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Frey Norris Offers Most Comprehensive Look at Dorothea Tanning's Early Career
Dorothea Tanning, "The Witch", 1950. Oil on canvas, 18 x 24 inches. Photo; Courtesy: Frey Norris Gallery.
SAN FRANCISCO, CA.- Beyond the Esplanade surveys a fascinating period in the career of one of the most intriguing artists and writers of the last century. After extensive travel and living for some time in Sedona, Arizona and the Loire Valley in France, Dorothea Tanning now lives back in New York City, the same city where she came to prominence in 1942. That year Julien Levy, the gallerist who effectively introduced the United States to Surrealism, visited her studio. Levy was so impressed by Tanning's painting "Birthday" (now in the Philadelphia Museum of Art), that he quickly offered her a solo exhibition in his eponymous gallery in 1944. This exhibition was well received and positioned Tanning as one of the more significant artists in the country at the time. As a thinker and artist, Tanning’s life with her husband, the renowned painter Max Ernst, served as the epicenter for encounters and electrifying exchanges with many of the most significant creatives alive. From Joseph Cornell, Truman Capote, Merce Cunningham, George Balanchine, John Cage and Dylan Thomas to Alberto Giacometti, Joan Miro and James Merrill, Tanning’s autobiography Between Lives sometimes reads like a bildungsroman - Tanning found herself quickly surrounded by genius, yet remained sufficiently grounded to allow this to inspire and not overshadow her own emerging oeuvre.

The exhibition's title painting, "Beyond the Esplanade" (1940), speaks to the strength of will, creative unorthodoxy and story of artistic blossoming that would define Tanning’s evolving vision. Through work that cleaves rather closely to Surrealist paradigms of the biomorphic, erotic and the power of chance association, Tanning matured into a period of prismatic abstraction that calls to mind the shattering of semi-precious gems across the surface of her paintings. In "Daphne" (1943), "Fatala" (1947), and "The Witch", (1949), the intensely self-revelatory and still self-obscuring tones of her signature paintings demonstrate a sharp and witty intelligence struggling with the effects of, and often dismissive assumptions conjured by, her own physical beauty.

This struggle is probably best encapsulated in the expression of the solitary and seductive but perhaps drowned woman depicted in "Beyond the Esplanade", or the more confessional passages of her autobiography. Paintings like "Vorace Veracite" (1956) and "Ignotti Nulla Cupido" (1960) epitomize the jewel-like beauty of the second and third decades of Tanning’s career, a transition from a tone of discomfiting sexuality to embracing a distinct abstract language, one defined by color, hidden imagery and intricacy bolstered by clever poetic titles.

Tanning would later experiment with what is now called installation art (such as "Hotel du Pavot, Chambre 202" of 1973) and soft sculptures which the artist understood would not last, would be ephemeral combinations of plump twisting curves and functional furniture with titles like "Pincushion to Serve as a Fetish", (1979). In the 1980’s Tanning began to concentrate more on her writing, authoring several books and becoming a much celebrated poet, with poems appearing in 'The Best American Poetry 2000' and 'The New Yorker'.

"Beyond the Esplanade" is the most comprehensive look at Tanning's early career to appear in an American gallery since the Philadelphia Museum of Art hosted "Birthday and Beyond" in 2000, to celebrate their acquisition of this seminal painting. A 48 page catalogue accompanies the exhibition with an essay by Surrealism scholar and art historian Amy Lyford.

Frey Norris | Dorothea Tanning | "Beyond the Esplanade" |


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