This first major museum show of Max Ernst to take place in New York in thirty years stakes a grand claim for his importance to twentieth-century art, and to the development of modern painting in particular. "Only Picasso," announces a wall text at the exhibition's entrance, "played as decisive a role in the invention of modern techniques and styles." Ernst's technical inventions in the 175 works on view include the "overpainting" of the Dada pictures that are commonly called collages, as well as the semiautomatist frottage, grattage, decalcomania, and "oscillation" processes of his Surrealist works. Emphasizing the role that technical innovation plays throughout the artist's oeuvre, the show gave prominent placement in its first gallery to Ernst's seminal 1921 oil-on-canvas Celebes, which displays the artist's trans-position of certain effects of collage into easel painting--a technique associated in this exhibition and elsewhere with the artist's "proto-Surrealism" (and developed partly in response to the pioneering work of Giorgio de Chirico). Ernst's last major technique, the "oscillation" process, was visible at the Met in paintings like Surrealism and Surrealism and Painting (both 1940), made while the artist was in New York. For these works, Ernst would punch holes in tin cans filled with liquid pigment, hang strings from the cans, and set them in motion above canvases prepared with large, mostly rectilinear expanses of scumbled paint--resulting in the semiabstract landscapes and cosmic vistas that should, this exhibition suggests (to my mind unconvincingly), be understood to anticipate Jackson Pollock's drip paintings of the late 1940s and '50s.
By framing Ernst's achievements in terms of technical and stylistic innovation, the exhibition's organizers, art historian Werner Spies (an Ernst expert who has made prodigious contributions to the field) and Metropolitan curator Sabine Rewald, downplay the side of his work that can be described as "literary." The move is not novel, but its effects in this context are pronounced. Again and again in his criticism Clement Greenberg decried the literariness of Surrealism, and it is almost as if this exhibition had a tacit, counterintuitive aspiration to secure Ernst's position within an expanded canon of implicitly antiliterary (or at least nonliterary) modernist painting. (Indeed, the conceit of placing Ernst alongside Picasso extends, in no small measure, an earlier claim by William Rubin in his Dada and Surrealist Art , cited by Spies in a catalogue essay: "In the extraordinary range of his styles and techniques [Ernst] is to Dada and Surrealism what Picasso is to twentieth-century art as a whole.") It's not that Ernst's explicitly literary works have been left out of the exhibition. On the contrary, a significant number of collages produced for the graphic novels La Femme 100 tetes, 1929; Reve d'une petite fille qui voulut entrer au Carmel, 1929-30; and Une semaine de bonte, 1934, are on display. But with the artist's handwritten captions for the most part neither translated nor reproduced on the wall labels or in the exhibition catalogue (apart from the original words visible within the plates themselves), the textual components of Ernst's early works suffer particular neglect, even as, for example, the exhibition's thought-provoking arrangement of pictures from his Cologne period--notable among them Celebes; Ambiguous Object, ca. 1919; Always the Best Man Wins, 1920; The Master's Bedroom, 1920; and Oedipus Rex, 1922--makes vivid his foundational preoccupation with technologies of inscription and their relation to pictorial figuration and graphic visualization more broadly conceived.
All of which prompts the question: For all of Ernst's technical inventiveness as a painter, is not his major contribution actually to be found elsewhere? It hardly needs saying, for example, that what can be seen as "proto-Surrealist" in works like Celebes is the artist's attempt at a more-or-less Freudian construction of a pictorial analogue to the imagery of dreams, childhood fantasies, and their figuration in language. …