New York

Kurt Seligmann

John Bernard Myers Gallery

In the sixth issue of The Tiger’s Eye (December 1948), given over to a painters’ and critics’ discussion of “the sublime in art,” Kurt Seligmann described his emotions in front of the great works of art of the past as akin to “the Norwegian fisherman in Poe’s tale of the Maelström. Plunged into the colossal whirlpool, and seeing no possible escape from certain annihilation, he sets aside his anguish, aware of his pettiness amidst the grandiose, the unheard of spectacle. His only regret is that he cannot return to his fellowmen and tell of the Sublime which he had witnessed in the abyss.” So unable was Seligmann that shortly thereafter he committed suicide. Lack of communication was too terrible.

Still, in the later ’30s at the time of his conversion to Surrealism (although his earlier works evince clear attachment to Surrealist biomorphism despite the nominal abstractness of his position—he was one of the founding members in 1932 of Abstraction-Création), he had been the only real colleague of Breton’s in New York City, the French theorist clearly avoiding American artists for all his prestige and their admiration. Sharing with the leading spokesman of Surrealism a passion for magic, Kurt Seligmann (a respected historian of magic as well) assisted in disseminating the interest in magic which echoes throughout the Surrealist works of the period, especially in those of Max Ernst.

Seligmann for a time, was both an influential and fashionable painter showing at Durlacher’s elegant quarters. However, by the ’50s and ’60s, despite occasional bursts of interest (such as made by Meyer Shapiro recently), younger artists lost touch with the arduous and arcane Surrealist subject matter, preferring instead Surrealism’s automatic procedures. Despite the present revival it is unlikely that Seligmann is going to become a favored figure of the later Surrealist movement, although it is clear that the neglect into which he has fallen is equally exaggerated. It is difficult today to come to terms with the biomorphic personages of later Surrealism, all writhing and crosshatched within an illusionistic baroque space. Certainly, the thematic material dealing with magic and Pythagorean mysteries is equally anathematic.

But period distaste aside, several issues emerge at this resuscitation at the John Bernard Myers Gallery (incidentally, the director and the artist collaborated in the ’40s on several puppet plays). It is possible that Ernst’s magical and thematic material derived from Seligmann and not the other way around, as the prestige of Ernst today might suggest. Pollock himself may have passed through a Seligmann-like phase; the work of 1947–1948 suggests that the baroque torsions of Seligmann’s figures created a subliminal model for the aspirations of our most influential painter, although they were rendered in “prehistoric” and archetypal terms.

Robert Pincus-Witten