“Dorothea Tanning: Doesn’t the Paint Say It All?,” a show currently on view at New York’s Kasmin gallery, takes its name from the artist’s 1986 memoir, Birthday. When Tanning finished painting, she tried to articulate her process of art-marking. It sounded like an ecstatic and humbling experience: “The beleaguered canvas is on the floor. Colors are merging… The tubes are in disorder, their caps lost, their labels smeared with wrong colors. Oh where is the red-orange, for it is at this moment the only color in the world and Dionysus the only deity.”
She may very well have been describing the paintings now on view at Kasmin. The exhibition features paintings from an undersung period of her oeuvre that saw Tanning leave behind the visual conventions of Surrealism. To see these semi-abstract paintings, dating from the late 1940s through the 1980s, is like peeking into the deepest depths of the REM cycle. Bodies bubble and churn, and reach toward—inside—each other. Tanning’s best-known works seem sited in reality, at least to some degree—you can tell they take place in domestic spheres. But here, there’s no discernible setting, just a prism of color and desire. They’re dreams you struggle to wake from, though their details slip away with a few blinks in the morning light.
“My dearest wish,” Tanning wrote, is “to make a trap with no exit at all either for you or for me.”
There have been Tanning retrospectives held abroad in the past few years, but this exhibition at Kasmin is the most comprehensive show of her work staged in the U.S. in decades. Though hardly on the scale of a retrospective held at a major museum (there are 19 works on view), the show offers an essential look at Tanning’s output, tracking her arc from her early enigmatic paintings through this intense period of fragmented light and form, to her final works, when she returned to figuration and even incorporated sculptural elements. Several significant pieces have returned to New York, where Tanning died in 2012, for the first time since their creation. Kasmin worked with the Destina Foundation, which manages Tanning’s estate, to put them on view.
One of the rarely seen works is Door 84 (1984), a mixed-media painting installed across from the front entrance of the gallery. An actual door bifurcates the painting, and two female figures, one on either side, strain against the division. It’s a neat introduction to this assembly of Tanning as representative of the tension between abstraction and figuration in her work.
By focusing on her late period, the show’s organizers, which includes Tanning’s niece, Mimi Johnson, aim to expand the understanding of Tanning’s art beyond her association with the émigré group of Surrealists that included her husband, the artist Max Ernst. (She was firm about refusing to let Ernst define her career. To paraphrase Tanning: “I had 30 years with Ernst, then I lived for 36 more.”) She was a poet, sculptor, and printmaker, and a great narrator of her own story.
Born in 1910, Tanning began her art career in New York in 1936 after an electrifying visit to “Fantastic Art, Dada, Surrealism,” a landmark survey held at the Museum of Modern Art. She chased the participating artists to Paris but, having discovered the lot had fled to America in fear of the war, soon sailed back to New York. Tanning had a brief, rebellious stint at art school in Chicago, but for the most part, she developed as an artist on her own. She supported herself as a freelance illustrator while painting in her Greenwich Village apartment and broke big in 1942 with the full-length self-portrait Birthday. (That painting is now held by the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and isn’t in the Kasmin show.) Tanning, beautiful and charismatic, tapped into appealing themes early, depicting herself as an eerie, erotic woman attended by mysterious beasts. The picture was selected by Ernst (stopping in for a studio visit) for a show at Peggy Guggenheim’s Art of This Century gallery. It is her most enduring self-portrait, but it marked her arrival as an artist. By departing from this grounded style, she captured a messier, more truthful female experience.
Almost every painting at Kasmin features the suggestion of nude bodies, but each radiates its own personhood, even the forms barely held together by her brushstrokes. Far From (1964) stars a biomorphic shape caught amid a metamorphosis. It’s a storm washing pairs of lovers away, many still wrapped in ribbons and legs. In Philosophie en plein air (Fresh-air Philosophy), 1969, the figures’ passions collide like two opposing currents, pulling the sky and grass into its rotation. Here Tanning defies voyeurism by withholding the entire story but keeping the essence of its soul in a style reminiscent of Cubism.
Her stalwart Lhasa Apso appears throughout the show, its long, sleek fringe sometimes peeking out from beneath the bodily contortions. In La Chienne et sa muse (1964), Tanning appears as a fleshy arthropod while the inscrutable dog is recognizably itself, if oddly elongated. Tanning felt a deep affinity for animals, and found in her pets confidants and vessels for transformation, so that in paintings they are one: they wear the other’s face and their bodies morph from human to canine and back. In the 1977 work Portrait de famille, one of her snub-nosed Pekingese dogs is the pedestal for a writhing trio of bodies, the topmost ascending in a red cloud. The strain in the dog’s face is disquieting as it bows to the pressure.
There’s a sinister edge to several of these later works, from a period when Tanning returned to New York after several decades living in France. A black-brown shadow blankets most of Pour Gustave l’adoré (1974), in which an incandescent amphibian limb emerges from the dark. The painting is named for the 19th-century French artist Gustave Doré, who illustrated exuberant fantasies for volumes, including Dante’s Divine Comedy and Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner. Tanning was a vocal admirer of his.
The most recent works in the show are the paintings On Avalon and To Climb a Latter, both from 1987. The monumental former occupies a huge back wall, but the latter is a more poignant goodbye. It’s no scene on earth: a velvety black sea stretches to the horizon, where a small cluster of lights—a city, a portal?—sits. The top rung of the ladder meets a break in the sky, the entrance to freedom, and everyone wants in.
Figures and flesh are packed into each rung, stretching like taffy upward, a furious churn against those above and below. Where are they so desperate to reach? And if these are the same women who, only pictures ago, were entwined in ecstasy, is it a brawl or a revolution? To disagree with Tanning, the paint keeps some secrets.