Recent assessments of Dorothea Tanning are so similar that there must be a playbook somewhere. Step one: commend her for living a long time (1910-2012). Step two: announce that she was married to a certain famous Surrealist painter (google it if you care that much). Step three: say that she was unfairly overshadowed by her husband (true). Step four: say that since she was undervalued, her real value must be not just higher than previously acknowledged but sky-high (less true). Thus, the enlightened contemporary critic perpetuates a problem in order to solve it afresh, first tying Tanning to the man she slept with and then swooping in to free the distressed damsel and carry her to the top of the mountain.
“‘Great,’” Jed Perl wrote, “becomes meaningless when nothing can be merely good.” Dorothea Tanning is a good artist—and what’s so bad about that? Her principal subject is flesh, and in the eighteen canvases recently on display at Kasmin Gallery, flesh is squeezed and kneaded and pinched like Play-Doh. The results, painted between 1947 and 1987, range from arrestingly macabre to affectedly macabre to plain old affected. Tanning is wonderful at layering texture on texture, and she can be a deft colorist (check out the way a single dab of red gives On Avalon, from 1987, a subtle center). On the whole, though, her efforts amount to overtures more than full symphonies, with more moody rumbling and throat clearing than payoff.
Thanks in large part to the crisply enigmatic images she painted in her thirties, Tanning is presumed to be a Surrealist. But the paintings that were on view at Kasmin—with their vexed eroticism, their kneejerk seriousness, their refusal to bend to easy psychological interpretation, and their rich, heavy colors—seem more fin de siècle. Pour Gustave l’adoré (1974), which depicts what appears to be the Little Mermaid bathed in sickly haunted-house chiaroscuro, could have been painted eighty years earlier. In interviews, Tanning talked about reading Gothic novels as a girl, and it shows: much of this show is queasily intense, and very little is whimsical or playful (she read Alice in Wonderland, too, but judging from these walls you’d never know). She can summon fleshy forms out of thin air—even a pure abstraction like Aux environs de Paris (Paris and Vicinity), 1962, has the same pimpled, gouty bloat as a figurative painting like Portrait de famille (Family Portrait), 1977. The latter, a swirl of pink nudes floating above a black, gaping mouth, may have been the most characteristic painting in the show. At first sight it packs a considerable punch, but the longer you look, the less you see: the swirl gets less mysterious and more vague; the gaping mouth does too much of the atmospheric work and still can’t make up for the surrounding muddle; the strain to convey uncanniness comes across as strongly as the uncanniness itself. What at first seemed larger than life starts to seem unintentionally funny, like a sullen teen who’s just discovered Camus.
Tanning is at her best when she showboats less. In To Climb a Ladder (1987), one of the strongest works that was on display, she sets a rickety stack of limbs and breasts against a clean black rectangle trimmed with blue. It’s a savvy compositional choice, for the same reason it’s savvy not to show too much of the monster in a horror movie; understatement allows the eerie mass in the foreground—half ladder, half climbers—to burn brighter, like an offering to some wicked deity (and it does seem to burn, sending little wisps of pink and orange into the blackness—another inspired touch). Moody rumbling isn’t everything, but it has plenty to recommend it.