The Great Late Salvador Dalí

Dalí’s production after his Surrealist phase, once dismissed by scholars as banal kitsch, is now being celebrated for being so ahead of its time it looks as though it could have been made yesterday.

Younger scholars are intrigued by the mix of atomic-age physics and Catholic doctrine in paintings like The Madonna of Port Lligat (first version), 1949.


The year 1939 cuts across the career of Salvador Dalí like a fault line. Dalí’s work up to that point is generally considered among the most original of the period, and some of his early Surrealist paintings are regularly afforded masterpiece status in the 20th-century canon. But then, in 1939, Dalí broke with his fellow Surrealists and shifted the primary focus of his activities from Paris to New York. Almost overnight his work became “late,” which, in Dalí’s case, is generally understood as synonymous with repetitive, kitschy, vulgar, and pompous—in a word, lesser.

But the “late” Dalí lived and worked for another half century, painting and sculpting while at the same time making regular forays into film, writing, design, and fashion. In the process, he produced a vast and eclectic body of work that has rarely been given critical scrutiny comparable with that devoted to work from the early years. That situation now appears to be changing, with an increasing number of critics, historians, and artists examining Dalí’s late work from a contemporary perspective, distanced from the modernist context in which it has usually been judged, and distanced as well from the flamboyant figure of the artist himself.

“People have tended to dismiss the late work as a whole, all 40 years of it,” says Dawn Ades, a leading Dalí specialist and cocurator of the Dalí retrospective opening on the 16th of this month at the Philadelphia Museum of Art (through May 15). “But when you look more closely, you see that Dalí is in fact a sort of cusp between modernism and Pop art. It becomes a much more interesting problem, and much trickier.”

Independent of its intrinsic merits or lack thereof, the late work has in part been obscured from critical appraisal by the larger-than-life figure of Dalí himself, who never seems to have shied away from offending the sensibilities of others while unabashedly seeking (and achieving) fame and fortune. This is the Dalí whom André Breton anagrammatically nicknamed Avida Dollars in reference to the artist’s overt eagerness for financial remuneration; the Dalí who paraded his strange brand of reactionary politics and provocative mores in the social arena, much as he paraded his unsettling neuroses and obsessions in his work; the clowning, eye-flashing, mustache-twirling public figure described by Robert Hughes (an admirer of the early work) as a “pretentious, whorish old fanatic.”

The “old fanatic” died in Spain at age 85, in 1989, after a debilitating illness that had long isolated him from his beloved jet-set scene and his favored corner table at the St. Regis hotel’s bar in New York. The internecine squabbles among the Surrealists belong now to a different century, as does the idea that artists ought to remain above the commercial fray of the rest of the world. Meanwhile, much of the art of the more recent past has been expressly concerned with breaking down the divisions between the noncommercial and the commercial, private and public, privileged and popular. And at the same time, artists’ using their public personas has become a widespread and widely accepted practice. Given these changes, Dalí—as Michael Taylor, curator of modern art at the Philadelphia Museum of Art and cocurator of the Dalí retrospective, puts it—is “ripe for revision.”

“For too long now people have just swallowed whole the idea that late Dalí is nothing more than commercial,” Taylor says. “All along, in everything he did, there was an intellectual underside. This has been hidden partly by his own persona and partly by his enemies, of whom there were many. We’ve reached the appropriate time now to reconsider him and to demolish the myths around him.”

“My sense is that Dalí is going to be completely reborn, and people are going to look at him in completely new ways,” says Robert Rosenblum, professor of modern European art at New York University’s Institute of Fine Arts. “Younger eyes are already looking at him without all that baggage and prejudice of the ’60s and ’70s. Dalí might have seemed an anathema to people coming from the world of Mondrian, but today what Dalí did is something younger artists aspire to.”

A main focus of the current revisionist appreciation of Dalí is his relationship to the development of Pop art in the early 1960s. In this view, Dalí anticipated not only the photo-based and dot techniques found in much Pop art—evidenced, for example, in Dalí paintings such as The Sistine Madonna (1958) and Portrait of My Dead Brother (1963)—but also the pervasive blend of irony and adulation toward mass-media images that underlies the work of artists such as Roy Lichtenstein, James Rosenquist, and even Sigmar Polke.

“Dalí was a key pre-Pop figure,” says Bice Curiger, a curator at the Zurich Kunsthaus, who organized “Hypermental: Rampant Reality 1950–2000: From Salvador Dalí to Jeff Koons,” which toured Europe in 2000. The exhibition featured numerous late Dalí paintings—but no early works.

“He was the first in the 20th century to ask the questions that are of the greatest topicality to us today,” Curiger explains. “You can see it in his way of introducing photographic optics, in how he does not care about expression of the brushstroke, or in his understanding of the importance of images in the collective memory and collective subconscious. It almost brings him closer to Duchamp in the end.”

Above all, however, Dalí’s role as a precursor of Pop is currently being traced back to the influence of his life and work on the life and work of Andy Warhol. The parallels, major and minor, are many: both worked and reworked iconic media images of such figures as Marilyn Monroe, Mae West, and Mao Zedong; both freely bridged the worlds of art, fashion, and advertising; both published their own periodicals (Dalí’s was titled the Dalí News); both created window displays for Bonwit Teller; both surrounded themselves with sycophantic retinues (whose membership occasionally overlapped); and both called attention to themselves in such a way as to blur the distinction between what an artist makes and what an artist does.

“It’s the perfect Old Testament and New Testament story,” Rosenblum says. “Warhol picked up right where Dalí left off—no Dalí, no Warhol. He was as much an antimodernist as Duchamp was and as Warhol was—they were all freethinkers.”

arhol’s work today is considered relevant far beyond its Pop context. By extension, those who link Warhol to Dalí see Dalí—and the late Dalí in particular—as belonging squarely to the present, when artists regularly merchandise not only the objects they create but also their own image, and when the art-world boundary between commercial images and noncommercial images has become porous at best.

“Artists have always tended to like Dalí, even when he was out of fashion,” says William Jeffett, curator of exhibitions at the Salvador Dalí Museum in St. Petersburg, Florida. “But now there’s a younger generation of artists that is fascinated by Dalí, by his breaking down of hierarchies, by his mixing of commercial imagery with fine-art imagery. It’s at the core of where we are now.”

“Dalí is obviously the model for later artistic production, especially Warhol,” says artist Mike Kelley. “It’s impossible to look at contemporary art now and not think of Dalí. What I find especially interesting is how endlessly creative he was. It’s hidden because of all the kitsch he produced. But with so much of what he did—who could have done something like that, and at that time? It looks like it was made yesterday. And it’s not just one or two things: it’s year after year, pumping it out.”

And from the perspective of the contemporary art world, with its enthusiastic and even indiscriminate absorption of imagery from a vast range of sources, even the widely held view of Dalí’s post-1939 work as kitsch does not slip past unexamined.

“By ‘kitsch’ they mean what? That its subject matter is religion?” asks Charles Stuckey, associate professor at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and formerly a curator at the Art Institute. “In today’s world, I don’t know if it would still be kitsch. It was kitsch for people who wanted to be like Jackson Pollock. But I would venture that most of the highest-paid artists today have more in common with Dalí than with Jackson Pollock.”

Warhol’s screen tests of Dalí were projected in the large-scale exhibition “Dalí and Mass Culture,” which was organized by the Fundació Gala-Salvador Dalí in Figueres, Spain, as part of the 2004 centenary celebration of the artist’s birth and ends its tour at the Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen in Rotterdam in June. Like the retrospective at the Philadelphia Museum, the show puts forward a strongly revisionist approach to Dalí. For instance, it treats Dalí’s lifelong attraction to commercial media such as popular film, advertising, and photography (he even attempted to team up with the Marx Brothers in Hollywood as early as 1936) as motivated by a forward-looking desire to bring the somewhat marginal and somewhat dated Surrealist-based artistic vision to as wide an audience as possible.

“By the end of World War II, Surrealism had already finished playing its role in history,” says Fèlix Fanés, a professor at the Barcelona Autonomous University and curator of “Dalí and Mass Culture.” “Dalí, like all the Surrealists, is left out-of-sync with the times. But what he does is try to take the same message to a mass public. This, to me, is the most interesting side of Dalí.”

“It wasn’t so much that Dalí was cynical—he had intuition,” says Manuel Borja-Villel, director of the Barcelona Museum of Contemporary Art. “He intuited that with the advent of television and mass media, with the advent of an era in which the product of art is its very consumption, the role of the artist had changed. Like Warhol and Koons, he played with advertising, he played with banality, he played with mass media. He had the clairvoyance to see that artists must create work that will be consumed, not only contemplated apart from society in museums and galleries.”

In conjunction with the centenary activities, the Salvador Dalí Museum in St. Petersburg organized a symposium last May titled “Persistence and Memory: New Critical Perspectives on Dalí at the Centennial.” The symposium consisted of three days of scholarly papers presented by art historians in the United States, Britain, and Spain, many of which addressed themes specific to the late work: for instance, Dalí’s theories of nuclear mysticism, a hybrid of atomic-age physics and Catholic doctrine that underlies paintings such as The Virgin of Port Lligat (1948); or his fascination with Werner Heisenberg (who, he said, had replaced Freud as his spiritual father) and on whose theory of the uncertainty principle Dalí claimed to have based his painting Still Life—Fast Moving (1956).

According to Jeffett, the symposium’s organizer, what emerged during the event was that younger scholars are approaching these aspects of the late work independent of the Surrealist painting of the 1920s and ’30s—a reversal of the standard chronological approach to Dalí’s career, and something that would have been all but unthinkable even a few years ago.

“There’s been a very real shift in the last few years,” Jeffett says. “Younger people today are intrigued by the late Dalí—by his theories of DNA, or by his nuclear mysticism, or even by his mixing of art and religion—for the same reasons why high modernists wouldn’t even look at it. They’re not even talking about Surrealism. They’re engaging with it on its own terms.”

The St. Petersburg symposium also featured lectures by James Rosenquist and Jeff Koons, both outspoken admirers of the Catalan artist, and who both met him when they were young. Koons, as a teenager in Pennsylvania, wrote a letter to Dalí and, much to his surprise, was summoned to the St. Regis. Dalí met him in the lobby, dressed in furs and carrying a silver-capped cane, and took him to see his latest gallery show. Today Koons points to Dalí’s effective meshing of personal iconography with mass-culture iconography as providing a model for his own work.

“His lobster telephone is one of my favorite works,” Koons says. “Everything about it seems like a dislocated image. But, in fact, a lobster is a crustacean, and in times past, we would use shells to communicate—so it’s not really so dislocated, after all. I have a postcard of the lobster telephone in my bedroom, so I look at it daily, and I never get tired of it.”

Rosenquist cites Dalí’s skilled and detailed brushwork as being of particular importance to him, as well as Dalí’s ability to deal with hefty intellectual subject matter in a way that is accessible to a broad public. His own first encounter with the artist occurred in 1959 when Dalí noticed the window displays Rosenquist was preparing for Fifth Avenue department stores. Dalí sought out the anonymous window dresser and upon finding him, as Rosenquist still vividly recalls some 45 years later, arched his eyebrows, twirled his mustache, and invited the struggling young artist to drinks at the St. Regis bar. Arriving at Dalí’s regular corner table, Rosenquist, tired after a long day’s work and a bit intimidated by Dalí’s retinue, proceeded to stick his elbow in a plate of cocktail nuts, scattering peanuts in all directions.

“Voilà!” shouted Dalí, triumphant. “Now, what would you like to drink?”

“He was like that—everything he said had an exclamation point at the end of it,” Rosenquist says. “Everything about him was an exclamation point.”

Regardless of the current flurry of interest in Dalí’s late work, it still lacks detractors, and the traditional view that Dalí’s early talent was squandered is still the prevailing one among critics and historians. But, as Jeffett points out, an added benefit of the contemporary art world’s distance from the real-life figure of Dalí is that current-day scholars are in a position to approach the artist’s more glaring weaknesses in an analytical fashion.

“All of the rethinking about Dalí is especially interesting because it’s being done from a scholarly point of view, not a polemical one,” Jeffett says. “But it’s important that scholars don’t whitewash Dalí. It’s important to look at everything, but to look at everything as scholars. That is, in fact, happening.”

“What we need to do with the late work is look at the art,” says Stuckey. “The late work is so different from what most other artists were doing at the time. Was Rosenquist doing it? Was Rauschenberg doing it? Nobody else in the world could have done what Dalí was doing when he was doing it.”

“I’ve developed a newfound respect for him,” says Kelley. “That willful perversity of Dalí’s in the end looks more fresh than the utopianism of so much modernism.”

George Stolz is the Madrid correspondent of ARTnews.

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