Les Levai: A Dynasty of Gallery Owners

French-American art dealer Pierre Levai is preparing to hand over the reins of the family empire, the Marlborough Gallery, to his son. The gallery is an international brand with spaces in New York, London, Madrid, and Barcelona and a roster of over 60 world-class artists.
The father: Pierre Levai. © Caterina Barjau

On West 25th Street in New York, a stone’s throw from a monumental sculpture of scarlet steel bars hugging in public, stands the future flagship gallery of one of the leading pioneers in the exhibition and sale of modern and contemporary art, the Marlborough Gallery. In this part of Chelsea, the triumphant new skyscrapers of Hudson Yards appear everywhere behind the red-brick buildings of the Chelsea-Elliot housing projects. Here, the time of art is, in the words of Jean Cocteau, “folded eternity.” Everything ends and restarts, simultaneously and in order.

Max Levai, 31, is the son of the Marlborough gallery’s Franco-American director, Pierre Levai. With his tousled brown hair and sneakers, he embodies both the future and a return to the roots of this institution founded in London in 1946 on the principles of discovery and the conquest of the grand masters of tomorrow. “What’s a gallery? A gallery is some walls, some lights, space and a telephone. A gallery is a bunch of ideas, a kind of neutral place where you let the artist’s ideas lead,” says the young New Yorker. Since 2012, he has headed the contemporary department of the Marlborough in Chelsea, the city’s arts district.

The son: Max Levai. © Caterina Barjau

Far from inheriting a blank slate, Max Levai is preparing to take the reins of the Marlborough empire in July. An empire already peopled by more than 60 artists, including Fernando Botero, Frank Auerbach, Juan Genovés, and Paula Rego, as well as a dozen of estates of artists, such as the late Magdalena Abakanowicz and Jacques Lipchitz, spread across spaces in New York, London, Madrid, and Barcelona. The main gallery on West 57th Street, where Marlborough conquered New York during the 1960s, will soon close and the Chelsea gallery will take its place.

However, the new space will be more than walls. It represents the handover from a father of inimitable European elegance to a voluble, distinctly “Yankee” son who grew up in the creative effervescence of downtown during the 2000s. The next chapter in the fascinating story behind the classic Marlborough name.

From Biarritz to New York

Everything began in the 1930s when the Levai family, a dynasty of Austro-Hungarian Jewish art dealers, fled Nazism to the Basque Country in France. “Our whole family found refuge in Biarritz,” says Pierre Levai, the father, who was born in the coastal French city in 1937. But many family members, including his grandparents, were targeted by Vichy bureaucrat Maurice Papon and “were captured and sent to Auschwitz. Murdered.”

The gallery owner, who to this day has kept a light Basque accent, grew up amidst the dust of German bomb shells, living half in hiding with his maternal grandfather, an anarchist refugee who fled the Spanish Civil War. “My uncle [Franz Kurt Levai] managed to escape and fought in the British army. After the war he opened a tiny store that grew to become one of the leading galleries in London,” says Pierre Levai. His boutique soon made a name for itself selling paintings by masters such as Camille Pissarro, Alfred Sisley, and Vincent van Gogh, entrusted to him by members of the destitute British aristocracy. By then, he went by the name of Frank Lloyd, and was one of the first to understand the sales potential of art still in the making or just produced: contemporary art. Francis Bacon, Henry Moore, and Barbara Hepworth joined the London gallery, which opened a space in New York in 1963. The old-fashioned store transformed into an international empire at the forefront of the art market. Its catalogue featured superstars of the New York School such as the estate of Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, and Adolph Gottlieb, and its client list soon included Pope Paul VI, the Queen of England, and the Emperor of Japan.

“Frank Lloyd, I think about him almost daily or weekly,” admits Max Levai, his grandnephew, on the second floor of his Chelsea gallery. Behind him, a portrait of an elderly woman by figurative pop-art painter Alex Katz looks over the works of the renowned 96-year-old sculptor Beverly Pepper. “He created such a strong brand for Marlborough and what I’m hoping to do is to restore this brand and really pay homage to the model that he is very much part of inventing, he adds. Nearby, his team is preparing an installation of large photo prints and a giant hanging cardboard-covered ribbon adorned with paint, graffiti, and one-dollar bills for the Asians Smaisians and Other Abstract Racial Slurs exhibition by artists Mike Cloud and Nyeema Morgan.

Restoring Marlborough to its Former, Avant-Garde Glory

All-powerful in the golden age of the post-war decades, Marlborough has since seen the rise of new mega-galleries such as Gagosian, whose arrival coincided with the boom in the contemporary art market in the late 20th century. Frank Lloyd’s empire took a hit with the notorious Mark Rothko case during the 1970s. The gallery was accused by Rothko’s heirs, along with the American artist’s other two estate executors, of undervaluing part of his works and pocketing significant commissions after his death, a legal case which received an enormous amount of attention at the time. But buoyed by its vast network and by the loyalty of leading artists such as Colombian sculptor and painter Fernando Botero, Marlborough patiently rebuilt a solid reputation under the management of Pierre Levai, and survived the major upheaval of the art world during the 2000s.

“Dealing with Marlborough’s recent history and Marlborough’s ancient history was challenging for us, initially. And we knew it would be,” says Max Levai. When he took over the contemporary space in Chelsea in 2012 with his business partner Pascal Spengemann, he decided to ignore the advice of those pushing him to start from scratch. Determined, he kept the Marlborough name.

Rising above the early reluctance of the art world towards the offspring of a well-known blue-chip dynasty, Max Levai quickly became an instrumental figure in the modernization of the Marlborough brand. Under his management, the gallery welcomed several exhibitions that soon had people talking, including supercharged installations by Jonah Freeman and Justin Lowe, fire-breathing robots by Survival Research Laboratories, and Mike Bouchet’s provocative cardboard-box jacuzzi works. And with that, he restored the venerable gallery to its former, avant-garde glory.

“Immediately, he started hosting some of the more adventurous programming in the city,” writes Nate Freeman, an art critic and observer for the influential website Artsy. Last October, the online platform included Max Levai in its list of the “25 Rising Power Players” set to run an art market that already weighs in at around 64 billion dollars. “He is a man with his own ideas,” says a smiling Pierre Levai at West 57th Street. “We disagree on a lot of things, but it is much better like that.”

At a time when many gallery owners are expanding, joining forces, or disappearing due to a pricing war in which the value of art and its valorization are less and less connected, Max Levai calmly represents his family’s vision: “Art dealing is understanding that some things are important and that you’re going to help show the world why.” Because “art will always be made ahead of the curve.”

Article published in the June 2019 issue of France-Amérique. Subscribe to the magazine.