Doesn’t the Paint Say It All?
Over a very long career spanning about 70 years, from the late 1930s to the early 2000s, Dorothea Tanning shed her stylistic skin several times while maintaining a basic focus on the female body often caught in the middle of mysterious sexual drama. Her early work included landmark Surrealist paintings including Birthday, a 1942 representational and symbolic self-portrait of the artist in floral garb in an apartment with a mise-en-abyme of open doors, and Eine Kleine Nachtmusik (1943), most recently included in the major survey exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, “Surrealism Beyond Borders”(2022). This painting captures a mysterious scene of two young girls, their clothes in disarray after an encounter with a giant sunflower which lies, dead or debauched, on a staircase landing with several doors closed or ajar. Like Leonora Carrington’s 1937–38 Self-Portrait, also at the Met, it is an iconic painting of the intersection between feminism and Surrealism. While male Surrealist artists focused on the female anima in order to appropriate its power for themselves, both Tanning and Carrington’s works from the 1930s and ’40s employed the tightly painted representational style of Surrealism to explore their own desires, and as such had a great influence on many young women artists in the 1970s, as art history began to be rewritten and reconfigured to include the work of women artists.
“Doesn’t the Paint Say It All?” at Kasmin focuses on what came after the moment of Surrealism, exploring some of the perhaps lesser-known directions taken by Tanning from the late 1940s to the mid-1980s. These paintings are indeed more “about the paint,” or least about a certain type of painterly figuration followed by many other artists working at that time. It is hard to emphasize the degree to which abstraction was the dominant mode of American art in the 1950s and ’60s, with other choices seen as reactionary and academic. Nevertheless, in the US a number of artists including David Park, Fairfield Porter, Alex Katz, Larry Rivers and Elaine de Kooning all found ways to integrate a brushstroke adapted from abstract expressionism into a representational, figurative program. Tanning, living in Paris from the mid-1940s to 1980, was not directly involved in the stylistic battles of the American art world, but rather seems to have absorbed influences from the grand tradition of European painting, from Peter Paul Rubens and William-Adolphe Bouguereau, to Edouard Manet, Gustave Moreau and Edvard Munch. Some of the paintings in the exhibition, like Ignoti nulla cupida (1960), recall poetic moments in the development of Cubism, in works by Robert Delaunay for example, but with a touch of the background in a painting by Jean-Honoré Fragonard or Giovanni Battista Tiepolo.
In Tanning’s paintings, fragmentary flesh emerges from or plunges into painterly fields of abstract brush strokes—fields that sometimes are quite literally landscapes, as in a large, late canvas, On Avalon (1987). In Portrait de Famille (Family Portrait) (1977), three bodies join and merge (I had to count the number of figures twice). The painting’s power comes from the mythological feel to its possible narrative, a kind of Lot-and-his-daughters vibe, but there is something thin, smoothed out and subdued in the paint application, which gives it the feel of an earlier era.
That I cite some of the artists whom these paintings recalled for me indicates a quality of Tanning’s oeuvre from this period, a richness of influence, but also their slight unmooring from the defining movements of her time. If one looks back to Tanning’s early Surrealist works and at the same time considers contemporaneous paintings by Elmer Bischoff, Park, de Kooning or Guston, or the figurative representations of women from the 1970s and ’80s, it appears that once the Surrealist moment was over, Tanning was an artist operating just outside of the history she lived through, even when clearly in conversation with contemporary modes of representation.
The most interesting evidence of Tanning’s interaction with the art of the time periods she moved through in her long career, is the diptych Door 84 (1984). Here two young women, each occupying one canvas of the diptych, are caught in a dynamic push-and-pull battle over a real grey metal door that sticks out between the two canvases by just a few inches. The blend of the traditional, slightly academic painterly style and the intrusion of the real door, like a fragment of a Jasper Johns, is surprising and invites further study.
Despite my reservations about Tanning’s post-Surrealist work, I recommend the show to a young painter because I feel the work has a lot of painterly information in it, a lot of will to drama and emotion, that could be instructive and inspiring. —Mira Schor
Dorothea Tanning, Portrait de famille (Family Portrait), 1977. Oil on canvas, 57 1/2 x 45 inches. Courtesy of Kasmin, New York. © 2022 The Destina Foundation / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Photography by Diego Flores.