CAA Interlude 3: Morgan Surrealism

I may have alluded to, and I will now specifically say, that I am working on a show of surrealist photography for the Bowdoin College Museum of Art, likely to take place next spring. This will be the first exhibition in a museum that I’ll have been the lead curator on. Neither photography nor surrealism are topics I am already expert in, and so I have been reading up in my spare time (which hasn’t been much). It is timely, then, that an exhibition on surrealist drawing that originated at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art came to New York, to the Morgan Library and Museum, a fact I discovered when I was given the catalogue for Christmas.

Drawing Surrealism catalogue cover, with Francis Picabia's Olga, 1930

Drawing Surrealism catalogue cover, with Francis Picabia’s Olga, 1930

I must say that drawing is the medium that least interests me, at least since college when I studied studio art. After having to redo the same drawing exercises in multiple classes, I was desperate to graduate to painting; I so much prefer color to line, and the potential effects of a few easy brushstrokes to the conscientiousness that must be put into pencil and charcoal. My recent work at Bowdoin has increased my exposure and therefore interest in both prints and photographs, but drawing still eludes me somewhat.

And so at first my reaction walking into the exhibition was somewhat detached, but the more I saw the more invested and fascinated I became. The exhibition takes a broad view of drawing, and surrealists of course transcended traditional boundaries between media. Included are photographs, photograms and photocollage, all of which will be important aspects of my show.

Despite the fact that aesthetics was not a primary concern of the surrealists–they were more interested, at times, in provoking the perverse attraction that accompanies disgust, rather than using the seductive power of beauty, though the female nude was a constant subject–many pieces were visually arresting. Some artists used rubbing as an automatic process that thereby gave reign to the unconscious; one of the most stunning was a blue painted rubbing of wood grain by, I believe, Max Ernst (it’s not illustrated in the catalogue or online, and I didn’t jot it down, so I can’t be sure).

The great dada and surrealist master Man Ray–known for his photographs though he considered himself more of a painter, at least initially–is represented not only with an aerograph (a painting made by airgun) and rayographs (also known as photograms, these cameraless photographs are made by laying objects on photographic paper and exposing it), but with actual drawings, a medium I do not associate with him. They are precisely and skillfully drawn (more so than his paintings) and have an at first straightforward appearance that seduces the viewer into the image’s strangeness, achieved using just juxtaposition: a giant safety pin hanging in air above a quaint countryside. These drawings inspired the surrealist writer Paul Eluard’s text, Les Mains Libres [The Free Hands].

This is to point out what were to me the two most memorable works out of a show rich with intriguing and unfamiliar works.

A note on revisionism: in this show, in the Abstraction show at MoMA, and the Gutai show at the Guggenheim, there is clearly an effort to familiarize viewers with an international roster of artists who in the past have been overlooked by a Eurocentric, even just France-centric, view of modernism. I wrote about how the MoMA show was organized geographically but emphasized an international network of artists, writers, composers and dancers; and that unlike many I had already learned a good deal about Gutai, a major modern movement that took place in Japan. Likewise, the Morgan show intersperses among the major Western European and American players, Eastern European, Japanese, South American and Mexican surrealists. Given the still-relevant critiques of the Western-centric bias of art history, it is heartening to see that such commentary is actively being taken to heart–canons are being revised, in the best possible way (at least in these cases).

A note on the didactics: the wall texts highlighted notable artists, vocabulary words and concepts by bumping up their size and setting them in a variety of modern and playful fonts. I thought this was a great way to make the texts accessible to those not versed in the material, and who may want to skim but still learn and enjoy, rather than take a reading test.

A note about the building: this was the first time I had been to the Morgan since it was renovated. I know this renovation was critiqued for remaking the Morgan in the guise of any other museum: you now enter through a modernist atrium, rather than stepping into what was a turn-of-the-century mansion designed by Charles McKim, who also designed the Bowdoin Art Museum. The Isabella Stuart Gardner recently underwent a similar transformation, though I haven’t visited it since then. I certainly bemoan the loss of enchantment, the sense of stepping immediately into a different time. It’s hard, however, not to feel comfortably at ease in the spacious, skylit entryway–we’re so used to such anesthetized spaces (though the Morgan atrium is not without character).

Coming up: what I’ve been reading, some fantasy exhibitions, and a long overdue post about repatriation issues…



This past week I attended my first College Art Association (CAA) conference, the largest professional gathering of artists and art historians IN THE WORLD ::echo::

Friends and coworkers told me how great it was–how engaging the panels are, how great a chance it is to reunite with everyone you know. So, of course, I found it disappointing.

Firstly, it is so huge, (and this particular hotel, the Hilton on 53rd St. and 6th Ave. in NYC, is set up in such a way) that you are not guaranteed to run into everyone you know. There are people I know were there who I would not have seen if we had not set up a specific meeting, especially if we were unlikely to be interested in the same panels. I can only guess that people I hoped to see but didn’t may very well have been there, and that next time I will have to reach out to them in advance. (Nonetheless, I did have some great grad school reunions, and connected with fellow undergrad alums in the field who I hadn’t known before.)

Nor did I find it as intellectually-stimulating as I had hoped, particularly as I have been craving the kind of mental challenge I experienced in grad school. The panels I ended up attending fell generally into two camps:

1) the practical/museological, focused on either academic art museums or curatorial careers

2) the art historical/scholarly – and for these I mostly went to panels about photography, as I am organizing a show on surrealist photography but have little background in it

Panels in the first category were generally productive, even if a lot of the ideas were ones I was already familiar with. One panel provided excellent examples and ideas for ways to promote cross-discipline cooperation with the college museum, whereas another stuck to a broader discussion of the academic art museum, in which the conclusions seemed quite self-evident–a proverbial preaching to the choir.

Panels in the latter category, however, could be a bit of a drag. As I told one (rather rude) woman at a bar who asked why I would study boring (!!!) art and art history: “art and art history are interesting; art historians are boring.” To be more accruate, I should have said that they can be boring, but that would not have been as snappy a response.

One panel on photography jammed six–six!!!–presenters into one hour-and-a-half session, demonstrating how art historians have no conception of reality when it comes to human attention span. Initially I found these talks interesting, but by the last presenter I was ready to bolt, which then tainted my reception, and ruined my retention, of even the earlier presentations.

Some speakers take their full twenty minutes to explain a point that could be summed up and easily understood in one sentence. Others take meandering strolls through many theoretical frameworks and disparate examples (from daguerrotypes to Blade Runner–in one talk), leaving the listener perhaps intrigued, potentially confused, and likely ignorant of what the point was in the first place.

There were of course exceptions. I believe the single best talk I went to was by Caitlin Condell, curatorial assistant at the Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum. It was focused but intriguing, exactly as a good presentation should be. Zeroing in on Man Ray’s Compass, an object consisting of a gun hanging from a magnet, and its presentation in three photographs over the course of a few years, Condell explored the tension between the object and the photograph of the object as artwork, the lost history of this particular artifact, and a reconsideration of Man Ray’s relationship to photography.

Generally though, I did not find the intellectual stimulation I was craving–at the panels anyway. I have been finding it in the books I’ve been reading and the exhibitions I attended while there (MoMA’s Inventing Abstraction, Guggenheim’s Splendid Playground  on the Japanese post-war movement Gutai, and Drawing Surrealism at the Morgan Library). Stay tuned this week for reviews on all of the above!

Return of the Blogger – Legion of Honor: Man Ray/Lee Miller

Sorry for another brief hiatus. I was in California, absorbing more nature than culture: a county fair, complete with farm animal auction ($1000 for a turkey!); a hike in the Sierra-Nevadas with spectacular views, which alas I failed to capture on camera (image search Lake Winnemucca if you’re curious); fresh delicious vegetables from my own (well, my aunt and uncle’s own) backyard.

But before retiring to the country, I took in a bit of art (I’m me, aren’t I?): the Man Ray/Lee Miller show at the Legion of Honor, which I’d read about back when it was at the Peabody Essex Museum, but didn’t end up making the trek from Boston to see. You’re likely familiar with Man Ray, but perhaps not Lee Miller. She was his girlfriend for awhile in the ’20s and ’30s and an accomplished photographer in her own right, as well as quite a beauty–she once rivaled Greta Garbo for the title of the most beautiful woman in Paris (where she, like Ray, was an American ex-pat).

The exhibition explores the ways they collaborated and inspired each other, and provided a museum-worthy reason to explore Miller’s independent work, which of course is often overlooked (though Ray’s works still outnumber Miller’s in the exhibition). The galleries are organized so as to provide a narrative: before they met; while they were together; the break-up aftermath (which inspired some of Ray’s best known works); and, eventually, their rekindled friendship. This made prefect sense and told a clear story, except that the works in the galleries themselves didn’t always match these narratives, particularly in the inital “before they met” gallery, which included portraits they took of each other, and films that Ray’s friend Jean Cocteau made with Miller as muse.

Much of the exhibition focuses on photography, and includes several “rayographs” as well as solarized photographs, an influential effect that, it turns out, Miller accidentally discovered when a rat scrambled over her foot in the dark room, causing her to switch on a light mid-development; Ray and Miller then perfected the technique together.

Solarized gelatin silver print of Lee Miller, by Man Ray, ca. 1930

While Ray’s photographs exhibit important technical developments in surrealism, I was actually more impressed by the beauty of Miller’s photographs of Paris. They are experiments in aesthetics rather than technique or concept, using unusual angles and dramatic natural lighting to turn a street scene into an abstracted composition of textures in black, white and grey. A wall label phrased these as “‘ready-made’ surreal scenes… found on the street… that would come to life through imaginative viewpoint and framing.” I thought that perfectly phrased what I was trying to articulate in my head about extraordinary photos like this one:

Lee Miller, Walkway, Paris, ca. 1929

As I mentioned above, the aftermath of their break-up greatly affected Ray and inspired some of his best known works. It is Miller’s lips that hang both erotically and ominously in his best known surreal landscape painting. It is Miller’s eye pasted on the metronome that is Object to Be Destroyed. Fascinatingly, subsequent editions were called Object of DestructionLast Object and, most suggestively, Indestructible Object; it turns out that though Ray intended to cathartically smash the object with a hammer, he could never actually bring himself to do so.

In the gallery with these works is a letter Ray wrote to Miller, after she abandoned him and moved back to New York. He practically begged her to forgive him for being a possessive and jealous jerk, but she stood strong. She apparently was quite a feminist for her time. One illuminating work in the exhibition was a photograph Miller took of a severed breast from a radical mastectomy, and sent to a fashion magazine (the photo, not the breast) as a protest of the objectification of the female body (though Miller often worked for magazines as both a model and a photographer). Miller’s tenacity was also on display in a gallery showing photographs she took as a war correspondent during World War II, including photographs of Nazis who committed suicide at the approach of the Allies.

Lee Miller and Man Ray rekindled their friendship in the U.S. in the mid to late forties, as illustrated in the exhibition by artworks Ray sent Miller, particularly during her bout of post-war depression. A very memorable image closes out the exhibition, of the artists together at an exhibition opening in 1975, smiling at each other with knowing intimacy, displaying the kind of lifelong connection inevitably forged in a passionate love affair.

Man Ray and Lee Miller in 1975

I would end there, but I have A VERY IMPORTANT ART BULLETIN. A Girl With a Pearl Earring is now in the U.S. I REPEAT, A Girl With a Pearl Earring is now in the U.S. It is currently at the De Young museum in San Francisco, and the only reason it wasn’t my number one priority is that I know it is coming to the Frick Collection in New York, and I will do anything to make sure I see it there. I suggest you find out when and where on its tour it will be closest to you (the High Museum in Atlanta is it’s other U.S. venue), and make it a point to get there. Unless you plan on visiting The Hague.