Collection Close-Up: The Graphic Work of Dorothea Tanning

Jun 28 – Oct 13, 2019
Main Building

American artist and author Dorothea Tanning (1910–2012) created more than 100 graphic works between 1950 and 2001. Thanks to a recent generous gift to the Menil Collection from Barbara and Jim Metcalf, the Menil now owns the complete set, many of which will be displayed for the first time in The Graphic Work of Dorothea Tanning.

These prints and illustrated books feature images that range from representation to near total abstraction, demonstrating the breadth of Tanning’s formal innovation. Experimenting with lithography, etching, and aquatint, Tanning produced a variety of surface textures, some crystalline, others cloud-like. She often introduces reoccurring motifs into her dreamlike spaces. Her ambiguously erotic embracing figures are the most recognizable. Tanning’s highly personal work addresses universal human emotions and experiences of ecstasy, elation, anxiety, and obsession.

Complementing these works on paper, Tanning’s sculpture Cousins (1970), one of the highlights of the Menil’s Surrealist collection, is also included in the exhibition.

About Dorothea Tanning
Born in the small Midwestern city of Galesburg, Illinois, artist and writer Dorothea Tanning moved to New York in 1935, where she supported herself as a commercial artist. In the early 1940s, Tanning began to incorporate dreamlike imagery that she encountered in the 1936 exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, Fantastic Art: Dada and Surrealism, into her own work. She soon attracted the attention of the Surrealist painters who had taken refuge in New York, such as Max Ernst, who included her work in an exhibition titled Art of This Century that he organized for Peggy Guggenheim’s gallery. In 1946, Tanning and Ernst married and moved to Sedona, Arizona. They returned to France in the mid-1950s, where Tanning remained until 1980 when she moved back to New York. Tanning died at the age of 101, just after completing her second volume of poetry.

Dorothea Tanning, In Flesh and Gold (En chair et en or), 1973

When American artist and writer Dorothea Tanning (1910–2012) moved to Paris in the 1950s, she encountered a thriving industry around the beau livre—a limited-edition book that pairs text with beautifully printed illustrations. Tanning worked on several such artist’s books over the next two decades. In the most accomplished of these projects, In Flesh and Gold (En chair et en or), 1973, Tanning created ten etchings to accompany the same number of her own haiku-like verses. Tanning, with master printer Georges Visat, carefully considered every aspect of the elegant volume’s design: cover, typeface, paper, presentation. In addition to Tanning’s poems and sensuous, vividly colored illustrations, each book includes an embossed cover and title page, an introductory poem by Hans Arp (1886–1966), and a suite of etchings that can be separated and displayed as desired.

Portions of the Menil Collection Library’s copy of In Flesh and Gold are on display in the exhibition Collection Close-Up: The Graphic Work of Dorothea Tanning, June 28—October 13, 2019, but you can explore it in its entirety above.