantly-recognisable Soviet slogan 'Proletariats of the world unite!', a cornerstone of Socialist ideology, in contrast to the figure on the right holding a shepherd’s staff, an ironic reference to the prophets in Judeo-Christian theology. Christie’s set the world auction record for a work by Bruskin when another painting from the artist’s Logies series was sold for $424,000 on 7 November 2000 in New York.
Additionally, a work on paper by Bruskin from the series Metamorphoses (lot 85) is on offer from the Levy collection – similarly to Logies, variations, the work shares a warm, personal inscription on the reverse that symbolises the long-lasting and close friendship between the Levys and the artist Grisha Bruskin: ‘A Mireille et James Lévy de tout mon cœur/14 mai 1993 N.Y./Grisha Bruskin’.
Lastly, a trio of vibrant works on paper by the artist Erik Bulatov are also on offer in the present sale, all of which reflect the artist’s characteristic use of pop art motifs, wry text and experiments with pictorial space and plane. In particular, the drawing I live, I see (lot 86) relates to the two renowned oils of the same title from the artist’s noted Here series, I live, I see I (1982, Private collection) and I live I see II (1999, Museum of Avant-Garde Mastery), where the lettering of the slogan appears to recede into the distance of the sky, thereby challenging the viewer’s perspective of space and dimensionality.