Dorothea Tanning

Last year the Philadelphia Museum of Art purchased Dorothea Tanning’s Birthday, 1942, an early self-portrait in which the bare-breasted, bramble-skirted heroine, accompanied by an apparently benevolent minidragon (first of the animal demiurges so often inhabiting the artist's future paintings), stands with her hand on the knob of a white door in an infinite regress of half-open portals. This acquisition has now been celebrated by curator Ann Temkin with a small show of paintings, objects, and drawings from Tanning’s long career, “a hidden treasure of modern art,” concluding with one of the dozen “imaginary flower portraits” painted in the artist’s eighty-eighth year.

Pictures from the ’40s and and ’50s crystallize (surely the right verb for this mordantly illusionist work—“big bare rooms,” as Tanning describes Interior with Sudden Joy, 1951, “with white frozen figures, like Sodom and Gomorrah”) a series of awesome and alarming visions. Even this limited show presents extraordinary evidence of mastery across the genres: a landscape of planetary upheaval, rather like the mountains behind Mona Lisa, here confronted by, instead of backing, the subject (the painter herself, tiny against what she calls the “placid monuments” of Sedona, Arizona); a still life of necromantic roses haunting the linen-covered tabletop where their crisped phantoms have died, or at least eternally decayed; and a figure study with all the properties (cushions, books, canine familiars, unspecifiable instruments of sexual insubordination), though the real interior personnel must be the creepy girls in white satin, as released from complicity as they are from constraint.

But it is in the next decade that Tanning’s painting comes into its own as painting, not just as accurately envisioned wonders and horrors. Insomnias, 1957, begins the sequence, and I think it is one of her grandest achievements. “I wanted to lead the eye into spaces that hid, revealed, transformed all at once,” the artist reports, and the big brushy phantasmagoria sets the stage for most of the canvases to follow, “as if it had appeared between dreaming and waking.” What she has done is to discover not the polymorphous perversity of human figures but the occasional and orgiastic upsurge of light as it has its way with the adulterous mélange of bodies no longer confined to gender or even genitality. Unpredictably, we are presented with opalescence and the retreat from it into garish shadows as Tanning interrogates herself: “Isn’t that the artist’s best joy, to control light?” That there should be light at all in these intrauterine fantasies is the eerie contention of the artist’s major work.

Of course there is no room in a show of this size for any register of “development,” of “metamorphosis.” Temkin has had to rely on high points, yet one of the great satisfactions of Tanning's career, beyond individual triumphs, is the evidence of endless reconnaissance, the search for a replenishing plastic vocabulary of ecstasy and dismay: The figuration seethes into orgy or apocalypse, the action is evenhandedly of the alcove and the abattoir, and remarkably enough, such energies pursue the artist to the end with Heartless, 1980, about which Tanning confesses that “the need to say blue and orange that would turn them into conversations about light and memory . . . became, of all things, the kneeling figure, perhaps my mother cradling—me?—while, yes, go on, her lonely sister says—heartless.” The paintings resolve Walter Benjamin’s furious dilemma about history—how to afford a narrative in the conditions of an image, an image in terms of narrative; even in these few instances, the continuing life is encountered.

The mortal word “surrealism,” brandished so fatuously in this artist’s biography, has some concomitance in Tanning’s astounding paroxysms of erotic furniture, one example of which, Rainy-Day Canapé, 1970, brought the little show to its knees (as well as to every other portion of the tweed-and-stuffing anatomy). The notion that there are a considerable number of these terrifying objects in the world, variously disposed to what the French call a final jouissance meublée, makes the need for a Tanning retrospective all the more urgent—for now, this one instance must whet the . . . whistle.

Later this year Norton is publishing Tanning’s memoir, Between Lives, and Turtle Point is bringing out her fictional work Chasm; her poems continue to appear in several literary magazines. All well and good for the nonagenarian painter, but it is her paintings in a generous retrospect that would be good for us, rendered avid by Philadelphia’s brilliant tribute.