Schools of imagination and memory

UArts presents Dan Levenson: SKZ Monochrome Classrooms and L’école at the Philadelphia Art Alliance

4 minute read
Large rectangular photo of a much-used blackboard covered with abstract-seeming swirls, shapes & numbers in colored chalk.
© Jessica Wynne, "David Gabai, Princeton University," 2019. (Courtesy of the artist and Edwynn Houk Gallery, New York.)

Dan Levenson has taken over the first-floor galleries at the Art Alliance with studios from his elaborate, imaginary art school, SKZ Monochrome Classrooms. SKZ is so perfectly attuned to the group show upstairs, L’école (French for “the school”), that the two feel like one exhibition. It’s as if the whole building were revealed in an alternate existence where it’s been a French atelier for a century. Sid Sachs, chief curator and director of exhibitions at University of the Arts, has selected works that bring a refreshing sense of energy and optimism, partly by evoking past artistic experiments.

L’école features paintings, photographs, and drawings by Mangelos, Jessica Wynne, Annson Kenney, Sharka Hyland, and Erica Baum. The artists are focused on language, teaching, communication, directions, calligraphy, and playful distortions of text. They are also playing with time and place, offering ways to feel at ease with the weird elasticity of time post-lockdown.

Enter SKZ

Levenson’s work on his imaginary State Art Academy, Zürich (SKZ), which the Los Angeles-based artist has been building for more than a decade, has earned him a Pollock/Krasner grant and Yaddo and MacDowell Fellowships. Incidentally, the SKZ project was first shown in 2011 at Vox Populi in Philadelphia—the sort of nod to our city’s culture that is a hallmark of Sachs’s curatorial practice. SKZ’s furniture is scarred and paint-splattered, and the rooms include smocks hung on the wall, palettes, easels, storage lockers, and paintings. The graceful abstract paintings look ancient, but they’re all dated 1997, emphasizing the nebulous existence of SKZ. Levenson’s choice of Zürich for SKZ is telling: birthplace of Dada in 1916 and home to freeports today, where art treasures live in limbo so the owners avoid sales tax. Levenson sometimes teaches art in his imaginary school; perhaps UArts will offer a class.

Wooden benches and square wooden canvasses, looking battered and paint-splattered in the gallery.
Dan Levenson. Detail from ‘SKZ Monochrome Classrooms’ (2017-present), painted plywood furniture, oil on linen paintings. (Photo courtesy of the artist.)

Shuffling time and place

Upstairs, the work of Mangelos, Wynne, Kenney, Hyland, and Baum gently shuffle time and place in L’école. Mangelos (1921-1987), better known in Europe than the US, is a revelation. Born Dimitrije Bašičević, the Yugoslavian curator and art critic was secretive about his own art-making, signing his handmade books, sculptures, and paintings “Mangelos.” He was a member of the avant-garde group Gorgona, based in Zagreb in the early 1960s. His paintings and painted books, centered on language and handwriting, appear to have been deliberately made to look older than they are.

Two of Mangelos’s hand-painted books are shown in L’école; one has been digitized, and a video screen above the vitrine scrolls through images of each page. Nearby, two of Wynne’s large-scale photographs of mathematicians’ blackboards show complex calculations that seem to float over clouds of previously erased chalk. It’s interesting that these sophisticated expressions of higher math are figured out by hand, in chalk, rather than on a computer. A monograph of Wynne’s photographs from this elegant series, Do Not Erase, was published in 2021.

On what looks like a blackboard with red lines, white chalk cursive in French
Mangelos (born Dimitrije Bašičević). ‘Ce n’est pas d’apres nature...’ (ca. 1967-1972), oil on canvas over cardboard book cover, 5 11/16” x 7 7/8”. (Photo courtesy of Peter Freeman, Inc.)

In the next room, six neon-tube works about grammar and language by Kenney (1944-1981) give viewers a glimpse of the Philadelphia polymath’s work. A musician, writer, performer, and visual artist, Kenney played double bass with Relâche, hosted NOIZE, a progressive show on National Public Radio, and showed his work extensively. One of his projects was a series of neon pieces, and his irreverent works about Bruce Nauman, footnotes, and sentence diagramming conjure old-school grammar classes. Kenney died at 37 in a car accident, but through the sustained efforts of writer Arthur J. Sabatini, who was among the artist’s friends, his legacy has been preserved.

Precision and pleasure

Another Philadelphia-based artist in L’école is Hyland, who teaches typography and visual studies at the University of Pennsylvania; her text-based drawings have been exhibited in the US and abroad. The artworks, so precise that they appear to be digital scans of printed paragraphs, are actually graphite drawings. The paragraphs are carefully chosen and extraordinarily executed—but maybe not as much fun as the other works in L’école.

Baum’s photographs are a pleasure: enlarged views of diagrams, illustrations, and folded-over pages from books are serendipitous manipulations of color, texture, translucency, and context. Examples from several of Baum’s series are displayed; dog-eared pages from yellowed paperback books, player-piano rolls, card catalogues, and old sewing patterns are all transformed for our enjoyment. Baum’s photographs show us unexpected ways to see how we conveyed information and directions in the past.

These two exhibitions meld seamlessly into a satisfying visit to the Art Alliance and will leave viewers feeling motivated to conquer the fall arts season and, for many, the new school year.

What, When, Where

Dan Levenson: SKZ Monochrome Classrooms and L’école. Through October 14, 2023, at University of the Arts Art Alliance, 251 South 18th Street, Philadelphia. (215) 545-4302 or


The Art Alliance is housed in a historic building with limited accessibility. Wheelchair access is not available; there are stairs at the entrance and between floors. Contact [email protected] with questions.

Sign up for our newsletter

All of the week's new articles, all in one place. Sign up for the free weekly BSR newsletters, and don't miss a conversation.

Join the Conversation