“Real/Surreal” explores the haunted intersection of realist and surrealist American art


American painter Kaye Sage blends symbolic abstraction with a Surrealist dreamscape in “No Passing” from 1954, on display in “Real Surreal.”

Real/Surreal, Madison Museum of Contemporary Art, 227 State St., Madison, WI www.mmoca.org (608) 257-0158.

Heart-plucking Americana pictorial art, brash Abstract Expressionism, impishly ironic Pop Art and postmodern spin-offs can all make claims as “real American art.”

But is real American art also surreal? That underlying question of Real/Surreal is a good reason to see this show, aside from its fun-house array of conceptual, psychological and artistic pleasures. Many of these artists’ interests parallel psychiatry and psychology –asking one to inwardly question, probe one’s past or self-assurance or – one’s subconscious fears, and dreams.

Curator Rick Axsom set many of the freestanding display panels at odd angles to convey Surrealism’s skewed reality, says MMoCA director Stephen Fleischman. Running through April 27 and organized by the Whitney Museum of American Art, the exhibition signifies “the tension and connections between two powerful currents in 20 century art: realism and Surrealism,” Axsom says.

Surrealism dominated European modernist art of the ‘30s and ‘40s, and many Surrealists moved to America and would deeply influence American abstract expressionism’s intuitive spontaneity. But this show represents primarily how Surrealism weirdly adulterated the intent and act of realistic representation, well past WWII.

Federico Castellon’s 1938 painting “The Dark Figure” depicts his own dazed and disembodied head amid a configuration of limbs, and an enigmatic woman engulfed in black, their flesh rendered with a chilling bloodlessness.


Federico Castellón, The Dark Figure, 1938. Oil on canvas. 17 3/8 x 26 1/4 x 1 1/8 inches. Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; purchase 42.3. Permission courtesy Michael Rosenfeld  Gallery LLC, N.Y. Photography by Sheldan C. Collins 

More intriguing are artists who walk a finer line between realism and the psychological edge. Joe Jones’ Depression-era “American Farm” shows a meager homestead atop a cloud-shrouded hill, which resembles a voracious tidal wave about to devour the farm.

George Tooker superbly calibrates his 1950 tempera “The Subway.” A worried woman stands surrounded by various men — some with undead-like, lidded eyes, others peering anxiously from alcoves, and one man weeps against a wall. Both moving and unsettling, the painting blends fragments of multiple stories, feeling like a metaphor for American societal angst and isolation, even amid many people, a not-uncommon subway experience.


George Tooker, The Subway, 1950. Egg tempera on composition board, 18 1/8 x 36 1/8inches. Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; purchase, with funds from the Juliana Force Purchase Award 50.23. Courtesy of the Estate of George Tooker and D.C. Moore Gallery, N.Y. Photography by Sheldan C. Collins. 

Among the most ambitious and thought-provoking works is Henry Koerner’s 1946 “Mirror of Life,” which reflects a post-war scrutiny of reality and its troubled underpinnings. In the foreground, a man peers out of a hotel window revealing his mistress lying nude on a bed, along with a card game beside the bed. Yet he’s compelled to look out over an extraordinary panorama of life that reaches back into time to the Biblical scene of betrayal in the background. Cain kills Abel, both as naked as the philandering observer — wearing only his watch — and his mistress. Koerner’s virtuosic and ambiguous handling of a sprawling scenario defies accusations of heavy-handed moralism, and befits the surrealist tradition of bringing disturbing dreams to life on canvas.


Henry Koerner, Mirror of Life, 1946. Oil on composition board, Overall: 36 x 42 inches. Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; purchase 48.2. With permission of  Joseph and Joan Koerner. Digital Image © Whitney Museum of American Art.

I left the exhibit with the feeling that this intersection of realist and surrealist insight suggests that we Americans don’t spend enough time in reflective self-examination.

Remember, film noir — deeply laced with mind-twisting psychological scenarios – also took off in the 1950s. You begin to see how attuned to the times American surrealism was, and may remain.

The show includes work by Thomas Hart Benton, Charles Burchfield, Marsden Hartley, Edward Hopper, Rockwell Kent, Andre Kertesz, Man Ray, Yves Tanguy,  Grant Wood, Andrew Wyeth and others. An accompanying show features Wisconsin Surrealists, (including Santos Zingale’s “Triangle Inn No. 1,” below) and a third celebrates MMoCA’s collection of Mexican modernists.


Santos Zingale, Triangle Inn No. 1, 1942. Oil on canvas, 30 x 39 ½ inches. Madison Museum of Contemporary Art. Madison Art Association Purchase Award, 1942 Wisconsin Salon of Art. © Santos Zingale Estate. 


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