Drawing on the Mind

John Haber
in New York City

Surrealist Drawing

A show of more than a hundred and sixty Surrealist drawings is an impressive achievement. It may sound downright impossible. With so much left to collaboration and the unconscious, Surrealist drawing may even sound like a contradiction in terms.

At the Morgan Library, it also looks essential to modern art. Like the work itself, "Drawing Surrealism" has some strange leaps in space and in time, but it helps make Surrealism strange again. It claims for seventy artists, from Europe in the 1920s through postwar America, a seat at the Surrealist's table. Alberto Giacometti's The Surrealist Table (Michael and Judy Steinhardt, 1933)

Why drawing?

But drawing? Why take pen and ink to paper, Surrealism asked, when collage and text fragments could free up associations so much better? Why seek perfection, when found images reveal inescapable disjunctions in a larger culture and deep within the mind? Why try to represent things at all, if things can represent themselves—when graphite rubs over them or when laid on a photographic plate exposed to light? The texture of paper alone is surely enough, brought out by its layering on a wood floor, bark, or leaves. You may no longer recognize such things at first glance, but who is to say if a first or more knowing glance is truer to life?

Why indeed worry about things, when ink or gouache on paper pressed against a second sheet and pulled apart has its own special beauty? It amounts to an ink blot, but one first hidden from view and then exposed again, as in a magic act, with much the same unexpected transformations. Why worry about preparatory drawing, to perfect a painting, when a painting can draw directly on dreams or the unconscious? Why expect access to the artist's inner thoughts anyway, when drawings can emerge just as well from the thoughts of others? Simply pass the sheet from one artist to another, the previous contribution covered over, to let each add something new. Then try hard to convince yourself that the jokes and juxtapositions were unplanned.

Blotted paper may sound like a Rorschach test, but then so is art to an open mind. Dada had claimed an anti-art, but it proved instead that anything can be art. It all depends on who is looking and who is making meaning. Come to think of it, considering all the clichés surrounding older art, Leonardo or Impressionism will serve quite well as a Rorschach test for the bourgeois closed mind. As for moving from artist to artist, much the same changes, one could argue, took place as Paul Cézanne passed into Cubism or Cubism into Surrealism. Surrealism, in turn, may never have left.

So argues "Drawing Surrealism" at the Morgan Library. It finds room for Pablo Picasso, who never joined the movement but influenced it (like everything else) greatly. Obviously collage dates back to Cubism, as do Surrealism's multiple points of view and difficult to decipher subjects. The technique resembling ink blots goes back even further, to nineteenth-century ceramic design and decorative art. Where "Inventing Abstraction" at MoMA starts with Picasso, though, the Morgan simply lets him duck into the middle and then depart. The drawings also happen to end in America, a good twenty years after some textbook histories of Surrealism and an ocean away.

The curators, Isabelle Dervaux of the Morgan and Leslie Jones of LACMA (where the exhibition began), intend a sweeping history of their own. Unusually, the show occupies both the museum's two main galleries and hardly relies on the permanent collection at all. It also claims a greater reach than just Paris in the 1920s and 1930s. It boasts of artists from fifteen countries, including Eastern Europe and Japan. "Surrealism: Desire Unbound," a survey of Surrealism at the Met in 2002, already included Leonora Carrington from England and Frida Kahlo, but this one has many more women as well. One collaborative drawing passed through the hands of Jacqueline Lamba on its way from André Breton to Yves Tanguy, and another began with Eileen Agar.

The Met's survey tamed Surrealism, by treating it as fine art and polished imagery, much of it about sex. In sticking to drawing, the Morgan dispenses with the polish. Its whole story is about how one gets from here to there—from anti-art to the field of dreams. It is about who was working with whom and who was learning from the results. In particular, like the Met, it claims Abstract Expressionism as the movement's culmination. It ends with Louise Bourgeois and Ellsworth Kelly, to imply that, even beyond Minimalism, the story was not yet over.

Why Surrealism?

Surrealist drawing may sound strange, but also obvious. Its resources may not resemble drawing of the past, but they quickly became Modernism's and drawing's tool kit. Besides, Surrealism always had more interest in subject matter than the fullness of painting. With Salvador Dalí or Marc Chagall, the unconscious became terribly conscious, and the passage beyond an artist's ego became an ego trip. Surrealism had become one modern art movement among many, based on Breton's Surrealist Manifesto of 1924. "Drawing Surrealism" tries to start over, much of it organized by technique.

It starts as such things do with Giorgio de Chirico in 1913 and Jean Arp in 1918. de Chirico's The Poet and the Philosopher poses a mannequin without arms facing a blank canvas, as if the artist's tools had taken over the studio and paid the price. Arp's collage of wood and cut paper has a colored grid out of Paul Klee. Max Ernst had a whole show of his collage as early as 1919. Then the techniques really get going—starting with a calligram, or arrangement of cut text, by Guillaume Apollinaire (who gave the movement its name in 1917) and automatic drawing by Tanguy, Joan Miró, and André Masson. Salvador Dalí is right up there with them and fully abstract, while Masson is introducing texture with actual sand.

Then come the things themselves. Man Ray, of course, lent his name to Rayograms—the direct exposure of photographic plates. A corkscrew's circular teeth threaten, and a phonograph record emits an hourglass of light. Unfamiliar names from Eastern Europe start piling in with the rubbings, or frottage, which Sari Dienes picked up as well, but the two techniques prove surprisingly similar. While May Ray lets candle smoke take its own photograph, Wolfgang Paalen let it paint its picture, as what Surrealism called fumage, and most of the rubbings look smoky as well. The technique of blotted paper, with the charming name decalcomania, looks much like smoke, fungus, or coral growth as well.

Collaborative drawing took the form of a game, with the nasty and tempting name exquisite corpse. Maybe it made a serious difference that the players included women. With Lamba involved, a flower pops out of a gun, although for all I know she actually added the dead fish. While Surrealism alluded often to female flesh, it also subverted that male tradition more than the Met ever dreamed. Maybe it helped that so many women were artists and observers. The dangerous body images of Hans Bellmer also turn up late in the show, headless and two headed.

Language provides one more technical and conceptual resource. It could take the form of an imaginary alphabet, as for Henri Michaux, or a real one, as for René Magritte, Magritte's Surrealism, or the transgressive writer Georges Bataille. "A word," Magritte notes to himself, "often designates only itself or "takes place of an image." With his Key of Dreams, it does that and more. This may be the show's sole preparatory drawing close to a familiar painting. Magritte's tempest of kitchen utensils pursuing a man in a suit and bowler also has his sense of finish.

With that, less than halfway through, the tools are in hand, and it is time to see where they led. For the Morgan, they lead in two directions—and neither one is toward a continued unsettling of the conscious mind and of art. One is with Dalí, Masson, and less elusive dreams, almost purged of their ceaseless experiment. This path includes Carrington and Kahlo, and it has little memory of Sigmund Freud or the horrific dislocations of World War I. The other direction leads beyond Surrealism altogether. It also leads to still more countries, most especially the United States.

Is it still Surrealism?

Picasso enters, as ahead of the game as always. A 1928 abstract drawing anticipates and complicates anything that Henry Moore ever did. It says a great deal about the Morgan's obsessions that Picasso falls right before a drawing by Arshile Gorky of 1931. Gorky's Nighttime, Enigma, and Nostalgia poses a floating body in a cramped but indefinite space, facing a similar creature on canvas. It shows how much Picasso meant to him. It also shows an Armenian exile teaching at a school above Grand Central Station.

From this point on, Surrealism is in exile. It has firmer outlines in England, as with Carrington's Nursery at Midnight or Edith Rimmington's chains snaking into the sky along a pier at night. It has a distinctive elegance and stronger tonal contrasts in Japan, with Terushichi Hirai, Yamamoto Kansuke, and Ei-Kyu. It has brutal, animated imagery with Kahlo and Gunther Gerzso in Mexico. Mostly, though, it has the United States. But is it still surreal?

Surrealism had its prewar counterpart in America, as explored in "Real/Surreal" at the Whitney, and perhaps a postwar counterpart in Llyn Foulkes as well. This, though, is not George Tooker's subway station or Paul Cadmus's gay desires. The Morgan does include Joseph Cornell and later Kay Sage. Mostly, though, it is laying claim to a postwar American art with more telling experiments but without the nightmares. One always knew that Jackson Pollock started heavily influenced by Surrealism, as something he struggled to outgrow. The Morgan, in contrast, sees a continuous heritage and smooth sailing.

It includes other figures along with Gorky who carried the message from Europe, such as Roberto Matta Echaurren and John Graham. A Brit, Gordon Onslow Ford, delivered a series of lectures in New York before heading for California. Yet it also includes pretty much a full cast along with Pollock, such as William Baziotes, Wilfredo Lam, Richard Pousette-Dart, and Mark Rothko. And at the end are indeed Bourgeois in 1947 and Kelly in 1951. Kelley cuts and reassembles by chance his own calligraphic traces. They have the spare geometry of his mature painting.

The show's enormous sweep hides its choices—of what to include and also what to leave out. Its departures from chronology hide things as well. And the early sections by technique practically shout how far from them the later artists had to go. Had they left Surrealism behind as well? Pollock and Rothko really did have to struggle, to discover that the languages of art could self-destruct through formal beauty as much as by chance. Dragging so many artists in also means dragging in some pretty lame drawings, like Ford's sculptural line and flat colors.

The show has only a handful of killer images, like the Rayograms. Francis Picabia's Olga, her two faces sharing a third eye, is a haunting challenge to any subject of desire. In Ernst's La Femme 100 Têtes Ouvre Sa Manche Auguste ("The Woman 100 Heads Opens Her August Sleeve"), a woman floats with a corpse on one shoulder past a dizzying moon. A bust from Alberto Giacometti takes on a commanding life as it presides over The Surrealist Table. More often, though, this is about tools and time periods, not greatness. It has many wonders and much to teach—even if it has a way of wandering off from the Surrealist table.

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"Drawing Surrealism" ran at The Morgan Library through April 21, 1013.


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