Hail to the newborn Salvador Dali, so often scorned by the last century! Now resurrected in a retrospective for his hundredth birthday (in 2004), he is making a vengeful comeback that will open eyes both old and young. It turns out that he is not only still alive and well (the crowds goggling each painting were testimony to his miracle working), but he is also emerging as a surprisingly unfamiliar master whose work has yet to be integrated into art history.
My credentials for this overview are venerable. It was in May 1939, just before my twelfth birthday, that I rushed to Flushing Meadow to see the New York World's Fair as soon as it opened. There, on the outskirts of this utopian hymn to progress, I stumbled upon something that transfixed me: Dali's Dream of Venus Pavilion, a bizarre grotto of erotic enchantment, with its slimy array of coral and submarine creatures, from mermaids and an enormous reproduction of Botticelli's Venus to a cashier booth in the shape of a fish head. I was too young to be allowed inside the "adults only" interior, but again and again I stared at the facade, conjuring up early-adolescent erotic fantasies. Two years later, still a museum neophyte, I made one of my first visits to MOMA only to discover a double feature worthy of Frankenstein and Dracula: the concurrent Dali and Miro shows of 1941. (With an inadvertent illiteracy paralleling Franco's efforts to squelch Catalan language and culture, MOMA, in both the catalogues and the signage, omitted the accents on the final vowels of the artists' names.) I of course recognized Dali's name (who didn't in the 1940s?) if not Miro's, and this time I could enter the enchanted territory the two had staked out. My jaw kept dropping, and I gave equal, breathless time to both of them, who for me had joined forces in opening a world of throbbing, quasi-erotic fantasies where tumescence and detumescence served as twin engines for the eerie humanoids who dwelled in this realm of uninhibited imaginations. The two Catalans, in fact, looked totally complementary to me, separated at birth but both obsessed with visceral blobs of desire and with hybrid creatures that root us in our biological origins and haunt spaces from bleak coastal shores and cosmic skies to the unfathomable depths of what we learned to call the id.
If Dali and Miro seemed to demand equal time back then, things soon changed. In the ever-loftier pantheon of modernism, Miro was maintained as a deity, while Dali was expelled as a rebel angel. Greenberg, with his customary papal authority, wrote a monographic paean to Miro in 1948; but he damned Dali and his fellow Surrealists, calling the movement a "reactionary tendency" and complaining that Dali attempted to "represent the processes and concepts of his consciousness, not the process of his medium." While Miro seemed to be getting modernism right by becoming flatter and flatter, Dali got everything wrong by becoming deeper and deeper--and, even worse, seducing viewers with crowd-pleasing jabber-wocky narrative and hyperrealist illusions, anathema to the religion of modernism. Like Rockwell and Wyeth, his ability to entertain the unwashed masses who couldn't understand Picasso or Mondrian made him a pariah for elite taste, while his ongoing dalliances with popular culture in a pre-Warhol age damned his reputation as a serious artist. From the late '30s on, Dali's name got attached to just about everything and everyone outside the museum's boundaries: Time magazine and the Dali News (a self-promoting newspaper, its title a joke on the Daily News); Shirley Temple, Mae West, and Laurence Olivier (each the subject of a "portrait" of sorts); Hitchcock, Disney, and Schiaparelli (with whom he collaborated); TV commercials for Alka-Seltzer; etc.--all vivid proof of Dali's status as a charlatan/businessman/pop star. Although his miniaturist treasures of the '20s and '30s still had some respectability as historical emblems of Surrealism, his work gradually went off the screen of history, and the very different output of his later decades would only be exiled to an evermore-distant planet. …