Wilkin, Karen, The Hudson Review
SURREALISM WAS BIG LAST SEASON. The Philadelphia Museum of Art mounted a Salvador DaIi retrospective, the Metropolitan Museum of Art paid homage to Max Ernst, and the National Academy Museum, New York, presented "Surrealism USA." Of the three, the Ernst survey was the most surprising, since it revealed the remarkable diversity (verging on incoherence) of this peculiar artist's oeuvre. The Dali exhibition was the most predictable, despite its promise to reveal unknown aspects of the narcissistic showman's work; both the cannily weird, calculated-to-disturb imagery and the enthusiastic response of the audience were much as expected. (A century and a half after the advent of modernism, an amazing number of museum goers still equate meticulous, academic technique with aesthetic achievement; in Philadelphia, the DaIi galleries were jammed, while an intelligent little show centered on Stuart Davis' 1938 tour de force of razzle-dazzle color and unexpected shapes, Swing Landscape, was almost empty.) I wish I could say that, in contrast to the Ernst and DaIi shows, "Surrealism USA" was a revelation-it wasn't-but one could only applaud the efforts of the curator, Isabelle Dervaux, and her team of contributors to the catalogue, in examining thoroughly the vexed history of American artists' responses to this seductive French movement. The catalogue, which addresses such questions as the influence of DaIi, the spread of Surrealist ideas outside of New York, and-most interestingly-the complicated connections between Surrealist ideas and Abstract Expressionism, is an interesting and useful document that includes excellent, well-illustrated documentary material; an index, however, would have made it even more useful. The installation at the National Academy Museum, which flirted with some of Jean Cocteau's best-known inventions-the celebrated candelabra in La Belle et la bête, for example-had wit and charm.
What about the works on view? Not surprisingly, alas, a seemingly endless array of rather dull, gnarly, highly finished illustrations of the irrational, all of them presumably reflecting the unwilled promptings of someone's unconscious. It formal terms, it seemed as if everyone making art in America in the 1930s and '40s aspired to Dali's brand of sleek, meticulous rendering. Yet what was more unexpected and more distressing than the similarity of formal means was the similarity of images-all those desert expanses, bleached bones, equivocal women, sinister polyps, and dollhouse rooms; few "social surrealist," works, as a catalogue essay terms them, set in vaguely urban, modern-day surroundings, came as a breath of relatively fresh air. I had never taken "collective unconscious" to mean that everyone's fantasies looked alike, but "Surrealism USA" made me wonder. Even artists of a more abstract persuasion translated their inner demons into remarkably interchangeable, nameless, spiky and/or convoluted conflations of giblets and vegetables.
Fortunately, there were bright spots along the way. A group of Joseph Cornell's early collages, boxes, and assemblages, mostly from the 1930s, raised the tone-and one's spirits-right at the beginning. So did one of Arshile Gorky's voluptuous pen and ink studies, c. 1932, for the abstract drama, Nighttime, Enigma, and Nostalgia, which echoed the swollen forms of Picasso's figures of the 1930s, themselves a response to Surrealism. Later on, a couple of glorious, melting Gorkys from the mid-1940s, all washes, runs, half-glimpsed forms and exquisite line, were equally welcome. At the start of the show, two of David Smith's antiwar, anti-totalitarian reliefs, the Medals for Dishonor, 1939, provided evidence that some unconscious minds are capable of generating more provocative images than others, especially if they are filtered through Assyrian seal stones, Northern Renaissance martyrdoms, and other suggestive prototypes. Smith's haunting steel and bronze Reliquary House, 1945, a thick, tenoned steel box, opened out to reveal ambiguous treasures, was a highlight of the later portion of the show; it set a standard of abstract expressiveness not reached by many other sculptures on view. …