By John Dorfman
For many artists in pre-AbEx America, the boundaries between the real and the unreal could be quite porous.
“I am after painting reality impressed on the mind so hard that it returns as a dream, but I am not after painting dreams as such, or fantasy,” George Tooker told an interviewer in 1957. Tooker, who died in 2011 at the age of 91, was a quiet and private man who would never have presumed to speak for others. Nonetheless, his statement could easily apply to a disparate group of American artists from the 1930s through ’50s who evoked strange vistas of the imagination within the context of realism. Like the European Surrealists, they favored classic realist technique, but they didn’t use it to paint disembodied eyeballs, flying furniture or glowing blobs of protoplasm. Instead, these artists found the bizarre within the ordinary, depicting the modern world with a precision so cutting that it reveals the uncanny lurking just below the surface of modern life.
This subtle sensibility is currently on view at three exhibitions around New York, most notably the Whitney Museum’s “Real/Surreal” (through February 12), which draws exclusively on the museum’s holdings (the second in a series that will excavate and re-examine the permanent collection), but also the Brooklyn Museum’s loan show “Youth and Beauty: Art of the American Twenties” (through January 29). Although the Brooklyn exhibition has a broader purpose, many of the works pulled together there demonstrate how the post-World War I resurgence of realism in the U.S. differed sharply from traditional realism. And finally, Michael Rosenfeld Gallery is presenting “Otherworldliness” through December 23, featuring some of the same artists who are in the Whitney show to explore what Rosenfeld calls “magic realism.”
Call it what you will—magic realism, surreal realism—you’ll know it when you see it. Take Tooker’s classic The Subway (1950), on view at the Whitney. It depicts a scene that will be more than familiar to any New York straphanger, and yet there’s something decidedly unfamiliar about it, something unsettling. All the basic components of a subway station—stairs, turnstiles, corridors—are realistically rendered, but the angles are slightly exaggerated. There’s also an element of repetition, which in general tends to disturb our sense of normality, stripping meaning from things we take for granted. For example, the three figures at the left are huddled in a row, in what seem like phone booths, each man in exactly the same posture. The composition as a whole gives the effect of an infinite regression.
The figures in the painting are ordinary people in everyday clothes, apparently on their way to or from work, but their faces wear disquieting expressions. The woman in the foreground has haunted eyes; those of the men behind her are zombie-like, exhausted or maybe sinister. All the people seem frozen in place—are they lost in thought, loitering, or under a spell? Finally, Tooker’s draftsmanship and paint handling make everything look eerie. The surfaces are just too smooth and clean to be real; the overall crispness and precision (made possible by the use of egg tempera, a notoriously tricky-to-handle medium) suggest that maybe everything is a replica rather than the real thing.
Many of the 80 works in “Real/Surreal” use similar strategies and techniques to subvert reality. Jared French’s State Park (1946) arranges a group of figures in a sort of tableau and then zaps them with a suspended-animation ray. These beachgoers are packed close together but seem indifferent to or even unaware of each other. As in The Subway, their stillness is eerie, but French takes his search for the realer-than-real one step beyond—his painted surfaces have a Tooker-like sharpness, but the figures’ musculature and facial features are exaggerated to point where they approach caricature. In Fantasia on a Theme by Dr. S. (1946), Paul Cadmus—a close friend and associate of Tooker and French—exaggeration of physical features also comes into play, this time in an explicit reference to Dr. William Sheldon’s popular theory of body/personality types: endomorphic, mesomorphic and ectomorphic.
Francis Criss’ Astor Place is a more or less correct depiction of the New York street as it appeared in 1932, but the only human presence is that of two black-cloaked figures and the scene is so deserted and silent that it seems like a de Chirico landscape without the broken classical statuary. Arnold Wiltz’s Reconstruction, also from 1932, channels de Chirico’s archaeological surrealism as well, but instead of Greco-Roman antiquity Wiltz invokes the more recent, accessible past by strewing his landscape with early American ruins. Louis Guglielmi’s Terror in Brooklyn (1941) is another uncomfortable urban scene, which disturbs our sense of reality with punched-up colors and precipitous angles. The figures trapped in a bell jar in the foreground—a nod to conventional Surrealism—seem almost unnecessary to create the unsettling effect the artist was after.
Whitney curator Carter Foster, who organized “Real/Surreal,” sees “a certain airlessness in the works of the Cadmus–French–Tooker circle,” and this quality seems present in the cityscapes, as well. The sense that all the oxygen has been sucked out of the picture space (perhaps that is what Guglielmi’s bell jar alludes to), that all motion is frozen, pervades the Whitney show. Considering that post-World War I America was in almost perpetual motion, this stillness itself is counterintuitive enough to be surreal.
Michael Rosenfeld, whose gallery show overlaps significantly with “Real/Surreal” by showing Tooker, French and others, says, “There’s tension, angst and stillness in these paintings, almost as if there’s a vacuum.” The stillness is generally deployed to convey anxiety, a feeling that was increasingly common in America and Europe during the 1920s and ’30s. Its causes are obvious—war, social dislocation, economic ups and downs and the multiple stressors of 20th-century urban life—but the ways in which these American artists chose to depict it are anything but. Their European counterparts were most interested in the psychological origins of modern angst; they tried to paint the unconscious directly, or at least mediated by dream symbols taken straight from the pages of Freud and Jung. On the other hand, many American artists wanted to show how the things we see and think about with our waking conscious minds are themselves uncanny, or conceal the uncanny. “Between chaos and our shoes there swings, I assure you, the thinnest film!” warns a character in a macabre short story by M. P. Shiel, a popular writer of that era. That film could well be the meticulously polished surface of a real-surreal painting.
Not all the works in “Real/Surreal” evoke dread, and one of the reasons this show is so interesting is that it encompasses so many styles and moods. Early-1950s still lifes by Walter Murch (an artist who remains under-recognized) play on the American fascination with machines by portraying fanciful mechanical gadgets almost as if they were human. Mabel Dwight’s prints, made in the 1920s, depict crowds of people watching various kinds of performances—a movie, a dance and even fish swimming in their tank at an aquarium. While Dwight is generally associated with social realism, says Foster, in this case the “surreal” aspect has to do with themes of “spectatorship and looking, ways of looking, mirroring and doubling.” There are a good number of Precisionist works, as well, including Charles Sheeler’s great River Rouge Plant (1932), Ralston Crawford’s Steel Foundry, Coatesville, Pa. (1936–37) and the obscure Henry Billings’ Lehigh Valley (circa 1930). While these paintings have something of the stillness of the above-mentioned cityscapes, there is no fear here. If anything, the artists’ hyper-clear-eyed gaze betokens a sense of pride and optimism about American industry. In this case, the “surreal” quality is more of a heightened or purified realism.
As Foster points out, in the 1930s it was not uncommon for Precisionist art to be shown alongside surrealist: “The categories then were a little looser than today.” One of the curator’s goals in mounting this exhibition was to loosen up the categories again. “I tried to make choices that would complicate things a little bit, that would get people thinking about the idea of the whole show,” he says. Some of the artists included will be big surprises to many viewers. Is perennial Whitney star Edward Hopper surreal? Well, if you look at Early Sunday Morning (1930) with “Real/Surreal” glasses on, he is. In this iconic image of red-brick row houses and storefronts there’s something a little off about those shadows, something about the way that fire hydrant leans, that twists the space-time continuum ever so slightly. “Working a lot on Hopper, I realized how uncanny and strange his works were,” says Foster. “Realism is definitely a misnomer for Hopper.”
One could say something similar for Rockwell Kent’s snowy scene The Trapper (1921)—which exploits the fact that the arctic regions are inherently uncanny—and even Andrew Wyeth’s Winter Fields (1942), which stares just a little too closely at a dead bird in the foreground. Grant Wood, whose reputation is dominated by one painting (American Gothic, of course), gets pigeonholed as an American regionalist, but Foster says, “He’s great for this show because he’s so whacked out.” Here Wood is represented by the bizarrely funny lithograph Shrine Quartet (1939), which places the fez-clad clubmen, mouths open in song and faces illuminated from below, against a background of Egyptian pyramids.
Some of the works in the Whitney show were made without any surrealist inspiration; one could even say that they are accidentally surreal—or perhaps there are no accidents. In any event, M.I.T. professor Harold Edgerton would have been surprised to know that his stroboscopic photographs are included, but there’s no question that the camera’s ability to freeze the motion of a bullet as it cuts a playing card in two or the flight of a dove as it flutters from the lap of Dr. Edgerton himself is a powerful tool for the subversion of ordinary perceptions of reality. Like quantum physics or relativity, it proves to us that what we see with our eyes isn’t really reality. Foster situates this practice, as well as the Precisionist technique, in an American tradition of “Harnett, Eakins, the Peale brothers, with their distilled focus on optics.”
The Brooklyn Museum’s show takes in a slightly earlier period but overlaps with “Real/Surreal” in some rather striking ways. The Precisionists are there, and so are Wood and Hopper, but there are deeper links. During the 1920s, as technology and mobility transformed America, especially rural America, reality itself was becoming surreal. Suddenly, remote farmhouses were linked to the whole wide world, as attested to by Luigi Lucioni’s Still Life with Telephone (1926), in which the candlestick-shaped phone seems a bit like an alien invader on the checkered tablecloth. Peter Blume’s Vegetable Dinner (1927) uses the surrealist strategies of tight cropping and close gazing to make a very ordinary domestic scene in a seaside town look strange. Lucioni, like many artists at the time (including Grant Wood, Joseph Stella, Cadmus, French and Tooker), was inspired by early Renaissance painting. His elegant portrait of Cadmus, prominently featured in the Brooklyn show, has a distinctly 15th-century fresco quality.
The cleanness, crispness and formal purity of quattrocento art were deeply appealing to early 20th-century American artists; it pointed them toward a way to be modern without losing touch with the past. Early Italian and Flemish art was realist and yet not; in that literally pre-Raphaelite era, naturalism had not yet become a priority. Its pastel colors, sharp outlines and eerily lit diorama-like landscapes are unselfconsciously real-surreal and very much ahead of their time.
This confluence of exhibitions may not only get people thinking about the nature of realism and perception; it may also recharge some reputations. Tooker’s The Subway is the signature image chosen to represent the show, and while he, Cadmus and French account for a tiny percentage of the total, the spirit of their art in many ways crystallizes what “Real/Surreal” is all about. And speaking of confluences, recently the so-called “Intimate Circle” (Cadmus, French, his wife Margaret French, Tooker and the photographer George Platt Lynes, who chronicled their private world) has been getting increased attention. Last summer D.C. Moore Gallery in New York had a retrospective show of Tooker, coupled with a group show devoted to the circle, whose work it has championed for decades; across town Throckmorton Gallery was featuring Lynes.
Edward Deluca, director of D.C. Moore, recalls that understanding and appreciation of the work had to grow slowly over time, swimming against the tides of Abstract Expressionism and Minimalism. “People are now more inclusive in the way they look at art,” he says. “They don’t come into the art world with so many preconceptions.” As more and more eyes are opened to the fact that realism and surrealism are not mutually exclusive, another preconception is ready to fall.