Junk art, environments and gender-bending in light-weight post-summer shows

Surrealism old and new


In 1928, André Breton wrote a book called Surrealism and Painting. Note that he did not call it Surrealist Painting. He felt that Surrealism existed purely as a point of view and that as such it might be applied to any discipline whatever—literature, the movies, graphic arts. He once, in fact, went so far as to say that there is no such thing as Surrealist painting.

Taking her cue from Breton, Virginia Zabriskie—legendary in her own right as a galerist—has mounted an exhibition called “Surrealism and the Book”. It enlivened her gallery in Paris last summer, to great acclaim, and New Yorkers may get to see it—until the 19th of this month—in her gallery here, just off 57th Street. It is a ground-breaking show, bringing together for the first time many rarely seen drawings, prints and photographs originally published in conjunction with texts by Paul Eluard, Georges Hugnet, Michel Leiris, Georges Bataille and, of course, by Breton himself. The handsome little catalogue, with an introduction by François Leperlier, gives pride of place to the artists, listing their names before those of the authors. The show includes texts illustrated by sixteen Surrealists in all from the well known—Ernst, Dalí, Masson, Man Ray—to the relatively obscure—Claude Cahun, Roger Parry and Max Bucaille.

In 1924—in his first Surrealist manifesto—Breton wrote this definition of the new movement: “Pure psychic automatism, by which one intends to express verbally, in writing or in any other method, the real functioning of the mind. Dictation by thought, in the absence of any control exercised by reason, and beyond any aesthetic or moral preoccupation”. Now, almost seventy years later, the independent curator Carol Anne Klonarides has organised an exhibition by contemporary artists who might be said to subscribe, at least in part, to that definition (though they would probably baulk at being classified as Surrealists). The show is called “Incognito” (at Curt Marcus from 17 October to 16 November) and it explores the role which “psychography”—the influence of the psychic and the para-normal—can play in the making of art. Included at the séance are works by David Askevold, Barbara Bloom, Michael Tetherow and Ted Serios. Serios—perhaps the farthest-out of those gathered round the table—claims to psychically project images onto blank polaroid film. Also on hand is Susan Hiller. She initiates her paintings by “automatic” writing and mark-making—very much an early Surrealist ploy.

Man Ray—one of the original Surrealists—worked on a series of canvases from the 1950s until his death which he called “Natural Paintings”. They were produced by “automatic” means, in vintage Surrealist style, by pressing paint between the two surfaces and then, much in the manner of a Rorschach blot, separating the surfaces to reveal the resultant image. The Robert Miller Gallery is providing a rare opportunity to see some of these little-known works until 12 October.

The Surrealists might well have enjoyed one of the oddest group shows to come along in some time, now on at Metro Pictures (until the 12th). It is the airing of a collection of “found paintings”—original artworks by amateurs whose production somehow wound up on thrift shop bargain tales. (Don’t forget, Miro once overpainted and elaborated an old Victorian portrait—now in the Museum of Modern Art!). Some years ago a young man named Jim Shaw began collecting such abandoned art and he recently published a book illustrating his cache: Thrift Store Paintings (Heavy Industry Publications). It’s available at the gallery desk.

If Mr Shaw’s cast-offs are, in a sense, a kind of cultural garbage, then perhaps it is worth reflecting on the long and honourable place that garbage has held as a source of inspiration for modern art. One has only to think of Picasso the sculptor, Schwitters and, closer to our own time, Joseph Cornell, Rauschenberg and May Wilson. Much art since the 1960s would be unthinkable without the impetus of the dust bin. Now along comes Barbara Bloom, an artist known for her room-wide installation work, to squeeze one more possibility out of the subject. Her idea is of detritus unobtainable and irretrievable: on the one hand objects which became, perforce, garbage when the Titanic hit bottom in 1912—and on the other, the perfectly good Hasselblad cameras and other bits of modern technology which are even now orbiting about in space, having been abandoned by exhausted space probes both mechanical and human. She will fill Jay Gorney Modern Art with a meditation on these notions until 12 October. It’s called “The Tip of the Iceberg”.

Another sculptor who often makes “environmental” pieces—Jesús Rafael Soto—is on hand this month at the Humphrey Gallery with two large installations (until the 26th). This Venezuelan-born Parisian first came to prominence during the 1960s, when he won various prestigious prizes, including the David Bright Prize at the Venice Biennale. At Humphrey he has installed a thirteen-foot sphere in the main room and a semi-circular “penetrable” sculpture in the gallery’s secondary space. These consist of the coloured lines, suspended from the ceiling, for which the artist is well known. A group of models showing recent public and private commissions executed by the artist are also on view. The show is called “Architectural Visions and Installations”.

Piero Gilardi is another artist who established himself in the 1960s and who brings a gallery-wide installation to New York this month. Many New Yorkers fondly remember shows of his colourful trompe l’oeil foam rubber fruits and vegetables, some aligned on the floor in the form of well-cultivated cabbage rows, at the pioneering but now defunct Kornblee Gallery. His work has not been much seen in New York in recent years and so it is a cheering event to have his newest instalation, this time including light and sound, at Sperone Westwater until 12 October.

This month at Tom Cugliani Christian Marklay—who uses record album covers as his medium—has created an environment of pieces. His collaged work generally refers to the body and to gender-bending. And Liz Larner, at 303 Gallery, has created an all-gallery installation of wall texts and sculpture, opening on the 19th.

As an artist, Peter Campus defies categorisation. Is he a sculptor? He has created three-dimensional objects. Is he a performance artist? He once made a museum full of work which invited viewer participation. Is he a maker of environments? He is well known for his blackened rooms with their glowing black-and-white slide projections. Or is he just a photographer plain and simple? This month at Paula Cooper (149 Wooster Street) he appears in the latter guise, though possibly not either plain or simple (until 2 November). Laurie Simmons, noted of late for her huge Cibachromes, shows her latest efforts at Metro Pictures, opening on the 19th, and photographs from the 1980s by the painter David Salle may also be seen until 12 October at Robert Miller.

Paul Thek was an artist who gave the tired old term “eccentric” a new meaning. By the time he died in 1988, he had created a various body of work impossible to classify. Throughout all of the artistic manoeuvering of his career, however, one discipline remained constant: that of drawing. As often as not these were done with paint on newsprint. But for many others he used more traditional materials. A survey of these drawings—done between 1971 and the year he died—opens on the 12th at Brooke Alexander. It is called “Newspaper and Notebook Drawings”.

David McKee is currently offering drawings by Philip Guston—”Hoods”, from 1968-71—until 19 October; and watercolours by a man known best as a writer—Fielding Dawson—may be seen at Jack Tilton (until 2 November). Dawson—who attended the legendary avant garde Black Mountain College in North Carolina—is the author of numerous books, including one on Franz Kline.

Elaine de Kooning, along with her husband Willem, also spent time at Black Mountain College. That was in 1948, when she was just beginning to paint. During her summer there she completed seventeen paintings using enamel paint. She brought them back to New York, rolled them up, stored them away and forgot about them. Recovered now from her estate, they may be seen for the first time in New York all this month (until 2 November) at the Washburn Gallery.

All through his long and active life, John Opper has been an abstract painter. At the age of twenty-eight he became one of the foundling members of the American Abstract Artists group—an association which, incidentally, is still active today with many young members (its current president is David Reed). Opper, who turned eighty-three this year, continues to work in his studio and this month a kind of retrospective of his paintings from the 1930s up to the present has been mounted by the Borgenicht Gallery. It may be seen until the 26th.

Dottie Attie, teller of sage tales in small panels, is at it again this month at P.P.O.W.. She calls the show “In the Atelier”. Steve Gianakos, one of the funniest serious artists around, has told his share of (mostly tall) tales, too. In his new show at Barbara Toll, he continues his irreverent ongoing investigation of “Women”. One of the paintings appears to involve a rather large elephant, too. Both of those shows are on from 5 October to 9 November.

On that date as well new paintings by Paul Brown go on view at Jason McCoy and recent paintings by Nancy Graves at Knoedler. Anton Henning shows new canvases at Vrej Baghoomian and Ed Moses, the west coast painter, at Louver (both opening 19 October).

Last spring one of the surprises at the Whitney Museum’s Biennial exhibition was a couple of very large, very dark canvases whose author did not seem very apparent at first glance. Look at the label: Alex Katz! Then, of course, it became quite obvious. Still, we are not used to seeing Katz in so nocturnal a mood—and the effect was quite startling. If you missed those two works you will certainly want to see Katz’s newest show at the Marlborough Gallery—on all this month—where more paintings from the series to which those two paintings belong are on view. They are part of what the artist calls his “Black Brook Series”, landscapes named for a part of the Maine woods close to where he and his family are used to rusticating during the summer months. Other works in the show explore the notion of the figure in motion—dancers and ball players appear—and yet others continue the artist’s long preoccupation with elongated formats, and the appearance within them of cropped, close-up heads.

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'Surrealism old and new'