I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee
Prior to my meeting with Dorothea Tanning, I had been advised that Dorothea doesn’t always get along with members of the press very well. To be honest, during this interview, that seemed impossible to me. The person I encountered, hardly fit my conception of a “difficult” artist. Dorothea Tanning, 80-years-young, has a spirited strength, an enthusiastic joie de vivre , and an extremely sharp mind. There are a few things that Tanning cannot stand being subjected to: one is people who only want to talk to her about her recently deceased husband, the painter Max Ernst, and the other is people who want to use her life and art as fodder for some feminist agenda. And yes, she is certainly one of the most important American artists of this century.
Now the doors are all open, the air is mother-of-pearl, and you know the way to tame a tiger. It will not elude you today for you have grabbed a brush, you have dipped it almost at random, so high is your rage, into the amalgam of color, formless on a docile palette.
As you drag lines like ropes across one brink of reality after another, annihilating the world you made yesterday and hated today, a new world heaves into sight. Again, the event progresses without the benefit of hours.
The application of color to a support, something to talk about when it’s all over, now holds you in thrall. The act is your accomplice. So are the tools, beakers, bottles, knives, glues, solubles, insolubles, tubes, plasters, cans; there is no end …
Carlo McCormick In the ’40s, the Surrealists came to New York, a city that is both surreal and very subjective. In retrospect, that displacement seems to have been destined. Can one say that the character of New York suited and even inspired the Surrealist vision?
Dorothea Tanning I do think that chance had a lot to do with it. World War II sent the Surrealists over here, at a time when American art and American culture were in the doldrums, and it was like a shot in the arm. They absolutely amazed everyone and their influence has been long-lasting—like a stain, like an inoculation. Lots and lots of art that’s being made today, is, if not Surrealist, Dada. It’s very hard to say how much New York affected the Surrealists. Although New York was a stimulus, you couldn’t say that New York influenced the Surrealists. They were already developed when they came here. They were not young people, you see, they were people who were totally committed to a way of life and to a way of thinking. Then they all scattered after the War: when they could go back to France, they did. Some stayed on. And those, you could say, it did influence. For example, Yves Tanguy came and he never left. Max, of course, stayed a long time, Seligman stayed, Matta stayed for years. So that they were influenced to the extent that they liked being here.
CM In your work of the ’40s and ’50s, the iconography is charged with details which seem autobiographical.
DT When I look at those paintings, I like them, but I feel they’re the work of a very young person, even naive, someone who lives almost solely in her imagination. And someone who doesn’t think as much about the techniques of painting as about what’s being painted. How to say it was determined by trance, not chance. That was something people did in those days. Today technique is everything.
CM It’s funny hearing you say that because your early paintings are all so meticulous and perfectly finished. Later, when you started bringing in more painterly, temperamental elements, people were shocked.
DT Any true artist is going to explore the medium as long as he can draw breath. It would be grotesque to paint the same way, over and over all your life. It’s a kind of freeze. The fact that I’m not doing it is nothing to be sorry about.
CM There’s a quote of yours—”masterpiece, disasterpiece.” That was a perfect way to describe the brooding violence that runs through your work. Where is that psychosexual aggressiveness coming from?
DT That’s a good question. I wish I knew. I don’t know where it comes from. It’s just the way I am and the way I’ve thought all my life. I did a lot of reading. I’ve always been drawn towards esoteric phenomena: the illogical, the inexpressible, the impossible. Anything that is ordinary and frequent is uninteresting to me, so I have to go in a solitary and risky direction. If it strikes you as being enigmatic, well, I suppose that’s what I wanted it to do.
CM As your work progresses, using even more distortion and blurring and disembodiment of the forms, it seems to become more, rather than less real, as an experience.
DT So it does. I look back on those early paintings as history. They are not really what I am now, or want, but it was a way to begin.
CM Yes, there was an immediacy, an intensity.
DT That’s what I tried for, the elusive moment. And it’s the same today, the same preoccupations. For instance, hardly anyone today paints the human form: it’s frowned upon for some reason. Too close, maybe, too frank. There used to be an expression: too hot to handle. I don’t see why one shouldn’t be absolutely fascinated with the human form, there are so many reasons to be. Besides, we are all living in human bodies, we go through life in this wonderful envelope. Why not acknowledge that and try to say something about it? So what I try to say about it is transformation.
CM What effect would you say the passing years have had on your perceptions of the human form in terms of its frailty? You’ve always seemed to have a sense of mortality.
DT None, really. You don’t have to be old and wise to be aware of our dilemma. The shadow of mortality, well, I’ve always had it for a sort of companion. But I’m glad you ask the question, because my work is generally perceived as erotic, period. You see, when I paint drifting nudes, it’s a statement about being human. Some people think it’s a statement about being sexy. It’s an obsession of the whole, not so cultural, establishment, that almost everything we do which is inexplicable must be reduced to sexuality, and that’s absurd. It’s certainly very strong—I would never say it wasn’t—but, after all, there are other yearnings, with names like glory, incandescence, and love and knowledge. I like to think that you feel some of this when you look at my pictures.
CM Recently, your art has a kind of self-expressiveness that I don’t think is part of the Surrealist idea of how art should be made. Your work of the last few years is more deliberate and more meditative. And while the imagery may have Surrealist roots …
DT Listen. If it wasn’t known that I had been a Surrealist, I don’t think it would be evident in what I’m doing now. But I’m branded as a Surrealist. Tant pis.
CM I’m sorry I used the word so often.
DT Well, no, you haven’t used it nearly as much as the media does. The fact is, I do hold to the essential tenets and ideas of Surrealism, and I’ve gone along with it. Everyone should not only respect, but explore their subconscious, which is, after all, what the Surrealists were determined to do—to enrich life that way. But, it disgusts me to be lumped in with all of these so-called Surrealist painters. Such a terrible misunderstanding.
CM Do you think, in retrospect, that’s too easy or clever a pose?
DT What a question! For some, yes. But not for its serious adherents. Surrealism as a philosophy, as a way of thinking and living, is not simple. But certain artists who hooked on to it were. It seemed so easy to them. They came to Paris. From Romania, Armenia, Italy, Spain, Tenerife, Czechoslovakia. From England, too, and Switzerland and Germany. Curiously, there were few Americans around in my time, Man Ray, one of the greats.
CM A number of the earliest promoters of Surrealism in America, such as the critic, Henri Peyri, have said that Surrealism only had real value as a literary movement, and that its art was, at best, second-rate.
DT In a way, that’s right. People talk about Surrealism as an art movement, like Abstract Expressionism or Impressionism. Surrealism is a philosophical movement.
CM More like Existentialism.
DT Well, exactly. Or even earlier than that, with Hegel, and then there was Freud, and then there’s Darwin. These are philosophical ideals and ideas. Maurice Nadot wrote a book, Histoire de Surrealism. Nadot said from the moment that Breton adopted the category of artist—in other words, that dates the abortion of the Surrealist movement. Surrealism went down the drain, when these artists jumped on. And, as a matter of fact, it’s true. Surrealism—Breton’s definition of Surrealism—was pure psychic automatism by which we propose to reveal by speech, by writing, by any and all other means the real workings of thought. What happened was that the “all other means” jumped in, the artists. They squeezed in like an ethnic infiltration, till they had taken over the movement. Now if you mention Surrealism to anyone in the street, anyone at all across the country, they think you’re talking about pictures.
CM If you look at advertising over the last 30 years, you could say that Surrealism totally changed Madison Avenue.
DT That’s what I mean when I say that it infiltrated into the entire American life. Advertising was the first. If you look at magazines that came out around 1945, it’s almost comical. The advertisements all look like Dalí.
CM Yes, a little Dalí, a little Magritte.
DT And Magritte is still really big in advertising … let’s talk about something else.
CM O.K., I don’t know if you’ll be sensitive about this, but … as a woman artist …
DT Oh, no!
CM I figured you’d be really sick of that. People have wanted to put women artists, who had been ignored by history, back into it, and the only way they could do it for a while was to talk about you as a woman artist. And so—but I got your reaction, it is pretty horrendous, isn’t it?
CM That type of labeling.
DT I have nothing to say. I’ve written statements by the dozens, I’ve written savage letters to all kinds of earnest people who wish to include me in this category, and I just can’t talk about it anymore. I’m not against women, far from it. I’m against these confused people, doing that.
CM Do you think the women involved with developing the movement got a fair deal from Surrealism?
DT It’s a blurry question. Anyway, I wish you wouldn’t harp on that word, “women.” Women artists. There is no such thing—or person. It’s just as much a contradiction in terms as “man artist” or “elephant artist.” You may be a woman and you may be an artist; but the one is a given and the other is you.
CM Maybe in those earlier years, artists were more solitary, private in their working habits. When you think of a movement, you imagine everyone sitting around together at a table talking about their pictures or whatever they’re doing. Was it that way in your milieu?
DT I don’t think so. In any case, I never seemed to be surrounded by artists talking about art. I was a loner, am a loner, good Lord, it’s the only way I can imagine working. And then when I hooked up with Max Ernst, he was clearly the only person I needed and, I assure you, we never, never talked art. Never. We had a lot of fun and talked about all kinds of things, and showed each other new work, rather formally, with serious, but brief, comments. But we didn’t talk about craft.
CM That sort of shop talk is deadly.
DT Awful. Although it seems that a lot of artists do it, and I suppose it’s all right, maybe they get something out of it.
CM Was that a tough thing for you, being married to Max Ernst?
DT I think I just answered that question, what more can I add? I had no problem. When we started life together, two painters, it seemed like good idea. After all, what he fell for in the beginning was my painting. I came after!
CM Yes, I’ve heard that story, there was one painting in particular …
CM Even though I took classes on modern art, I never saw your paintings until I got out of school. I find that a shameful omission.
DT Well, to this day, most people have not seen my paintings. You know that, don’t you?
CM A lot of people I know are big fans of yours, actually. You’ve got a big cult following.
DT A cult figure? Pretty hidden, actually. Because no museum has come forward to have a retrospective of mine.
DT No! No, I’ve been waiting for this. I’m going to be 80-years-old next week.
DT Well, for what?
CM Just living up to 80 is great.
DT People say, “Dorothea, you made it.” I begin to feel so fragile. So menaced. It’s as though they’re preparing my funeral. All those flowers. You made it, so what’s left to do? I don’t feel that I made it to anything. Lots of people live to be 80. I intend to push on to 90. Living is so amusing.
CM Have there been retrospectives of your work?
DT Yes, in 1974 in Paris. At CNAC, that was Centre Nationale d’Art Contemporain. In ’77, it became the Centre Pompidou. Also there was a Tanning retrospective in Belgium at Knokke-le Zoute in 1977. None here so far!
CM It keeps you fighting.
DT No, I don’t care. Oh, for a little while, I was puzzled. I had thought it would be nice. Now I don’t even think about it. It’s got nothing to do with me.
CM No, that’s not why you create in the first place, is it?
DT Of course not. If that’s your goal, then you’re in another world completely. And it shows, in the work, I mean. Trashy. Do you go to galleries a lot?
CM Well, it’s part of my job as a writer. But to be honest, I don’t visit galleries nearly as much as I used to, or should—you get burned out.
DT I guess you do, in your position. I haven’t seen any exhibitions in … well, I would say, the last ten years. Just a couple of the museum greats: Degas and so on. It’s terrible. I suppose I should feel guilty. Mostly, I look out of my windows here from the studio and see amazing things, the sort of things that you’d never see in an art gallery.
CM That brings us back to the first question about New York being so unreal and subjective …
DT Well, violent. My painting called Pounding strong was begun by looking out the window at these crazy kids careening down Fifth Avenue on roller skates, wearing earphones, and carrying their powerful radios. They are like archangels. I wouldn’t be too surprised if they took to the air. I’m coming to terms with something which is more just generally human—archangels aside …
CM Tell me how you started painting. Did you go to art classes?
DT Yes. I thought you had to go to art school. It would be a kind of initiation like being baptized—in paint. It was in Chicago and I signed up at a school called the Chicago Academy of Fine Art. What a scam! They would take your money for your “tuition,” and then you sat and drew in a stuffy little room. But they did at least hire a nude model, so I was able to draw from the model. We had as a teacher, a local artist. And in those days, those local artists were overwhelmed by the glory of Picasso, so they all painted more or less like Picasso. The period they admired—and emulated—was his “Rose Period,” where he scrunched the figures way, way down. He, in turn, was influenced by primitive art, especially African, where the figures are chunky and rugged and shamanistic, with powerful torsos and short bent legs and savage faces. Well, you can imagine how all that operated on those Chicago painters at that moment in art history. For the local annual show, my teacher would have his works prominently front and center, his Picassoid slashes, because he was a well-known artist around there. Anyway, to go back to the class, there I was drawing what I thought was the model, and every time he’d come around to my little board, he’d shake his head and pass on. All the other students around were scrunching these figures down like crazy. So a couple of weeks later—after all, I had paid the tuition—I was so fed up, I came in there, and I took my charcoal and scrunched that figure down to a peanut. He stopped and looked at my blackened paper and said, “Now, you’ve made some progress! This is amazing! Very good!” Whereupon I threw down my charcoal and left, and that was the end of my art-school training. Those teachers wanted you to paint like they did. It fed their egos to think that they had influenced younger artists.
CM Later, with Max, did you feel overwhelmed?
DT No, I don’t feel this at all. In fact, I’ve had an amazing life all together. Why, how could acceptance as an artist, that is a meaningful or memorable artist, rival the rich colorful life I’ve had so far—I should say patchwork quilt—that was Galesburg, lllinois where I grew up, in cities and countries. In studios and houses with Max, not only a great man, but a wonderfully gentle and loving companion. So I’d say no. A serene, emphatic no, I have no regrets.
—Carlo McCormick is a writer living in New York City. He is Associate Editor of Papermagazine and contributes regularly to Artforum and other magazines.
I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee