"Julien Levy: Portrait of an Art Gallery," Aug. 13-Oct. 31, 1998, at the Equitable Gallery, 787 Seventh Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10019.
Gangway for Surrealism. The old international cult is resurging like a dormant virus that suddenly remembers how to infect. It isn't happening because everybody thinks its a good idea. It seems like a bad idea, on the whole. I mean, Surrealism? All that heavy breathing, all those longueurs! But if you have any keener, timelier notion for art's near future, we have not heard from you.
For evidence, take the strange glow around this corporate-hosted exhibition of art and ephemera commemorating the Julien Levy Gallery, a Surrealism-intensive, radically cosmopolitan dealership that held forth on East 57th Street from 1931 to 1949. Embracing photography, film design and popular artifacts as well as painting and sculpture, Levy featured artists ranging from Pablo Picasso and Eugène Atget through Marcel Duchamp, Salvador Dalí, and Joseph Cornell to Frida Kahlo (with whom he had an unsecret affair) and Paul Cadmus.
Don't we know all that stuff already? Haven't we been strolling past it familiarly in museums forever? But it's odd now. A show that ought to be a pleasantly dusty archival diversion proves radioactive. The reason is that so much current art is going ferverish and spooky in reminiscent ways. An eye-opening exhibition of 73 contemporaries called "Pop Surrealism," that just closed at the Aldrich Museum in Ridgefield, Conn., has set a tone that will reverberate.
Let's open a file that we will retrieve often this season.
What is Surrealism? It is less a style or idea than a complex of mental states, notably a pesky mood of disorientation toward things. Things lose thingness. They take on emotions and inclinations. Subjectivity escapes human minds and roams the world. Something funny happens to reality: it turns extraordinarily vivid, with a catch. The catch that it writhes like snakes in a pit. Hallucination becomes common coin.
Why Surrealism now? I think human spirits are starting to revolt against a society that has been reducing the credit of inner experience toward zero. Economics, politics, science, technology, academe, the law, and, really, everything conspire to humiliate personal truth. Corporate, media and university cultures presume that human beings are managerial, demographic and ideological units whose residue of unpredictability must soon yield to nicer adjustments of the appropriate methodologies.
This only seems to work. It is building up contrary pressure. Chaos stirs. Entropy looms. At some point there may be hell to pay. Meanwhile, the antennae of the race that are artists pick up crazed signals. Sure, people are ever more well behaved. But objects are getting restless. When you put anything down and turn your back on it, you're taking a chance. Of course, most of our trusty agencies, theories and polls affirm that any such weirdness can only be illusory. What a relief. Don't look now.
Surrealism seldom makes for excellent art. It makes for inferior art mostly: too addled to sustain contemplation over time. But addlement may be the most authentic response of sensitive souls to times of crisis. Such a time was the 1920s and '30s, when an epic war had ended with the collapse of the world's long-settled order. First came phases of local euphoria. Then came general catastrophe. If we are not at the midpoint of a similar cycle today, I'll be glad, but I have this worry that's hard to shake.
Surrealism is art for worried eyes which seek clues to engulfing mysteries or, at least, ways to enjoy the mysteries while they are inescapable. It is a capering adventure in pessimism. In the chronically buoyant United States, even during the Depression, there was a limit to how worried Americans could get. (There still is, I think.) The tenor of the Levy Gallery was upbeat and excited, though often focused on expressions of European rage and ennui.
It is time to recall that Sigmund Freud once appeared to authorize gaga self-fascination and that Duchamp, who has been cast lately as an avuncular dean of institutional studies, seemed a facetious, perverse, shamanistic wild man. Back then, modern art was a party where people got funky in thrilling ways. Everyone knew this. Your attitude toward the spirit of the party said what you were. (Levy was an avid but fairly dim hipster, as some terminally arty films by him at the Equitable Gallery reveal.) Not large, the party was a parlor bash.
Beautifully installed in quirky little rooms, the Levy show bespeaks the intimate scale at which modern art was Dionysian before it went vast and Apollonian with Abstract Expressionism. Isn't smallness a characteristic of genuinely new art in 1998? It is, as we rediscover the poetry of architectural proportions that predate airports and shopping malls. Imagination is a tiny lens, really a peephole, that just happens to open upon burning infinity. Physically, it likes snug containment.
It also digs sex, both in body and on the brain. Eroticism sloshes, hip-deep, throughout this show. The ruling bias is male and often direly sexist when not, as with Dalí or Cornell, masturbatory. But Surrealism hailed female sensibilities, too. At least a dozen women make renewed impressions here -- naturally including Kahlo, whose artistic and moral prestige keeps growing. From being a marginal modern figure, she has become central. Surrealism could not revive without the whiplash personal perspective that Kahlo counters to the bloated dogmatism of André Breton.
You know that a former esthetic is back when mediocre examples of it look fine. At the Equitable, I found myself perusing forced fantasies by Paul Delvaux and Dorothea Tanning with indulgent eyes. What they say suddenly matters more than the cartoony overemphasis of their rhetoric. The brittle look of such work may inspire, even. It gives present artists a stylistic corridor for reentering Surrealism, proceeding backwards through parody to serious identification.
The Levy show comes to us not via a public museum but in a castle of capitalism. This means something. It points to a present concentration of libidinous mojo in commercial enterprises rather than civil institutions. Insurrectionary energies of the next era will emerge, all gooey and Alien-esque, from within the beast of triumphant money, not in fastidious opposition to it. Sooner rather than later, things around here are going to get down, dirty, fun and scary -- not necessarily in that order.
PETER SCHJELDAHL is art critic for the Village Voice, where this column first appeared.