William Poundstone
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Posts Tagged ‘Dorothea Tanning’

LACMA’s Newest Surrealist Women

While organizing “In Wonderland: The Surrealist Adventures of Women Artists in Mexico and the United States,” LACMA managed to acquire a few of the show’s works. One is Dorothea Tanning’s 1969 fabric sculpture Xmas, purchased by the 2010 Collector’s Committee. Less well known are two extraordinary paintings.

At top is Gerrie von Pribosic Gutmann’s The Theft (1952), a gift of David and Jeanne Carlson. Like some of her sister surrealists, von Pribosic had the mixed blessing of being the wife of a better-known artist, in this case the German-born San Francisco photographer John Gutmann. They married in 1949 and divorced not too long afterward. Gerrie committed suicide in 1969.

“You must see Gerrie’s work,” John Gutmann told USC art historian Susan Ehrlich. She found some Gerrie Gutmann paintings at a Carmel gallery and “was impressed and intrigued… She has a wonderfully moving self-portrait where she shows herself in old Victorian garb, chained by spider webs to a toy doll in the corner. I thought it was beautifully rendered, beautifully stated, a real externalization of her fears-webs of obligation and memory chaining her to a domestic chamber of horrors.”

The Theft is similarly autobiographical. An imaginary self-portrait as antlered Madonna clutches a tiny coffin. This refers to the artist’s loss of custody of her son to her ex. A scandalous depiction of the Virgin was already a surrealist staple, as in Max Ernst’s The Virgin Spanking the Christ Child from 1926. Gutmann looks further back, to Bosch and El Greco and other old masters that 20th-century critics had repackaged as modernists. She also looks forward. The pearly, rotting-flesh background is an abstraction half-anticipating Gerhard Richter. The zombified eyes are even more like Terry Gilliam’s 1970s animations for Monty Python.

“In Wonderland” shows a small Surrealist Landscape of the early 1940s, by Anne Ryan (bottom of post), purchased for the museum by Dr. and Mrs. Christian Title. Ryan is known almost exclusively for the collages she created after seeing Kurt Schwitters’ work in 1948 (at age 57). Her collages of paper and fabric, such as the Metropolitan Museum’s Number 7 (right), were hailed as that medium’s version of Abstract Expressionism. Today we might liken them to Korean bojagi. LACMA’s rare and early Ryan painting instead invites comparison to the weirdscapes of Kay Sage.

The Tree of Art

In May 1933 Vanity Fair magazine ran a cheeky illustration billed as “The Tree of Modern Art—Planted 60 Years Ago.” The artist was Miguel Covarrubias, a Mexican-born caricaturist who was the Al Hirschfeld of his time. Covarrubias, who portrayed many Harlem Renaissance figures, is the subject of an absorbing show at the California African American Museum. That exhibition presents a poster-size facsimile of Covarrubias’s tree. It’s thought-provoking in several ways.

For one thing, it predates Alfred Barr’s earnest and much better-known 1936 diagram, “The Development of Abstract Art.” In fact, it’s plausible that Barr saw or heard of Covarrubias’ diagram. If so, Covarrubias might have indirectly influenced MoMA’s (the world’s) vision of moderism. Is anybody paying attention to that?

In Covarrubias’ image, an African wood sculpture and an antique marble head sit beside the roots of modernism. Those roots are all French: Poussin, David, Ingres, Delacroix, Courbet, Daumier, and Corot. Impressionists form the trunk. It splits into three Post-Impressionist limbs, for Cezanne, Seurat, and Gauguin/van Gogh. I don’t know what to make of the fact that the Cezanne limb is pruned, sprouting the Cubists at right angle. (Duchamp is classified as a Cubist, not a Dadaist.) Gauguin and van Gogh lead to the Fauves and Expressionists. The Seurat lineage ends in a braided espalier finessing the fact that he must have seemed the underperforming Post-Impressionist at the time (before Lichtenstein and Close and the whole pixel thing).

Covarrubias omits many of today’s usual suspects. Dalí and Mondrian were at the top of their game by 1933, and Malevich was past it—but they’re not on this tree. Covarrubias does include several artists who are extremely obscure today. One unintended message is that time is the Great Curator. One visual gag is hard to fault: Henri Rousseau as an exotic bird perched on a clipped offshoot.

Below is Alfred Barr’s 1936 diagram for the Museum of Modern Art. Barr charts movements more than individual artists, and naturally he dispenses with the niceties of a “tree” in favor of a flow chart.

Barr’s diagram has become notorious. It is said to epitomize a MoMA-dictated linear and even fascist vision of art history. I’m not sure why. Look at the thing. I would say that Barr’s thesis is that art history is “nonlinear” and “messy,” to use today’s buzzwords.

Oh, well. Barr’s diagram invited parodies, and it got them. In 1938 painter Nathaniel Pousette-Dart—father of the better-known abstractionist Richard Pousette-Dart—published “A Tree Chart of Contemporary American Art” in the June-July 1938 issue of Art and Artistes of Today.

This is a tea party reaction to MoMA’s Eurocentrism. Currier and Ives is a limb! Nevertheless, at the crown of Pousette-Dart’s creation are MoMA’s beloved abstractionists. Arshile Gorky and Stuart Davis are close to the top. At the very tip are… John Graham and Katherine Dreier. The real puzzler is Adolf Dehn, sole leaf on the Chinese trunk. Say what?

The July 2, 1946 issue of New York’s highbrow tabloid P.M. carried Ad Reinhardt’s “How to Look at Modern Art in America.” It’s by a long shot the funniest, most relevant, and most caustic of the genre. I’d wager that Reinhardt knew of the Covarrubias tree in Vanity Fair, for he includes several birds, the most amusing being those two love birds, Guggenheim gate-keeper Hilla Rebay and boytoy-abstractionist Rudolf Bauer.

Sorry, Miguel. “Mexican Art Influence” is a lead weight burdening an already fracturing limb of American modernism. Georgia O’Keeffe, Jacob Lawrence, Philip Guston, and the late, great Dorothea Tanning are about to be wished away into Reinhardt’s cornfield.

Covarrubias had something to do with the Mexican influence on American art, for he was one of the curators of the Museum of Modern Art’s landmark 1940 exhibition, “20 Centuries of Mexican Art.” Below is Covarrubias’ Vanity Fair caricature of the opening gala, itself a kind of art-world family tree. The Vanity Fair spread is also on view—with identifying key—at CAAM.

Going by the chronology, Covarrubias either invented, revived, or popularized a meme. Satirical or serious, trees of art history are sometimes illuminating and almost always fun. Why aren’t we doing more of them today?