PRINT April 1977

Surrealism and New York Painting 1940–1948: A Reminiscence

Ideas move about as softly as though on doves’ feet.
—Friedrich Nietzsche

THE CONVERGENCE OF SURREALISTS on New York began with Max Ernst and continued when the leader of the movement, André Breton, also arrived in the early 1940s. These were only two of many artist refugees from France who had escaped the ongoing crunch of the German army. New Yorkers had, of course, already heard of Surrealism. Some American painters—for instance the “Magic Realists”—imagined that they were producing local versions of Surrealism. But the bona fide proponents were as yet unknown in the flesh. Their impact was larger than was realized even while they were living in New York, and their influence is not yet fully understood. The misunderstandings which surrounded them in the 1940s remain today.

One reason for the incomprehension of the Surrealist impact on American painting was that it had little to do with the continuation of prevailing art conventions. With painting and sculpture considered as a progressive development of Western esthetics (shall we say from David to 1910–12 Cubism?) the Surrealists were not concerned.

Perhaps my own experience with the Surrealist movement might cast some light on the ways in which the Surrealist program affected at least one American.

When I was a pupil at Lafayette High School in Buffalo, I belonged to a coterie of young people that had been bracketed off by the faculty as “the high I.Q.-ers.” All of us were attracted to literature and radical politics, and by the time most of us were 16 or 17, we became members of the Young Communist League. We were ardent about Karl Marx and French poetry. We ran a depot for the Spanish Loyalists to collect clothing and money. We marched in front of the Italian Consulate and shouted, “Down with Mussolini. Down with Fascism.” We picketed the leading synagogue urging Jews to boycott all German imports. It was our liking for literature, however, which got us into trouble with the local Communist party. “Why waste time with poetry when your talents would be better employed writing pamphlets?” it asked. Later we were found consorting with what were called the “Yipsils”—in plain language, the Trotskyites.

It is difficult to imagine in 1977 what anathema could be implied to left-wing liberals, fellow travelers and actual party members by the very word “Trotskyite.” But Trotskyites we were called, and before long, a few other of my friends and I were expelled from the Young Communist League. The Spanish war was by now over and the Moscow trials had begun. The bookish and literary young were lined up against each other, arguing passionately whether Trotsky was right or if Stalin, with his systematic elimination of all opponents, was or was not a monster.

Our coterie grew smaller. Many of us had gone off to study elsewhere, but those who remained in Buffalo for college became disillusioned with politics. The Nazi-Soviet Pact was, of course, the final disillusionment. A few of my friends died in Spain and, after Pearl Harbor, still more of them died in the Pacific. But social consciousness is not easily put to one side. We believed in a necessary revolution which would eliminate war and persecution, a revolution which would destroy both capitalism and totalitarian governments. But could society be changed with so much wickedness in the world? The appalling murder of Jews in Germany, of dissidents in Russia, the barbarism of modern warfare, the misery in underdeveloped countries—were these not an outgrowth of man’s imperfect nature?

We in Buffalo were not aware that these same questions were being discussed at length and in depth among a group of intellectuals in Paris who called themselves “Surrealists.” However, one day I discovered them in the Albright Gallery (now the Albright-Knox). The museum in Buffalo was and is an excellent one with a good library—on the shelves of which I found Minotaure, the chief publication of the Surrealist movement, as well as copies of Cahiers d’art, Surrealist catalogues, and, most wonderful of all, reproductions of the work of Max Ernst. His phantasmagorical landscapes both fascinated and repelled me. Luckily, the director of the museum, Gordon Washburn, with whom I had taken many courses in art history, had stocked much literature of the Dadaist movement as well as Surrealism. My immediate excitement amounted to an epiphany. I had discovered an answer.

Our coterie had begun to publish a magazine called Upstate, the purpose of which was to air our ideas about art and literature. Except for the final issue, the emphasis was regional; we were concerned with “culture in Buffalo” (to quote John Latouche’s funny song). There was one painter, and the rest of us wrote fiction, poetry, and criticism. Our “studio,” as we called our workshop where we produced Upstate, was also a meeting place where endless, mostly political, discussions took place. We admired Marx, Trotsky, and Freud. Group cohesion, however, was severely shaken when I began to pontificate about Surrealism. I found myself saying things like, “Duchamp and Tristan Tzara were right in denouncing the art of the past. It is stultifying to have all that art around. Let us paint mustaches not only on the Mona Lisa but on all overpowering masterpieces which discourage new art from emerging.” Even my Trotskyite friends got the shivers. Our one artist nervously wanted to know where we would start (he was thinking of his own rather sweet, lyrical figure paintings).

My immediate answer was, “Let us start with the academic artists in Buffalo. Down with the Annual Show of Western New York. Down with the Clay Club. Down with Charles Burchfield and Eugene Speicher!” I then explained how the Unconscious contained the residue of all we know and that true freedom can come about only when the conscious mind and the Unconscious are aware of each other. Having by this time saturated myself in the First Surrealist Manifesto of André Breton, I read aloud:

Logical methods are applicable only to solving problems of secondary interest. The absolute rationalism that is still in vogue allows us to consider only facts relating directly to our experience. Logical ends, on the contrary, escape us. It is pointless to add that experience itself is increasingly circumscribed. It leans for support on what is most immediately expedient, protected by the sentinels of common sense. Under the pretense of civilization and progress, we have managed to banish from the mind everything that may rightly or wrongly be termed superstition or fancy: Forbidden is any kind of search for truth which is not in conformance with accepted practices. It was apparently by pure chance that a part of our mental world which we pretended not to be concerned with any longer and, in my opinion, by far the most important part, has been brought back to light. For this we must give thanks to the discoveries of Sigmund Freud. On the basis of these discoveries a current of opinion is finally forming by means of which the human explorer will be able to carry his investigations much further, authorized, as he will henceforth be, not to confine himself solely to the most summary realities. The imagination is perhaps on the point of reasserting itself, of reclaiming its rights. If the depths of our mind contain within it strange forces capable of augmenting those on the surface or of waging a victorious battle against them, there is every reason to seize them and submit them to the control of our reason. The psychoanalysts have everything to gain but no means has been designated for carrying out this undertaking, thus, until further notice, it can be construed to be the province of poets as well as scholars . . .

I quoted then some random sentences which I thought important:

Freud very rightly brought his critical faculties to bear upon the dream.

The time of pure dreaming, that is, the dreams of sleep, is not inferior to the sum of the moments of reality, the moments of being awake. I have always been amazed at the way an ordinary observer lends so much more credence and attaches so much more importance to waking events than to those occurring in dreams.

Cannot the dream be used in solving the fundamental questions of life?

I believe in the future resolution of the two states, dream and reality, which are seemingly so contradictory, into a kind of absolute state of reality, a sur-reality, if one may so speak.

Let us note the hate of the marvelous which rages in certain men. Let us not mince words: The marvelous is always beautiful, in fact, only the marvelous is beautiful.

Breton apparently believed, along with Rousseau, that man is basically Good and that it is society that is Evil and must therefore be changed to allow mankind the freedom to become fully human and virtuous. All Surrealist manifestations must in some way contribute to this interior revolution. At the same time fascist and Stalinist tyranny must be sharply opposed. Even in Paris much of the polemic which appeared in pamphlets and journals was therefore devoted to analyzing political thought and action which was considered oppressive or dangerous. Trotsky was heavily defended: Breton even made a special visit to see him in Mexico. Both men were too intelligent to wish to transform art into propaganda or to place artists in straightjackets, as they had been in Russia.

In 1942, on a visit to New York, I became friendly with the poet Parker Tyler, who was an editor of a publication called View. It was the first American magazine to espouse the cause of Surrealism, although it was also involved with the movement called Neo-Romanticism (meaning Tchelitchew, Bérard, Léonid and Berman). I, of course, read every issue of View with rapt attention and felt increasingly that our Buffalo magazine was provincial and rudderless. One last issue came out—an issue devoted entirely to Latin American poetry. It was professionally printed, and after Parker Tyler received a copy he suggested I come to New York and work as the managing editor of View. I jumped at the chance, and in October of 1944 I was working with the magazine. The owner and chief editor was Charles Henri Ford. Contributing editors were such writers of stature as Meyer Schapiro, James Johnson Sweeney, Paul Goodman, Nicolas Calas, Marius Bewley, Eduard Roditi, and Harold Rosenberg.

In the two or three years previous a great many “artists in exile” had come to New York by the escape route of Marseilles. Breton and his friend Claude Lévi-Strauss were broadcasting to France through Radio Free Europe. Marcel Duchamp organized the great French Refugee Aid exhibition. After that came Breton’s newest publication, Triple V. Breton’s followers in New York were, finally, more French than Surrealist (or any other kind of “ist”). Breton disliked English so much he refused to speak it or learn it. He found the Americans—except for the happy few in New York—to be barbaric and politically infantile. On the radio he heaped his scorn on Hitlerism and the Vichy government with powerful rhetoric. Meanwhile he was composing poems of considerable grandeur, which few American writers seemed to read. One who did, however, was William Carlos Williams; he was filled with admiration for the purity and elegance of Breton’s classic French.

Breton remained intransigently dictatorial with his followers. Nico Calas was assigned the role of castigating Salvador Dali—one of the first major excommunications. Dali was denounced in a brilliant article in View entitled “I Say His Flies Are Ersatz.” And from a Surrealist point of view, Dali had done the unforgivable: he had become sympathetic to General Franco and Spanish Fascism. Even worse, he had returned to the Roman Catholic Church. The poets Louis Aragon and Paul Eluard were put under interdict for going over to the Communist Party and hence being partisan to the murderous Joseph Stalin. The excommunications continued, depending on Breton’s political and intellectual shifts. By 1948 only two of his original followers remained, Duchamp and Tanguy.

You may well ask what all this had to do with American art. In what way had the Surrealists and other literary people affected the generation of artists that rose in the late 1930s and early 1940s? In my opinion, there was an important influence, but one which is not obvious in the canvases and sculpture which came about. One exception is the direct and definable influence which can be seen in the work of Joseph Cornell. Nineteenth-century romanticism is at the core of Cornell’s obsessive nostalgia for an elusive past and the poets who long for “le merveilleux,” a wish for the sublime. But the specific Surrealist admiration for such poets as Nerval, Noralis, Mallarmé. Rimbaud is plainly alluded to in Cornell’s boxes.

The poetic notion of the self as the repository of all truth and the role of an entity called the Unconscious seemed to have appeal for many artists. I once asked Jackson Pollock if he had ever been influenced by the Surrealists. He said yes, in one way: their belief in “automatism” or making a picture without “conscious” control of what would happen on the canvas before beginning one. He felt that Masson in particular had obtained some happy results utilizing “automatism.”

Two Americans who came directly under the sway of Breton—Robert Motherwell and David Hare—collaborated specifically with the Surrealists in producing the publication Triple V. They learned that the artist ought to serve society as seer, prophet, or magician in order to free all men of their bonds. To put this into realistic language, American artists should take themselves seriously as important members of society and never apologize for such a vocation. Three American writers, Paul Goodman, Lionel Abel and Harold Rosenberg, wrote poems and essays proclaiming not only the possibility but the need for wider latitude—more freedom from conventional esthetic restraints. It was Paul Goodman who located the fact of the gesture as being one’s personal mark in the same autobiographical sense that handwriting can be an indication of character. Despite his addiction to psychoanalysis, he was among the few to understand the foolishness of examining subject matter as a revelation of the artist’s personality. Harold Rosenberg’s phrase “action painting” emerges as a further vindication of automatism as a useful technique if we examine the roots of this notion. Artists would no longer have to put up with hearing that a key represents a penis, a box indicates a vagina, a melting watch the passing of time, along the lines of such “psychoanalytic” exegesis. This in no way did away with the notion of “subject matter” in painting and sculpture, but only the naive interpretation of imagery as a way to understand artworks.

Three more publications appeared between 1946 and 1948, all of them influential in shaping the ideas of artists of the New York School: Instead, edited by Lionel Abel and Matta; Possibilities, edited by Harold Rosenberg; and The Tiger’s Eye, edited by the poet Ruth Stefan. The first two were more concerned with importing the writing of such European thinkers as Jean Wahl, Jean-Paul Sartre, Nicola Chiaromonte and others who were in reaction to the Surrealists. The Tiger’s Eye was largely devoted to the artists exhibiting with Betty Parsons, and this publication gives perhaps the best indication of how Americans were assimilating the Surrealist program.

Breton’s fascination with aboriginal and primitive art was reflected in the early image painting of Adolph Gottlieb, Lee Krasner, Bradley Walker Tomlin and Mark Tobey. The obsession with strange creatures in nature—the “biomorphic” image—appeared in the work of Stamos, Baziotes and Arshile Gorky. Max Ernst’s geologic metamorphosis was renewed in Clyfford Still. Mark Rothko’s early 1940s concern with myths (a notion he had picked up through Stamos) was an echo of the studies of primitive mythology so close to Kurt Seligmann. Almost all categories of subject to which the Surrealists gave their attention—magic, insanity, sexual perversions, black humor—were of equal interest to the New York painters. But the fact is that many of the Surrealists were not first-class artists. And if, in general, the Americans disliked much of their work, it was because they felt it was old-fashioned, too literal and, in a curious way, even academic—a throwback to 19th-century Romanticism, to Gustave Moreau and the Pre-Raphaelites.

As for Breton’s political ideas, which changed from month to month, few even then could follow their labyrinthine path, certainly not the New York artists. In the light of subsequent events I find myself astonished that I could have been as bemused as I was by Surrealist pronouncements. Present-day feminists, for instance, are appalled by the sheer depth and silliness of the Surrealist cult of “The Woman” which actually was no more than male chauvinist piggery. Today we no longer accept as gospel the theories of Freud, since work in the psychiatric sciences has become more empirical and less theoretical. The notion of a body/mind dualism, or the state of the Conscious versus the Unconscious, seems antediluvian—bad philosophy and bad science. We know more today about the mechanism of dreams.

However, the poetry of the Surrealists continues, quite stubbornly, to be readable and moving. Their belief in “le merveilleux” (the marvelous) as that which makes life tolerable informs their writing with an irresistible liveliness. And at the time, that enthusiasm was in itself attractive.

If the Surrealists did not practically advance the cause of Liberty for all mankind by one iota, it can be said that their vigor, their energy and their feeling for poetry left its mark upon the artists of New York. A new freedom had come about which did much to encourage fresh achievements in painting and sculpture. Breton and many other of the artists in exile returned to France or moved elsewhere. By 1949 the movement had ended, and for some years afterward the art of the Surrealists seemed old-fashioned, even passé. What was once made to shock the bourgeoisie the rich now eagerly acquire. Besides, the worst nightmares invented by the Surrealists have been surpassed by actual events that have occurred in society. Breton’s dream of world revolution brings a wry smile.

Poetic texts have always had a profound influence on the visual arts, and if today we find it fashionable to believe artists are better off if they are semiliterate, this is a mistake which can only drag art down into the vulgarity and commercialism now everywhere evident. (The myth of a Jackson Pollock as a dumb, drunken cowboy is only one example of the sort of hagiography which passes for the truth.) The connections between words and pictures may often be quite vague, and I am not proposing that art in any way be simply a form of illustration. But I am remembering that poetry can arouse the imagination. And I refuse to declare that the word “inspiration” is a worn-out old tag. Painting and sculpture do not spring full-born from the artist’s head, Athena-like. The poets of the early 1940s, both American and European, played an important role in inspiring some of the best art we have had in the United States.

John Bernard Myers