“Drawing Surrealism” at The Morgan Library & Museum

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Joseph Cornell, Untitled (c. 1930), collage, 9-7/8″ x 7-3/8″; courtesy The Morgan Library & Museum

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If memory serves correctly, it was the critic and artist Sidney Tillim who observed that the Surrealists couldn’t paint well because they were too preoccupied by bad dreams. The point is sardonic, but not off base. In privileging imagery or, to use parlance particular to the style, putrefaction over aesthetics, Surrealism erred on the side of illustration—on rendering, instead of embodying, “bad dreams.” Once an artist begins delineating visions gleaned from the unconscious in an insistently conscious manner, how genuinely surreal can they be? Notwithstanding exceptions like Joan Miró, whose forays into automatism were emboldened by an encompassing playfulness, the Surrealists employed paint not as a forum for possibility and pleasure, but merely as a means, often perfunctory in character, to otherworldly ends.

But what about the famously direct medium of drawing? Drawing lends itself more readily to quixotic musings—the route from the imagination to the page being less fettered by materials and more open to curious fancies and untested ideas. That’s the impression left by Drawing Surrealism, an array of over 160 works on paper by seventy artists. The usual suspects are present and accounted for at the Morgan: Salvador Dalí, René Magritte, Miró, André Masson, André Breton (the self-proclaimed “Pope” of Surrealism), Man Ray, and, alas, the overly prolific Max Ernst. Lesser lights and hangers-on are included, as are marquee names—Picasso, Kahlo, Pollock—and a host of artists operating outside the main Surrealist satellites: Adriano del Valle from Spain, Japan’s Ei-Kyu, and Peru’s César Moro. Leslie Jones, the curator of Prints and Drawings at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and the exhibition organizer, extols Surrealism as “a dynamic international discourse.”

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Wolfgang Paalen, Fumage (Smoke Painting) (c. 1938), oil, candle burns and soot on canvas, 10-3/4″ x 16-3/8″; courtesy The Morgan Library & Museum

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Welcome to the age of curatorial globalism. Drawing Surrealism is similar to Inventing Abstraction, a concurrent exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art, wherein a bevy of inescapable figures is peppered with local heroes, dark horses, and bit players known primarily, if at all, to specialists of the genre. Though Jones pays due diligence to Paris and, later, Manhattan, where Surrealist methodologies informed the nascent New York School, the exhibition is centered less on artistic capitals than on “an approach . . . that can go where no other pictorial practice can.” Given Surrealism’s cultural reach, such a tack isn’t inappropriate. As an evocation of a particular community of artists, however dispersed, Drawing Surrealism is coherent and surprisingly fulsome.

The exhibition succeeds in reverse proportion to the significance of its contents. Most of the pieces are anything but major: they’re small in size, almost willfully slight and remarkably non-committal in their assault on the “reign of logic.” The medium contributes to the casual air, as does the march of time. History has a tendency of ironing out the kinks (and the kinkiness) of techniques and imagery that were, at one time, shocking or repellent. Perhaps Jones hasn’t been illogical enough in setting out the parameters of Surrealist strategies. The exhibition is fairly didactic, being arranged in discrete sections devoted to distinct approaches: among them, frottage, collage, decalcomania, and cadavre exquis, the collaborative Surrealist parlor game. Does the Morgan show conjure up a milieu wherein (as a chapter heading has it) “works on paper [are] in service of the revolution”? Not a chance: a woozy mildness prevails.

Which is welcome given a context that was (in Breton’s words) “beyond all aesthetic or moral preoccupation.” Of course, how much viewers cotton to the visions of Pavel Tchelitchew, Federico Castellón, Leonora Carrington, and Alfonso Ossorio will depend on one’s taste for distant vistas populated by (as a friend bluntly put it) “icky tits-and-ass.” Over-exposure to Surrealist imagery inevitably calls into question its conventions, and pinpoints how meager—how humdrum, really—the imagination can be. It’s worth recalling that Freud, the sine qua non of Surrealist thought, considered Dalí’s conscious mind more interesting than his unconscious mind, and that Alberto Giacometti broke with Surrealism because of its strictures, likening the school’s practices to masturbation. In the end, Surrealism proved a finite and unyielding ethos.

url-1Man Ray, Untitled (Abstract “Smoke”) (1928), gelatin silver, rayograph print, 9-5/8″ x 7-7/8″

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Surrealism found its truest expression in artists who stepped outside the purviews of self and followed the exigencies of their materials. The inherent disjunction of collage lent itself to provocative, often funny and, in the case of the unapproachable Joseph Cornell, tender ruminations on culture and memory. Early experiments in dripping and blotting will look dated (or easy) to contemporary eyes, but not so the pictorial freedom it allowed Miró, Masson, Arshile Gorky, Matta, Pollock, Richard Pousette-Dart, and, albeit through a long and tortuous process, Mark Rothko. The lone anomalous inclusion at the Morgan is Ellsworth Kelly who, even at his loosest, is a quintessential classicist. But credit Jones with rescuing Man Ray from his own dilettantism. She’s done an impeccable job of winnowing through the photograms and selecting a handful of exquisite apparitions. For those alone, Drawing Surrealism is a must-see.

© 2013 Mario Naves

Originally published in the March 2013 edition of The New Criterion.

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