by Garrett Caples
When André Breton, fleeing the Nazi occupation, arrived in Martinique in 1941, he was immediately thrown into a Vichy regime concentration camp; later, on his way back to France, he inadvertently sparked the Haitian revolution of 1946. (See Michael Richardson and Krzysztof Fijalkowski, trans. and eds., Refusal of the Shadow: Surrealism in the Caribbean, London and NY: Verso, 1996.) The history of surrealism in the New World has always been as fraught as such an entrance and an exit might suggest. The United States—where Breton spent most of his time between the aforementioned events—has been a particularly hostile environment to surrealism as a movement, for there’s something about the European model of avant-garde activity that doesn’t translate well to these shores. Unlike France, say, the U.S. has no cultural center on the level of Paris; New York would be it, and the city’s dominance in the publishing industry seems to assure that much of the official cultural history is written there, but the U.S. is simply too big, and the fact that the film and television industry is still centered on the opposite coast in Los Angeles, not to mention the more recent technological counterweight of Silicon Valley, has guaranteed a more fractured collective attention than the historical form of European modernism could have anticipated.
Surrealism has never been a part of official U.S. culture in any real sense. One might suggest there was a protosurrealist movement in New York City during the First World War, led by expats Duchamp and Picabia and attracting homegrown talent like Man Ray and Joseph Cornell, a group most frequently identified as New York Dada, though this is a retrospective, ahistorical label, for most period evidence suggests that these artists thought of themselves as futurists at that time. Neither dada nor surrealism existed as yet.
Just as it is difficult to date with precision the birth of surrealism in Paris—is it 1917, with the rewriting of Apollinaire’s play The Breasts of Tiresias and/or his preface to Satie and Cocteau’s ballet, Parade; 1920, with the publication of Breton and Soupault’s automatic collaboration, Magnetic Fields; or 1924, with the publication of Breton’s First Surrealist Manifesto and the magazine La Révolution surréaliste—so too it hard to say exactly when surrealism makes it debut in the United States. In the U.S., too, unlike France, surrealism begins with visual art, because translation of creative or polemical texts inevitably lags behind. The first U.S. exhibit of surrealist painting is generally held to have taken place, believe it or not, in Hartford, at the Wadsworth Atheneum, organized by director Chick Austin under the heading “The Newer Super-Realism” in 1931, and including works by de Chirico, Dali, Miro, Picasso, Ernst, Masson, Roy, and Leopold Survage. A version of this show would wind up in New York the following year at Julien Levy’s Gallery, with Americans like Cornell and Man Ray added, and certainly Levy credited himself, not without some justification, with bringing surrealism to the U.S. Pierre Matisse’s gallery also became a major factor.
But one could argue the definitive American introduction of surrealism—with the Paris group’s active participation—takes place five years later, in 1936 through a pair of MoMA shows curated by Alfred H. Barr, Jr.: Cubist and Abstract Art and Fantastic Art, Dada, Surrealism. The latter show, for instance, is brought to the masses, via coverage in LIFE magazine, which reproduces Dali’s Persistence of Memory in full color, and true to its title, almost 80 years later, this is still probably the most famous surrealist painting in the United States. Rebooted mere weeks earlier as a photojournal by right-wing publisher of Time and Fortune, Henry Luce, LIFE, of course, heaps as much scorn on surrealism as it will 20 years later on the Beat Generation, yet the lush reproductions of the likes of Magritte, Victor Brauner, and Meret Oppenheim rather undermine the intended criticism. In any case, the two catalogues Barr produces for these shows are, along with Levy’s contemporaneous Surrealism (NY: Black Sun, 1936), the first cogent expositions of surrealism written in the U.S., most previous English-language texts like David Gascoyne’s A Short Survey of Surrealism (London, Cobden-Sanderson: 1935) being British in origin.
Yet from the vantage of artistic production, one could argue the first self-consciously American surrealism emerges on the West Coast in the period between surrealism’s Hartford debut and its LIFE magazine dissemination. In appropriate surrealist fashion, surrealism in the U.S. begins around 1934 with post-surrealism, a small group of manifesto-issuing artists in Southern California led by a couple, Lorser Feitelson and Helen Lundeberg, among whom numbered the young Philip Guston, then painting as Philip Goldstein. Post-surrealism was essentially a classicist take on the romantic surrealism, sometimes calling itself subjective classicism or new classicism, rejecting the surrealist emphasis on the unconscious in favor of using irrational imagery to convey intellectual content. The group lasted about six years until it was dispersed by the twin pressures of the Federal Art Project—for which many of its members created murals—and the beginning of World War II. (See Michael Duncan, Post Surrealism, Logan, UT: Nora Eccles Harrison Museum of Art, 2002.)
Another factor on the West Coast was the enigmatic gallerist Howard Putzel, who staged the first surrealist show in San Francisco, featuring Miro’s work, in May 1934 at the East-West Gallery in San Francisco. In the fall of that year, he staged shows of Dali and Ernst at the Paul Elder Gallery, which was really part of a bookstore, Paul Elder & Co., on Post Street, before moving down to Los Angeles to stage shows at another bookstore, Stanley Rose, on Hollywood Boulevard. Putzel’s biggest claim to fame is having debuted Yves Tanguy in this country—which Levy had hitherto neglected to do, but would follow up within in months—with a one-man show at Stanley Rose in late 1935. This show later traveled to the SF Museum of Art (SFMOMA’s precursor). A year later, Putzel would take over Feitelson’s old gallery space on Hollywood Boulevard to stage a second Tanguy show, indicating a direct link between European surrealism and post-surrealism unmitigated by New York. (See Karin Von Maur, ed., Yves Tanguy and Surrealism, NY: Hatje Cantz, 2001.)
The big encounter between European surrealism and the U.S. does, however, occur in New York City in the early 1940s with the arrival of such major Parisian surrealist refugees as Breton, Tanguy, Masson, Ernst, Matta, and Gordon Onslow-Ford. Yet in the popular American mind, everyone is beaten to the punch by Dali, who arrives earlier and whose reputation as a visual artist is much greater. In the U.S., pictures will always speak louder than French, and by the time Breton arrives, Dali has already transformed surrealism into a pop cultural phenomenon, the stuff of department store windows and perfume ads, and this Dalian version of surrealism has never fully been overcome in this country. When people think of surrealism as a specifically figurative period style, it’s due to this historical moment.
Nonetheless, there were significant American reactions to this encounter. In the midwest, in the early ’40s, centered on Madison, Wisconsin, but also radiating out to Chicago and Milwaukee, a group of six artists led by Marshall Glasier and including Gertrude Abercrombe, Dudley Huppler, Karl Priebe, John Wilde, and Sylvia Fein were eventually tagged with the label “Magic Realists.” If there is a true distinction at play here between European surrealism and Midwestern Magic Realism, it’s that the Magic Realists saw themselves more as empiricists, capturing, perhaps heightening, the surreality inherent in the everyday world, hence their predilection towards portrait and landscape, toward minute renderings of fruit and bugs. They too were dispersed by the war, the younger males drafted, Sylvia Fein moving to Mexico and afterwards California, but all survived and they retained a sense of their group identity throughout their lives. Fein is the only only one still alive, though Glasier is probably the best known, having taught drawing many years in New York City.
If we were to locate the birth of a truly American surrealist writing in the U.S., we need to turn to 1942-1943 San Francisco, when 15-year-old prodigy Philip Lamantia sees a pair of museum shows of Dali and Miro and begins writing automatic surrealist poems. There were Americans like Parker Tyler and Charles Henri Ford who had gone to Paris in the prewar period and brought a version of it home; their heavily surrealist influenced avant-garde periodical View—really the only publication of its kind in the history of the United States, a glossy newsstand magazine of modernist art—was an important source for Philip, but simply put, nothing compares with what went on before in this country and the poetry the young Lamantia wrote, and he was the only American poet Breton encountered and declared an authentic surrealist.
The history of surrealist painting in the U.S. has still yet to be fully told. In January 1941, British member of the Paris group Gordon Onslow-Ford gave a series of lectures at the New School for Social Research, attended by Baziotes, Kamrowski, and probably Pollock. Onslow-Ford was likely the first painter to experiment with pouring paint on canvas and the three aforementioned young Americans immediately began to do so; only one of their experiments has survived, but it is sufficient to show the extent to which surrealism is at the root of the new American abstract painting of the postwar period.
Yet this influence was deliberately effaced from American art history almost as soon as Breton left the United States in 1945. What is clear from the encounter between surrealism and the young painters of New York City is that American abstraction is coming out of the abstract surrealism of Onslow-Ford, Matta, Masson, Tanguy, Paalen, and Gorky, but by 1946, the label abstract expressionism has been plucked from its original application to pre-WWI Kandinsky and applied to Pollock and his generation as a way to distance American painting from the undesirable revolutionary political aims of European surrealism. By 1949, with the encouragement of MoMA president and National Security Council member Nelson Rockefeller, Henry Luce once again intervenes against surrealism, by using the pages of LIFE to propose Jackson Pollock as the greatest American painter, packaged by Clement Greenberg in such a way as to denude of Pollock of any association with surrealism. This is as nefarious as it sounds, part of a CIA-directed campaign to assert American cultural dominance against the threat of communism, as meticulously documented in Frances Stonor Saunders’ fine book, The Cultural Cold War: The CIA and the World of Arts and Letters (New Press, 1999).
But despite the relative success of veiling its role in American art history, surrealism has endured in the sense that it continued to attract both individuals and groups.
Surrealism at city Lights