New York

Unica Zürn

This compelling exhibition reflected a growing recognition of Unica Zürn as an important late Surrealist. Her first major exhibition in the United States since a well-received show at New York’s Ubu Gallery in 2005, it featured forty-nine of the German-born artist’s works—primarily drawings on paper in ink, pencil, and/or gouache, as well as three paintings. None larger than a large sketch pad, the works were arranged around the blue-gray painted walls of the gallery in a generally chronological hang spanning 1953 to 1970.

Zürn had been a writer before she met the Surrealist photographer Hans Bellmer in Berlin in 1953 and moved with him, that same year, to Paris, where she became part of a circle that included Man Ray, André Breton, Max Ernst, and others, and was introduced to “automatic drawing.” This technique was originally designed to bypass the “rational” through a passive, “nondirected” engagement of the unconscious. Successive Surrealists made the method their own, developing more active approaches corresponding with a variety of quasi-ideological strategies. Zürn, for instance, adapted a technique by which natural imperfections of paper are joined together to initiate the compositional field, instead introducing her own originary marks in the form of small sketched eyes, the basic motif of many of her later works.

The “subjective” visual typologies in Zürn’s work lend themselves to psychobiographical readings, and the exhibition framed the work with three ephemera-filled vitrines foregrounding her writing practice and relationship with Bellmer, who went from photographing life-size, fragmented female mannequins to taking pictures of Zürn and other real women. The abstracted image on the cover of the Spring 1958 issue of the journal Le Surréalisme, meme appears to be an undulating white landscape crossed by starkly defined lines, but is in fact Bellmer’s cropped photograph of Zürn’s trussed-up torso, which is accompanied by the caption STORE IN A COOL PLACE. In addition, something of the paradoxical day-to-day freedom of the couple’s collaborations was revealed in joint, casual-seeming letters addressed to friends containing anagram poems and sketches.

Zürn was attracted to constraints, whether in the procedural rules of the anagram poems or in the conceptual decision undergirding the drawings never to allow figuration to arrive at coherent representation. Although her compositional strategies changed considerably over the years, Zürn’s hand remained remarkably consistent. She drew phantasmagoric creatures, chimerical beasts with transparent organs and multiple appendages, plantlike abstractions, oneiric forms, amoebic shapes whose fractal membranes are filled in with multiple recurring motifs: spirals, scales, eyes, dots, beaks, claws, conical tails, leaflike indents. Some early and late drawings are sketches, loose, spare, and barely formed, containing multiple, differentiated, quasi-representational figures; others, often on larger paper, have a more “finished” quality, offering a clear inside to the entity, and an outside expanse of unmarked paper. Another batch, the most depressing, crowd out the picture planes with clusters of Munch-like heads, eyes, and mouths, set against cloyingly patterned backgrounds. These images were produced during one of the frequent institutional internments that followed Zürn’s being diagnosed with schizophrenia in 1960. Ten years later, she jumped from the sixth-floor balcony of Bellmer’s apartment, a suicide prefigured in her autobiographical novella Dark Spring (1969), an account of the life of a twelve-year-old girl who endures rape and other hardships before donning her finest pajamas and casting herself from a building.

That Zürn negotiated the conditions endured by her person as an artist can be lost somewhat in readings that project onto her every gesture the deliriums of the mentally ill, or that reduce her life to a series of oedipal (mis)adventures with strong and compelling men. An essay by Mary Ann Caws in the accompanying catalogue problematically overdetermines both a “schizophrenic” interpretation and Bellmer’s influence on Zürn (which, in Caws’s reading, is largely one-way). The show’s curator, João Ribas, moderates this somewhat, arguing that rather than being symptoms of an illness, the drawings occupy a liminal space “between the ‘mad’ and the Surrealist subject.” Zürn’s work shadows Surrealism’s last days. In its procedural simplicity and fragile materiality, it is also a curious outlier to emerging trends in art of the time.

Bartholomew Ryan