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Surrealism in America

Le Centre de la Vieille Charité 

May 11 - September 26, 2021

The exhibition traces the history of the presence of a surrealist current in American art, from the 1930s to the end of the 1960s, instead of repeating the legend according to which New York artists were upset by the arrival of the Parisian surrealists in exile, that they would have used it to invent a specifically American art, abstract expressionism, going beyond surrealism and relegating it to a well-defined past.

It opens with the presence in Marseilles, in 1940-1941, of a group of surrealist artists waiting around André Breton for an imminent departure for the United States. Gathered at the Villa Air-Bel or passing through it, Victor Brauner, Max Ernst, Jacqueline Lamba, André Masson or Wilfredo Lam form a compact group which, while waiting for visas for the new world, participates in collective experiences of exquisite corpses and creates together the famous Jeu de Marseille.

While the arrival of some of these artists in New York continues to be described as a revelation for young local artists, the exhibition shows that, since the early 1930s, on the East Coast as well as on the West Coast , surrealist works were exhibited and enjoyed great popularity, making Salvador Dalí in particular a real star. Moreover, they were emulated and led to the development of a specifically American surrealism , with figures as important as Joseph Cornell or those largely unknown to New York social surrealists (like O. Louis Guglielmi ) and Californian post-surrealists (like Helen Lundeberg ).

During the war years, European Surrealists in exile, gathered on the East Coast, continued to create works, sometimes with significant developments. Their presence inspired young local artists, thus giving birth to a transatlantic surrealism that renewed its forms and practices, with two variants that gradually diverged: a figurative path and an abstract path . Figurative transatlantic surrealism, represented by artists such as Dalí, Cornell, Man Ray, Yves Tanguy, Kay Sage or the filmmaker Maya Deren , has a deeply dreamlike dimension, which brings together certain promoters of fantastic neo-romanticism such as Pavel Tchelitchew .. Abstract transatlantic surrealism, of which one of the main protagonists, Arshile Gorky , is dubbed by Breton as a surrealist in its own right and is therefore the subject of a particular focus in the exhibition, with major paintings and drawings, sees gradually emerging within it what critics will call abstract expressionism. The exhibition shows surreal works by the canonical abstract expressionists: Robert Motherwell, Barnett Newman, Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, David Smith or Clyfford Still, alongside the  semi-abstract paintings of Miró who influenced them. It also fully integrates the marginalized of the group, such as Richard Pousette-Dart or Louise Bourgeois, which constantly emphasized a subjective content carried by metaphors and metamorphoses, as well as the surreal abstract works created on the West Coast by the members of the Dynaton collective ( Gordon Onslow-Ford, Lee Mullican ). Abstract Expressionism was steeped in Surrealism, although its main proponent, the critic Clement Greenberg, disparaged Surrealism as "academic art in a new literary disguise". In the 1950s, in a way that can no longer
claim to be surrealism since it is considered outdated but which clearly falls within its logic, we also see the return of hidden images in the work of Motherwell or in that of Helen Frankenthaler, present in the exhibition, in a way that one would probably not expect as his work has been covered with a discourse that only highlights its abstract character.

The exhibition then examines how Surrealist methods and strategies remained vivid among American artists until the late 1960s., although only a limited number of them acknowledged it. Instead of aligning a succession of distinct movements (Pop, Minimal, Postminimal and Conceptual), it cuts through oppositions which are largely due to the separative and reductive wills of a few critics, and favors a more global tendency which unites well-known artists. as well as underestimated, by presenting what the critic and curator Gene Swenson called in 1966 “the other tradition”, which he traced to surrealism. Despite the diktats of Greenberg and his disciples, surrealism remained an active force, asserted in the 1950s and 1960s in a provocative way (to stand out from the West Coast), by Californian artists such as Wallace Berman, Bruce Conner, Jess or filmmaker Kenneth Anger,whose works use metaphors and narrative, often with sexual content. On the East Coast, as Swenson has pointed out, a new "relationship between object and emotion" was also central to artists like Jasper Johns, Ray Johnson, Robert Morris or Claes Oldenburg , sometimes called " neo-Dada ” but which are also post- surrealist since their strategies consisting in using everyday objects, alone or combined with others, to convey complex meanings and metaphors, is indebted to the surrealism embodied in particular by Marcel Duchamp . A selection of boxes created by these artists as well as Chicago sculptor HC Westermannshows the persistence of the influence of Duchamp , who remained in the United States after the end of the war, in a silent but inspiring presence. From the early 1960s, it was also painters who reconnected with the surrealist vein, such as James Rosenquist or John Wesley , whose paintings are here confronted with those of Magritte or Dalí .

At the end of the 1960s, when surrealism was the subject of historical publications and exhibitions, when it also experienced a strong resurgence in popularity that can be observed in the posters of Californian psychedelic rock, including one selection is presented, it also acts underground on artists who blur the boundaries between abstraction and figuration and endow their works with a strong erotic, even sexual potential, in particular by producing soft or unpleasant forms, similar to those found at Alberto Giacometti or Tanguy. If some of them, in particular Bourgeois and Eva Hesse, are brought together by the young critic Lucy Lippard under the sign of "eccentric abstraction" and placed by her in the surrealist lineage, it is a much broader revival of surrealist themes and methods that we then witness the United States, from the meat reliquaries of Paul Thek to the sadomasochistic heads of Nancy Grossmann , from the soft sculptures of Oldenburg to the aggressive reliefs of Lee Bontecou , ​​even to the early works of Richard Serra . No doubt the surrealist heritage was too sulphurous for critics and art historians to have recognized it. They preferred to arrange these artists in very distinct movements, as if to purify them.The exhibition Surrealism in American Art intends to restore their original impurity and their subversive force.