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Surrealism, Art and Ideas, From the Archives and Library

Art, Politics, and Periodicals: Modernist Bugbears of Houston

Joan Miró, Cover for transition, no. 24, Fall 1936, from Menil Library Special Collections.

On January 10, 1961, a Mrs. Joan Adams phoned in to “Expressions, with Bill Mack,” one of Houston’s first radio call-in shows, to convey her vexation at local news items. Three days later, Dominque de Menil was at KXYZ’s station with a transcriptionist and technician, playing back the tape of the show. De Menil’s motivation for documenting the call points to a story connecting local and national politics, the art worlds of New York and Houston, and the legacy of little magazines.

“It’s just a crime that we are going to allow such a thing to come to Houston,” Adams complained to host William McCaskill. The “thing” disquieting Adams was actually a who. She spelled out his name for McCaskill: “S-W-E-E-N-E-Y,” adding that the Houston Chronicle described him as “a figure of the contemporary art world.” John and Dominique de Menil had helped recruit James Johnson Sweeney from New York to be the director of the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston (MFAH), after he resigned as director of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum. Previously, he had been the Director of Painting and Sculpture at the Museum of Modern Art.

Adams believed Sweeney a Communist threat. Her slight proof was quoted from a speech by Michigan Representative George Dondero. During the postwar decade, Dondero had railed against modern art before the House of Representatives, linking it to Communism, in conjunction with the hearings of the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC). For Dondero, modern art was Communist, radical, and un-American. In an August 16, 1949, House speech, Dondero noted that his office had received rebukes to his views. He blamed “left-wing art magazines” for swaying naive Americans. These critics and periodicals, he hammered, “advance the same unsound premises of reasoning, asserting that modern art is real American art” (Communist art being Social Realism). “The human art termites,” Dondero fulminated, “disciples of multiple ‘isms’ that compose so-called modern art, boring industriously to destroy the high standards and priceless traditions of academic art, find comfort and satisfaction in the wide dissemination of this spurious reasoning and wickedly false declaration.”

Dondero enumerated the -isms’ crimes:

          Cubism aims to destroy by designed disorder
            Futurism aims to destroy by the machine myth …
              Dadaism aims to destroy by ridicule
                Expressionism aims to destroy by aping the primitive and insane …
                  Abstractionism aims to destroy by the creation of brainstorms.
                    Surrealism aims to destroy by denial of reason.

            Three years later, in an address on Communist infiltration in museums, Dondero would highlight Sweeney as a menace.

            These speeches similarly informed Texas sculptor Norman Sulier’s efforts to undermine Sweeney’s appointment. Unlike Adams, Sulier was known to John and Dominque de Menil. They had been central in bringing Jermayne MacAgy to Houston, as director of the Contemporary Arts Association. And in 1958, Sulier had blasted MacAgy’s Islands Beyond exhibition at the University of Saint Thomas for presenting Communist art. In a letter to university president V.J. Guinan, the sculptor railed against the exhibition’s curator, artists, and Sweeney, who—also a member of St. Thomas University’s Arts Council—had given an opening address. Dominque de Menil compiled a point-by-point refutation at the time. In 1960, Sulier received press for a speech castigating Surrealism at a meeting of Houston’s Pan-Hellenic Association. A year later, he was fomenting dissent and addressing invectives against Sweeney to Houston’s power brokers. Margaret Davis assured readers in an April 21, 1961, Houston Press article that Sweeney would not decorate the museum in hammers and sickles, noting that a “pick-a-little, talk-a-little” group had begun a telephone campaign against him. S.I. Morris, president of the board of trustees of the MFAH, told interviewer Toni Beauchamp that he even received a midnight call about Sweeney’s supposed Communism.

            Days after her visit to KXYZ, Dominque de Menil had written Morris, observing that Adams and Sulier were collaborating. Their statements were too similar for coincidence. Moreover, she had hired a propaganda specialist—who had worked for the United States Office of War Information—to compile a dossier countering the calumny against Sweeney. Thus, de Menil was justified in maintaining to Morris that these aspersions resembled a “Communist and Nazi technique—shouting, slandering, calling people subversive, unpatriotic, without any solid ground for such accusations, but by being vocal enough, frightening decent citizens into silence.”

            Common to these offensives against Sweeney was a focus on his editorial post at the periodical transition. So-called “little magazines” like transition flourished before the Second World War as a counter to mainstream publishing’s commercialism. Appropriating the popular format, these small-circulation ventures presented experimental art and literature as well as radical politics. Journalist-poet Eugene Jolas had founded transition in France in 1927, along with his wife, the translator and educator Maria Jolas, and his first co-editor, journalist Elliot Paul. Sweeney joined the magazine in 1935; his first credit as associate editor appeared in issue twenty-four. With Sweeney on board, editorial work shifted to New York, returning to France for the final, 1938 issue.

            Transition reflected its founder’s worldview. Raised in Lorraine, France, Jolas was born in 1894 to French and German parents in the United States. He grew up, as he saw it, an American exile amid the shifting politico-cultural field of the Franco-German borderlands. As an adult, Jolas was trilingual and worked as a journalist in the United States and France, including a post as literary editor for the Chicago Tribune’s Paris edition. Transition was utopian, avant-garde, transnationalist, and philosophically Romantic. In addition to reporting on the avant-garde, Jolas sought to transform the world through the arts, bridging social and national divides. Jolas wrote of transition: “Under an approximately collective ideology, I tried to gather into it the leading Pan-Romantic writers—Surrealist, Dadaist, Expressionist—who were striving to expand human consciousness.” In addition to serializing James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake and printing many now-famous authors, the magazine featured reproductions of work by dozens of artists including Jean Arp, Sophie Taueber-Arp, Stuart Davis, Marcel Duchamp, Max Ernst, Juan Gris, Wassily Kandinsky, Paul Klee, Joan Miró, László Moholy-Nagy, Pablo Picasso, and Man Ray. Transition was among the first Anglophone publications to offer an extensive presentation of Surrealism. Ties to socialist and Marxist artists and writers, such as the Surrealists, however, provided ammunition for the magazine’s critics.

            “Our great museums have been infiltrated,” Dondero warned in a March 17, 1952, House address, by a “fifth column.” This was, he insisted, the result of a “sinister history of conspiracy formed in and directed from Soviet Russia to use art as a weapon in the powerlust drive of international communism.” The lawmaker soon excoriated Sweeney, employing his ties to transition to argue his guilt by association. “Another art propagandist who would prefer, no doubt, to be known as an art critic who answered this Red artists’ ‘call’ was James Johnson Sweeney,” Dondero denounced, “onetime editor of a publication called Transition, self-advertised as subversive.” The “call” in question was that of the 1936 American Artists’ Congress to organize against Fascism and war; Sweeney was a signatory. Further characterizing transition, Dondero hammered, “In this publication, written in English and published in France, we find the radical and Communist writers of Europe and their American followers such as Max Ernst and his brother comrade of the French Communist Party, Paul Eluard, Berenice Abbott, Kenneth Fearing, Samuel Putnam, former art critic on New Masses [an explicitly socialist magazine], the Trotskyite Andre Breton, the Stalinist Surrealist Louis Aragon, Robert Coates of New Worker magazine, Gertrude Stein … and scores of others.” If Sweeney was the hub of a Communist network, transition was its axle. The Surrealists frequently earned the legislator’s special ire, so the concentration of present and past practitioners here is little surprise. Dondero further linked Sweeney to Peggy Guggenheim, who promoted “not only the English Marxist art writer, Herbert Read, and a coterie of European art saboteurs, but also … James Thrall Soby and Marcel Duchamp [as well as] … launching the careers of Jackson Pollack [sic] and others.”

            Casting transition’s circle as Communist was nothing new. The English artist, writer, and critic Wyndham Lewis had expressed similar umbrage decades earlier. Writing in The Enemy in 1927, he complained, “the real foundation for Transition is Dada, which group [sic] has become the Super-realist [Surrealist] group … declared adherents of Russian Communism.” “What I accuse such a paper as Transition of being,” he complained, “is a political paper, essentially,” that is, revolutionary propaganda. In their rebuttal, “First Aid to the Enemy,” Jolas and Paul expressed sympathy for the Surrealists and Communists. They insisted, however, that transition eschewed all fixed ideologies. Editorial eclecticism was their bulwark against rigid systems—political and aesthetic. The de Menil’s propaganda analyst acknowledged as much, reporting, “The periodical had no political axe to grind.”

            Sulier’s and Adams’s parroting of Dondero was generally received as a bugbear: a paranoiac echo of the Red Scare. The de Menils had forestalled scandal by controlling the narrative. Ultimately, museum finances and social relations—rather than politics—seem to have been Sweeney’s undoing. Absences, disputes over authority, and indelicacy with members of MFAH’s board and other elites apparently lead to his 1967 ouster. Sweeney’s legacy in Houston includes acclaimed exhibitions and important acquisitions for MFAH. The agitation surrounding his arrival, however, reveals the aesthetic and political reverberations of little magazines as well as the enduring contours of a cultural divide in which unconventional art appears morally suspect in some quarters.

            by Douglas Cushing, the 2018–19 Vivian L. Smith Foundation Fellow at the Menil Collection; published May 10, 2019.

Selected Resources

Adams, Joan. Typescript of call-in to “Expressions” on Radio Station KXYZ, Houston, January 10, 1961. Scholars’ Papers: James Johnson Sweeney, box 10, folder 17. Menil Archives, the Menil Collection, Houston.

Baigell, Matthew, and Julia Williams, eds. Artists Against War and Fascism: Papers of the First American Artists’ Congress. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1986.

Beauchamp, Toni Ramona. “James Johnson Sweeney and the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston: 1961–1967.” Master’s Thesis. University of Texas at Austin, 1983.

Billboard Music Week, July 31, 1961, p. 10.

Representative George Dondero of Michigan, “Modern Art Shackled to Communism,” Cong. Rec. 81st Congress, August 16, 1949. Cong. Rec. Vol. 95, part 9, 11584.

———. “Communist Conspiracy in Art Threatens American Museums,” Cong. Rec. 82nd Congress, March 17, 1952. Cong. Rec. Vol 98, part 2, 2423.

De Menil, Dominique. Report on Mr. Norman B. Sulier Letter of 10/10/58 (Islands Beyond Exhibition), University of St. Thomas Papers. Menil Archives, the Menil Collection, Houston.

Obituary for William A. McCaskill Sr., Victoria Advocate, Victoria, TX, June 12, 2013.

Jolas, Eugene. Eugene Jolas: Critical Writings, 1924–1951. Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 2009.

———. Man from Babel. Edited by Andreas Kramer and Rainer Rumold. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1998.

Jolas, Eugene, and Elliot Paul. “First Aid to the Enemy.” transition no. 9 (December 1927): 161–76.

Lewis, Wyndham. “Art and ‘Radical’ Doctrines.” The Enemy: A Review of Art and Literature no. 2 (1927).

Mansanti, Céline. La revue transition (1927–1938): Le modernisme historique en devenir. Rennes, France: Presses Universitaires de Rennes, 2009.

McMillan, Dougald. Transition: The History of a Literary Era (1927–1938). New York: George Braziller, 1975.