January 20 – February 26, 2022
A grand exhibition. I will not put an exclamation point there, because this punctuation would be repeated, excessively. Here is a fine example of what a gallery can do in an exhibition if the focus is on a specific kind of thing, in this case on a historical collective and collaborative artistic activity, repeated differently like an intermittent ritual event. The exhibition is full of fascinating documents, such as the vintage gelatin silver print of Man Ray Surrealists at Tristan Tzara from 1930, and the collage by Dorothea Tanning with three photographs by Julien Levy entitled Chess tournament at the Julian Levy Gallery, January 6, 1945 (a quite different event from a more recent January 6.)
About exquisite corpse / exquisite corpse: the French title exists because of an original phrase about this delightfully named vanished body consuming new wine, appropriate for these freshly harvested objects of words and images: “the exquisite corpse will drink the new wine”. The joyous group activity, at the origin of a surrealist group under the aegis of André Breton, took place depending on whether the participants were seated around a table or not, sometimes in a café or a bar, sometimes with someone. They would make a collective design roughly in the form of a body or an architectural construction. Each participant would fold the paper, of any color or texture, so that the next participant would not see what the previous one had drawn, composing approximately in this order: head, torso, legs, feet. Your creation on your part, if possible spontaneous, could be in some way convergent with your personality, or at least a kind of key to your thinking, sometimes an obsession.
With these examples of the famous game or game of hand and mind flickering in my imagination, I remembered how in the more recent gatherings of surreal nature in Paris or New York not so long ago , I would have been chastised if I seemed to think, not allowing my infiltrating unconscious to do the deed. But last night, at the Kasmin Gallery, I wandered, alone or with others, from one exhibition to another, conscious of the eyes depicted looking for each other in various constructions along one wall, with a flourish comprising three squares of blue paper and six lighter ones, by Remedios Varo, Esteban Francés, Benjamin Péret, Breton and three others, then culminating in a drawing of Remedios with one eye. It was a bit like being quietly observed.
As the Exquisite Corpse, these “communicated drawings” played on the collaborative meaning and on the famous experience of “communicating vessels”, giving this title to Breton’s volume dealing with the surrealizing subterranean unconscious and even a visit to Freud, who, alas, wasn’t really interested in surreal discoveries. If the translation of the text was a bit tedious,1 there was nothing boring about this exhibit. A magnificent demonstration of collaboration between the Kasmin gallery and Timothy Baum.
Watch as the expense of umbrellas in one of communicated drawings, as a reference to the famous surrealist example of “the sewing machine and the umbrella meeting on the hospital dissecting table”, and I particularly liked Breton’s drawing with the open umbrella lifting a closed folded square, just taking off. Among the gallery guests there was a lot of sympathetic laughter, as well as the recognition of the artists in the group photographs and the texts of the relevant documents and newspapers, my favorite being NEON the capital letters reading upright then upside down To be nothing To be everything To open up being Nothingness Forgetting N (more or less rendered as To be nothing To be everything To be open To forget Nothing).
An all-star cast features in some plays, like the four-square marvel of the great 1937-1939 period with Péret, Remedios, Breton, and the great and dynamic Greek Nicolas Calas, sharing their idea of the horse. There are other famous items, like a 1930 Exquisite Corpse by Valentine Hugo, Tristan Tzara and Breton, pastel on black construction paper, beautifully framed, therefore already famous. And then one from 1932 by Nusch and Paul Éluardon on this same paper, and a late example by Elisa Breton (Breton’s last wife) with Péret and Breton, simply pencil and frottage or frottage on paper from 1949 and pastel color made in St Cirq-Lapopie. Of course all these traces have their narratives attached, which we may or may not know, like who among the participants might have been involved with which others, and like in which café the game might have been played, like Café Mahieu for example, in this period 1937-1939 in Paris. Or some built at home on a rainy day with friends by simply cutting out pictures from various magazines. It is a great literary artistic nostalgia.
One example among many others shows the ingenuity of the layout of the gallery, its choreography. Four meticulously constructed collages on graph paper from 1938, in Exquisite Corpse form, by Yves Tanguy, Breton, and his wife Jacqueline Lamba, are totally different from the others, chiseled and glued into complicated architectural collages whose details the art historian Charles Stuckey helped me detect. They stand two on either side of a humorous Exquisite Corpse by Victor Brauner, Jacques Herold and Tanguy from 1935, pencil and collage paper. The observation that in these complicated 1938 collages, one has scales and two have a man’s shoe led me to my own communicated memory. I remember very well my friend Jacqueline Lamba, Breton’s wife, who left Breton without ever forgetting him, reminding me that he never took off his shoes, even less his socks, whereas when she was with David Hare the painter, they were walking the beach naked… Here is a shoe or two, and here is a scale, as if one of us observing or remembering could weigh which of the men to choose. But it is still allowing a story in our imagination to impose itself on the work of art. So I stop to conclude with a poem and its other colorful mode.
In a corner of the wall near the door flourishes a beautiful, energetically colored print-poem from a late 1950s collaboration between Marcel Jean and Henri Pastoureau, titled stop / stop. The poem, inscribed at the top and in the two lower corners, makes us think and read:
stop slave and return to your land
the much sought-after source
only waters the eyes
stop indecisive and small
like the humiliated eagle that weary
discover the light
stop without knowing the secret the magic the music
that rustle between your fingers
Stop the slave and take back your land
this longed-for spring
turn off only your eyes
uncertain and small stop
like the humiliated weary eagle
who finds the light
stop without knowing the secret the magic the music
rustling between your fingers
And the bright colors energize the requested stop as a step forward towards hearing and seeing, just as the debates of art and poetry demand at this time and perhaps at all. They are the truest communicating vessels we could choose to believe in, just like life itself.
- André Breton, Communicating vessels of 1932, translated by Mary Ann Caws and Geoffrey T. Harris as communicating vessels, Lincoln, University of Nebraska Press, 1990. In my “Introduction: Linkings and Reflections,” I note that the image is from the science experiment in which “vessels connected by a tube, gas, or liquid passing from ‘one to another rises to the same level in everyone regardless of the shape of the vessel, for the back and forth between two modes is the basis of surrealist thought and of surreality itself’, as inner vision and outer fact, night and day, sleep and waking. (p.ix)