Mon Levinson, American (1926 - 2014)

Mon Levinson

Mon Levinson was born and raised in New York. He studied economics at the University of Pennsylvania where he earned a bachelor’s degree in 1948. Returning to New York upon graduation, Levinson began attending art exhibitions and experimenting in his studio. His work went through a major development when he underwent psychotherapy with Dada leader Richard Huelsenbeck in the late 1950s. In Huelsenbeck’s home, Levinson saw the work of Jean Arp and the Constructivists. Through Huelsenbeck, Levinson opened himself to becoming an artist, became acquainted with European artists like Jean Tinguely, and began to develop his own artistic approach.

Levinson’s first works used layers of cut rag paper to produce reliefs of intricate shadow compositions and light reflections the artist called Knife Drawings. Around the same time in 1960 Levinson started working in plastic, using both opaque white and clear vinyl sheets, layered in wooden boxes. With the vinyl works, Levinson sliced into the sheets and burned their edges to draw attention to the layers. With the opaque white plastic works, the sheets were heated in order to mold them with his hands to create holes through the rigid material. These white constructions were called Space Reliefs and were lit from within to draw attention to their interiors. A Space Relief was included in the group exhibition New Forms-New Media II at Martha Jackson Gallery in 1960. Levinson showed both the Knife Drawings and the Space Reliefs in his first solo exhibition at the Kornblee Gallery in 1961.

Trying to find a way to add movement to the white static planes of his Knife Drawings, Mon Levinson began to experiment with transparency using film and Plexiglas. Levinson found that by applying tape to Plexiglas in thin lines and then layering sheets together in a shallow box, he could create patterns that appeared to move when a viewer shifted his position. Through this experimentation with transparency, Levinson discovered the phenomena called the moiré effect, which occurs when two or more sets of parallel lines overlap at an angle. Levinson’s parallel lines were first applied by hand, which limited his experimentation. From 1965 on, Levinson used silkscreening to create his patterned Plexiglas sheets and photographically enlarged a product called Zipatone for the consistent waving lines in the paper backgrounds of his constructions.

Without any scientific or artistic training, Levinson noted that in the process of making his constructions he was investigating some of the laws of physics. In Levinson’s constructions he merged painting and sculpture to manipulate the perception of the viewer. These works with Plexiglas and moiré patterns led Levinson to be recognized as one of the progenitors of Op Art and be included in the Museum of Modern Art’s exhibition The Responsive Eye in 1965.

Mon Levinson traveled to Venezuela in March 1968 to attend an exhibition of the Op side of the Marlboro Art Collection owned by Philip Morris International. The exhibition included 45 prints by internationally known Op artists. The exhibition first toured 17 American cities before it reached South America. Held at the Venezuelan-American Center in Caracas, the exhibition featured six Plexiglas constructions and two prints by Levinson. Three of the works were illustrated in the exhibition catalogue along with a write-up on Levinson. To open the exhibition, Levinson participated in a round-table discussion. The exhibition then traveled to two more Venezuelan cities and later to Australia in 1969. While in Venezuela, Levinson visited his friend Gertrude Goldschmidt, known as Gego. At the time Gego’s partner, artist Gerd Leufert, had just become the curator of drawings and graphic design at the Museo de Bellas Artes in Caracas. Leufert included Levinson in two exhibitions in October 1968 at the Museo de Bellas Artes. The exhibitions were Diez de Nueva York (Ten from New York) and Sobre Papel (On Paper). Ten From New York was an exhibition of the print portfolio put together by Rosa Esman that included: Richard Anuszkiewicz, Jim Dine, Helen Frankenthaler, Nicholas Krushenick, Robert Kulicke, Mon Levinson, Roy Lichtenstein, Claes Oldenburg, George Segal, and Tom Wesselmann. On Paper featured mostly South American artists, including Gego and Jesus-Rafael Soto.

In the late 1960s Mon Levinson’s constructions became more minimal with a focus on light and shadow. These works used overhead lighting and clear Plexiglas forms mounted to the wall to cast shadows and reflections of varying shapes. These Plexiglas illuminations came out of a desire to show the interiors of shapes and materials, but soon developed into the use of plastic to display the nature of light. The geometry of Suprematism and the architectural approach of Constructivism were influences on this work. Levinson’s wall reliefs were featured in the Whitney Museum’s annual of 1970, as well as A Plastic Presence, a 1969 exhibition organized by the Milwaukee Art Center (now the Milwaukee Art Museum), which opened at the Jewish Museum and traveled to the San Francisco Museum of Art (now the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art).

In the mid-1970s into the 1980s Levinson returned to working in paper, approaching it as both an object and a surface. Levinson found the edges and porosity of paper permitted endless variations of systematic processes involving folding, dying, and rubbing. In Levinson’s folded paper works, the frayed edges sometimes convey a sense of landscape and nature. Many of these works were included in Mon Levinson: Selected Works, 1970-1980 at the Fine Arts Museum of Long Island in Hempstead, New York in 1981.

Levinson has been the subject of 28 solo exhibitions at galleries and museums throughout the United States. The Kornblee Gallery was Levinson’s first New York dealer and held nine solo exhibitions between 1961 and 1972. Levinson’s work was included in group exhibitions at the Martha Jackson Gallery (New Forms, New Media II, 1960; Vibrations Eleven, 1965) and the Sidney Janis Gallery (Classic Spirit in 20th Century Art, 1964). In Detroit Levinson had solo exhibitions with Franklin Siden Gallery in 1966, 1967, and 1969 and a solo exhibition with Gertrude Kasel Gallery in 1975. In 1970 Levinson exhibited his work at David Hickey’s influential art gallery called A Clean, Well-Lighted Space in Austin, Texas. In the 1970s Levinson was represented by Rosa Esman Gallery with solo exhibitions in 1976 and 1977.

In addition to The Responsive Eye at the Museum of Modern Art, Levinson’s work was included in other important museum exhibitions of Op and Minimal art, including the 1965 traveling exhibition organized by the American Federation of the Arts, Pop and Op, and the 1968 Albright-Knox Art Gallery’s Plus By Minus. In 1968 Robert Rauschenberg’s non-profit organization E.A.T. (Experiments in Art and Technology) included Levinson’s Stepped Shift I, a Plexiglas and light work, in its exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum titled Some More Beginnings. More recently in 2007, Levinson participated in the Columbus Museum of Art’s exhibition, Optic Nerve: Perceptual Art of the 1960s.

Permanent collections that hold Mon Levinson’s works include: Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, NY; Brooklyn Museum, NY; Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington, DC; Malmo Art Museum, Sweden; Museo de Bellas Artes, Caracas, Venezuela; New York University Art Collection, New York, NY; and Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, NY. Most notable of Levinson’s public commissions are the P.S. 166 New York City playground funded with an Astor Foundation Grant and the Mach Pelah Cemetery in Flint, Michigan.

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