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Helen Levitt: Vintage Chalk Drawings 1938 – 1948

All over the city on the streets and walks and walls the children have established ancient, essential and ephemeral forms of  art,… have set forth in chalk and crayon the names and images of their pride, love, preying, scorn, desire. And drawings, all over, of ships, homes, western heroes, and monsters which each strong effaces. —James Agee, 1939

Unquestionably one of the master photographers of the urban 1930s, Levitt thrived amongst the imaginative realm of children. With a hand-held camera, often fitted with a right-angle viewfinder which allowed her to capture her subjects unaware and unguarded, Levitt documented the theater of daily life on the streets of New York. Lesser known yet of equal originality are her ambitions and experimental studies of graffiti. The current exhibition is the first solely devoted to this aspect of Levitt’s work.

Timeless in certain respects, Levitt’s perspective on the fugitive missives of young correspondents portrays both the universal time of childhood, and the geologic time of Lower Manhattan in the 1930s and 40s. Levitt, in her uniquely transparent and self-effacing method, documents the ingenuity and creativeness of children forever tempted by their imaginative faculties to show and tell: “I am a killer” scratched across wood planks; “A Detective Lives Here” divulged across cement steps; a caricature of a person thinking hieroglyphically: “5¢ for an ice cream soda.”

Levitt is a recipient of three Guggenheim fellowships and several grants from the National Endowment for the Arts. her work has been exhibited internationally, including most recently as a traveling retrospective co-organized by The Metropolitan Museum of Art and The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. Monographs of her work include A Way of Seeing (Duke University Press) now in its fourth printing and In the Street (Duke University Press).

This exhibition is concurrent with Lee Friedlander: Letters from the People.