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The Canonisation of Surrealism in the United States pt 2

by Sandra Zalman in USA

Historicizing Dada and Surrealism

Brassai – Involuntary Sculptures, 1933

As Barr contemplated his retirement as Director of Collections at MoMA, he chose a young art historian, William Rubin, who was then working on a major study of Dada and Surrealism, to be his successor. In 1966, Rubin was hired as a guest curator for the exhibition Dada, Surrealism and Their Heritage, which would eventually open at MoMA in March 1968. Rubin recognised Dada and Surrealism’s vibrant legacy for contemporary American artists like Jasper Johns and Andy Warhol and included work by Johns, Robert Rauschenberg, and such Pop artists as Claes Oldenburg in the exhibition. As a collector of contemporary art, Rubin was heavily influenced by formalist criticism, but he also believed the MoMA had a unique position in its ability to make historical arguments. Thus, one of his main goals for the exhibition was to establish Dada and Surrealism’s place in a linear narrative of modern art.
In planning the exhibition, Rubin had Barr’s show of three decades earlier very much in mind, writing that his exhibition would ‘be the first comprehensive survey of these movements since Alfred Barr’s Fantastic Art, Dada and Surrealism in 1936’. He and Barr were in regular communication about the exhibition. But unlike Barr in 1936, one of Rubin’s goals for the exhibition was to secure a place for Surrealism in the canon of modern art. However, the canon he was thinking of was very much based on a formalist understanding of modern art, as espoused by Greenberg, and despite extensive knowledge of the expanded field of contemporary artistic production, Rubin’s exhibition still favoured painting and sculpture. Furthermore, Dada, Surrealism, and Their Heritage was intended to shape the recent history of American art by subsuming Dada and Surrealism into a history of Abstract Expressionism, while also affirming Dada and Surrealism as precedents for Pop art. Rubin and Barr agreed that Dada and Surrealism were essentially, in Rubin’s words, “life movements, or philosophical movements, movements that were really more interested in poetry, psychology, politics, action on various levels, than specifically in works of art.” But with the added vantage point of 32 years, Rubin’s exhibition could confront the “irony… that what remains of these movements and what best characterizes for us the historical [import] of these two movements, is the work of art itself.” Dada and Surrealism’s cultural relevancy was of secondary importance to Rubin, who felt that the time had come to inscribe the movements in the history of modern art, writing: “I have proceeded from the assumption, therefore, that the works can be described in terms that make sense for art history in general and for the discussion of modernist painting and sculpture in particular”. Dada and Surrealism were accepted as art movements, but they had not been institutionalised as such.
Thus, it was important for Rubin to convincingly present the Abstract Expressionists’ debt to Surrealism despite the Abstract Expressionists’ desire to obscure Surrealism’s influence in their early works. One example of this was Rubin’s inclusion of Mark Rothko’s 1944 painting Slow Swirl by the Edge of the Sea, which Rothko had censored from his 1961 retrospective at MoMA. Writing to New York Times critic John Canaday, Rubin explained his inclusion of these works, while also revealing his bias against them:
“As the Surrealist-influenced but quite fine early work of such painters as Rothko, Newman, and still is little known except to people who were assiduous gallery goers in the 40’s, I felt that a substantial amount of this material should be included.”
Rubin’s phrasing – ‘Surrealist-influenced but quite fine’ – implies that despite the Surrealist influence in the early work of Rothko, Barnett Newman, and Clyfford Still, the paintings are still worthy of exhibition. Thus, he subtly undercuts the very body of work he seeks to account for, understanding the historical interest in Surrealism while implicitly acknowledging it as something to be overcome. Even then, such important critics as Irving Sandler and Sidney Tillim still refused to fully credit Surrealism’s influence on the New York School.
Rubin’s exhibition re-inscribed the views of French modernist critics who understood Miró as a key painter in the history of modern art, also reinforcing Greenberg’s views. Miró is often singled out in formalist accounts because there is no need in approaching his work to reconcile elements of representation, academicism, or populism found in other manifestations of Surrealism. In order to make this case, Rubin highlighted Miró’s large-scale painting Birth of the World (1925) as a crucial forerunner for mid-century Abstract Expressionism. He wrote to the owner of the painting:
“Since this painting [La Naissance du Monde] has never been seen in this country and since it is so important historically – I consider it as Les Demoiselles d’Avignon for the Informelle – I should just like you to know that to be able to have this picture for the New York showing of the exhibition would give me the greatest single satisfaction of any loan I will be getting; but even more, it would be a revelation for our tremendously attentive audience of painters and amateurs whose image of Miro has never been in balance due to the absence in America of such works as La Naissance du Monde and many smaller pictures painted in that direction. … You will especially appreciate the recognition of La Naissance du Monde to help confirm Miro as the real foundation of post-Cubist abstraction.”
Rubin’s conviction – that Miró was the real foundation of post-Cubist abstraction – is underscored by his comparison with Picasso’s Demoiselles d’Avignon and further reinforced through his selection of 24 Mirós for the exhibition. Birth of the World’s large dimensions – over 8 by 6 feet – and Miro’s use of automatism and free play of drips made the painting a convincing predecessor to Pollock’s work, though the painting had not been shown the U.S. and thus was almost certainly unknown to Pollock. Nonetheless, the Surrealists’ automatism was a widely-recognised influence on Pollock. Rubin unequivocally stated his admiration of Miró in an interview about Dada, Surrealism, and Their Heritage for the television show Camera III in 1968:
“I think that Miró is by far the best artist in that exhibition. And he is the best artist of the generation between the two wars. In other words, between the generation of Picasso, Matisse and Bonnard, and the generation of Pollock let’s say, the greatest painter in the modern tradition is Miró. And he is the only great painter, in my estimation, in this exhibition.”
Rubin’s candid assessment of Miró – and the explicit way he places him between an established European avant-garde and ‘the generation of Pollock’ demonstrates how Rubin sought to establish Miró as an aesthetic lynchpin between the European avant- garde and the New York School.
Rubin’s motive for the exhibition was not lost on contemporary reviewers, who recognised that instead of showcasing Dada and Surrealism, the exhibition marked an attempt to rein in these unruly moments of modernism, forcing them into an aesthetic lineage and thereby reducing their revolutionary impact. In May 1968, Rosenberg wrote in The New Yorker that the sole purpose of Rubin’s show could only be “to knock out the philosophical underpinnings of modern art. The show is a remarkable, if not epoch- making, instance of a museum’s openly intruding on current art history as an active partisan force by posing its own conception of value and its own will regarding the future against the will and ideas of the artists it is displaying.” Rosenberg saw the museum, with Rubin as its agent, as trying to fix a place for Dada and Surrealism by firmly placing them in the category of art, and in relation to a certain set of standards for contemporary art practice.
In light of the social upheaval of the 1960s, MoMA’s presentation of Dada and Surrealism seemed untenably conservative to contemporary critics. The most scathing reviews came from those critics who realised that a history of art based exclusively on form excluded the social dimension of art, draining the lifeblood from images that were meant to convey revolutionary ideas. Describing the rift that had ignited the partisan reaction to the show, critic Max Kozloff wrote in the left-leaning journal The Nation:
Formulated once again in terms of history, the debate pivots on whether you take seriously the idea that art issues primarily from art, or accept literally the Surrealist assumption that art can transcend itself (i.e., its historical moment and hermetic instincts) and permanently affect life in the same way as could an “action.”
Kozloff goes on to react with thick sarcasm to the position of such formalist critics as Michael Fried, who believed that ‘the extent to which a painting is contaminated by the Surrealist sensibility is the extent of its failure’. Even the notion of a Surrealist sensibility demonstrates that Surrealism exceeded stylistic categorisation, and instead could be classified as a way of perceiving and responding to the world. Unlike critics who dismissed Surrealism unilaterally, Rubin was keenly aware of the problem that Surrealism posed to art history and alluded to Surrealism’s difficulty in the exhibition catalogue. There Rubin acknowledged, “obviously a definition of style that, for Dada, must comprehend the work of Duchamp and Arp and, for Surrealism, that of Miró and Dalí, will be problematic. Yet the alternative is not simply to accept confusion”. For Rubin, the key difficulty was that Dada and Surrealism “fostered activities in the plastic arts so variegated as almost to preclude the use of the terms as definitions of style”.
The glaring issue that remained after Rubin’s show was not about Surrealism’s place in the canon, but what the canon of modern art meant to designate. Critic James R. Mellow alluded to this when he noted of Rubin’s exhibition that ‘there is an ironic significance in the fact that the boisterous, anti-esthetic, prodigal sons have now come home to rest on the great mothering breast of the Museum of Modern Art’. Mellow’s assessment, typical of much of the criticism of Rubin’s show, underscores MoMA’s power at this point in its own history to define the canon through the artwork it displayed, regardless of the original intentions of the artists.
Rubin’s exhibition, reinforced by his installation of the permanent collection at MoMA, legitimised Dada and Surrealism as part of the canon, but inadvertently exposed a larger problem – that in the expanded production of avant-garde artistic practice a canon based on form alone was not sustainable. Protesters at the opening of Dada, Surrealism and Their Heritage drew attention to the de-politicization of modern art in what they considered the museum’s sterilised displays. MoMA’s hegemony began to be more consistently challenged in the 1970s by the next generation of artists, critics and art historians. In a sweeping critique of MoMA published in 1978, art historians Carol Duncan and Alan Wallach argued that the MoMA’s installation of its permanent collection presented Surrealism as having “unseated the last vestiges of reason and history and … you end up in the Abstract Expressionist realm of myth … in which abstract form signified the Absolute. This is the climax …”. For Wallach and Duncan, MoMA’s installation positioned Surrealism as a gateway through which one passed, and ultimately dispensed with, on the way to the triumph of abstraction.

Challenging the Modern
For critics and scholars alike, it was increasingly clear that the narrow formalist parameters that MoMA espoused in the 1970s demanded reappraisal. One such critic was Rosalind Krauss, a prolific writer at Artforum from 1966-1974. In 1976, Krauss co-founded the influential journal October which for her coincided with “a transitional period in which the modernist canon, the forms and categories that had defined and elucidated it, were everywhere in question. This situation, which we have subsequently come to call postmodernist, required in our estimation an intensive effort of reassessment and analysis”. Krauss recognised the inadequacy of formalist tools to account for the range of modern artistic production and became particularly convinced that she could challenge the prevailing stylistic understanding of modern art by considering Surrealism’s photography. Inspired by art historian Dawn Ades’ 1978 exhibition Dada and Surrealism Reviewed at the Hayward Gallery, London, Krauss wanted to focus on Surrealist photography because as an indexical, reproducible medium operating at the centre of an avowedly anti-aesthetic movement, it offered a concise way to interrogate the underpinnings of modernism.

Mark Rothko Slow Swirl by the Edge of the Sea

L’Amour Fou: Surrealism and Photography, curated by Krauss and Jane Livingston, represented Krauss’s intervention into the debates about the historicization of Surrealist work, though the venue this time was not MoMA, but the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. The seeds of the exhibition had been planted in the 1970s, when Krauss had seen the catalogue published by the Art Institute of Chicago in conjunction with curator David Travis’s exhibition The Julien Levy Collection Starting with Atget (on view from December 11, 1976 to February 20, 1977). In a later interview, Levy described the American art world’s attitude toward Surrealism: “There was always a remaining prejudice against surrealism, because it’s not serious even about politics, or it’s decadent, or it’s European or purportedly dead, or I don’t know just what.” In the 1930s, Levy had originally wanted his gallery to specialise in photography, but there had not been a sustainable market for the medium in the 1930s and he had pivoted toward Surrealism as a result. The purchase of a major part of his photography collection by the Art Institute in the 1970s marked a belated coup, indicative of the burgeoning institutional interest in photography by major museums.
While Krauss’s decision to curate a major exhibition that would focus on Surrealist photography was inspired in part by photography’s increasing institutionalisation, she also sought to recuperate a kind of photography that would disrupt the modernist canon. Instead of the formal attributes of photography promoted by John Szarkowski, curator of photography at MoMA from 1962-1991, Krauss wanted to foreground the Surrealists’ experimental photographic practices, in which they undercut ‘straight’ photography and imbued it not only with the subjective presence of the photographer, but also explored themes of sex, desire, and violence through darkroom manipulation. At the same time, even straight photography was being re-theorized as surreal at its core. As cultural critic Susan Sontag argued: “The mainstream of photographic activity has shown that a Surrealist manipulation or theatricalization of the real is unnecessary, if not actually redundant. Surrealism lies at the heart of the photographic enterprise: in the very creation of a duplicate world, of a reality in the second degree, narrower but more dramatic than the one perceived by natural vision”. As photography received increased attention in the 1970s, critics also recognized the medium’s inherent Surrealist qualities, while simultaneously discounting Surrealist ‘manipulation or theatricalization.’
Surrealist photography thwarted the accepted stylistic categories of Surrealist artistic practice – it was neither automatist/abstract nor academic/illusionist. Instead Krauss wanted to dispense with the issue of style altogether, asserting that “issues of Surrealist heterogeneity will be resolved around the semiological functions of photography rather than the formal properties operating the traditional art-historical classifications of style”. Krauss advocated for a new understanding of Surrealism via the theories of George Bataille and formlessness. Reviewers of the L’Amour Fou exhibition recognized that rather than place value on this body of art works in the traditional sense, Krauss’s objective was instead, as art historian Hal Foster put it, “to displace the formalist model of modernism by means of its ‘cursed part’, Surrealism”. Krauss marshalled critical theory to expose the fissures in the construction of the modern art canon in the U.S. and articulate a postmodern condition.
If today the stranglehold that formalist criticism once held on art historical discourse in the U.S. in the post-war period seems irreconcilable with our increasingly globalised and pluralist contemporary art world, it is in part because Dada and Surrealism consciously challenged reigning understandings of modern art, pushing on the category of art itself, and thereby rejecting the very premise of canonisation. Barr seems to have anticipated this position as early as 1936, when he declared Surrealism ‘a way of life’ and began to associate Surrealism with the idea of the broader notion of the ‘fantastic,’ which was in some ways conceived as a counterpoint to and expansion from the formal values that were already associated with evolving understandings of modernism. Despite Barr’s inclusive view of modern art, Greenberg’s persuasive art criticism inscribed formalism as the basis for aesthetic evaluation. Rubin, though he departed from Greenberg’s stringent criteria and embraced Pop art, still considered style to be the fundamental through-line in the narrative of modernism he sought to delineate. Reacting against both Greenberg and Rubin, Krauss sought to open up the discourse of modernism by using Surrealist photography to challenge the limits of the modernist canon. Surrealism’s aesthetic diversity, alongside its political and philosophical commitments, literary experiments, and absorption into mass culture, have contributed to its fraught relationship with the canon of modern art in the U.S.; yet Barr’s multifaceted view of modernism – in which a Dada-Surrealist trajectory could be traced alongside, and especially intermingle with, an Abstract-Cubist one – is accepted today, as the proliferation of scholarship on Surrealism – and its long and variegated legacy – attests. Surrealism may be modern, but the questions it poses about what constitutes the canon, and how to expand the understanding of artistic practice, are decidedly contemporary.

Volume 34 no 6 July / August 2020

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John Link
20/09/2020 6:27 am

There are no “canons”, just masterpieces that look masterful. That’s what makes writing about art so difficult, if one wishes to communicate how the best art affects oneself. Even Greenberg, with all his insights, did not often achieve this. But when he did, as his observations about the surface of Morris Louis’s poured pictures, he was moving in a parallel way with the art he described. If one takes such writing as a “canon”, not only is the point missed, but sadly also the joy that can be had while reading. Admittedly, taking it as a prescription makes it much… Read more »

Miklos Legrady
20/08/2020 1:31 am

An impressive detailed history. Shows cultural workers like mathematicians sketch ideas, one uses numbers while artists excepting writers work non-verbal languages. While reading I felt what Kraus and her peers discussed touched only partially on art. Rather these styles may represent changing social and cultural attitudes over decades, civilization a never ending evolution. We dispute how much art reflects culture and how much it creates it. Did art mirror the post truth era or did it initiate it? When art became anything you could get away with, we may have sown the seeds of the 45th presidency.

Last edited 3 months ago by Miklos Legrady
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