He was born in Paris, served in World War I and afterward kicked around doing odd jobs.
She was an American heiress brought up mostly in Europe who married and divorced an Italian prince.
They came together around art, specifically a movement called Surrealism, which sought, among other things, to plumb the subconscious for subject matter.
At the outbreak of World War II, the two escaped Fascism in Europe, married and lived in a leafy Connecticut town. They had adjoining studios in a barn. It had a connecting door, but they kept their work separate and refused to exhibit side by side.
Now works by Yves Tanguy and Kay Sage have been brought together for the first time on the walls of the Mint Museum Uptown, in “Surrealism and Beyond.”
The “Beyond” means work by two other artists: American Charles Seliger and Gordon Onslow Ford, an Englishman who knew the Surrealists in Paris and came to America with an assist from Sage.
But the stars of the exhibit curated by the Mint’s Jonathan Stuhlman are Tanguy and Sage and the strange and compelling visions they created.
Birthed in Paris after the destruction and dislocations of World War I, Surrealism began as a literary movement and eventually encompassed the visual arts, theater and film.
The word has been drained of meaning by overuse, used for anything seemingly out of the ordinary, as in “These gas prices are surreal!”
Early on it had more guts, a revolutionary movement drawing on new fields such as psychology, looking to turn art and artists inward to dreams and fantasies, favoring surprise and strange juxtapositions, such as Salvador Dali and his painting of limp watches.
Tanguy and Sage were in the thick of it, in Paris and in America where Surrealism blossomed in the 1940s. Filled with paintings brought together from other museums, the show looks for affinities and influences between the two artists.
Sometimes the comparisons are convincing, sometimes not. And little is said about the rocky relationship between Tanguy and Sage, a mostly unsmiling couple in photographs, or about Sage’s suicide.
The more dramatic painter, Tanguy created a kind of theater on the canvas using shapes, shadows and a sense of receding space that pulls you in.
He preferred machine-like forms, but he rounded them at the edges, making them softer, seemingly stand-ins for the absent human figures. One of his enigmatic titles – big with the Surrealists – was “Suffering Softens Stones.”
He used a muted palette but sometimes used a bright red or blue. He also favored a strong horizontal across the picture plane.
Sage also used muted colors. Unlike Tanguy, she was a trained artist, which makes her work oddly formal at times. Her imagery includes drapery, towering scaffolds and shapes that reference the human body.
Her “The Instant” features a mountain-like form, scaffolding off to the side, and shards in the foreground. Cutaway, the mountain interior is rich with shapes.
They could be mechanical, biomorphic, or represent the mind or body. The painting has mystery and majesty and pulls an emotional reaction from the viewer.
Seliger and Ford
New Yorker Seliger was a prodigy in his early 20s when he made a splash in the 1940s. He is presented as a not well-known artist who deserves more attention.
I found his work – abstract, unlike that of Tanguy and Sage – airless, claustrophobic, with little feeling for paint as a medium. Clearly influenced by the Abstract Expressionists, he seems more in that camp than Surrealism.
Ford makes better use of light and color. His canvases seem to reach for an ecstatic vision, “An Accord of Space Life” giving a sense of planets and galaxies.
But the energy in this exhibit comes from Tanguy and Sage.
She is the not well-known artist who deserves more attention.