San Francisco

Alice Rahon, ¡Torito, Toro! (Little Bull, Bull!), 1951, oil and sand on canvas, 28 3⁄4 × 23 5⁄8".

Alice Rahon, ¡Torito, Toro! (Little Bull, Bull!), 1951, oil and sand on canvas, 28 3⁄4 × 23 5⁄8".

Alice Rahon

Mexican-French artist Alice Rahon (1904–1987) may not be as well-known as Leonora Carrington, Frida Kahlo, and other Surrealists who worked in Mexico. However, her star is swiftly ascending, as her first US solo exhibition in more than forty-five years at Gallery Wendi Norris made clear. The seventeen pieces on display revealed the extraordinary arc of a career that is almost impossible to categorize. Bringing her shape-shifting vision to bear, Rahon created poetics, cave art, and geometric abstraction to create works of incandescent mystery.

The French-born artist didn’t begin to paint until she was thirty-five and a recent arrival to Mexico with her husband, Surrealist artist Wolfgang Paalen. At the time, Rahon had been a milliner and the first woman to be featured in the Éditions Surréalistes. She put out three poetry collections; André Breton praised her writing as a “talisman” of his movement. However, once in Mexico, she adopted her mother’s maiden name—she was born Philippot—and shifted from writing to the visual arts. Yet so close was the connection between the two mediums that she referred to her early paintings as “Pôeme-Tableau.” According to one story, Rahon began her first canvas by scraping the paint off Paalen’s palette. The scratching-away of one surface to reveal and produce another became a signature element in her mature work.

Asked by a reporter which school of art she belonged to, Rahon made the apt observation, “I think I’m a cave painter.” Before coming to Mexico, Paalen and Rahon had visited the site of the paleolithic caves at Altamira in Spain. The experience propelled them to travel in search of other prehistoric cultures—hence their journey to Mexico, where Kahlo had invited them. The influences of paleolithic and hieroglyphic carvings can be seen in many of Rahon’s canvases. Take Fiesta de Abril (April Party), 1945, one of the works on view, a depiction of a traditional Mexican feast day in which the artist emulated the granular quality of cavern walls by adding sand (as she frequently did in many other pieces, sometimes applying crushed volcanic stone in its stead) to her oil paint. She then scratched and incised an intricate network of pictographic figures into the thickly encrusted surface. A few years later, in the dark, haunting ¡Torito, Toro! (Little Bull, Bull!), 1951, the titular creature’s eyes glow as if they’ve been cut into stone with a delicate gemstone knife. The final effect is less a depiction than a three-dimensional totality, where form and content as well as substance and image combine into a single revelatory topography.

With La cuadra (The Block), 1942–50, an ethereal geometric abstraction, Rahon pays homage to the luminous palette and chessboard patterns of Paul Klee. In City of Cats, 1968 another Klee tribute, she mixed sand into a fiery chromatic range to depict a realm eclipsed by giant felines. The yellow windows in the buildings are shining cats’ eyes, while green rooftops turn into sharp ears and pointed pillars and cornices morph into elongated cat faces. One of the most striking pieces in the exhibition, Juggler, 1946, a twenty-seven-inch high marionette, epitomizes the transfigurative qualities of her oeuvre. First conceived as a character for a ballet after a trip to India with her friend, poet Valentine Penrose, then mapped out as a gouache painting of white points and lines on black paper, Rahon’s vision is realized here as a three-dimensional figure made from metal.

Like Juggler, who incarnated and evolved through various media, Rahon was a shape-shifter. She was someone who, art historian Mary Ann Caws wrote, “casually changed her date and place of birth (1904 in Besançon, not 1916 in Brittany), her name and nationality, sexual orientation and artistic genre.”

Her ability to reimagine herself and her themes in different forms makes summarizing or typifying Rahon’s work difficult. Yet these same qualities of exploration enabled her to straddle modern and ancient cultures. Her technique of applying sand, crushed volcanic stone, sgraffito, and other elements to canvas influenced contemporary Mexican artists such as Rufino Tamayo and, a generation later, Francisco Toledo. In endeavoring to manifest the prehistoric, Rahon became a pioneer not only of Surrealism, but of the Mexican modernists in her adoptive homeland.