PRINT May 1968

3. Surrealist Composition: Surprise Syntax

THE LAST DADA AND SURREALIST show at the Museum of Modern Art was assembled by Alfred H. Barr thirty-two years ago. It included Bosch and Blake and established for the then-powerful Surrealist style a respectable past. Dada, Surrealism, and Their Heritage, assembled by William Rubin in his new position as Curator of Painting and Sculpture, though not the only recent show to indicate a renewal of interest in historical Surrealism, is the definitive show for us now.

The three hundred-or-so works are extremely well selected and well presented. The exhibition, accompanied by a lucid and insightful catalog, presents the historical development very clearly. The installation is chronological except for three fascinating displays of Surrealist Objects, Dada and Surrealist Techniques, and a section on Words. The major artists are represented by exquisite capsule retrospectives. The Duchamp section, for example, includes key paintings, The Large Glass in replica, several readymades, a rotorelief. The Miró section includes unusual works, which, like many of the pieces in this show, have never been seen in this country. The Birth of the World is more monumental than anything we might have expected. Composition (1933), a collage of Victorian cutouts, is more intimate. In every case the artist’s major achievement and the full spectrum of his interests are presented simultaneously. Between the retrospectives of major artists there are works by less well known figures which illuminate the extent of Dada and Surrealist activity, innovations, and common concerns. The display of both breadth and achievement characterizes the whole show.

It is the measure of this new show that it opens the way for us to find continuity between the present and the Surrealist past. This is no longer a problem with Dada. Most of the important questions raised by the show and discussed here are about Surrealism. It is difficult at this point to realize that for a long time Surrealism has been denied a place in the mainstream of the modern development. “. . . it appeared by 1955 as if the entire Dada-Surrealist adventure was a kind of anti-modernist reaction situated parenthetically between the great abstract movements prior to World War I, and after World War II.”1 It seems essential that for Surrealism to be brought into line with the present and our present form-oriented values, that we understand the extent to which Surrealism participated in the crucial inventions of modern form. Partisans with diametrically opposed views seem to have united to deny the fact that Surrealist art had form. Surrealists called it a state of mind, a way of life. It was easy to go further and say that “In painting and sculpture, the Surrealists suffered from the fact that Surrealism, being a literary movement and a literary idea, does not really represent a recognizable style,”2 and that “. . . it added little to the formal language of 20th-century art.”3 Critics could suggest that it was one of the “psychological escape routes” avoiding the main formal problems of painting.4

It would be a mistake to deny the important role that associational elements play in Surrealist art but there is no need for us to continue to imagine that if we felt anything at all from Surrealist paintings and objects, there was not an equivalent in the realm of form. It would seem that the claim of modern painting that the means of painting are crucially expressive is endangered if we agree that it is possible to chuck out years of intensive exploration in paint under the Surrealist aegis as ephemera, a state of mind, not plastic. The Surrealists made paintings and objects and it should not be surprising to find that the way these were made was affected by their state of mind. It would be surprising rather, if this were not the case. In fact the Surrealists invented forms, the forms reflected their sensibility, and all of this influenced later art.

In his writings William Rubin suggests that biomorphic or organic form “represents a major common denominator—perhaps the only one—which allows us to draw together the stylistic innovations of the Surrealist years.”5 This form has “. . . properties evoking the inwardness—both physiological and psychological—of man and ideally suited to improvisational, ‘automatic’ styles . . . the contours unwind in a free and meandering manner implying growth and change . . . ambiguous shapes . . . multiple associations to nature . . .” It was not merely a technical device, but a formal equivalent for a poetic sensibility, a “new humanism.”6

This can be appreciated in the Miró section at the center of the show. Not only are many shapes organic, but the paintings seem to have grown like something live. A freely colored stained surface seems to have suggested concrete forms and creatures which, conversely, seem to animate the space of the original stained surface. Parenthetically, the painting and scale of this surface is bolder than any made before in modern painting.

The poetic use of biomorphic form can be traced further. A few steps beyond Miró—past Matta—Gorky’s paintings and the beautiful early Surrealizing works of Pollock, Newman, and Rothko, show the use of this form. Although Rubin does not suggest that Surrealism accounted for it, Surrealism affected the character of postwar abstraction: “. . . the American painters’ experience of Surrealism enabled them to ‘open up’ the language they had inherited from Cubism and Fauvism . . . the visionary spirit of their wholly abstract art retained much of Surrealism’s concern with poetry albeit in a less obvious form.”7 If the exhibition had an apotheosis it would be in the mature works of these artists. Though later works are not included here, as it is, it should be absolutely clear that key members of The New York School went to Surrealist school first. “The best of Surrealism . . . (was) . . . absorbed into the mainstream of modern art . . . where it enjoys an immortality . . .”8 The many recent painters who admit a debt to Pollock, Newman, etc., should count Surrealism as part of their history.

I think there is another formal common denominator which has affected art up to the present. In contrast to biomorphism, this principle of formation does not suggest easy organic growth, but disruption of natural growth. It is a package for the irrational.

This principle of formation is exemplified by the curious Surrealist technique, the exquisite corpse. “Exquisite Corpse: Game of folded paper played by several people who compose a sentence or drawing without anyone seeing the preceding collaboration or collaborations. The now classic example, which gave the game its name, was drawn from the first sentence obtained this way: The-exquisite-corpse-will-drink-new-wine.”9 Incongruity, surprise itself, functions as a principle of formation. This is the application of an idea recognized as relevant to the selection of subject matter or things in Surrealist art. For a long time it has been understood that the juxtaposition of incongruous elements accounts for the associational whammy of many a Surrealist work, the visual illustration of bizarre confrontations like the “chance encounter of a sewing machine and an umbrella on a dissecting table.”10 It is the abstract equivalent of this meeting of odd entities that accounts for the formation of Surrealist shape clusters. The graphic products, as the verbal exquisite corpse, have the effect of parts made by differing sensibilities. Where these parts join there is no easy transition. Line changes to plane; thin changes to fat; apparently slow curvature suddenly curls around itself; spindly shapes poke out suddenly from larger. masses at odd angles; curved changes to square without having been predicted. These are the principles of what might be called surprise syntax.

Everything occurs without preparation. In this respect the organization of parts is the very opposite of what one might call a classical syntax of shape where every change in angle, direction, width of shape is accounted for, and in a sense, compensated for by adjustments of the totality.

The participation of several discrete sensibilities belonging to several different artists seems relevant to the production of this kind of form. The confrontation of forces in such a jagged and irrational manner seems more brutal than that likely to be invented by any individual. This was understood by the Surrealists. “In fact, what excited us about these productions was the assurance that, for better or worse, they bore the mark of something which could not be created by one brain alone, and that they were endowed with a much greater leeway, which cannot be too highly valued . . .”11 It is clear that the method and consequent form refer back closely to Surrealist sensibility and purposes. “Finally, with the exquisite corpse we had at our command an infallible way of holding the critical intellect in abeyance, and of fully liberating the mind’s metaphorical activity.”12 To achieve the truly irrational, in the exquisite corpse arbitrary disruptions of normal creative impulse were introduced, and the product seemed able to create a concrete irrationality which may well have served as a generative model for the works of individual artists.

Whatever its origin,13 many Surrealist works are affected by the configuration of parts according to these “rules.” In Dali’s paintings, surprise syntax occurs in particularly upsetting works along with associationally unnerving elements such as crawling ants and modeled beetles. Dali’s images seem, moreover, interestingly close to the example given by the biologist C. H. Waddington as a case of mutant formation, usually deleterious. “Probably any biologist with some familiarity with bones would be able to say that the latter (the mutant formation) must be an abnormality and could not be a part of the normal skeleton of some species unknown to him; its knobbly uncertain lumpishness betrays it.” A mutant gene in the fruit fly produces “irregular, variable, and ‘unnatural’ legs.”14 These descriptions sound like applications of the principles of surprise syntax. So the Surrealists’ intuitions about disruption as expressed in shape seem to have their counterpart in the natural world. Conversely, Waddington’s description of normal organic form sounds very similar to classical syntax.

“Organic form is, then, the resultant of the interaction of many different forces. The wholeness of the form indicates that this resultant is always in some sense in equilibrium. The internal tensions are balanced against one another into a stable configuration—or rather, nearly balanced, since the configuration is destined slowly to change as development proceeds.”15

The range of emotional effects produced by surprise syntax is not limited to the macabre results of many of Dali’s works. Just as unpredictability accounts for a kind of terror (Dali), unpredictability may explain comedy (Miró). This kind of shape-cluster inhabits paintings by all but the most rigorous veristic Surrealists.

It is a stylistic principle accounting for the junctions of parts in much Surrealist sculpture and an undercurrent in recent sculptural practice. It occurs in some of Giacometti’s pieces. It has come down to us in many of Calder’s works and in David Smith’s earlier anthropomorphizing works. It is used consistently as a principle of organization by West Coast artists like Robert Hudson, Jeremy Anderson, William Geis. In the East, though it does not account for their work, it can be found in pieces by John Bennett, George Sugarman, Alexander Liberman, Mark di Suvero, and Anthony Caro. It could be seen widely used in last season’s Los Angeles County Museum show, and in this fall’s Guggenheim International. The continued presence of surprise syntax has assured a form and a place for the irrational in 20th-century art.

There have been other recent uses of Surrealist precedents. Objects and paintings in The Museum of Modern Art show look amazingly similar to other recent works. Dali’s Rainy Taxi, a real cab full of live snails and water pouring onto lovemaking mannequins, is not even an earlier model than Kienholz’s ’38 Dodge. Schwitters seems to have used comic strips before Lichtenstein. There are many more examples like this. In the Heritage section of the show which, perhaps because it is not history, represents a less definitive selection than the rest of the show, a gigantic soft typewriter by Oldenburg is included. For Rubin and other critics, Oldenburg’s work has suggested transformations of substance and scale interestingly similar to metamorphoses in Magritte’s paintings.16 Oldenburg’s pencil sketch, Colossal Fagend, Dream State, seems to allude to a specific Surrealist intent. Walking into the room containing his Fagends Medium Scale, a giant ashtray full of canvas cigarette butts, more than one observer remarked, “I don’t know what size I am.” The whole room could become to the viewer what a single Surrealist painting might formerly have been, a hallucinatory dream landscape, only now, unlike the painting, it would not be the illusion of a dream landscape, but one that he could walk into.

Other recent works (not in this show) cause similar dislocations. Confronting a Robert Morris piece one may not be so sure of one’s size either. The shape and material of Judd’s metal cubes seem as unaccommodating to their placement in mid-wall as Magritte’s cloud-boxes hanging unaccountably in mid-sky, and like Magritte’s boxes, unexpectedly heavy. Some of the demands many recent pieces make on the observer and on the external space are very strange indeed, but there is no point in suggesting that they were created in anything like a Surrealist ambience, or that the large portion of modern artists are involved with Surrealism at all.

In many respects the contrast is enormous between this exhibition and the art world into which it has arrived. If recent artists are interested in psychology it is likely to be perceptual psychology, not Freud. For many recent artists the proper content of art has been color, form, and matter. Nor are color and form said to stand for any particular feeling. For many recent critics, “Art is about art.”17

The Surrealists were interested in Freud. For them the proper content of art focused on the exploration of the psyche and human feeling. Surrealism asserted the right to adjust and use the world for intuitive psychological purposes. This meant that everything was to be pressed into the service of the unconscious. Every Surrealist technique depended upon this. Stimuli made or discovered almost at random were used for “the intensification of the mind’s faculties.”18

Objects were found, stuffed birds, shoes, the texture of floorboards; paint, color, and form were used to expose and express human feelings. This state of mind comes through in the best of the work at the Museum of Modern Art. It could offer us alternatives now.

Ellen Mandelbaum



1. William Rubin, Dada, Surrealism, and Their Heritage (New York, 1968), p. 182.

2. Martin Esslin, “Now All Artists are Surrealists,” New York Times Magazine, May 22, 1966, p. 33.

3. John Loftus, “The Plastic Arts in the Sixties: What is it that has got lost?” Art Journal, XXXVI 3 (Spring, 1967), 242.

4. E. C. Goossen, “Distillation: a joint showing,” Artforum V 3 (November, 1966), 31.

5. William Rubin, “A Post-Cubist Morphology,” Artforum V 1 (September, 1966), 46.

6. Rubin, Artforum, op. cit., 52.

7. Rubin, Dada, Surrealism, and Their Heritage, 182.

8. Rubin, Dada, Surrealism, and Their Heritage, 182.

9. André Breton, “The Exquisite Corpse,” Surrealism. ed. Patrick Waldberg (New York, Toronto), 93, 94.

10. Le Comte de Lautréamont (Isadore Ducasse), Les Chants de Maldoror, Paris, Brussels, n. publ., 1874 pp. 289–290.

11. Breton, “The Exquisite Corpse,” 95.

12. Breton, “The Exquisite Corpse,” 95.

13. There were probably precedents in earlier art, and in the structure of some machines and industrial products.

14. C. H. Waddington, “Character of Biological Form,” Aspects of Form, ed. Lancelot Law Whyte (New York, 1951) p. 48.

15. Waddington, “Character of Biological Form,” 46.

16. Rubin, Dada, Surrealism, and Their Heritage, 93. See too Max Kozloff, “Surrealist Painting Re-examined,” Artforum V 1 (September, 1966), 9.

17. Leo Steinberg, “Other Alternatives,” Lecture, Museum of Modern Art (March, 1968.)

18. Max Ernst, “Beyond Painting,” Surrealism, ed. Patrick Wald berg (New York, Toronto), 98.