New York

“Surrealism 1936”

Zabriskie Gallery

“The surrealist assumes that one can change the world” (C. W E. Bigsby). This show recreated the Surrealism of exactly fifty years ago, 1936, a year of triumph for the movement exemplified by three major shows in Paris, London, and New York, and a year after the group’s critical denouncement of Communism, the means, they had believed, by which the world could be changed. The concept of dialectical materialism rested in the Surrealist object, which dominated Surrealist practice in that year. Such objects comprised the most compelling part of this exhibit, which also included photographs, collages, and historical documents.

It was a pleasure to see again famous assemblages such as Claude Cahun’s hairy eyeball (her Object, ca. 1936) and Salvador Dali’s remarkably contemporary- looking Monument à Kant, 1936, to which arte povera owes a debt; and, to paraphrase Francis Picabia, to see again in memory, through Man Ray’s photograph, Meret Oppenheim’s Fur-Covered Cup, Saucer, and Spoon, 1936. Apart from that enjoyment, there was the near coincidence of the recent surrealist revival; the timing was just a touch off, however, since one suspects that that reoccurrence of the Surrealist “virus” is just about over. George Condo, for instance, has moved logically on to what can be called a hybrid Arshile Gorky-ism. One of the many ways in which the world has changed is that it is no longer possible to mount a historical review quickly enough to catch the moment’s historical nostalgia.

The world has changed in other ways as well, and the mood that was most strongly effected here was more absurdist than surrealistic in the ironic regret or despair generated by an awareness of these revolutions. For instance, desire is once again central to art, but while the Surrealists meant by “desire” both sexual passion and the “whole apparatus with which they sought to expand awareness,” for theoreticians of contemporary avant-garde art it is a term of contempt reserved for consumer arousal. For the Surrealists, language was a magical infusion, related to dreams; now it is a recurring nightmare of ideological repression, to be guarded against with insomnious vigilance.

The Surrealists’ glorification of pornography and violent sexuality was always problematic, but one wonders what the official response would be to the present morass. (Conversely, it would be tempting to believe that we have moved beyond their provincial homophobia, were it not for the AIDS backlash.) The cooperation involved in André Breton’s erasure of Picabia’s drawings as they were being made did not foresee that the “anxiety of influence” with which Robert Rauschenberg erased Willem de Kooning’s drawing would escalate into neo-Expressionist cannibalism, aggressively pursued by Julian Schnabel and passively accepted by David Salle. And only a man for whom free-floating violence was still largely imaginary could urge, as Breton did, that “the most simple surrealist act consists of going down into the street, revolvers in hand, and shooting at random . . . into the crowd.”

Jeanne Silverthorne