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The Conjured Life: The Legacy of Surrealism at the Cantor Arts Center

All publicity concerning The Conjured Life: The Legacy of Surrealism at Stanford University’s Cantor Art Center features The Courtship (1949) by Gertrude Abercrombie, one of six artists from the Chicago-Milwaukee-Madison parasurrealist group of the ’40s. I saw this painting once in LACMA’s all-women show of Surrealists, In Wonderland (2012), and looked forward to our reunion some five years and 361 miles hence. The inclusion of a figure such as Abercrombie suggested a comprehensive, scholarly affair, so imagine my chagrin on viewing The Conjured Life only to find no Courtship. True, the show features Homage to Alfred Rethal (1987) by John Wilde, another of the aforementioned parasurrealists, and that painting’s a beaut—akin to The Courtship itself—with a red-robed skeleton sawing on a bone violin while a masked couple dances in the background. But neither Homage’s inclusion nor the confirmation I’ve received from the Cantor Art Center of The Courtship’s absence addresses the question of why the painting is in the show’s advertising.

Gertrude Abercrombie. The Courtship, 1949; oil on Masonite; 21 3/4 × 25 1/4 in. Courtesy of the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago.

Gertrude Abercrombie. The Courtship, 1949; oil on Masonite; 21 3/4 × 25 1/4 in. Courtesy of the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago.

Such cavalier unconcern is indicative of The Conjured Life, a restaging of an earlier show at Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art. The exhibition, which posits the influence of surrealism on a disparate miscellany of contemporary works, almost completely fails in its promised “legacy.” I can accept Francesca Woodman with her disquieting photographs, or Jess, with his collages that begin where Ernst’s end, as inheritors of Surrealism. And Willie Cole, with a pair of 1992 assemblages made from old electric irons, plausibly makes the grade. But most of the more contemporary works indicate little genuine engagement with Surrealism’s theoretical underpinnings or even more generalized implications of Surrealist techniques or innovations. The worst offenders here—Buzz Spector’s Mallarme [sic] (1987–88), a curio cabinet with lines by its titular poet painted in gold leaf on the glass, or David Noonan’s untitled 2012 work, a monumental silkscreen on linen photo collage of a couple of goofy-looking dudes—smack of a fetishized craftsmanship utterly alien to Surrealism’s aspiration to pierce the boundary between art and life. Donald Roller Wilson’s use of Old Masterly oil technique in The Transformation of Helen’s Brother Larry (1980) achieves something of Dali’s grotesquery but none of his paranoid psychological depth or genius for trompe l’oeil; it’s just a fat kid in a monster mask and skirt. This is “surrealist” only if you take that as a synonym for “weird.”

Francesca Woodman. House #4, Providence, Rhode Island, 1975-1976; gelatin silver print; 8 x 10 in. Courtesy of the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago.

Francesca Woodman. House #4, Providence, Rhode Island, 1975-1976; gelatin silver print; 8 x 10 in. Courtesy of the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago.

Yet however misguided its legacy claims, The Conjured Life succeeds in its substantial historical presentation of the international Surrealist movement led for over 40 years by poet André Breton. The cases devoted to Surrealist print culture—Stanford’s contribution to the otherwise visiting show—are compelling and thoughtful. In a section on precursors—a vital part of Surrealism’s self-conception—we find, for example, photographs by documentarian flâneur Eugène Atget (1857–1927); as I struggled to recall whether the group explicitly acknowledged him, my attention was drawn to the June 1926 issue of La Revolution Surrealiste, and behold, the cover featured one of the same Atget photos. The value of seeing issues of such magazines as View, Minotaur, and Medium firsthand cannot be overstated. The impact, say, of the Big Toe photographs (1929) by erstwhile May Ray assistant Jacques-André Boiffard is far more palpable seeing them occupy full pages of Georges Bataille’s dissident Surrealist mag, Documents, as opposed to their stingier reproductions in the secondary literature. Nestled among such items in the biggest case, Duchamp’s Boite (1941)—a box set of miniaturized reproductions of his most significant works to that point, including readymades and The Large Glass (1915–23)—underscores just how inventive the Surrealist sense of printed matter could be.

Enrico Baj. Angry General with Decorations, 1960; oil, fabric, leather buttons, medals, etc. on canvas; 51 × 38 in. Courtesy of the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago.

Enrico Baj. Angry General with Decorations, 1960; oil, fabric, leather buttons, medals, etc. on canvas; 51 × 38 in. Courtesy of the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago.

No one’s going to drive to Stanford just for printed matter, so let me assure you that the actual Surrealist paintings in this show are well worth the trip. While it leads with The Wonders of Nature (1953), a nautically themed oddity depicting clouds and stone fish people by perennial crowd-pleaser Magritte, the show refreshingly relies on canvases of less-heralded figures like Enrico Baj—subject of one of Breton’s last major catalog essays (1963)—whose Angry General with Decorations (1961) features collaged elements of military finery (buttons, medals, epaulettes) painted into the canvas, with pigment serving as glue. The show includes substantial paintings by the likes of Paalen, Seligmann, Tanning, and Matta. But the most startling piece is Yves Tanguy’s Untitled (The Fluidity of Time) (1930), a singular oil-on-canvas piece for viewers familiar with his work; in place of his tonally graduated skies and unearthly landscapes inhabited by distant, inhuman figures, Untitled features an ochre yellow sky rendered in uncharacteristically vertical brushstrokes, with a single, large biomorphic abstraction in the foreground. The sheer unexpectedness of this canvas suggests our time might be better spent exploring Surrealism’s own less familiar depths than straining to find a link to contemporary figures where none exists.

Yves Tanguy. Untitled (The Fluidity of Time), 1930; oil on canvas; 47 1/8 × 39 5/8 in. Collection Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago. Photo: Garrett Caples.

Yves Tanguy. Untitled (The Fluidity of Time), 1930; oil on canvas; 47 1/8 × 39 5/8 in. Collection Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago. Photo: Garrett Caples.

The Conjured Life: The Legacy of Surrealism is on view at the Cantor Arts Center in Palo Alto, California, through April 3, 2017.

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