Art doesn't have to be beautiful to be good — think of works by Breugel, Picasso, Kahlo, Botero. But Surrealism? It's always left me cold: Dali's melting watches, Ernst's strange birds, can be striking images, but much of their work is, well... repellent.
But you might regard Surrealism differently after taking in Double Solitaire, an exhibit now running at the Katonah Museum of Art, just off I-84 in New York State. The show highlights how Yves Tanguy and his Albany, New York-born wife Kay Sage influenced each other's work... but the real “find” here is Sage, for while her paintings exhibit the ideological “anti-aesthetics” of Surrealism, they sometimes demonstrate heart, too.
You'll also learn from the show's signage that “Connecticut was a virtual Surrealist outpost” in the 1940s — now that's a surprise! — with Tanguy and Sage often hosting the likes of Andre Breton, Marcel Duchamp, Roberto Matta, Arshile Gorky, Hans Richter and other artists at their Woodbury farmhouse. (The Armenia-born Gorky, post-museum research reveals, is buried in Sherman... where he hanged himself in 1948 following, in a two-year stretch, 1) the destruction of his barn-studio by fire, 2) a colostomy for rectal cancer, 3) his wife's affair with Matta, and 4) a car accident caused by his art dealer that left Gorky with a broken neck — treated at New Milford Hospital — and unable to paint.)
Truth be told, the stories revolving around this painting couple are in many ways more interesting than their work. Tanguy and Sage showed their paintings jointly only once — at Hartford's Wadsworth Atheneum, in 1954 — for which they insisted on separate galleries, no doubt to underscore that Sage's work stood on its own. Which it does, curators Jonathan Stuhlman and Stephen Robeson Miller argue convincingly that Sage influenced Tanguy's work more than he let on. Like much Surrealism, for example, his paintings were often cluttered, while hers tended toward the spare... and when paired up, their paintings from around the same year indicate that Tanguy, for a time at least, adopted her life-long emphasis on the simple, focused, intimate.
The show can be seen as a “portrait of a marriage” in oil, a call-and-response the couple avoided while alive.
Tanguy, with his predilection for pebbles and Cubistic, sheet-metal-like forms, seems always to be re-imagining the topography, and shoreline, of his native Brittany; Sage addresses, instead, her inner landscape, trying to capture feelings and reactions — the irrational “self,” in other words — on canvas. Of her 1949, not-very-attractive painting “The Instant,” in which a seemingly natural landform has been cut open to reveal its hidden interior, she told an interviewer, “It's sort of showing what's inside.” Surrealists love that kind of “deconstruction,” but while Sage's palette is once again dominated by her usual cold grey tones, you note that underneath — in what's been excavated — there is color, and complexity and unexpected structure.
It is in Sage's last few paintings on exhibit here, following Tanguy's death from a cerebral hemorrhage in 1955, that emotion seems to infuse her canvases — and it's not the showman's played-for-effect emotion you see in much of Dali's work. Darker colors dominate; her composition becomes — and I hope I'm not projecting here — starker, less studied, more isolated.
In “Tomorrow is Never,” painted in 1955, the shroud-like vertical figures iconic to her work are almost hidden by scaffolding, as if in the process of being built, or taken down: they are unconnected to one another, trees without forest on a misty plain. It's a chilling image of death-in-life, which is apparently what Sage felt; she first tried to kill herself in 1959, but succeeded in 1963, with a bullet through the heart.
Her last completed painting, 1958's “The Answer Is No,” shows a bevy of blank canvases ready to be painted. It's a bleak image, as the title implies, and easy to regard as both tribute and mourning — in Tanguy, Sage has lost her favorite audience. And that does seem to be the case: she left a number of suicide notes, one of which reads, “The first painting by Yves that I saw, before I knew him, was called ‘I’m Waiting for You.’ I’ve come. Now he’s waiting for me again — I’m on my way.”
"Double Solitaire: The Surreal Worlds of Kay Sage and Yves Tanguy," is showing at KMA through September 18.