Thursday 6 March 2014

Barbara Poe-Levee (Reis), the 31 Women number Twenty Six. Her Birthday is 4th March.

Barbara Reis 4 March 1922 - 13 Sept 2013  -                    

    Later known as Barbara Poe-Levee – American painter and collector.

Barbara Poe Levee at 88
Barbara Reis was born in New York City in 1922 and was almost destined to be an artist. Her parents were amongst the NY cognoscenti who, in the early 1940’s, welcomed exiled European artists fleeing the War in their homelands. Her mother Rebecca was a painter, her father Bernard’s profession was as an accountant but both were keen collectors of modern art, an enthusiasm that Barbara followed them into. The family had travelled in Europe during the 1930’s and Barbara was educated at a Rudolph Steiner School in New York, the Tyler School of Fine Arts, Philadelphia and the Ecole Internationale, Geneva, Switzerland.

The Reises befriended Peggy Guggenheim in around 1940 and while their parents attended each other’s parties and soirees, Barbara became friends with fellow painter Pegeen Vail, Peggy Guggenheim’s daughter by her first marriage to writer and artist Lawrence Vail. Barbara’s first contact, as an impressionable teenager, with the European artists, especially the Surrealists, made a lasting impact on her as an artist.  Her other friends in the 1940’s included artists Luchita Hurtado, Anne Alpert, Matta, Wolfgang Paalen and Robert Motherwell.

In 1941 Barbara, who was then studying engraving with fellow student Robert Motherwell, under Swiss surrealist Kurt Seligmann, travelled with Motherwell, on a trip to Mexico that was supposed to have been with Seligmann and his wife – the Seligmanns had to cancel their travel plans - Barbara & Motherwell were accompanied instead by visionary surrealist Matta Echaurren and his American wife Anne Clark. They all spent the summer in the mountain city of Taxco, some 1800 metres above sea level in the Sierra Madre. Barbara apparently did not share accommodation as Matta recalls they met up every day in a bar opposite the spectacular Santa Prisca cathedral. They also visited British Surrealist Gordon Onslow Ford who lived in a remote village on the shore of Lake Patzcuaro in the south western State of Michoacán.

The Enchanted Bull, the painting exhibited at the Exhibition of 31 Women, shows Barbara’s early interest in the side of surrealism which concerned itself with mythology and magical realism, allying her to Leonora Carrington, whom she met the same year. However the Exhibition by 31 Women was not the young Barbara's first show, which was the 1942 First Papers of Surrealism, organised by Marcel Duchamp and Andre Breton in aid of the French Relief Societies.

Barbara was the youngest of the artists who exhibited at 31 Women. She was given her very first solo exhibition by Betty Parsons who was responsible for running the Wakefield Bookstore Gallery between 1942 and 1945. Parsons later opened her own gallery and took over the championship of many of the emerging young American artists. Barbara's work also appeared in Peggy Guggenheim's other all woman exhibition The Women in 1945.

Barbara returned to Mexico in 1943, when she travelled to Mexico City with Pegeen Vail and it was here that she first met Leonora Carrington.  She also became lifelong friends with painter and surrealist Luchita Hurtado, who became a near neighbour when Barbara lived in Santa Monica.

Also in 1943, Barbara married her first husband, writer James Poe, while he was a naval officer at Key West, Florida. Poe was to become an influential script and screenwriter, working in theatre, cinema and radio. After the war was over they moved from Key West to Los Angeles and had a daughter Lorna and a son, Adam. Barbara and James were together for almost 20 years, but divorced in 1963. Barbara later married Hollywood agent Michael Levee.

Barbara continued to paint and exhibit her work throughout her married life and she also began to diversify her interests into supporting and promoting modern art. In 1946 she was part of a group of enthusiasts which included Hollywood luminaries Fanny Brice, Edward G. Robinson and Vincent Price, as well as artists Marcel Duchamp and William Brice and collectors Walter and Louise Arensberg, who together set up the first public exhibition of contemporary art in Exposition Park Los Angeles.

This led the following year,1947, to the creation of the Institute of Art in Beverly Hills. The influential Arensbergs had been deeply involved in collecting modern art since the 1910’s and the Institute was based around the Arensberg’s collection, which included seminal work by Marcel Duchamp. Although the institute only survived for two years, Barbara was also a founder member of the UCLA Art Council.

Between 1960 and 1972 Barbara’s work was exhibited at the Rex Evans gallery in Hollywood and her work also appeared much later in 1997, in an important historical review of the women artists who were promoted by Peggy Guggenheim; Art of this Century: The Women, which was organized at the Pollock-Krasner House and Study Center, East Hampton, New York. The exhibition then traveled to the Peggy Guggenheim Collection in Venice, Italy, possibly the only time Barbara's work has appeared outside the USA. Later she was represented by the Sharon Truax Gallery and her last public exhibition, Les Biller & Barbara Poe Levee, Art at Michaels, Santa Monica was in 2008.

Barbara Poe Levee was also important as a collector of art and she was generous with donations, giving work from her collection to a number of US museums, including the Norton Simon museum in Pasadena, to which she gave death Mask of Amedeo Modigliani by Jacques Lipchitz. The Los Angeles County Museum was given a semi-abstract surrealist still life by John Graham and a drawing by her friend and teacher Matta and the Hammer Museum at UCLA also received important gifts.  
Barbara continued to paint into her late eighties, but she gave up easel painting and worked on smaller watercolour pieces which could be managed from a chair. She died on 13 September 2013, at the age of 91. Her work is little known today beyond Santa Monica.
My thanks to gallerist Sharon Truax and to Barbara's friend Helene Wollman.

Other sources include :- Bernard J. & Rebecca Reis Papers at Getty Research Institute, 
Sharon Truax Gallery,

Comments, corrections and further information about Barbara Poe Levee are very welcome. Please do contact me!
You can read about the remaining members of the 31 Women as their birthdays arrive, earlier ones will remain on this blog.


  1. Hello Sue,
    Sharon Truax of Sharon Truax Fine Art here.

    Don't know where I have been for the past years to have missed Barbara and the wonderful history of Peggy G's gallery. I guess one really goes underground in Seattle. Cant wait to catch up with your lost years in writing, and your photography. is current e-mail address.

  2. Hello Sharon, it's good to hear from you again.
    I admire Peggy G, for all her personal faults, she was a hugely important supporter and promoter of so many artists. It's been a joy researching her and them. All the articles I've posted about the Exhibition by 31 women can b accessed by just clicking that label at the bottom of the piece. I'm sure you know that, I'm just getting old and need things explaining to me!
    You were so helpful when I was beginning my research, so thanks again for that. I lost all my earlier email contacts after a computer meltdown. Taught me to store everything separately! My email address has changed so I will email you from the new one. Sue G

  3. Barbara Poe was a friend of my dad's as they went to school together in Geneva Switzerland, called "Ecolint",it's nickname.(International School of Geneva) I had the pleasure of meeting her - she was a lovely and elegant woman. At the time she lived in her Mandeville Canyon home and sh remembered my dad very well and was happy to see me again since she came to my first wedding in Los Feliz, CA. Vielka Da Costa Dusenberry.

  4. Barbara Poe, was the mother of a very dear friend of mine,Lorna who sadly died to young. I have fond memories of spending time at the beautifull family home in Mandeville Canyon. The first time as an 18 year old.. in the early 1960’s. It was because of Barbara and Lorna that the world of art opened up to me.. Her walls were a delight to the eyes.. first time in my young life that I saw paintings in the kitchen, the bathrooms, everywhere.. and of course she was always lovely and kind to me. Lorna was a very special friend.. never forgotten..I last spoke with Barbara around 2002. Thankyou for the post.Alinr Charney Barber