Katonah

Pavel Tchelitchew

The Katonah Museum of Art

Once upon a time, Pavel Tchelitchew’s giant fairy tale of a painting, Hide-and-Seek, 1940–42, was firmly enshrined in MoMA’S pantheon. With its fetal spirit-children and gnarled oak tree becoming at once a monstrous hand, foot, and head, it provided a grandly orchestrated finale for Surrealism’s regressions to our roots in infancy and nature. In 1954, Alfred Barr, in his Masters of Modern Art, summed up the painting’s embracing mysteries: “The tree of life becomes the clock of the seasons; its greens and fiery reds and wintry blues celebrate the annual cycle of death and rebirth.”

Times change. In 1987, this perennial crowd pleaser virtually disappeared for a decade from MoMA’s walls. The museum demotion was followed by another blow: after thirty years, the fourth edition of H. H. Arnason’s History of Modern Art (1998) dropped not only its color plate of Hide-and-Seek but all mention of the artist’s name. Had posterity at last caught up with Clement Greenberg, who, in 1942, reviewing MoMA’s Tchelitchew retrospective, claimed that the artist’s “latest oils with their shrill saccharine color and gelatinous symbolism set a new high in vulgarity”?

But things that slip beyond the pale often reappear through unexpected twists whether as nostalgia, cultural history, or forbidden fruit. The succinct, but far-ranging retrospective curated by Michael Duncan realized all of this, resurrecting not only MoMA’s once big hit but also letting us peer at Phenomena, 1936-38, which the Russian-born artist willed to Moscow’s Tretyakov Gallery. At the very least, this nine-foot-wide canvas belongs in the Guinness Book of Records for cosmic ambition and teratological fantasy. Sweeping us from primal earth, water, mountain, and sky to science-fiction cities, it populates an alien planet with a grotesque cast of thousands culled from freak shows and Tod Browning’s horror film classic, all warped into a mirage of rainbow colors and perspective fragments. Moreover, this Gulliverian vision of Lilliputian misfits itemizes a secret Who’s Who of Tchelitchew’s circle of arty and mostly queer friends. Sealo the Seal Boy turns out to be a portrait of Virgil Thomson; the Armless Wonder, of Parker Tyler; Sitting Bull is Gertrude Stein; the Elephant Skin Girl, Leonor Fini. If nothing else, Phenomena is an unforgettable phenomenon that can stop us in our tracks like the Grand Canyon or offer, to more sustained viewing with a magnifying glass, a Rosetta Stone for understanding the international community of dazzling eccentrics who flourished in the ’30s, from Edith Sitwell and Marlene Dietrich to Edward James and Sergei Diaghilev.

Portraits loomed large then; and through Surrealist alchemy, Tchelitchew cast spells on his sitters. Constance Askew, the wife of one of his most loyal dealers, becomes a ravishing witch gazing into her magic mirror; the artist’s lover, Charles Henri Ford, dissolves in an opiate red heat generated by poppies and passion. Of these period-piece icons, that of Lincoln Kirstein is perhaps the ultimate classic. In a Dalíesque theater of foreshortened anatomy and fantastic perspective, the guru of American ballet is projected as a Freudian juggling of three charismatic personalities—businessman in immaculate Wall Street attire; nude athlete fig-leafed by a boxing glove; man of action confronting the spectator in a baseball jacket. In addition to offering a preview of macho gay dress and lifestyle, it also evokes, as my colleague Kenneth Silver noted, the look of an old Time magazine cover portrait. With Tchelitchew, retro-nostalgia comes in heavy doses.

These remembrances of decades past are just as strong in the work of the postwar years, when the artist continued his pursuit of what Duncan calls “spiritual biology.” Moving from the visceral to the diagrammatic, these quasi-scientific networks of diaphanous, humanoid shapes in twinkling cosmos of mechanical perfection recall his precocious ballet, Ode, produced by the Ballets Russes in 1928 as an extravaganza of projected films and lights against elusive perspectival constructions. And they also fit squarely into the countless fantasies on the theme of the atom that triggered imaginations after 1945—Buckminster Fuller’s geodesic dome the Atomium at the 1958 Brussels World Fair, Richard Lippold’s crystalline wire pieces—while prefiguring New Age meditations and the seamless precision of computer images moving in electronic space.

Tchelitchew, in fact, had always wanted transcend mere matter with a wizard’s X-ray vision that could turn verdant hills into supine, naked bodies or anatomy charts into spirits and deities. Nowhere was this achieved more startlingly than in what for me was a major revelation, Sleeper Awake, a polychrome sculpture of 1944 given to the Yale University Art Gallery by one of the artist’s earliest admirers, James Thrall Soby. This little-known work takes us to the site of many a Surrealist dream, a mythic beach. And here, as in Hide-and-Seek, nature’s metaphoric magic is unleashed, with the organic debris of the ocean—a foaming profusion of seashells—transformed into a humanoid creature, like the double images of heads and/or fruit by Arcimboldo. Half Ovid, half Freud, Tchealitchew’s vision of Neptune’s kin belongs in any history of Surrealist sculpture, while auguring the fabulous monsters of the ’50s that Dubuffet would fashion out of twigs, driftwood, sponge, and lava.

Duncan’s modest but important survey suggests that the recent decline of Tchelitchew’s reputation was only a partial eclipse, and that, along with some of his fellow travelers in the territory of what was often called Neo-Romanticism—Christian Bérard, Leonid, Eugene Berman—the artist is long overdue for fuller exposure on the exhibition circuit. When the twentieth century is reconstructed, this cosmopolitan butterfly may once again alight on MoMA’s walls and in the next edition of Arnason’s primer.

Robert Rosenblum, professor of fine arts at New York University, is a contributing editor of Artforum.