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Surrealism USA

February 17 - May 8, 2005

Surrealism USA is comprised of approximately 120 paintings, sculptures and works on paper and examines the history of Surrealism in the United States between 1930 and 1950. Included are key figures of the European movement such as Max Ernst, Salvador Dali, and Yves Tanguy, who are represented in the exhibition with works they made while in exile in the United States. Also included are their stateside counterparts David Smith, Kay Sage, Dorothea Tanning, Alexander Calder, Joseph Cornell and others. This is the first exhibition since 1977 specifically devoted to Surrealism in America.

One of the most revolutionary artistic and intellectual movements of the twentieth century, Surrealism still exerts a strong appeal today, more than fifty years after its heyday. The profound influence that this world of fantasy and dream had on art and culture continues through today, particularly its exploration of the irrational as a creative source.

Vast information is available on European Surrealism, but during the past two decades much research has been done on American Surrealism as well, and many unknown works have surfaced, bearing witness to the importance of the movement in this country. This exhibition, organized by the National Academy Museum, proposes to examine the manifestations of Surrealism in the United States from about 1930 to 1950, in New York as well as other cities such as Dallas, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Chicago.

Launched in France in the 1920s, Surrealism gained wide popularity in the U.S. in the following decade. Several galleries -- notably Pierre Matisse and Julien Levy -- began showing the work of European Surrealists on a regular basis, while major group exhibitions such as the Museum of Modern Art's Fantastic Art, Dada, Surrealism of 1936 brought it to the attention of a larger public. As a result, dream imagery and a dose of the irrational began invading American art, infiltrating even such traditional movements as American scene painting and social realism. In the 1940s, the presence in New York of European Surrealists in exile, including the group's leader, André Breton, gave the movement a new vitality. Even though American artists avoided the rigid group organization that characterized the movement in Paris (Peter Blume politely turned down Breton's offer to become a member of the group), they experimented with new themes and techniques promoted by the Surrealists, which, in turn, led to original developments, such as Abstract Expressionism.

The works in the exhibition are borrowed from public and private collections in the United States and abroad, and all aspects of the Surrealist movement in America will be represented: The figurative depictions of a fantasy world by Peter Blume, Dorothea Tanning, and Helen Lundeberg; the so-called social surrealism of O. Louis Guglielmi, James Guy, and Walter Quirt; the imaginary landscapes of Kay Sage and Yves Tanguy; Joseph Cornell's poetic and enigmatic constructions; the lyrical abstractions of Arshile Gorky and William Baziotes; the automatic experiments of Gerome Kamrowski, Jackson Pollock, and Knud Merrild. Sculpture will be represented by Alexander Calder, Isamu Noguchi, and David Smith among others. Works by non-American artists who worked in the U.S. at the time, such as Roberto Matta Echaurren, Salvador Dalí, Max Ernst, and André Masson will also be featured.

A fully illustrated catalogue edited by Isabelle Dervaux, Curator of modern and contemporary art at the National Academy, and curator of the exhibition, will accompany the exhibition, with essays exploring the specificity of American Surrealism from various perspectives. Other contributors include Gerrit Lansing, Michael Duncan, Robert Lubar, Robert Hobbs, and Scott Rothkopf.

Surrealism U.S.A.will travel to the Phoenix Art Museum, Arizona, where it will be shown from June 5 to September 25, 2005.


Wall texts from the exhibition:

 

Surrealism USA

Launched in France in the 1920s, Surrealism gained wide popularity in the United States in the following decade. Surrealism USA traces the history of the movement from about 1930 to 1950 in the work of American artists as well as artists living in exile in the United States. It includes paintings, sculpture, objects, prints, and drawings, created in New York, California, Texas, and the Midwest.

The exhibition unfolds chronologically, beginning with works from the early thirties by Joseph Cornell, Arshile Gorky, and Peter Blume. Two major groups of Surrealists in the second half of the thirties include the Social Surrealists -- whose paintings were largely influenced by Salvador Dalí -- and the California Post-Surrealists. In the early forties Surrealism in America was dominated by the presence of European artists in exile -- Max Ernst, André Masson, and Yves Tanguy, among others. Their work is shown here side-by-side with that of American artists such as Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko, whose explorations of Surrealist automatism, coupled with their interest in mythical subjects, led to the emergence of Abstract Expressionism. Concurrently, a figurative form of Surrealism persisted in the mysterious compositions of the Magic Realists, such as Eugene Berman and Charles Rain.

The stylistic variety and geographical reach of the works in this exhibition attest to the importance and pervasiveness of Surrealism in American art of the twentieth century. Indeed, its impact can still be felt in the art of today, to which some of the fundamental characteristics of Surrealism, such as the exploration of dreams and the irrational as a source of artistic creation, have remained central.

Major funding for this exhibition was provided by Ron and Barbara Cordover;The Robert Lehman Foundation; The Henry Luce Foundation, Inc.; The Overbrook Foundation; The Wolf Kahn and Emily Mason Foundation, Inc.; The F. Donald Kenney Memorial Exhibition Fund; The Judith Rothschild Foundation; The Dedalus Foundation; The Bonnie Cashin Fund at the New York Community Trust; and The Edith and Herbert Lehman Foundation; with additional support from the Manhattan Chamber of Commerce, Bente and Gerald E. Buck, Herbert P. and MaryLou Gray, and John Schobel and Daniel Schmeder.

The installation of the exhibition was designed in part by Komal Kehar, Janet Yee, Allison McElheny, Kameron Gad, and Deena DeNaro.

 

1. The 1930s: Surrealism comes to the U.S.

The first exhibition of Surrealist painting in America took place at the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum in Hartford, Connecticut, in 1931. Entitled Newer Super-Realism, it featured only European artists, including Salvador Dalí, Max Ernst, André Masson, and Joan Miró. In January 1932, Julien Levy showed a slightly different version of this exhibition in his New York gallery, adding the Americans Joseph Cornell and Charles Howard. In the following years, a few Americans began incorporating Surrealist biomorphic forms in their work, as in the examples by Jan Matulka and Arshile Gorky in this room.

In the second half of the thirties, Surrealism in the United States was primarily associated with Salvador Dalí, whose popularity rested as much on his paintings as on his provocative behavior intended to attract the attention of the press during the artist's frequent trips to New York. Dali's characteristic use of limp forms, double imagery, and shifts of scale can be seen in the works of George Marinko and Federico Castellon, two of his main American followers. Dali's style was also central to the so-called "Social Surrealists" -- O.Louis Guglielmi, James Guy, Walter Quirt, and David Smith -- who plumbed the repertoire of Surrealist images and techniques to convey political and social commentary.

 

2. California Post-Surrealism

In 1934, a group of Californian artists led by Lorser Feitelson and Helen Lundeberg, exhibited together in Los Angeles under the name of Post-Surrealists. Although they used such Surrealist devices as scale contrasts and odd juxtapositions of objects, they distinguished themselves from the European Surrealists by their rejection of the irrational in favor of a contrived symbolic program connecting all the elements of their compositions. Their rebus-like imagery may appear strange at first but can actually be deciphered as logical explorations of such themes as love and creation.

The Post-Surrealists, who also included Philip Guston, Reuben Kadish, Harold Lehman, and Knud Merrild, formed the only organized Surrealist group in the United States. They exhibited together for about six years and published several theoretical texts spelling out their cerebral conception of art.

 

3. Artists in Exile

When World War II broke out, many European Surrealists came in exile to the United States. The German Jimmy Ernst and the Swiss Kurt Seligmann were among the first, followed by Yves Tanguy, Matta, Salvador Dalí, and Max Ernst. The leader of the Surrealist group in Paris, André Breton, emigrated to New York in 1941 thanks to Peggy Guggenheim's financial help, while André Masson's passage to America was financed by Baltimore collector Saidie May.

The arrival of these artists marked the beginning of a new phase in the history of Surrealism in the United States as both Europeans and Americans were affected by this migration. The artists in exile found inspiration in their new surroundings while the Americans began exploring some of the themes and techniques of their European counterparts.

One of the highlights of the Surrealist activities in New York in the early 1940s was the publication of the Surrealist Portfolio VVV (shown here in its entirety), which brought together works by eleven European and American artists.

 

4. The 1940s: Myth and Magic

The contribution of the Surrealists in exile to American art was primarily twofold: the technique of automatism and the subject of myth. Automatism, which consists in drawing or painting with little control of reason in order to release the creative unconscious, led American artists to experiment with a freer handling of paint, as seen here in the work of Arshile Gorky, Jackson Pollock, and the Californian Knud Merrild. At the same time, the elaboration of a new myth for our time became a central preoccupation both for Americans and for the artists in exile. In 1943, Adolph Gottlieb and Mark Rothko described their paintings as "the poetic expression of the essence of myth."

The search for new beginnings linked myth and automatism. Collective myths of origin expressed the beginnings of humanity, while the release of the unconscious through automatism represented the primordial stage of the individual. Such explorations laid the groundwork for what would become Abstract Expressionism.

The 1940s also saw the development of Magic Realism in the work of Eugene Berman and Charles Rain, for instance. Adopting highly traditional techniques, these artists favored incongruous juxtapositions to evoke a mysterious atmosphere in works painted with great naturalism and precision.

 

5. Surrealism After the War, New York and Beyond

After the war, the artists who had come to the United States in exile went back to Europe, with a few exceptions. Yves Tanguy settled in Connecticut with Kay Sage, while Max Ernst and Dorothea Tanning lived in Arizona until 1953. The main galleries devoted to Surrealism in New York, Julien Levy Gallery and Peggy Guggenheim's Art of This Century Gallery, closed, and the movement was declared dead by several artists and critics. It was still, however, a source of inspiration for younger artists, such as Louise Bourgeois and George Tooker. It also remained a significant force in other parts of the country, notably in Chicago and the greater Midwest where a group of artists whose work was based on fantasy and mystery emerged in the late forties, including Gertrude Abercrombie, John Wilde, and the printmaker Vera Berdich.

The strings stretched across this gallery recall the installation of the exhibition First Papers of Surrealism held in New York in 1942, curated by André Breton and designed by Marcel Duchamp. Photographs of the original installation can be seen in the display case in the center of the room, together with other documents related to the history of Surrealism in the United States.

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