Harper Levine did not expect it. Now 54, he has spent most of his working life as a rare book seller, building a business in St. Paul, Minnesota, and, since 2010, the Hamptons. Over the years, artists such as Richard Prince and Eddie Martinez would come for advice on building their libraries or to buy books on obscure Japanese photography or Beat literature. Some have become his friends.
It was at their request that Levine began to organize exhibitions at Harper’s Books in East Hampton. In 2014, when an artist canceled, he texted Prince asking for suggestions on filling the spot. “Figgis,” was the reply. Prince had recently discovered Genieve Figgis on Twitter and had fallen in love with her feathery, macabre paintings. Levine took Prince’s advice and the show sold out. “That’s when I really started to think a career as a gallery owner was possible,” says Levine.
In March, Harper Gallery opened a 4,000 square foot location on West 22nd Street in Manhattan, on the same block as heavy hitters like Hauser & Wirth. It’s Levine’s sixth branch — its footprint has tripled in the past two years — and it now has outposts in East Hampton, Manhattan and Los Angeles. It represents 16 artists and employs 12 people. “I had a vision,” Levine says. “I decided what I wanted to do with the rest of my life was operate a bigger gallery.”
Many are surprised by Levine’s rise, and Levine shares the sentiment. Originally from New York, he wanted to be a writer, but dropped out of an MFA program at St. Paul’s Hamline University in 2001 and went into bookstore. “All the previous years, the time spent as a bookseller and a writer, only led to this conclusion that I was supposed to be a gallerist,” says Levine.
In 2016, he opened Harper’s Apartment, a pied-à-terre turned exhibition space on East 74th Street, his first foothold in New York. It was a domestic affair, with shows from up-and-coming artists like Jennifer Guidi and Joel Mesler, and after openings Levine sometimes slept on the sofa bed. Today, its operation is larger, but its low-key vibe still attracts artists and collectors. “People are excited about his program,” says art adviser Benjamin Godsill, who has purchased works from the gallery. “It feels very of the moment.”
Levine also had the chance to ride the wave of the contemporary art market. Take Figgis, whose jewel-toned rococo ghouls inspired Marc Jacobs’ Spring 2019 collection. As his audience grew, his paintings sparked bidding wars at auction, selling for as much as $638,692, a far cry from his 2014 solo debut at Harper’s, where prices started. at $6,000. “Harper is a guy who always looks ahead,” says Marcus Brutus, the painter whose work opened the new gallery. (In May, Harper’s two Chelsea spaces will feature works by the late abstract painter Young-Il Ahn.)
Artists want to show with Levine, says Godsill, because they feel he understands them. Even though his gallery is young, Levine has spent decades looking at and thinking about art from a different perspective than most of the top players in the field. “He’s a special art dealer,” says Godsill. “A calm, gentle and evolved soul.” Of course, nice guys don’t have to finish last.
This story appears in the April issue of City & Country. Subscribe now
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