The show here by Dorothea Tanning (1910–2012), “Doesn’t the Paint Say It All?,” was being billed by Kasmin as “the most comprehensive solo presentation of her work for US audiences in decades.” It was, however, by no means a retrospective. Absent were the romantic costume and set designs Tanning confected for George Balanchine’s ballets between 1945 and 1953; her underknown, fantastically perverse biomorphic soft sculptures from the mid- to late 1960s; and, perhaps most conspicuously, her tightly worked mythopoeic paintings of the 1940s, the most famous examples of which—including the preternatural self-portrait Birthday, 1942, and the girlhood purgatory of Eine Kleine Nachtmusik (A Little Night Music), 1943—have become icons of Surrealist disturbia unearthed from the female unconscious. Instead, the pieces on view in this exhibition—from the big baroque canvases of the 1950s, with their spectral fragments of anatomical imagery submerged in fields of abstract painterly effluvia, to the voluptuous restored figuration of the 1970s and ’80s—felt comparatively underdetermined and resistant to interpretation. Tanning made damn sure of that.
Painted the year after her partner Max Ernst’s death, Portrait de famille (Family Portrait), 1977, agglutinates three headless nudes into a Rubenesque mass of pink skin, their torqued bodies modeled with a kind of fetishistic old-masterish chiaroscuro. Tucked beneath a rippling thigh is the face of a shaggy dog, tentatively emerging from the vaporous blue-green atmosphere pillowing the entwined throuple. The swooning excess of flesh and ether tease thematic topoi—sex, the feminine, the body—all summarily rejected by Tanning herself. She disdained erotic readings of her work (“the sad little procession of analyzers, trudging toward the altar of libido . . .”) as much as she did the feminist scholarship that brought a new audience to her art at the turn of the millennium. “The Movement washes over me,” the artist wrote in 2001, with a certain crotchety hauteur, “[like] an unwary beachcomber; it pulls, drags, coerces, demands my solidarity, my admission of sisterhood. Looming large in my corner is the phenomenon of Women Painters. . . . [My] pictures have no place in our biological morass, our mouse fate. Instead they are pirate maps. Diagrams for mutiny.”
The seafaring metaphors resonate in Pour Gustave l’adoré (For the Adored Gustave), 1974, in which a viridescent form resembling a mermaid’s tail slides into view from abyssal darkness. According to the art-historical literature attending the work, the title is a punning homage to nineteenth-century artist and illustrator Gustave Doré, whose canvas Les océanides (naiades de la mer) (The Oceanids [Naiads of the Sea]), ca. 1860, Tanning would acquire in 2001. Yet her enigmatic picture couldn’t be temperamentally farther from the pompier lubriciousness of Doré’s tableau, with its bevy of nubile bipedal nymphs splashing and sunbathing around a bound Prometheus. Follow the tail of Tanning’s Melusine into the shadows and it joins with a groin covered in dark pubic hair, calling to mind a painting by another Gustave—Courbet’s L’origine du monde (The Origin of the World), 1866. The shape insinuates a genuflecting human leg vanishing in the murk. This amphibious figure—slippery and self-othering, a mutant and a mutineer against biological and categorical determinacy—seems to have been cathected with profound significance for the artist, who made two other nearly identical versions of this image, in different sizes, in 1966 and 1982.
In 1987, Tanning, haunted by a reproduction of a painting of a flower field seen in an obscure artist’s catalogue decades prior, painted On Avalon. Her largest-ever canvas, it calls to mind Matisse’s La danse (The Dance), 1910, if executed by an elderly, nearly blind Monet_. _Naked figures writhe in a crypto-druidic revel, their heads efflorescing into gyres of white brushwork reminiscent of enormous chrysanthemums or Catherine wheels exploding in the forest. They “may have been flowers,” Tanning wrote, “but also novas, tears, omens, God knows what, contending or conniving with our own ancestral shape in a place I’d give anything to know.” Does the paint really “say it all,” as the exhibition’s title assures us? What, then, is it telling us? If Tanning’s pictures are treasure maps, they forsake the indexical closure of “X marks the spot” for shipwrecked worlds of meaning that glimmer—seductive and irretrievable—from oceanic depths.