Short Features

Surrealism, From the Collection

Dorothea Tanning’s Cousins

Dorothea Tanning’s entire sculptural oeuvre was created in a modest period of five years in the late 1960s and early ’70s. Then living in Provence, France, Tanning produced approximately 20 cloth sculptures on a portable Singer sewing machine that had accompanied the artist from Galesburg, Illinois, to Manhattan, to Sedona, Arizona, and then across the Atlantic to France. This tide of three-dimensional creation sprang from an epiphanic desire after Tanning attended a concert of composer Karlheinz Stockhausen’s music. She described the moment in her memoir, Birthday:

Spinning among the unearthly sounds of Hymnen were the earthly organic shapes that I would make, had to make, out of cloth and wool; I saw them so clearly, living materials, becoming living sculpture, their life-span something like ours. Fugacious they would be, and fragile, to please me, their creator and survivor. I was suddenly content and powerful as I looked around. No one knew what was going on inside me… I felt potent and seminal the way one does about works that have not yet happened.”(1)

Cousins, a tangled group of strange fur-cover forms and ambiguous anatomies, was shown in her first exhibition of sculpture at Le Point Cardinal in Paris in May 1970.(2) A double figure, Cousins flows up from a column-like mass. The figures twist and intertwine, one bends forward to support its collapsing partner—an eroticism that can be read as both pleasurable and painful. Tanning’s clinging mass works within the language of traditional sculpture to achieve an effect at once powerful and gentle, authoritative and fatigued: soft sculpture evoking human dilemma.

Tanning’s mood at the time revealed a strong commitment to impulse and animation. She stated, “An artist is the sum of [her] risks, I thought, the life and death kind. So, in league with my sewing machine, I pulled and stitched and stuffed banal material of human clothing in a transformations process where the most astonished witness was myself.”(3)