New York

Wifredo Lam

This exhibition covered four decades in the career of Cuban-born Surrealist Wifredo Lam, and throughout the show the spiritual primitivism that animated much of 20th-century Modernism was strongly in evidence.

Following the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War in 1937, Lam, who had been working in Spain, sought safety in Paris. There he became a protégé of Picasso, who introduced him to the avant-garde artists and writers then dominating the intellectual life of that city. Before he returned to Havana in 1941, Lam met André Breton and joined the Surrealists, yet Picasso seems to have remained the single most important influence of his Paris period.

Picasso’s early Cubist and Surrealist styles provided Lam with models for the bold simplications of form and the analyses of structure, as well as for the representation of unconscious contents, fantasies, and feelings that he developed in his own work. But even when Lam seems to be most direct in his quotations of Picasso, as in works such as La Famille (The family, 1939) and Deux femmes au fauteuil (Two women on the armchair, 1938), which recall the masklike faces and nudes in Picasso’s Cubist paintings of 1907-8, or the impressive Table dans le jardin (Table in the garden, 1944), where Lam has applied Picasso’s device of arranging still-life objects into a scaffoldlike construction, his own vision always demands equal attention. The stately dignity of the figures in La Famille and Deux femmes au fauteuil reflect both Lam’s fascination with rites and rituals and the attitude of self-absorbed seriousness that also animates the hybrid part-human part-animal beings in Grande composition, 1960.

Adam et Eve, 1969, a painting with Lam’s characteristic dark earthy brown background, showed how truly iconic the artist’s vision became during the latter part of his career. Lam, who died in 1982 at the age of 79, had the power to make his inner spiritual reality palpable; through his paintings these unseen unconscious forces not only made their presence felt, but deigned to make themselves visible.

Ronny Cohen