There is the singular artist, such as Georges Seurat and Chaim Soutine, and then there is the more exclusive club that has only one member. Anne Harvey (1916–1967) belongs to this very small, latter designation, meaning that her work resembles no one else’s and led to no followers. After her death, Marcel Duchamp wanted to organize a posthumous exhibition of her art, but he died on October 2, 1968, before he could plan it. When she was 18, she drew and painted remarkable portraits of Brancusi that were clearly based on direct observation. In those early works, one sees her interest in surface markings, which would become hallucinatory as she got older. Brancusi, who began photographing his work and studio when he was dissatisfied with the pictures taken by Alfred Stieglitz, seldom did photographic portraits. He made an exception for Harvey.
One of Brancusi’s two photographs included in the must-see exhibition Anne Harvey and Raymond Mason: In Paris at Steven Harvey Fine Art Projects (October 19–December 10, 2022) shows Harvey standing in Brancusi’s studio, smoking and smiling shyly. In the other photograph, she looks intently at a sculpture. Many distinguished people who met Harvey — who was born in Chicago but spent most of her life in Paris, where she died — thought that there was something special about her and were willing to accept her reclusiveness and refusal to promote herself. The list of people who wrote about her during her lifetime is impressive. Brancusi wrote a text for her first show at the Galerie de Beaune in 1938, one of only three short texts he published in his lifetime. Others who wrote about or championed her work include Alberto Giacometti, Andre Masson, Patrick Waldberg, Alexander Calder, Lawrence Campbell, and John Ashbery.
Campbell and Ashbery both recognized that Harvey’s drawings, pastels, and paintings combined the seen and invented, and that they resembled no one else’s work. You might think that Harvey’s uniqueness would draw more attention to her, especially now that art institutions are asserting an interest in overlooked women artists and artists of color, but it seems that not much has changed about the art world’s reception since I first wrote about her work in 2017. A late but ardent admirer of this under-recognized artist, I believe examples of her artworks belong in museums.
I wonder if Harvey’s neglect by the art world is because she was born into a wealthy, well-educated family that was engaged in the arts. In 1927 her mother, Dorothy Dudley, published an article on Brancusi in The Dial. Dorothy introduced Anne to Brancusi and many other artists. After seeing her work while she was studying with Fernand Léger, Henri Matisse suggested that she work with Brancusi instead.
It was not Harvey’s privilege that impressed Brancusi, Matisse, Giacometti, and Ashbery; it was her art. Peggy Guggenheim included Harvey in the important group exhibition, The Women, at Art of This Century (June 12–July 7, 1945), along with Lenore Krasner (before she became “Lee”), Sonia Sekula, Alice Trumbull Mason, Louise Bourgeois, Janet Sobel, and others. And yet, years later, long after she had become an artist whose work was highly respected in Paris by both American and French artists and intellectuals, this was how a Chicago newspaper described her: “a score of Parisian celebrities made [Harvey] a pet from the time she was 12, until she left Paris ahead of the Nazi invaders and returned to her home in New York.” While “Parisian celebrities” saw her as an artist who graduated from promising to accomplished, a US newspaper couldn’t even see her as a human being. Can you blame Harvey for returning to Paris after World War II?
The pairing of Harvey and Mason, each represented by 12 works here, is unexpected and smart. They were observational artists who moved from their respective countries, the United States and Great Britain, to Paris, where they became good friends. Relying on line and contour, both artists made inimitable, highly detailed ink drawings of everyday sights. Whereas Harvey rendered interiors, many with open windows, and examined surfaces and textures, often with a disquieting concentration of exhilaration and isolation, Mason was interested in crowds of workers, pedestrians, and strikers on the streets.
The exhibition includes Mason’s first bas relief, “Paris the Man in the Street” (1952), cast in bronze. A large, hollow-eyed man in the foreground rises up from the top edge of the bottom frame. Behind him is a receding space, and a row of building angling in diagonally. Urban despair and isolation are among Mason’s themes. As he got older, he moved away from angst-filled realism to caricature and cartoony exaggeration. He was a populist coming from the tradition of William Hogarth and social satire, a style of art that has never played well in the United States. (One exception is the 1976 installation and environment “Ruckus Manhattan,” a collaboration between Red Grooms and Mimi Gross.) The exhibition also includes the historically important polychrome bas relief “Month of May in Paris” (1968), in which Mason chronicles the first gathering of students that would lead to a general strike of more than 10 million workers, and the birth of the women’s liberation and gay rights movements.
In Harvey’s pastels, she complicates each scene with reflective surfaces and, in one case, draws on black paper. In her paintings, boxes of kindling and her fireplace are recurring subjects. The line in her drawings shares something with that of Aubrey Beardsley and Vincent van Gogh, and yet it is all her own. This is true even of her early work. Although she did not date her pieces, external evidence and other marks indicate when a work was done. There is no doubt that she made her painted portrait and drawing of Brancusi while she was a teenager. Harvey was prodigy. Is there an unspoken grudge against her because she had access to the art world’s inner echelon? How else to explain the lack of reception. This is just one of the art world’s many travesties that contradicts its claim to be inclusive and to address the absence of generations of women artists in museums and art history.
Anne Harvey and Raymond Mason: In Paris continues at Steven Harvey Fine Art Projects (208 Forsyth Street, Lower East Side, Manhattan) through December 10. The exhibition was organized by the gallery.