This American artist, who lived past 100, has a hefty reputation as a Surrealist icon of the 20th century. Over her long career, Dorothea Tanning was famous for her crafty paintings and stuffed-toy-like sculptures. Accompanied by her husband Max Ernst, she lived in an Arizona desert town and then in Paris. That’s certainly the life on show in her Tate Modern retrospective, which I enjoyed and returned to repeatedly during its run early last year.
But Alison Jacques highlights a later, less well-known Tanning period in this tight, fun exhibition. After Ernst’s death in 1976, the artist moved to New York City, its artistic scene electrified by Basquiat and Schnabel in their pomp, and Warhol in his last years. Entranced by the hip hop blaring “crazy kids” outside of her window - looking “like archangels” - Tanning’s response was to draw and paint two seemingly unrelated subjects, over and over again. Bikes and… gorillas!
It’s not exactly clear what catalysed this decision. We do know that Tanning saw something horrible out of her window one day in the 80s: a bike collision, with the riders flying through the air before they hit the ground. In a series of charcoal and pastel drawings she called Messages, Tanning’s bikes are black in silhouette, with their wheels at pointy angles so they look like knives; the handle bars form devil horns. Bikes also appeared in her paintings of the time, accompanied by Keith Haring-style outlined people, in attitudes of abandonment, and flight. Crash victims.
Tanning explained to interviewers at the time that she saw bikes as symbols both of modernity and utility, a tool of man, ubiquitous and useful. (Her Futurist forebears in Italy shared that view, and also painted and drew bikes obsessively.)
But, in the Messages series, these threatening bikes are always juxtaposed with lovely, sensitively-drawn gorilla and orang-utan faces. Their expressions are placid and calm, unaware of the absurdity of their position: within bike wheels and chain spokes, integrated with these useful but dangerous machines, but clearly not part of them.
Tanning explained: “The gorilla remembers, too, back to the eye of time, when somehow he was left behind, man jumped on a bicycle and sped away and does not now remember.” To speed away… and then to crash on a busy city street, of course. “Here I am an artist who has promised to bring them together,” Tanning added.
She could also have gone on to say, as an artistic grande dame with many decades of experience, she felt perfectly free to draw whatever she wants from her own experience and thoughts, regardless of whether these drawings tip over from the surreal to the silly. And good on her!
Dorothea Tanning: Worlds in Collision is at Alison Jacques (London). January 24 - March 21 2020