Contemporaneous catalogs list Harvey Leepa's birth year as 1887 where the Edan Hughes' Artists in California 1786-1940 and most internet databases list his birth year as 1892. Setting the record straight, Harvey Leepa was born in Lepaya, Russia in 1887 to a high-ranking General in the Tsar's Army. It seems likely that his was a childhood marked by affluence. He was educated in Riga, Russia where he studied art, as well as with tutors in England. He went to University at Oxford, taking time out to accompany his father for the signing of the Portsmouth Treaty which ended the Russo-Japanese War. In 1908, Leepa pursued further studies in Riga and later in St. Petersburg under an artist named Golinn.
In 1910, Leepa left Russia for Europe, arriving in Paris where he studied at the Academie Julian under Jean Paul Laurens. He pursued further study at the École des Beaux Arts and the Academie de la Grand Chaumiere. He then left for Spain, where he studied under the famous Impressionist Joaquín Sorolla. He then sought out training at the National Academy in Munich, Germany under Hugo von Habermann.
In museum catalogs, it stipulates that he returned to Russia in 1917, which would be a dangerous and odd thing to do given the Bolshevik Revolution and his own place within Russian society. Still, it seems clear that he immigrated to the U.S. in 1919. The Gallery is still trying to verify the details of his biography, but it seems that he taught art at Columbia University and that he was an art dealer. It's possible that he was selling paintings he had inherited from his father in addition to contemporary works, but he lists his galleries as having existed in Paris, in Washington D.C., in New York, in Los Angeles, and in Santa Barbara. Reviews of works shown at his gallery include Continental works of the 18th and 19th centuries. Of Leepa's known gallery location, the L.A. and Santa Barbara galleries have been verified. His L.A. gallery was located in the Mann's Chinese Theater in 1931. We also know that he owned a home called Castel la Mar that was designed by Rudolph Schindler and located on the beach. The Santa Barbara gallery was called the Galleria del Sol and was located at 516 San Ysidro Road in the Upper Village of Montecito.
In 1937, when Leepa was presumably living in Los Angeles, he began to experiment with abstractions based on the fluidity of watercolor. He called these works "Fluxist." Knud Merrild was making experiments with the same processes, even though the two did not know each other. Hans Hoffman would later experiment with similar techniques, but it was Jackson Pollock who made them most famous.
In 1942, he moved to Summerland and grew incredibly reclusive. It has been suggested that alcoholism may have been an issue. Though by the time his work was discoverd in the late sixties, he had apparently been on the wagon for many years.
In the mid to late 1960s, Mr. & Mrs. J. Le Durdinier coaxed him out of seclusion and he had a series of museum and gallery exhibitions at the Phoenix Art Museum, the Santa Barbara Museum of Art, the Fine Arts Gallery of San Diego, the California Palace of the Legion of Honor, and the Municipal Art Gallery (a.k.a. the Barnsdall) in Los Angeles. Subsequently, he slipped back into obscurity.
4:10 | Narrated by Nathan Vonk | Released for THE INCREDIBLE TRUE STORY OF HARVEY LEEPA, 2019
AN ANALYSIS OF THE ARTIST'S WORK
“Leepa’s early efforts in this technique were contemporary with the flux paintings in oil and lacquer which Knud Merrild was creating in Los Angeles but there was apparently no contact between the two artists. A few year later Hans Hoffmann painted some little drip pictures, which in turn anticipated the monumental canvases of Jackson Pollock. There are great differences among the works of these four artists, yet an interest in absolute spontaneity and minimal conscious control is shared by them all.” - Thomas Leavitt, Director of the Santa Barbara Museum of Art
If a painter innovates in seclusion and no one is there to see it, does it make a difference? The work of Harvey Leepa will forever tease us with the implications of the question. Clearly, he was an odd duck with a fabulous background. It is also clear that he was a highly trained artist. If these watercolors had been seen by Peggy Guggenheim or Alfred Barr or Hilda Rebay in 1937, would the work of Harvey Leepa be taught in schools today? We will never know.
What we can see is a visionary artist from a visionary tradition. Think of fellow Russian mystics Kasmir Malevich or Vasily Kandinsky. Leepa's work celebrates color, fluidity, and the power of the human mind to find patterns in almost anything. Sometimes, it seems evident that he was painting landscapes with incredibly atmospheric phenomena. Titles like Ruby Aurora Borealis provide real guidance. Other times, we can be certain that he was painting flowers. Again, titles like Oriental Poppy settle the debate.
Whatever he was up to, Leepa's work succeeds on its merits. Applying color to wet paper and using salt to exploit the "blooming" effect that watercolorists sometimes use, Leepa was able to create luminous works. In his moment, they might even have been called "abstract surrealist" – since it was automatic work that appealed to the idea of the subconscious. One contemporary described his kind of work "accidentalist." That wide interest develped in these works at the height of the psychadelic era shouldn't surprise anyone. That such a progressive painter should create these purely for his own delight does seem rather incredible, though. To these, we have Leepa in his own words, "I don't give a damn what people think of my work."
AWARDS & AFFILIATIONS
1969 Prize, California Watercolor Society
Palm Springs Desert Museum (Fluxism 199)
2019 The Incredible True Story of Harvey Leepa, Sullivan Goss - An American Gallery
1974 California Expressions, Palm Springs Art Museum
1969 HARVEY LEEPA: Fluxism, Municipal Art Gallery, Los Angeles
1969 California Watercolor Society Exhibition, Laguna Beach Art Association (prize)
1969 California Watercolor Society Exhibition, Oakland Art Museum (prize)
1969? [solo exhibition] Palm Springs Art Museum
1968 Landscapes?, Lytton Center of the Visual Arts, Oakland CA
1968 [solo exhibition] Fine Arts Museum of San Diego
1968 [solo exhibition] California Palace of the Legion of Honor, San Francisco, CA
1967 HARVEY LEEPA: Fluxism, Phoenix Art Museum
1967 HARVEY LEEPA: Fluxism, Santa Barbara Museum of Art