Transformation and Dreams in Dorothea Tanning’s Later Work

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Transformation and Dreams in Dorothea Tanning’s Later Work

Doesnt the Paint Say it All? — a rare retrospective of Dorothea Tanning’s mid-career paintings, on view at Kasmin Gallery — showcases the American artist’s abrupt break with the overtly figurative Surrealism of her earlier years. 

Or so it seems on a first viewing. Looking more carefully, viewers familiar with Tanning’s earlier iconic works may find these large, thickly painted semi-abstract/semi-figurative works — mostly spanning the mid-1950s through the 1980s — to share themes with the lissome dreamscapes and meticulously rendered fantasies of the 1940s and early 1950s that established Tanning’s reputation, such as the widely exhibited, and even more widely reproduced, self-portrait “Birthday” (1942). 

In that breakthrough self-portrait, the artist famously poses in an unbuttoned purple petticoat and tiered gown made from interlaced, pointy tree branches, welcoming an unseen visitor. She holds open a door that conducts the viewer’s attention toward receding perspectives onto other doors. Near Tanning’s bare feet on the wooden landing is a winged griffin, symbolizing the artist’s home as a site for metamorphosis, that place where paint is a vehicle for fantasy even amid a threadbare workspace. 

By contrast, and in keeping with the current exhibition’s title — lifted from Tanning’s remarks about her work — the paintings in Doesnt the Paint Say It All? refuse to tell stories in the manner of earlier pieces like Birthday. And yet the exhibition dramatizes how, as Tanning took up midcentury painterly abstraction (to sometimes mixed results), key philosophical themes from that earlier period undergo transformations and reiterations. 

Dorothea Tanning, “Far From” (1964), oil on canvas, 69 x 79 inches (2022 the Destina Foundation / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Courtesy Kasmin, New York. Photo by Diego Flores)

In “Far From” (1964), one of the most expansive and accomplished works in the show, Tanning obscures the figures’ outlines by deploying gauzy washes of white paint to create a harmonious drama between embodied presences and buoyant formlessness. Like most of the lush large-scale works at Kasmin, “Far From” suggest fleshly human forms that appear in various glimpses and poses — white and pink limbs, buttocks, torsos — emerging, vanishing, and resurfacing, seen and hidden amid changeable light and shifting shadow. Often these anonymous forms tumble or intertwine within color fields that can be simultaneously inviting and exasperatingly opaque.

But in both biographical and aesthetic terms, Tanning is no cagey obscurantist. In fact, she may be the most matter-of-fact fabulist in 20th-century American art and letters, one who believed in everyday stupefaction and lucid daydreaming, practices that also inform her considerable output in poetry. In “Waverly and a Place” from the poetry collection A Table of Content (Graywolf Press, 2004) she frames her creative persona as a fluent latter-day Surrealist, still seizing the world’s manifold correspondences through language as well as imagery, as she writes of “The room—a cave,/an Alexandria before the flames—/bound in boundlessness, a tapestry/ of whispers.”

Born in 1910 in Galesburg, Illinois, Tanning took to voracious reading in local libraries and intermittently studied studio art at a number of Midwestern institutions. By the 1930s, she had settled in New York City, where she found work as a commercial illustrator, and she started to paint in earnest. There she met exiled Surrealist painters, including Max Ernst, whom she married; for 35 years, the couple moved between Paris studios and workspaces in Sedona, Arizona. After Ernst’s death in 1976, Tanning permanently resettled in Manhattan. 

As her output in visual art continued to draw attention in international exhibitions, retrospectives, and monographs, often flying under the curatorial banner of Surrealism, within the United States Tanning was nearly as well known as a memoirist and poet, her verse appearing regularly in prizewinning annual collections like Best American Poetry and in magazines like The New Republic and The New Yorker. By the time of her death at 102 in 2012, she embodied a creative longevity probably unparalleled in recent American culture.  

Tanning is not invisible within the decades-long turn into semi-abstraction represented by the often captivating works in Doesnt the Paint Say it All? In fact, this exhibition shows that as the artist adopts the anti-narrative strategies of painterly abstraction, several works can still be read as formalist or poetic counter-statements to the naïve portraiture and phantasmal narrative paintings that had put her on the Modernist map decades earlier. 

Installation view of Dorothea Tanning: Doesn’t the Paint Say It All? at Kasmin, New York. Center: Dorothea Tanning, “Door 84” (1984), oil on canvas with found door, 63 3/4 x 104 x 5 1/4 inches (2022 the Destina Foundation / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Courtesy Kasmin, New York. Photo by Diego Flores)

One such autobiographical undercurrent informs the exhibition’s centerpiece, a double portrait of the artist as a girl called “Door 84” (1984) — a lush yellow-and-pink diptych painted on a door. That repurposed wooden support operates on literal and figurative planes. The edge of the door protrudes vertically from picture plane, its latch facing out and two knobs facing the painted girls. This element serves as a midpoint boundary separating the twin portraits. In both, the girl wears only a slip. On the left, she is in dynamic, diagonal motion, stretched transversely across the picture plane, as if trying to break out of it. In the other portrait, she sits passively and languidly with her legs lazily extended, her body almost dissolving in surrounding yellows. The two figures’ pink feet seem to press against one another — almost touch — at the unpainted band of gray (the door), which functions thematically even as it functions as the painter’s canvas. The picture defines painting as a paradoxical doubling: art is a porous barrier and a dissembling mirror. 

A certain unresolved stylistic tension between color-field abstractions and nude figuration informs “Door 84” and almost all the works in the show. There’s a push-and-pull energy produced by the chromatic playfulness and the forceful semi-figuration. At their best, these works show how reality itself — exemplified by human flesh — is substantial and weighty yet also botanical and gossamer. Eroticized, intertwined bodies often look like overlapping rose petals; at other times, cloud-like whorls of seemingly pure color — pinks, greens, grays — dissolve to unveil delicately silhouetted human forms. 

Dorothea Tanning, “Pour Gustave l’adoré” (1974), oil on canvas, 45 5/8 x 35 inches (2022 Dorothea Tanning / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Courtesy Kasmin, New York. Photo by Diego Flores)

This mesmerizing shadow play finds its most beautiful realization in “Pour Gustave l’adoré” (1974), Tanning’s homage to the French artist Gustave Doré. Its predominant chiaroscuro — built on various blacks and blues — gives way to a fiery and aqueous light partly revealing a half-fish, half-human creature. “Wonder,” as poet Emily Dickinson famously reminds us, “is not precisely Knowing/And not precisely Knowing not.” This principle defines Tanning’s artistic and poetic oeuvres. In the poem “The Writer” an ars poetica in Tanning’s collection Coming to That (Graywolf Press, 2011) the speaker shows how wonder infuses presence into absence and vice versa and, by doing that double duty, wonder becomes the generative principle for creativity itself:

I catch at images: toast crumbs, say,
caught in mid-fall, explode on
contact or ride missed trains.
Nobody knows where the trains
were going but everyone
was missing them.

Dorothea Tanning: Doesn’t the Paint Say It All? continues at Kasmin (509 West 27th Street, Chelsea, Manhattan) through April 16. The exhibition was organized by the gallery.

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