Article by Barbara Confino in New York; Friday, Feb. 22, 2013
Together with Dada, Surrealism (and they really are two acts of the same play) was the most inventive of modern movements. An overwhelming number of contemporary practices and attitudes can be traced back to them. Most fundamentally they are responsible for a paradigmatic shift in the definition of the artist. From a craftsman practicing a hard won skill, the artist became someone who sets a process in motion. Now you could pour something, rip something, rub something, paste something, or burn something with no idea of the outcome. The artist, like Aristotle’s god, is merely the Prime Mover. The rest is up to Chance.
As the title of their Bureau of Surrealist Research attests, Surrealists saw themselves first and foremost as explorers, agents of discovery in the mysterious realms of chance and the unconscious, and only secondarily as artists who bring back to the conscious, normal, daylight world, trophies. Esthetic and craft concerns were––and continue to be for many artists––suspect.
Because chance brings with it the unexpected, the unforeseen, and occasionally, the marvelous, (a surrealist euphemism for the new and the strange) chance was one of their main allies. Indeed, the Surrealists loved everything odd. More than any other modernist movement they were responsible for that love of the grotesque nowadays equated with cutting edge.
The superb Drawing Surrealism show at the Morgan Library in New York offers an excellent opportunity to follow these explorations via that most transparent and spontaneous of media: drawing. With its affinities to writing and the pictographic origins of language, drawing gives us a window onto the mind of the draftsman in a way painting finds harder to do. The Surrealists, especially, with their love of games, of improvisation and chance, used drawing to map the errant unconscious and its discoveries. Furthermore, techniques like frottage were best executed with graphite, although delcomania was more partial to ink. Both were techniques in which chance imagery offered a point of departure for more deliberate work. The Morgan provides excellent examples of ways in which drawing media were enlisted in the Surrealist search for the Marvelous.
Since photography, or to be more precise, the photogram, is drawing with light, it has a place on honor in the exhibit. Man Ray, the surrealist polymath par excellence, was the greatest exponent of the form and he is well represented in the show. Often very beautiful, the photogram’s exquisite gradations of grey flourish in an abstract space. Of all the surrealist genres it is the least shocking and earns its avant garde credentials primarily through its denial of optical illusion.
If the photogram tends towards abstraction, photo collage employs the real, finding strangeness in its fragmentation and poetry in its juxtapositions. While not the inventors of photo collage (the incomparable Hannah Hoch was probably its greatest exponent) nor of collage itself, they took it to new heights. Max Ernst’s collage novels, for instance, are unsurpassed in inventive and suggestive power. But it was for others, such as Adriano Del Valle and Georges Hugnet, both represented at the Morgan, to use photography directly in collage, a practice that later flourished in the work of Rauschenberg and Warhol, and continues unabated today. In fact, the use of photography has become a commonplace in contemporary art, be it conceptual, installation, mixed media, or simply undefined. And this ubiquitiousness can be at least partially attributed to surrealist influence.
It was the Dadaists and the Surrealists, along with their precursors, the Futurists, who truly went Beyond Painting, to use Max Ernst’s celebrated phrase. Although skill in the service of art has never been abandoned, it no longer defines the artistic enterprise as it once did. Some might argue that the Cubists had already redefined art, but Cubism was an art of the mind executed primarily by the brush; it was not the stepchild of chance and the unconscious. While alert to any interesting accident that might occur, the Cubists were nothing if not deliberate. A truly revolutionary notion of art was the work of others. In Drawing Surrealism we can follow its path through one radical permutation after another in a show not to be missed.
Barbara Confino is an artist and writer based in New York City. Her work has been featured at the Brooklyn Museum and is housed in such collections as the British Museum Library, the Bibliotheque Nationale de France and the Staatsbibliothek of Berlin. She is Associate Editor of the New York Photo Review, where she reviews the current photography scene. For two years she was Artist-In-Residence at New York’s Polytechnic University and she teaches at CUNY’s New York City College of Technology. Her installation, the Genetic Wars can be seen at www.thegeneticwars.com. Further writings of Barbara Confino can be found at perceptionsinpassing.com