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The Whitney presents "Real/Surreal", exploring two of the strongest currents in twentieth-century American art
Marsden Hartley (1877-1943), The Old Bars, Dogtown, 1936. Oil on composition board, 18 x 24 in. (45.72 x 60.96 cm) Purchase 37.26

NEW YORK, N.Y.- The permeable boundary between the real and the imagined is the subject of Real/Surreal, at the Whitney Museum of American Art. A close look at the interconnection between two of the strongest currents in twentieth-century American art, the exhibition includes eighty paintings, drawings, photographs, and prints made in the years before, during, and immediately after the Second World War by such artists as Paul Cadmus, Federico Castellón, Ralston Crawford, Mabel Dwight, Jared French, Louis Guglielmi, Edward Hopper, Man Ray, Kay Sage, George Tooker, Grant Wood, and Andrew Wyeth. Organized by Whitney curator Carter Foster.

An international movement in art and literature, Surrealism originated in Europe in the 1920s. Its practitioners tapped the subconscious mind to create fantastic, non-rational worlds. While some explored abstraction and used the subconscious to directly influence the formal structure of their work, others developed imagery with strong roots in traditional painting. This vein of Surrealism flourished most famously in the work of Salvador Dalí and René Magritte, and influenced a host of artists in the United States. As the movement spread internationally and some of the major figures moved to this country in the upheavals of the War, its ideas became more diffuse and permeated both art and popular culture.

This exhibition, the second in a series of shows reexamining the Museum’s collection chronologically from its earliest days to the present, focuses on the tension and overlap between realism and Surrealism. Although the term “realism” has many facets, a basic connection to the observable world underlies all of them; the subversion of reality through the imagination and the subconscious lies at the heart of Surrealism. Surrealism was a liberating force which allowed for all manner of fantastic, unreal imagery, but it also greatly influenced how artists perceived and represented reality. Those who absorbed its ideas learned to invest objects and spaces with symbolic power, making them representative of psychic states, moods, and subconscious impulses. They favored narrative ambiguity over explicitness, intentionally allowing viewers to project their own subjectivity onto the work, so that the viewer’s imagination, and the artist’s, could intertwine.

Yet there are convergences in these different and even oppositional approaches to experience, and they encourage new ways of looking at the art of the twenties, thirties, and forties in America. For example, Edward Hopper, the artist most closely identified with the Whitney, is a painter whose own subjectivity and imagination are integral to his work. Many artists who developed imagery based on new and very specific, concrete conditions of industrial America were essentially interested in artificial worlds and presented these as distillations of reality. Even totally abstract painters such as Yves Tanguy depended on techniques developed from traditional realist art to render other worlds. By willfully distorting such techniques, Helen Lundeberg and Mabel Dwight could quietly undercut our sense of stability, while showing us recognizable and even mundane objects and settings.

Most of the artists on view were academically trained and had a full command of traditional painting and drawing techniques. Those directly connected to European Surrealism or strongly influenced by it used these techniques to subvert and alter the observable world. Harder to categorize are those whose work has certain qualities in common with Surrealism but who tinkered subtly with reality rather than dramatically changing it to expressive ends. Like the Surrealists, their strategies make the familiar unfamiliar, unsettling, or uncanny, and often involve manipulating the tools of representational art. Some, for example, distort spatial perspective by compressing or exaggerating it. They may crop or fragment what they depict, create strange juxtapositions of objects, or unusual shifts in scale; they may distill or accentuate normal qualities in their surroundings—light, shadow, materials, textures—so that these appear abnormal or weird.

Sigmund Freud, whose theories were seminal for Surrealism, described how the uncanny happens when “the distinction between imagination and reality is effaced,” a fitting description of much of the work in this exhibition.

Real/Surreal | Whitney Museum of American Art | Paul Cadmus | Federico Castellón |

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