A young woman in a loose, light-colored garment that could be an oversized T-shirt or a casual nightgown presses a foot and hand up against a door, her gaze obscured by the outstretched arm, as her other leg contorts in a lunge, the kneecap directed at the viewer. A young woman in a thigh-length blue-green dress props a foot on the other side of the door, as if at odds with but also connected by the central door. The figure on the right panel gazes at the viewer, head slightly bowed while the right side of her face fades into the ominous background. She’s seated on what appears to be a hybrid claw-foot chair and monstrous human, its feet resembling high-heeled shoes or hooves.
Peering into the monumental diptych, we confront eyes, creatures, and fiercely expressive color and ferocious brushstrokes, all inviting our own interpretations. Doors are a recurring motif for Dorothea Tanning, opening multitudes of possibilities beyond the Surrealist symbol of a portal to the unconscious. Tanning’s work is far too complex and layered to be contextualized within any one genre, through a contemporary or contemporaneous lens. Her work oscillates wildly within realms of the quotidian and otherworldly.
The origin of the door that simultaneously divides and joins the grappling women is debatable. It could be part of a real door that Tanning cut down and repurposed, or she may have created it to fit Door 84 (1984), a transfixing monumental oil on canvas that commands us to pause and explore the verisimilitude of Tanning’s themes and mastery.
On view through April 16 at Kasmin in New York’s Chelsea, Dorothea Tanning: Doesn’t the Paint Say It All? poses a crucial and overdue question that engages us in a fresh dialogue about her visual narratives. Tanning is not a woman artist, but an artist who is also a woman. She transcends Surrealism, her oeuvre borrowing from, subverting, and transforming myriad genres and art historical references. The choice to curate these masterpieces non-chronologically is clever and relevant, as it informs us how fluidly she wove in and out of her own singular styles, techniques, and compositions. Tanning’s work certainly can be appreciated without knowledge of her fascinating life, and serves to educate viewers on the continuum of art history. Such an exhibition makes great strides to rewrite art history and to elevate Tanning to her rightful place in the canon, not bound by gender or the languorous categorization of her as simply a Surrealist.
Kasmin perspicaciously and ingeniously displays an array of canvases and works on paper spanning four decades between 1947 and 1987 to eloquently demonstrate how Tanning wrangled between figuration and abstraction throughout a body of visceral work that continues to inspire and bemuse us.
Tanning wrote extensively about the circumstances and creative process that gave life to On Avalon (1987). In an excerpt published in Jean-Christophe Bailly’s Image Redux: The Art of Dorothea Tanning (1995), Tanning recalls how “Somewhere around 1962 or 1963, in Paris, I was intrigued by a reproduction in one of those obscure art catalogues (sic) of a painting showing a field of flowers,” and how “twenty-two years later, and in New York, those white visions were still haunting me.”
“I began in 1984 to paint on a large canvas, in greens and whites, something I felt about those spirits, which may have been flowers but also novas, tears, omens, God knows what, contending or conniving with our own ancestral shape in a place I’d give anything to know. During the painting of the picture, a matter of three years, it went through a number of transformations,” Tanning wrote. “At times I thought it was finished, that I had done what I could. Once it was even photographed, friends gazed at it, a turbulent image from a feverish brush. And then it was attacked again, radically changed, its white icons whiter, its human reference clearer. Late in 1987 it was finished.”
Exploring the scope, scale, and depth of On Avalon (1987) is a triumphant journey into an inimitable masterpiece. Tanning’s visual language reaches its pinnacle, a vivacious crescendo that manifests as poetry in motion conveying ritualistic earth mother goddess prowess and ardor. The vigor of the mighty female form and the ascendency of brushwork and color is enough to draw us away from the caterwaul of art history that subordinated Tanning as the “wife” of Max Ernst and a “woman painter” working alongside men like her chess opponent Marcel Duchamp.
“If you get married you’re branded. We could have gone on, Max and I, all our lives without the tag. I never heard him use the word ‘wife’ in regard to me. He was very sorry about that wife thing. I’m very much against the arrangement of procreation, at least for humans. If I could have designed it, it would be a tossup who gets pregnant, the man or woman. Boy, that would end rape for one thing,” Tanning, who was also a printmaker, sculptor, writer, and poet, wrote in Between Lives: An Artist and Her World (2003).
Indulge and immerse yourself in the lush, primordial darkness of Pour Gustave l’adoré (1974), an homage to nineteenth-century French artist, printmaker, illustrator, painter, comics artist, caricaturist, and sculptor Gustave Doré, who created illustrations for Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy and Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner. The eye is pulled to the lower canvas where a woman’s leg morphs into what could be a crab or a mermaid’s fins, emphasized by pelagic colors.
Transport yourself back to the decade of mischievous excess and decadence via Pounding Strong (1981). A cathode ray tube (CRT) television, and roller skates and headphones (which my 11-year-old son Michael Alexander astutely observed also hint at snails and a deep sea diving mask, respectively) mingle with torsos and limbs, recurring motifs in Tanning’s work.
The canvas vibrates and pulsates with the sound and emotion of an exuberant era, while referencing her earlier paintings and sculptures. To the lower right of the TV set we spy what looks like a limb from Nue couchée (1969–1970), a soft sculpture made of pink fabric.
We return to the impenetrable errieness of Pour Gustave l’adoré as we investigate To Climb a Ladder (1987) surrounding a tangle of limbs wrestling and wriggling toward the light. There’s a painting within a painting in what appears to be a process of layering and cloaking more underlying flesh.
Embrace the range of profound reimaginings of Renaissance and Baroque art and self-referential motifs, symbols, and images that permeate Tanning’s work to uncover obvious and shrouded manifestations of Katchina, the beloved Lhasa Apso terrier shared with Ernst and various human forms including what appear to be babies bursting and intertwined with adults. Tanning, who never had children, regarded her artwork as her creative offspring, and sometimes that manifests through her visual language. From vascularity to fecundity, Tanning’s figurative representation challenges us as much as her innovative, serpentine abstraction.
Dorothea Tanning: Doesn’t the Paint Say It All? reveals a subversive, prolific genius who shall no longer be overshadowed by her male counterparts.