“Gathered Another Way”: Early Surrealist Exhibitions at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art

By Potter, Berit | The Space Between, January 1, 2018 | Go to article overview

“Gathered Another Way”: Early Surrealist Exhibitions at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art


Potter, Berit, The Space Between


The first survey exhibition of surrealism shown in the Bay Area, Fantastic Art, Dada, Surrealism, appeared at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, or SFMOMA (then the San Francisco Museum of Art), in August 1937. The Museum of Modern Art in New York (MoMA) had organized the traveling show in 1936, just a year after SFMOMA opened on the top floor of the newly constructed Veterans Building across from San Francisco's City Hall. Grace McCann Morley, SFMOMA's formidable first director, had recently returned to her birthplace, the Bay Area, after earning a doctoral degree in art and literature from the Sorbonne and serving as the first general curator of the Cincinnati Art Museum. SFMOMA had no endowment yet to fund the acquisition of a permanent collection, but it received a generous subsidy from the city to finance hosting traveling exhibitions. As a result, Morley depended on shows organized by a diverse group of outside institutions, including MoMA, with its innovative circulating exhibitions department, as well as smaller institutions such as Stendahl Gallery in Los Angeles, Art of This Century and Nierendorf Gallery in New York, Galería de Arte Mexicano in Mexico City, and more. During its early decades of operation, SFMOMA featured between fifty and more than one hundred exhibitions each year.

The surrealist exhibition history of SFMOMA exemplifies Morley's deliberate and methodical approach to introducing the local public to modern art. The many shows she presented emphasized different arguments and connections in order to expand visitors' knowledge of specific movements and international styles. She described this tactic in a letter to Peggy Guggenheim dated October 9, 1944: "We tend to stress comparatively small shows definitely planned to illustrate one particular point, run them three weeks, then follow with others. Thus gradually, by filling in the picture of contemporary art, slowly but steadily, we build up a background by repeated experience for those of our visitors who come more or less regularly." Morley's curatorial approach stemmed from her recognition that San Francisco's access to modern art lagged far behind that of the East Coast. In a 1960 interview with Suzanne B. Riess, she explained that when the museum first opened, artists in the Bay Area were "ten or fifteen years behind the movements of their time, simply because they didn't see enough of what was going on in art" (107). In fact, Alfred Barr, then director of MoMA, explicitly designed Fantastic Art, Dada, Surrealism, and MoMA's earlier exhibition Cubism and Abstract Art, which was shown at SFMOMA in 1936, to introduce US artists and publics to modern art movements. In the catalogue for Fantastic Art, Dada, Surrealism, Barr described the show as "the second of a series of exhibitions planned to present in an objective and historical manner the principal movements of modern art" (7). But whereas Barr sought to represent dada and surrealism as canonical and strictly defined, Morley supplemented MoMA's exhibitions with her own shows and others borrowed from smaller institutions in an effort to highlight international, under-represented, and women artists, as well as local art developments. For instance, SFMOMA's early surrealist exhibitions featured the international artists David Hare, Jaqueline Lamba, Alice Rahon, and Kay Sage, as well as surrealists who established residency in the Bay Area, including Stanley William Hayter, the Dynaton collective (Lee Mullican, Gordon Onslow-Ford, and Wolfgang Paalen), Jeanne Reynal, and Jean Varda.

SFMOMA's critics and visitors were not always receptive to modern art, particularly in the early years. Even though Fantastic Art, Dada, Surrealism made a strong case for surrealism as an established movement, the show was too radical for many Bay Area viewers. In a review titled "Comments and Cautions Evoked by the Year's Most Sensational Show," San Francisco Chronicle art critic Alfred Frankenstein celebrated the dada works included in the exhibition, such as Jean Arp's "wood forms" and Kurt Schwitters's lyrical "string and yarn," but his appraisal of surrealism was considerably gloomier:

It is a good show but it is also in some respects a singularly nasty one. …

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