Dorothea Tanning, artist and poet, died on Jan. 31 at the age of 101. Erudite and prolific for seven decades, Tanning often said she learned how to paint by gazing at paintings on her frequent visits to the Art Institute of Chicago. Her Surrealist figurative work in oil on canvas or watercolor on paper gave way in the 1950s to more atmospheric abstractions. Beginning in the late ’50s, she also made biomorphic soft sculptures out of materials like wool, tweed, felt and fur.
Born in Galesburg, Ill., Tanning moved to New York in 1935. She met art dealer Julien Levy in 1941 and through him became acquainted with the Surrealist artists who had fled Nazi France. One, Max Ernst, visited her studio in 1942, where, she said, he “saw a painting, (Birthday), and stayed to play chess.” She and Ernst married in 1946 in a double ceremony with Man Ray and Juliet Browner, in Beverly Hills. They were together for 34 years.
Tanning and Ernst divided their time between Sedona, Ariz., New York and France. They settled in France in 1956, which is when she began a series of soft sculptures. After Ernst died in 1976, she returned to New York from Paris, continuing to paint. In her own words, she wrote: “Max Ernst died on April 1, 1976 and Dorothea faced a solitary future. ‘Go home,’ said the paint tubes, the canvases, the brushes. Returning to the United States in the late 1970s, and still painting . . . she gave full rein to her long felt compulsion to write.”
Her first New York show, of Surrealist paintings, was in 1944 at Julien Levy Gallery. Ernst wrote the catalogue essay. She showed extensively in Europe and, since the 1980s, had exhibitions with Kent Fine Art in New York. Among her museum shows was a retrospective mounted by the Centre national d’Art Contemporain in Paris in 1974.
Tanning’s poetry has appeared in such publications as The Yale Review, Poetry, The Paris Review and The New Yorker. She also published two memoirs, Birthday, in 1986, and Between Lives: An Artist and Her World, in 2001, a collection of poems titled A Table of Content and the novel Chasm: A Weekend (both 2004). Her second book of poems, Coming to That, was published last fall.