Abstract truth

Navigating an art movement — and a local gallery's history — in "Surrealism: New Worlds"

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Gordon Onslow Ford's Birth of Venus (1947) from "Surrealism: New Worlds"
PHOTO BY NICHOLAS PISHVANOV

VISUAL ART A museum-quality show in terms of ambition and achievement, "Surrealism: New Worlds" fleshes out a forgotten, if not effaced, chapter in American art history, even as it incidentally tells the story of the gallery showing it.

For the éminence grise of the Weinstein Gallery was Gordon Onslow Ford (1912-2003), who, in addition to his role in the evolution of abstract art, was also one of the great collectors of modernism. Along with his friends Roberto Matta and Esteban Frances, the British-born Onslow Ford joined André Breton's Surrealist Movement in Paris in 1938, and would subsequently pursue an increasingly visionary, Zen-influenced abstraction in New York City, Mexico, and finally Northern California, where he lived from 1947 until his death. Onslow Ford's influence helped transform Weinstein — his exclusive dealer — into a serious gallery for historically-connected surrealist art; through him, the gallery would forge links with other, then-living surrealists like Enrico Donati (1909-2008), and even now, after his death, it continues to gather his fellow travelers, as when it began representing the estate of Gerome Kamrowski in 2005, or the estate of Jimmy Ernst (Max's son) in 2010.

As befits its plural title, "New Worlds" doesn't present anything like a unified aesthetic, because surrealism alone among the modernisms isn't an aesthetic but rather a critical assault on the conventions of reality. Thus abstraction mingles freely with figurative art, assemblages with bronzes, an automatic work like Oscar Domínguez's Three Figures (1947) with a meticulous imitation readymade like Marcel Duchamp's Eau & Gaz à tous étages (1958). Drawn from a roughly 30-year time span, the 1930s to the '60s, the show lists some 22 artists — an unlisted Dorothea Tanning (still alive at 101, though more active these days as a writer than a painter) brings that number up to 23 — all of whom were connected to some degree to Breton's group. The theme, broadly speaking, is the encounter between the European-formulated surrealism and the "new world" of America.

Being a gallery, Weinstein naturally leans most heavily on painters it represents; Onslow Ford, Donati, Kamrowski, and Leonor Fini are the pillars of this show, along with substantial contributions from Matta and Jimmy Ernst. What is remarkable, therefore, is how deftly the gallery has filled out the show with works from big-name artists from the surrealist pantheon. A pair of Max Ernsts — Convolvulus! Convolvulus! (1941) and Head of a Man (1947) — gives as good an impression of his mercurial range as possible from merely two paintings, the former an Henri Rousseau-like jungle of hidden creatures emerging from weird plumes of color, the latter an austere though colorful Neo-Cubist mask. A single André Masson must suffice for that artist's equally varied output, but the massive Le Centaure Porte-Clé (1947) (or "centaur key-ring") is a real stunner whose mutating image suggests something of his graphic work. Large canvases by seldom seen surrealists like Domínguez and Kurt Seligmann lend the show considerable depth.

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