Inventory in Context: Surrealism and American Art

Hollis Taggart Galleries
Dec 28, 2016 11:05PM

INVENTORY IN CONTEXT aims to creatively contextualize works from our gallery collection, both historical and contemporary. Please look forward to a new installment each month.

In 1924, faced with his own disillusionment with Dadaism, André Breton published the first Surrealist Manifesto, adopting the term "Surrealism" from Guillaume Appollinaire. Five years later the Second Surrealist Manifesto was published, citing Surrealism as not merely as a revolution of the human mind, but as a political crusade as well. Beginning as a literary movement, it eventually trickled down to other art forms, never emerging as a single style. Essentially, the movement developed into two "camps," or ways of understanding Surrealism’s effect on art. One aesthetic camp was fronted by Salvador Dalí and Rene Magritte, which often placed disparate objects in unusual settings or attached unusual descriptors. Max Ernst, André Masson, and Roberto Matta represented the other side, experimenting with form and space, and often implementing automatic drawing and new techniques (frottagecollage, etc.) (1).

Surrealism’s story is not a linear one. The displacement of thousands of artists in the years leading up to and during the course of the Second World War helped to spread Surrealism’s influence globally. Like most artistic movements, Surrealism had already made its way to the United States via publications, reproductions, and other avenues, and with the influx of immigrants entering New York the exchange of ideas was made even more accessible (2). The American experience of Surrealism was critical in the development of Abstract Expressionism, and the two were not necessarily mutually exclusive. The mid-1940s marked a shift, where artists like Arshile Gorky ushered in new American painting that was largely influenced by Surrealist practices. Gorky’s work has been variously described as "Abstract Surrealism," "Biomorphic Surrealism," even strictly expressionistic (3), providing a useful example of the texture of American art in transition. In fact, it is rare to encounter a monograph on any post-war abstract artist that does not make mention of Surrealism’s impact on his or her work.

Part of the Surrealist approach and part of its appeal was the idea of universality, the "collective unconscious," as Carl Jung termed it. In art, this manifested in a shared visual vocabulary, where artists practicing automatic drawing, or simply assuming the Surrealist agenda, were prone to using "primitive" symbols that transcended generational, regional or circumstantial influence. These atavistic symbols combined with the emphasis on the individual artist and process pronounced Abstract Expressionism as both a triumph of the individual and universal in its message.

It is well known that Conrad Marca-Relli worked to make collage as significant as the large-scale abstract painting that pervaded American art at mid century. But before Marca-Relli found his niche, he experimented with Surrealism. Artists such as Joan Miró and Giorgio de Chirico influenced Marca-Relli’s early Surrealist body of work. In the 1940s, he painted dreamlike landscapes with visual similarities to de Chirico, but rendered with even flatter forms and with less use of light. The paintings lacked almost any illusionistic space, which, in retrospect, marked an obvious preamble to his collages. Gradually, the work began to deviate from the eerie and representational and moved toward abstraction. Certain elements persisted, though. The striped fabric from circus tents (Circus, c. 1947, private collection) and gypsy caravans (Afternoon, c. 1945, Archivo Marca-Relli) became collage-like elements, as is the case in this untitled work from the late 1940s.

Untitled punctuates a very distinct moment in Marca-Relli’s career, the launching point between his representational Surrealism and his early abstract collages. Untitled still has the characteristic dark "sky" seen in the upper left, but signals a movement towards something more exploratory and whimsical. The fluidity of the thin black lines takes on a biomorphic quality that is also suggestive of automatic drawing. The small red circles on the right third of the painting, outlined in black and dotted in green, are thematic in Marca-Relli’s work from this period, typically rendered more explicitly as an eye, a common motif that came out of both of Surrealism’s aesthetic "camps". A similar format is seen in Miró’s The Beautiful Bird Revealing the Unknown to a Pair of Lovers (1941, Museum of Modern Art, New York), where automatic lines become decipherable shapes, the faces of creatures culled from the artist’s unconscious. The eye plays a prominent role here, as well. As a symbol, it is part of the larger vocabulary comprising what Surrealists believed to be a "universal language," appearing in Jackson Pollock’s Surrealist dabblings, those of Adolph Gottlieb, Gorky, and others.  

Theodoros Stamos’ engagement with Surrealist practice was largely related to his communion with nature and his interest in its universality. Stamos was a New Yorker who found himself as an artist through his engagement with his family’s Greek past, and more, through an engagement with a universal sense of past, an exploration of human origins. Similar to Marca-Relli, Stamos is not regarded as a Surrealist, per se, but his early flirtations with biomorphism are undoubtedly an acknowledgement of its influence on his work. In the 1940s, Stamos met several Surrealists through his contact with Peggy Guggenheim and Betty Parsons. While he did not consider himself to be part of the Surrealists, he did become close with Kurt Seligmann who became a kind of mentor (4).

Stamos’ more representational works, such as Farewell from 1946, wed automatic drawing with pseudo-organic imagery. The black, sinewy line drawn through the first and second thirds of the painting provides a loose, free hand anchor to the watercolor. The other two objects, the beige kidney shape and the black vertical form, along with the cilia-like fronds, evoke some feeling of nature without being explicitly identifiable. At once they appear bacterial, aquatic, or even animal. Stamos’ reverence towards nature was consistently evident throughout the course of his career, but this period of biomorphism shared strong ties with Miró, William Baziotes, and Paul Klee. For Stamos, these early biomorphic works were directly tied to an investigation of his own Greek origins. By the same token, they are an exploration of human origins and pictorial motifs that have persisted for eons (5). Again, this is typical of Surrealism’s ties to new American painting, a painting that is both self-asserting and universally relatable. 

Louis Bourgeois’ Fallen Woman relates to the Marca-Relli and Stamos paintings chosen above in that it does not typify the artist’s style, but relates to her own interpretation of Surrealist precepts. Bourgeois was an American artist who spent most of her formative years in Paris, later studying at the Sorbonne. It was in Paris that she first encountered Surrealism. She even lived above the Surrealist gallery Gradiva for some time (6). Bourgeois’ brand of Surrealist universality is through the language of human sexuality, where the white porcelain phallic shape creates a kind of “handle” for the face of a woman. Fallen Woman was conceived much later than the above to examples (1996), but this is noteworthy as it gives credence to Surrealism’s lasting impression.

Fallen Woman resembles a kind of mallet, a tool for pounding, or a gavel used to establish order. It’s an elegant object that poses a tension between the porous, unglazed biscuit on its "masculine" end, and the polished gold of its “female” counterpart, creating a kind of Freudian illusionism through countless couplings. There is tension, too, between the overtly sexual shape of the object, its allusions to both violence and desire, and the refined materials with which it was furnished. Bourgeois has taken the material of an eighteenth-century decorative art object and turned it on its head, using these unlikely materials in a way that is suggestive and challenging. Her thoughtful re-contextualization of these familiar, almost dainty, materials into an object of physical and philosophical heft points to Bourgeois’ refashioning of Surrealism for the post-Surrealist age. 


1. Jeffrey Wechsler, Surrealism and American Art 1931-1947. (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Art Gallery, 1977), 10.
2. Martica Sawin, Surrealism in Exile. (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1995), 151.
3. Wechsler, 24.
4. Theodoros Stamos, interview by Irving Sandler, April 23, 1968.
5. Ralph Pomeroy, Stamos. (New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 1975), 12.
6. Annie Le Brun, “Desire – A Surrealist ‘Invention’,” in Surrealism: Desire Unbound. Jennifer Mundy, ed. (London: Tate Publishing, 2002), 312.

Hollis Taggart Galleries