Somehow, it seems a quintessentially Santa Barbara
story in the retelling: A son is born to a highly-placed Russian General
in the Tsar’s Army. His education in Russia, at Oxford, and in Paris is
first-class. He studies with some of the most famous painters of his
day, including Joaquín Sorolla. In 1919, he immigrates to the U.S.
Fabulous – some would even say incredible – adventures in the art world
as a dealer and artist land him in Summerland at the age of sixty-five.
He becomes deeply reclusive. There are even rumors of alcoholism. In the
late sixties, he emerges as a bearded, eccentric octogenarian with an
idiosyncratic – perhaps even psychedelic? – body of watercolor paintings
that he exhibits at a string of California museums. A Continental
character with a mysterious background who seems financially comfortable
without visible means of support? That is a Santa Barbara story. And that is the broad outline of The Incredible True Story of Harvey Leepa.
Leepa’s very birth date remains a point of contention. Was he born in
1887 as his lifetime museum catalogs state, or was he born in 1892 as
certain artist dictionaries report? Yet another date appears on a
Naturalization document. The Gallery currently cites the contemporaneous
catalogs which list his birthplace as Lepaya, Russia. Following an
education in Riga, Russia and with private tudors in England, he was
accepted to Oxford. He reports having been pulled out in 1905 to
accompany his father to sign the treaty ending the Russo-Japanese War,
which was his first trip to America. He records, in fact, a trip by
train through Summerland that same year. He continued on to study at
Academie Julian under Jean Paul Laurens, at the École des Beaux Arts,
and the Académie de la Grande Chaumière. He had even more study under
Sorolla in Spain and under Hugo Von Habermann in Munich. Following his
immigration to the U.S., there is scant information on what Leepa was
doing. He apparently taught at Columbia University. He reports owning
galleries in New York, Los Angeles, and Washington D.C.
sources show that he had a Rudolph Schindler designed beach house in
Los Angeles in the 20s and that he owned a gallery in the Mann’s Chinese
Theater in 1931. He showed both contemporary works and historical
European art. In 1942, he moved to Summerland and became what nearly all
of his future biographical write-ups describe as “a Santa Barbara
Harvey Leepa reported having discovered “Fluxism” in
1937. It is a style of painting in which paint is poured as much as
brushed to create luminous abstractions in watercolor. His catalog essay
for his solo exhibition at the Santa Barbara Museum of Art by Director
Thomas Leavitt noted that this is independent of the work of L.A. artist
Knud Merrild and years before Hans Hoffman or Jackson Pollock
experimented with pours and drips to make a whole painting.
Nevertheless, this work did not get exhibited until 1967, when he had a
solo exhibition at the Phoenix Art Museum entitled HARVEY LEEPA: Fluxism.
That exhibition traveled in one form or another to the Santa Barbara
Museum of Art (1967), the Fine Arts Museum of San Diego (1968), the
Palace of the Legion of Honor (1968), and then the L.A. Municipal
Gallery at the Barnsdall House in 1969. A few other group exhibitions
are known here and there. He won a prize in 1969 with the California
After that, Harvey Leepa slipped into
obscurity. His story leaves plenty of questions, but the work itself is
vivid, beguiling, and seems very much a product of its moment.