This exhibition showcases paintings, drawings, and sculptures by artists such as Mark Rothko, Lee Krasner, and Arshile Gorky along with Max Ernst, Kurt Seligmann, and Dorothea Tanning as a means of demonstrating the enduring importance of Surrealism in the mid-20th century and explores the kind of works that came out of an interchange between Surrealism and Abstract Expressionism.
Surrealism was an artistic and literary movement that began in the 1920s. Centered in Paris and focused around the expression of the subconscious, chance, imaginary images, and juxtaposition, it can be characterized as a retreat from the rational and an inquiry into the mysterious depths of the psyche.
In the years before and during World War II, many European artists and thinkers sought refuge in the United States, and New York City became a new center in the increasingly international world of art. American abstract painting was flourishing, and the methods, techniques, and philosophy of the Surrealists were explored, developed or disputed, and began to give way to Abstract Expressionism. The ideas espoused by the Surrealists continued to have an important, if often contentious, impact on art-making, and the situation is often described as a push-pull between figuration and abstraction.
Many art historians and scholars of the 1940s believed that Surrealism and abstraction signified two different ways of thinking about representation that were aligned with either a European or an American sensibility. Art patron Peggy Guggenheim famously attended an exhibition opening wearing an unlikely pair of earrings: a small abstract work by Alexander Calder in one ear and a miniature Surrealist landscape painting by Yves Tanguy in the other. While the earrings were meant to demonstrate her impartiality, the story also illustrates how divergent the two movements were thought to be.
Yet when we look at work made during this fascinating time, there is a wonderfully slippery intersection where nonrepresentational forms hint at figures or quietly slip into dreamscapes. Art historical categories are not always neat, either in terms of boundaries or linear narrative, and it is in this space between Surrealism and abstraction that we are best able to reflect on the rich influence of Surrealism on modern art. This exhibition is curated, mostly from the Menil Collection, by Michelle White, curator.
This exhibition is generously supported by Taub Foundation: Mam; Taub Wessel, Henry f. N. Taub II, and H. Ben Taub; and the City of Houston.
Photos: Paul Hester