New York

View of “Bloodflames Revisited,” 2014.

View of “Bloodflames Revisited,” 2014.

“Bloodflames Revisited”

Kasmin Sculpture Garden

View of “Bloodflames Revisited,” 2014.

“Bloodflames Revisited” commemorated the swan song of late Surrealism in exile. Despite much that was praiseworthy in the show, its major failing was that the work of its twenty-five artists—complexly installed in the two Kasmin venues—ignored the mad swish and sheer bliss of the original event. What intrigued, after all, was the promised revival of a feckless gay sensibility of theatricalized femininity, worlds away from gay pride, ACT UP, and queer theory.

The first “Bloodflames” was organized in 1947 by the young Alexander Iolas, a well-heeled balletomane (and former dancer) of Greek origin possessed of a whimsy of iron. Sir John Richardson fondly remembers this famous heartthrob of the Marquis de Cuevas, ballet’s Maecenas, as being “as camp as a row of tents.” Held at New York’s Hugo Gallery, that show included grand talents such as David Hare, Arshile Gorky, Roberto Matta, Gerome Kamrowski, and Isamu Noguchi, whose sculptures back then often doubled as stage sets for Martha Graham. Indeed, the late phase of Surrealism could easily be called “ballet Surrealism.” Its grand monuments are not the striving sculptures of Max Ernst, Victor Brauner, or the duo Lalanne—on the sale of whose dubious work Iolas eventually built an international network of galleries—but the exquisite miniature boxes of Joseph Cornell assembled in obsessional devotion to the stars of the Romantic ballet, such as Marie Taglioni.

To create the original show, Iolas brainstormed with Nicolas Calas, a lean wraith of a Greek national poet whose verse mined the double imagery of Salvador Dalí’s paranoiac critical method. During the rum years from the Spanish Civil War through World War II, Dalí brought an avid publicity hunger to a Surrealist world that had been miraculously transferred to Manhattan. The original “Bloodflames” was, in a sense, an adieu to all that—though, at the time, most did not know it.

Although the fingerprints of Iolas and Calas are rather lost in the Kasmin revisit, the signature of the original show’s third collaborator, Frederick Kiesler, was writ large. Once in New York, Kiesler, a Austro-Hungarian-born architect and designer of window displays, turned his back on the Bauhaus-inflected geometries on which his initial reputation was founded. Determined to destroy the white box of the modernist gallery, he designed installations that negotiated both floor and wall at the same instant, or created free-form, architecturally energizing furniture. His interiors for Peggy Guggenheim’s gallery Art of this Century are his best-remembered legacy; meanwhile, a shot of the helter-skelter placement of several Matta paintings in the “Bloodflames” exhibition still floats about the Internet.

Phong Bui, the Brooklyn polymath, in addition to curating this “revisitation” is also the cofounder and editor of the Brooklyn Rail, the art newspaper at the center of that borough’s renaissance. Taking his cues from Kiesler’s madcap designs, Bui painted the gallery walls yellow, arranging catwalks that connected gallery spaces strewn with hay; the grassy odor mattered, not just the dried stalks’ association with flammability. Works were displayed at disparate heights, set upon the hay or hung high on the wall or close to the floor—they even included, as the final straw (so to speak), Burning Car, 2008, a flaming video projection by Superflex.

Other works of note in the show included tiny, sexually referential, quasi-transparent sculptures by Do Ho Suh, from his “Specimen Series,” 2013. Tunga’s sexually coded towers of found and created objects were also particularly germane, insofar as their affinities with the work of Brauner brings them closest (among the works here) to the spirit of the Surrealist model. Of the work by veteran figures, I admired Dorothea Rockburne’s Three Point Manifold, 2008; unlike many of the artists with whom she emerged, Rockburne never foundered in the “once was” of post-Minimalism. Joanna Pousette-Dart’s 3 Part Variation, #3, 2011–13, is also particularly crisp and elegant. The show’s perhaps overly engulfing theme of red was intriguingly exemplified by an Alex Katz close-up of Rose Bud, 1967, and Cindy Sherman’s swirling, virtually indecipherable red Cibachrome print Untitled, 1994. G. T. Pellizzi’s striking Constellation in Red (Figure 1), 2013, is an illuminating—in the double sense—wall installation of red lightbulbs, porcelain, wire, and steel. Indeed, all the artists shown were represented by characteristic works; unfortunately, their sheer number beggars individual notice—a situation perfectly in tune with an exercise in sophisticated sensibility rather than common sense.

Robert Pincus-Witten