PRINT May 1968

1. A Beautiful Exhibition

REFERRING TO THE GROUP OF “Yippies” (protesting the embalming of Surrealism) outside the Museum of Modern Art the night the show opened, Salvador Dali was quoted by Newsweek (April 8, 1968) as saying, “These are the Dadaists of today.” The remark, if Dali made it, must have horrified William S. Rubin who put together a show designed, perhaps, to rehabilitate Dada and Surrealism, but not to revive them, and certainly not to lend authenticity to the tragedy of mindless self-destruction which so many of this nation’s best youth are enacting, both in life and in art.

As shown, perhaps, by Dali’s remark, the Surrealist sensibility is beyond rehabilitation, as silly, quaint and as hapless before the actual facts of the times as, say, a pre-Raphaelite sensibility. To rehabilitate Surrealism today means to make a case for it as art, and this Mr. Rubin has proven himself superbly equipped to attempt by virtue, first, of an uncanny eye, second, of his thorough sensitivity to the case that has been made for Surrealism, if not as non-art, at least as bad art, and third, of a professionalism in the gathering and mounting of an exhibition that one had despaired of ever seeing again in the American museum world (contemporary wing). Whether one finds that Mr. Rubin makes his case or not, the eye that chose the show, the knowledge that informed it, the professional authority that is manifest in its presentation make Dada, Surrealism and Their Heritage a model exhibition and as such, a joy to behold.

In one of the shrewd remarks that make his writing so rewarding, Sidney Tillim once observed that “Surrealism seems to be what happens when a mainstream tradition loses its authority.” The mainstream tradition in question, of course, was Cubism, but the issue appears less to have been a matter of the loss of authority than the bitterness of the pill Cubism was offering, for if there was one hope that Cubism was withdrawing from painting, it was the hope that a subject matter would come along which would be so compelling that it would give any kind of painting conviction again. It was precisely this hope that Surrealism offered, and, in the new subject matter of the unconscious, managed to stave off for more than two decades the implacable pressures of the Cubist revelation, as long, that is, as Surrealist subject matter was able to retain some measure of conviction. As this conviction drained, painting withdrew from Surrealism as a snake withdraws from its skin. By the time of Mr. Rubin’s exhibition, neither the best painting nor the best criticism seemed to acknowledge that Surrealism had ever existed. The New York School came into its own when it shook off the torpor of the long Surrealist sleep, and if it broke with Surrealism simply by leaving it behind, it broke with it nevertheless. The reaction against the discredited Surrealist adventure set in most strongly in the painting of our immediate times. The painting of Stella, Noland, Bannard and Olitski, which was championed and collected by Mr. Rubin from an early moment, is consciously, even programmatically, anti-Surrealist. “Art degenerates,” wrote Michael Fried, “as it approaches the condition of theater,” and he is explicit in making Surrealism some part of the definition of theater. For Fried, as well as palpably in the work of Noland and Stella, the extent to which a painting is contaminated by the Surrealist sensibility is the extent of its failure.

But in Mr. Rubin’s own writing, especially on Jackson Pollock, the issue of Surrealism stubbornly refuses to recede, and the kind of tension that results from his awareness of the emptiness of Surrealist rhetoric on the one hand, and his conviction on the other that a Surrealist contribution has been made and that its full measure has not been taken illuminates and excites every stage of Dada, Surrealism and Their Heritage. It stands to reason that Mr. Rubin would seek that measure, not in another dreary rehearsal of Surrealist and Dadaist hanky-panky, but in a display of paintings of unanswerable quality.

Reading the exhibition from this point of view, one finds it full of stresses, strains, charming duplicities. The Surrealist “objects,” for example, are embalmed in a manner corroborating the worst fears of the protesting Hippies—as befits what is deadest in Surrealism. The worst of them are hardest to get to, awkwardly stuck in the far corner of a narrow mausoleum of a room. In the section of the room which is easier of access, one’s eye falls almost by accident on a sculpture dropped casually on the floor in a corner: it is Giacometti’s Woman With Her Throat Cut, and it lights up the room. The black-walled, hoked up installation of the Dali room must be enjoyed by contrast with the open expansiveness of the triumphant selections in the rooms devoted to Picabia, Ernst, Miró, Matta, Gorky and Masson (for whom Mr. Rubin must here be admitted to have finally made his case). In these rooms, with their succession of brilliant selections—all the Mirós, the Masson sand paintings, Matta’s The Onyx of Electra, Picabia’s Edtaonisl, Duchamp’s Tu m’—Mr. Rubin lays to rest the facile notion that the Americans brought good painting to Surrealism. It is a measure of the quality of Mr. Rubin’s selections that our thoughts are provoked the other way: that the Americans were attracted to Surrealism because it patently provided so much good painting.

There is an air of duplicity, therefore, in what Mr. Rubin calls “the Heritage section” of the exhibition, tailed as it is so unconvincingly to the show. It is simply inconceivable that he should care one way or the other whether Nikki de St. Phalle’s dolls, Adami’s paintings, Trova’s statues are the heirs of Surrealism or not. The kind of heritage in which Mr. Rubin is clearly interested is the answer to the question: What would an artist as good as Pollock, or Rothko or Gottlieb see in Surrealism? The answer the show provides is: good painting, and, implicitly, the idea that if the claptrap about the Unconscious had to be tolerated—indeed, even mouthed—to get near to it, why then it was tolerated and mouthed.

Of all the artists in the exhibition, the only one who seems to be installed inconclusively is Joseph Cornell: his work is vaguely associated with the Surrealist objects. (How nice it would have been to have invited Walter Hopps up from the Washington Gallery of Modern Art to reconstruct a part of his miraculous Cornell installation at Pasadena last year.) For the rest, Dada, Surrealism and Their Heritage is the most authoritatively installed exhibition in recent memory, its weights and balances determined long beforehand, with care. One comes to it with relief from the many shows in which the paintings are installed with great meticulousness and finesse, and it is the exhibition which is just thrown together.

Philip Leider