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Steve Wheeler (1912-1992)
Untitled, 1939-42
Tempera on board
10 3/8"x12 3/4"
Signed upper right
© Estate of Steve Wheeler 2001
Courtesy of Thomas McCormick Gallery

An American Attitude

March 23 - April 28, 2001
Tues-Sat: 10-6.

Thomas McCormick Gallery
835 West Washington Boulevard
Chicago, Illinois 60607
Telephone: 312/ 226-6800

Part I

Poet William Carlos Williams wrote "The pure products of America go crazy." Taken to extremes it is a recipe for disaster. Within measured bounds, it has been America's greatest strength: to recognize and run with possibilities. "Surrealism: An American Attitude," at the Thomas McCormick Gallery, Chicago, until April 28, 2001, offers an impressive range of Surrealist art in America: the work of emigres, paintings by American artists who joined in the latter's explorations, and works of art which led to distinctly New World developments. This exhibition is accompanied by a six-page, three-fold brochure, excellently illustrated with color reproductions, and which provides a concise and intelligent entry into an important history within modern art.

Surrealism did come as an import. Art historian Herbert Read noted in his book, A Concise History of Modern Painting (Thames and Hudson:1991):

When [Surrealist Andre] Masson arrived in the United States [1940] he found himself on prepared ground. Marcel Duchamp had been there since 1915. Amedee Ozenfont came to the United States in 1938, Yves Tanguy in 1939, and in this same year Matta Echaurren, who had been born in Chile in 1911, came to New York via Paris bringing with him a dynamite form of Surrealism which in its linear intensity anticipates some of the characteristics of action painting. Matta had probably been influenced by Miro, and so had Arshile Gorky, who came to the United States in 1920, but did not develop his characteristic style before the early 'forties."

Read adds: "...Jackson Pollock (1912-56) [a leader in 'action painting'], was inspired directly by Masson...."

"Surrealism: An American Attitude," at the Thomas McCormick Gallery, Chicago, offers an opportunity to view truly important, seminal art which, in itself mature and significant, inspired still more developments that made American art a leading force at large. The informed visitor will find art by textbook names: William Baziotes, Joseph Cornell, Lorser Feitelson, Arshile Gorky, Wilfredo Lam, Marisol, Roberto Escaurren Matta, Jan Matulka, Seymour Rosofsky... but, and perhaps it is the foremost value of this show, "Surrealism: An American Attitude" presents a number of important works which only now are being reassessed and which are truly impressive. A visitor may be attracted by classic 'names,' and, although their repute is merited, the discerning eye will also encounter artists who have created works of paramount quality; art which, for a while became eclipsed, and which only now is being recognized for its excellence.

Specifically, what are the origins of an art distinctly so American and yet so widely international? It began with Dada -- a Twentieth century 'anti-art'....

Herbert Read cited Andre Breton, an artistic strongman who packaged a waning spirit of abandon against art traditions -- Dada -- into a literary and rationalized format -- Surrealism. Herbert Read summarized Breton noting two trends: "from its origins (1919, year of the publication of the Champs Manetiques) until today [i.e. 1936]: a purely intuitive epoch, and a reasoning epoch. The first can summarily be characterized by the belief expressed during this time in the all-powerfulness of thought, considered capable of freeing itself by means of its own resources." Read then added: "...the other, in spite of its originality [remained] still essentially dominated by aesthetic criteria." That art historian concluded: "Some of the artists alternated between both tendencies." So much is generally agreed upon. "Surrealism: An American Attitude" illustrates prominent tendencies in Surrealism, as well as their free recombinancy.

Above: Arshile Gorky (1904-1948)
Study for Aviation Murals, c.1935-36
Pencil on paper
© Estate of Arshile Gorky 2001
Below: Gerome Kamrowski (b.1914), 1941
Untitled (a13)
Watercolor and ink on paper
Signed at lower right
8 1/4"x9 1/8"
© Gerome Kamrowski 2001
Courtesy of Thomas McCormick Gallery

Artists at that time, and with great hopes, had looked to Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung. Some sought to tap the subconscious freely, intuitively -- Automatism. What the mind produced was accepted raw as primal evidence. Others discerned a power in guiding and interpreting that for further aesthetic intents, and in doing so gave birth to reasoning expressions: Veristic Surrealism, with reference to the figurative; Visionary art; and 'Magic Realism.' Still others undogmatically assimilated insights from analytical and technic currents in art; movements such as analytic Cubism and Constructivism -- a search for underlying visual form, and further, its transcendent overtones.

"Surrealism: An American Attitude" presents thirty-eight artists and nearly twice as many works of art, ranging from Jan Matulka's biomorphic abstraction of the early 1930s to Seymour Rosofsky's 1967 response to the Vietnam War. (Surrealism has been often linked with politics). One should note that several works in this showing are borrowed from private collections and, while not for sale, these have not been publicly displayed before and are included here to give a comprehensive understanding of the Surrealist breadth. In addition, this exhibition features several artist's proofs -- works which follow to the final result as conceived by the artist himself. This is an opportunity which merits careful study.

A general viewer will certainly recognize artists who are familiar from numerous books on modern art: William Baziotes, Joseph Cornell, Arshile Gorky, Wilfredo Lam, Marisol (Escobar), Roberto Escaurren Matta, Jan Matulka, Seymour Rosofsky -- fine works of artists who have since become 'canonical.' (Hardly the artist's fault.) But, among the offerings at the gallery, one finds a canny sense for significance and quality. "Surrealism: An American Attitude" re-evaluates select achievements: art which must be recognized and rated highly. There are discoveries, and, for the collector, opportunities.

Gerome Kamrowski (b.1914), Steve Wheeler (1912-1992), and Dorr Bothwell (1902-2000) are particular examples. Their pieces in this show are impressive. One questions why they are not currently far more widely acclaimed, and that today may only be a fleeting circumstance. A serious follower of art may not have known their work. After "Surrealism: An American Attitude," one hopes for further retrospectives and published monographs. Andre Breton in 1949 wrote an introduction to Kamrowski's solo exhibition at Galerie R. Creuze in Paris and declared: "Of all the young painters whose evolution I have been able to follow in New York during the last years of the war, Gerome Kamrowski is the only one who has impressed me.... Among all the newcomers there, he was the only one I found tunneling in a new direction...." [McCormick Gallery Notes]. Wheeler's case is more understandable. The Gallery Notes state that Wheeler was born in Slovakia and became a member of the Indian Space Painters who "explored the symbols, imagery, and mythology of the Northwest Coast Indians through puzzle-like abstraction and Surrealism." Thomas McCormick Gallery adds that Wheeler claimed his paintings to be "living organisms" and notes: "Although Wheeler painted until his death, his reputation had diminished because of his difficult personality and reputation. His last solo show was held in 1951 when he was only 39 years old." (A cautionary to young artists.) And Dorr Bothwell is due for wider appreciation. She attended the California School of Fine Arts and was a WPA muralist, and later taught at the California School, as well as at the San Francisco Art Institute. These artists themselves are worth several long visits.

Above: William Baziotes (1912-1963)
Abstraction, 1949
Oil on canvas
© Estate of William Baziotes 2001
Below:Below: Dorr Bothwell (1902-2000)
In Flight, 1949
Oil on board
13 3/4"x10 1/2"
© Estate of Dorr Bothwell 2001
Courtesy of Thomas McCormick Gallery

Seventeen works by Gerome Kamrowski are now at the Thomas McCormick gallery. There is a fluid dynamicism to this art. Some pieces, as in the artist's Untitled (a15:ink on paper:1940) or his Untitled (a13:watercolor, ink on paper:1941), harken to the basic, abstracted structures of cellular biology; others display a harmony and counterpoint of moving forms in space. Kamrowski ranges from tight, clear graphic expression, as in his Untitled (a22:watercolor, ink on paper:1940) with its almost woodcut line superimposed upon distinct but free-floating color contours, to more nebulous, dream-like fantasies such as Untitled (a16:watercolor, gouache on paper:1930s). A number of works, like Untitled (a11:watercolor, ink, pencil on paper:n.d.) recall a materialized choreography of dance -- multiple levels and instances in an analytical working out of events combined in progress. Kamrowski's Night Bird (Gouache, enamel on paper: 9 1/2"x8 1/2":1946), in its ever-altering reiteration of contours and 'lines of force,' brings a Futurist dynamic to Surrealism. The central owl-like motif of Night Bird, and related pieces by this artist, seem subliminal distillations akin in spirit to Giacomo Balla's much cited Dog on a Leash (1912). A single regret is that with the artist's lack of more specific titling, however constricting that might seem in theory, any observer's unillustrated commentary must read much like a laundry list. No doubt, the intent is to focus attention on the art's content and visual event (each painting 'acts' as an active incident), but this trait makes distinguishing the work in words difficult. This is, however, imposing art, and it should be seen firsthand. In the years 1941-42, Kamrowski collaborated on a painting with Jackson Pollock and William Baziotes, and went on together with Robert Motherwell, Roberto Matta (also in this showing) and others, to promote Surrealist approaches such as Automatism. Appreciation of this work has yet to find its mark and it is overdue.

One of the valuable pleasures of this exhibition is the range of expression it presents within a Surrealist sensibility. A visitor discerns among the featured artists, Breton's general perception of reasoning and intuitive Surrealism; insights and approaches entering into Surrealism from other contemporaneous currents in art -- the transcendent geometries of Constructivism, the analysis and synthesis of Cubism; and further, one recognizes working methods and the emergent visual vocabularies which led to so many distinctly American movements. Gallery director Thomas McCormick put it succinctly:

Americans were not shy about combining various isms and influences to arrive at their own variation on a theme. Some painted in the classic Daliesque mode of fantastic realism (Lundeberg, Benrimo, Nelson, Abercrombie), but most painted in some other version such as biomorphic automatism (Gorky, Matulka, Matta, Kamrowski, Baziotes, Martinelli), totemic primitivism (McChesney, Woelffer, Lam, Nelson), metaphysical or magic realism (Matulka, Kirschenbaum, Berman, Rosofsky, Stamper), or neo-plasticism (Feitelson, Engel). Of course, none of these examples are pure in any sense of the word and, in that, they are purely American.

Biomorphic Automatism -- a free intuitive sensing out of living shapes -- may be called the primal inspiration in Surrealism. In this exhibition, Abstraction (1949) by William Baziotes (1912-1963) still displays its reference to human form. Art historian Barbara Cavaliere noted that in the 1940s, Baziotes spent much time in the American Museum of Natural History: the artist was still absorbing a nature which was to abstract unrecognizably into pure art. The Baziotes at the McCormick Gallery seems an initial key to that transformation. In contrast, Arshile Gorky passed to Surrealism from Synthetic Cubism in the early 1930s, and his Study for Aviation Murals (1935-36) similarly offers art from an important period for that artist. (The murals were executed for an East Coast airport). There are a number of paintings in this exhibition which either cover important transitions, or highlight exemplary selections from artists who evolved consistently over the course of their career.

In this exhibition, there is a fine spectrum of Surrealist work which maintained its links to the figurative -- compositions which recombine and alter familiar world into what might well be dreaming states of mind or mystical visions: Magic Realism, Visionary Art. Among the more Dali-esque is Jules Kirschenbaum (1930-2000). Kirschenbaum died in March 2000, before his major retrospective in October of that year at Drake University, where he was an Associate Professor. Of his four paintings in "Surrealism: An American Attitude," Time and a Dreamer's World (Oil on canvas:30"x36"1948) is representative. It is a complex composition which interweaves image elements from the artist's interests -- architecture, history, references to past art traditions -- into a theatrical proscenium of reverie. In this painting, skeletal beasts litter the center foreground, and are flanked by the materials of an artist's studio: canvases, mahl-stick, sketches, as well as graffiti: "Raphael," "Lao Tzu," "Tao," and the Crucifixion's "INRI." It is the visual attic of an expansive, educated mind. Several of Kirschenbaum's paintings focus on personality, bypassing whatever specifics to which it may attach itself. The Crusader (Watercolor on paper:23"x30 3/4":1954) isolates a lone urban male among a labyrinth of concrete stairs and bare brick walls. At upper left, from behind metal rooftop railings, another youth watches the crusader whose cause remains unstated and obscure. The focal crusader holds up a flag in a gesture of commitment within an urban desert.

The boundaries between Fantastic Realism and Magic Realism often prove to be textbook conveniences, and artists are free to cross them at will. Tom Benrimo's Figures on a Beach (Oil on gesso panel:23 1/4"x29 1/4":1946) offers a cleanly-defined, deliberate technique and a measured balance in composition which evolved within the artist's interest in Greek and Latin dramatists and poets. The Gallery Notes state that "he was clearly also influenced by Picasso, as evidenced by similarities to that artist's Women Running on the Beach, 1922, in the Musee Picasso, Paris." Figures on a Beach is an excellent work in what has since become a widely accepted genre.

The figurative in American Surrealism, where evident, needn't be confined to expression, nor to just subliminal roots. Surrealism encompassed theme and content as well. Among earlier European Surrealist circles, political involvements, often favoring liberal and leftist sympathies, were intimate associates to art. Indeed, much of the earlier, Dadaist ferment, and its Surrealist heirs, arose as a confrontation to the seeming irrationalities of modern life -- men developed technologies to serve them, and fell enslaved to their own machines; died in wars for a better life; preached great futures, and then fled into their past.

In so many ways, much work by Seymour Rosofsky is, in its very soul, Surreal. Yet, and even more in retrospect, a viewer finds a stark reality which forever haunts our lives. "Surrealism: An American Attitude" offers the gallery visitor this artist's oil on canvas, The Inspector (:50"x60":1967). Here, Rosofsky creates a blend of German satiric Expressionism and Surrealist vision. The Inspector is overt and diabolical, obscene and moral outrage at its peak, Surreal in thought and all too real in human history. At right, four pipelines pour a bilious green into a trough which itself sports seven porcine teats. Seven naked raw recruits are thus suckled, while an ogreish creature, endowed with epaulets, examines their nether parts with a looking glass. Rosofsky opposed the Vietnam War. (And sexually 'defective' men were rejected by the military -- the artist must have deeply pondered that.) At image left, two men in uniform examine a grimacing recruit. One has stuck three syringes in the victim's right arm. A funnel in the recruit's left ear is at the same time a dunce cap of the accompanying examiner. In this painting, the artist with wit highlights the examining of every orifice; and the real and Surreal become one. Each vignette contributes. Visual phantasmagoria resolves to bitter critique.

"Surrealism: An American Attitude" offers an epoch, intuitive and reasoning; a broad survey of varied art of great significance: a movement, an age, ultimately an American attitude as well. It is on display at the Thomas McCormick Gallery, Chicago, until April 28, 2001.

This exhibition is accompanied by a six-page, threefold brochure, excellently illustrated with color reproductions. The text is by gallery director Thomas McCormick. The gallery handles the estates of several artists here and has published scholarly monographs on these. They may be purchased from the gallery.

Finis Part I

--G. Jurek Polanski

Jurek Polanski has previously written and art edited for Strong Coffee in Chicago. He's also well known and respected among the Chicago museums and galleries. Jurek is currently a Visual Arts Correspondent for ArtScope.net.

Editorial Note: Books mentioned in www.artscope.net reviews are often in print and may be purchased through this site's Barnes & Noble link. A useful overview is in Herbert Read's A Concise History of Modern Painting (Thames and Hudson:1991). Barbara Cavaliere's observation is cited in On Modern American Art ("Rothko's Surrealist Years") by Robert Rosenblum (Harry N. Abrams:1999).

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