The American Bad DreamJohn Haber
in New York City
American Surrealism: Real/Surreal and Llyn Foulkes
Sure, go to the Whitney for American Surrealism, and you will find it. You will find nightmares in the very titles of The Dark Figure, Night Shadows, and Terror in Brooklyn. You will find worlds under glass and intricate fantasies, intertwined bodies and deserted streets. You will find a girl on the brink of sexuality, in Philip Evergood's Lily and the Sparrows. You will find signature images, like George Tooker's The Subway, with its maze of corridors and its figures trapped and afraid.
Sure, but also Grant Wood, Rockwell Kent, and Andrew Wyeth? What of small-town America and American realism? What of the character that sustained them through the Depression? What, for that matter, of the character that left them painfully out of touch with modern art? Is that all a myth? And what of Edward Hopper?
Yes, Hopper, and yes to everything that came before. "Real/Surreal" sticks to the permanent collection, in another period of depression economics. It offers an insightful portrait of the 1930s and 1940s. It does not so much build a case for neglected artists, however, as connect the dots, with Hopper's Early Sunday Morning at its center. It also helps explain why realism and Surrealism look so different once they cross the Atlantic. In the galleries and in the example of Llyn Foulkes, they may survive in Southern California even now.
America came late to Surrealism and Surrealist drawing, as it did to so much else. Man Ray had played a part in Europe, but things took off after 1914 under pressure from artists like Giorgio de Chirico, catastrophes like World War I, and Sigmund Freud with The Interpretation of Dreams fourteen years before. It was at its most menacing through the early 1930s with artists like Max Ernst and Alberto Giacometti. One can always find roots in Pablo Picasso, Henri Rousseau, or even Romanticism, just as with everything else modern. Here, though, Man Ray appears in 1938—with a pool table tilted wildly upward, its bright green leading to colored clouds. The next shot promises to burst the picture plane, like the cannon of On the Threshold of Liberty, by René Magritte.
Then again, the table holds only cue balls, ever so elegantly apart. And if they did move, they would surely tumble backward, to where the perspective already crowds out a human actor. The Whitney pairs this with another ball isolated on another table, by Helen Lundeberg the year before. The orb parallels a doorknob, and the comet trails in a display on the floor parallel the table's shadow on the floor. It looks both old fashioned and scientific, amateur and coldly professional, inviting and askew. Then from there one moves to still more points of light on a deserted surface, in a 1939 landscape by Grant Wood.
Is this Surrealism? Maybe so, and if it still has room for optimism, Wood turns up again. His Shriners sing to symbols of anything but grass-roots democracy, Egyptian pyramids—and the Whitney sets it beside an early Philip Guston of the Ku Klux Klan. In another Wood lithograph, snow-tipped wheat in fact resembles a Klan march. As for Kent, his dancer looks, as he himself said, "half crazy," and Wyeth's Winter Fields foregrounds a black dead bird. Someone looking to realism for rural virtue will have to look again.
"Real/Surreal" has walls for city and country, plus rooms for human bodies and factories. It gets its kick, though, from pairings like this. It reconsiders realism and even Cubism as aspects of Surrealism, much as MOMA rewrote its own history by displaying German Expressionism. It is a tribute to the collection and the building, just when the museum has chosen to relocate to the Meatpacking District. It uses the flexible architecture for one big room, broken by columns for additional display space—and with a trapezoidal window onto a back room that mimics Marcel Breuer's windows onto the street. (It is technically the second in a series, but the Whitney has been rehanging the collection for years now, at least since it extended its display space to five floors.)
Precisionism, too, fits right in. Its factories look lifeless, like the coal-gray silhouette of Ralston Crawford's foundry. Charles Sheeler's Detroit could presage its failure in contemporary photographs by Andrew Moore, and the numbers running down his right edge could stand for dehumanization. Nor is Crawford alone in framing his composition with crosses, from signs or utility poles. Charles Burchfield does in Winter Twilight, with a man shivering beneath heavy clouds and artificial lights. Emlen Etting's poles carry no wires, and the railway tracks across dry strokes of brown converge to nowhere.
And then there is Edward Hopper, beloved for loneliness. Night Shadows is his, and the long shadows in Early Sunday Morning could evoke darkness and asymmetry—or stability and sunlight. One is cast by a fireplug, and at least one is cast by nothing visible at all. The Whitney points to the unreal tilt of a barber pole and to the skyscraper peeking out behind the warm red brick. The pairing could mean harmony or change. At the very least, it means a painter's clarity of vision.
Hopper is still one of a kind, and so is prewar American art. Some of the most prominent artists do come from Europe, like Yves Tanguy and Pavel Tchelitchew—along with the most outrageous anatomy and color. Like Hopper, though, Americans can be comforting even in loneliness. The customer of Henry Koerner's barber shop looks like T. S. Eliot's "patient etherized upon a table," but I would come for the conversation, the violin, or the monkey on the floor. Even Tooker's subway station looks as familiar as Union Square today, only cleaner and better lit. The men lurking in tight spaces must have working pay phones.
The Whitney's big break with the canon is comforting, too. It includes more women than you might expect (although, hmm, not Dorothea Tanning), starting at the entrance with Kay Sage. Her jumbled railroad tracks, fallen flags, and blank walls actually date quite late, to 1954. One could take them as a handy outline of what lies within, from Sheeler's factory and Etting's railway to Hopper's lightness and Tanguy's illogic. The show also wants attention paid to Paul Cadmus and Jared French, gay or bisexual painters in tempera, for whom anatomy is psychology. They, too, come after the war.
What, then, makes this Surrealism American—or what the National Academy Museum in 2005 called "Surrealism USA"? If it seems less of a nightmare, think of the contrast between Europe in turmoil and America between the Dust Bowl and World War II. It is about change, but the slow and unnerving pace of change. It makes few political demands beyond Robert Riggs's Children's Ward and Guston's KKK. Technology is part of that change, from utility poles to science as totem in Peter Blume's Light of the World. Even so, it can be part of the promise, like Harold Edgerton's electrifying photography experiments at MIT—capturing a dove in flight, a football kick, or a bullet literally "cutting the card."
When change threatens, it threatens an American dream. It overruns nature, like the family farm on a hill for Joe Jones or the Leigh Valley for Henry Billings. At the same time, it embraces popular culture and folk traditions, where for Lyonel Feininger in Europe urban life was an ugly circus. It allows Mabel Dwight's crowd to enjoy their fears, in a movie theater. It allows Andreas Feininger's collage advertising and Joseph Cornell's obsessive collecting. It allows Martin Lewis's flappers to look like a sexy shadow army.
Between farms, factories, and the movies, it grounds Surrealism in the everyday. Say all you like about Freud's dreams, but Americans prefer a recognizable world. The concreteness makes for some backward-looking realism but also hints of much later geometry, Pop Art, and appropriation. It also allows an alternative history to the Whitney's, pointing entirely to the future. Instead of realism, one could connect the dots to Abstract Expressionism. Imagine another exhibition entirely.
It would have serious nightmares, like Arshile Gorky, and it would observe that Willem de Kooning had his first show at Charles Egan gallery the very year before Cornell. It would have a darker subway platform, as in early Mark Rothko, soon on his way to Rothko's floating color. It would have Jackson Pollock and the long struggle to put standing figures, amoebas, and Surrealism behind him. It would have Louise Bourgeois or Eva Hesse, who adapted Surrealism to Minimalism and beyond—and it could carry the fabled American weakness for mythmaking to Dana Schutz and others today. That, though, would be a different show—and it draw on a different permanent collection. For now, one can enjoy a more blatant revisionism.
I confess: when I think of rocks in art, I think first not of the breathtaking canyons welcoming the Hudson River School to an expanding America. I think not of a Renaissance painter's artfully sculpted stone—or the slope that, for Giotto, carries even the grief of angels to the Pietà. Yes, I know that a cliff gives way of its own accord to sunlight and Bellini's Saint Francis. And you know, the shift in Nativity scenes from Byzantine caves to crude Italian huts actually says something about a growing humanism. Scholars have written to prove it.
But no, like most people, I think of René Magritte and his late Castle of the Pyrenees, floating blissfully and treacherously in midair. I have a feeling that Llyn Foulkes knows them all, too, but he seems most like a late postscript to American Surrealism as seen through the eyes of Pop Art and LA. Magritte himself might have pulled off the first work on view in Chelsea, on a scale between a sketch and an old-fashioned easel painting. It looks smaller still, for Foulkes has framed it with the illusion of handwritten sums on raw wood. A flag drapes a headless but humanoid rock out of the Venus de Milo, leaving only two bare bumps like breasts. Naturally he calls it The Two I Love Most, and naturally the math does not add up.
Cal Arts types may lag behind the times now and then, but Foulkes, an artist and musician born in 1934, comes as a nice surprise. Besides, surfers out there must know some nice rocks. Just seven works cover almost thirty years while sticking to a single theme, in conjunction with a retrospective at the Hammer Museum. They never quite fit with their times, and they never simply look back. A smear from from 1963 has something of automatism, beat poetry, and mid-century abstraction. Yet the rough textures, blue-green monochrome, and irony of Happy Rock, from 1969, presage Mark Tansey.
It does not look very happy. An eyehole might make the rock into a profile, a totem, or an allegory, but of what? Foulkes is not going to settle for monuments or castles. He keeps creature comforts or even creatures at a distance, too. Postcard of 1964 and Carte Postal of 1975 each bear a cryptic dedication. Yet they speak less of direct human connection than of an obsessive collector, a curtailed vacation, or a bad dream.
One also has a U.S. stamp and the other a border of black-and-yellow stripes, like a warning sign for roadwork up ahead. From now on, symbols of America will not come without warnings. In Eagle Rock of 1985, the bird of the title flies over the mountain, but only in outline. It might have strayed in from currency without certifying its own worth. Spatters of paint add a rare trace of color and a sign of rain. Drip painting here comes at best in quotes.
The large last painting also has the hardest-edge realism. Lost Horizon from 1991 also incorporates collage and more overt anxiety. This time a bird flies upside down, while a man looks stuck in a crevice between icy peaks and reptilian moss. Should he ever pull himself out, he will find another flag left lying in place of triumph and a soda can bashed into the base of a tree trunk. He will also have to pull himself past the can's pull-top first. Surrealism and LA art alike run the risk of a cartoon, but that may make them pertinent all over again.