From Critical Paranoia to Uncritical Banality: 100 Years of Salvador Dalí and 25 of Jeff Koons
“Dalí: Mass Culture” continues at Fundació “la Caixa” until May 23, traveling thereafter to the Reina Sofia, Madrid; the Salvador Dalie Museum, St Petersburg, Florida; and the Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, Rotterdam.
“Jeff Koons: Highlights of 25 Years”
C&M Arts until June 5 (45 E 78th Street, between Park and Madison Avenues, 212 861 0020
Last Tuesday, Salvador Dalí would have turned one hundred. Fifteen years after his death in 1989, how is he bearing up, reputation-wise? Some would say the same as ever–perpetually adolescent. Or less charitably, in view of the necro- and coprophilia lurking beneath his camped-up academic style, they would borrow a favorite word of the master’s, “putrified.”
But in a contemporary artworld where abjection, lurid personal confession, identification with kitsch and tongue in cheek, wacko theorizing are accepted norms, maybe he’s due for a revival. The phenomenal public take-up of figures like John Currin and Matthew Barney would suggest there are audiences that never tire of outré iconography aligned to anal craft.
In preparation for the centenary, the Gala-Salvador Dalí foundation in his Catalan birthtown, Figueres, and the Salvador Dalí Museum in St Petersburg, Florida teamed up to approach major museums in the world’s art capitals (New York, London, Paris) to organize a fitting reappraisal of his work. There were no takers. Instead, a retrospective is promised later in the year at the Palazzo Grassi in Venice, which will travel to the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Of course, the PMA is one of America’s finest museums, but in the context of a proposed exhumation it is hard to suppress W.C. Fields’s quip about Philadelphia and the grave.
Despite box-office guarantees, then, Dalí has become an artworld taboo. What went wrong for the “Great Masturbator”?
One answer could be that too much went right. The shock tactics and ickly sexuality of his art and antics have been utterly absorbed by what has become a pop surreal mainstream in mass culture: Post-David Lynch, Monty Pynthon and Quentin Tarantino, not to mention MTV, there are few surprises left in Dalí that will raise more than a wry smile from a first-time viewer.
Although Dalí was thrown out of the Surrealist group for political incorrectness (he made a painting deemed disrespectful to the memory of Lenin) in popular perception the artist came to epitomize Surrealism. The public was far more enthralled by his showmanship–giving lectures in a diving suit, twirling his caballero moustache in TV interviews while pontificating about “nuclear mysticism”, or hurling cats at a canvas–than by the subtle dialectics of poets like Paul Eluard or André Breton. He literally took Surrealism global with his “Dream of Venus” pavillion at the 1939 World’s Fair in New York, creating an organic façade that was a guady riff on Gaudi.
Dalí spent the war years in the United States and was a regular visitor thereafter. As the “Dalí: Mass Culture” exhibition at Barcelona’s Fundación “la Caixa” makes clear, Dalí loved America and America loved him. He would issue a manifesto in 1939 proclaiming the “Declaration of the independence of the imagination and the rights of man to his own madness.” This fascinating, exhaustively researched and flamboyantly presented exhibition is a kill or cure for Dalí’s reputation. While it assembles some of his best work, it makes no effort to disguise the “sell out” aspect of the artist Breton anagrammatically dubbed Avida Dolars (avid for dollars).
From its very outset, his art embraced Americana. In “Girl from Figueres,” (1926), a lovingly painted Ford logo dominates the naively rendered, idyllic provincial townscape. Later he would graduate to Cadillacs, painting flowing dresses on appropriated prints of the luxury automobile. He beat Andy Warhol and Marisol in his realization of the erogoneity of the Coca-Cola bottle.
Dalí’s embrace of mass culture went hand in hand with an ambiguity towards old master painting. A section of la Caixa’s exhibition, which was curated by Fèlix Fanés, is devoted to his obsession with Jean-François Millet’s great nineteenth-century depiction of rural piety, the Angelus. As with his cannibalisation of Vermeer, Leonardo, and Botticelli, Dalí’s attitude towards Millet took to heart Nietzsche’s exhortation to “burn what you love and love what you burn.” He collected an assortment of cartoons and ads trivializing the classic image of a peasant couple praying in a field, with the couple lighting up a Gauloise or listening to a soccer match on the radio, in lieu of prayer, showing that his own abuse of the image was a high-art counter to a popular art phenomenon.
Dalí achieved almost as much notoreity for his film collaborations with Luis Bunuel, “Un Chien Andalou” (1929) and “L’Age d’Or” (1930) as for his paintings. He worked for Alfred Hitchcock on the dream sequence of Spellbound (1945), struck up a friendship with Harpo Marx, whose portrait he drew, and worked on an animation short (aborted) with Disney. “Dalí: Mass Culture” delves into these projects and his more fruitful relations with the fashion industry and advertising. He produced a whole set of collages for the Bryans Hosiery company: the disengaged stockinged leg was a readymade ripe for Dalification.
And Dali was a readymade himself for American advertising. The exhibition screened four different TV commercials. For Braniff airlines he would announce to the steward, “If you’ve got it, flaunt it!” and for some forgotten brand of chocolate one mouthful was enough to send his moustache into its legendary handlebar position.
But if Madison Avenue lapped up Dalí, Greenwich Village was another story. Surrealism was a major influence in the emergence of abstract expressionism, but the New York School drew a radical distinction between two types of Surrealism. The American avantgarde liked genuine manifestations of the unconscious but despised “literary” approximations of it, identifying the latter with Dalí’s painstakingly hyperrealist depictions of oneric scenarios and contrived symbolism.
Although Breton came to rue the opportunism of Dalí, he was genuinely taken with his “critical-paranoiac” technique, as Dalí flamboyantly described his trance-like achievement of visions through painterly finesse. The Americans preferred what they saw as the rough and tumble gestures of Masson or Miró as harbingers of unconscious release. Dalí had actually lost much of his artworld credibility even before the intellectual decline of later years, when he embraced his own kitsch celebrity.
By the 1960s, a puritanical emphasis on authenticity had given way in the American vanguard to Pop. La Caixa’s exhibition ends with an Andy Warhol screen test starring Dalí which were used for party projections at Warhol’s Factory. For reasons unkown, Dali’s visage appears inverted, which in a way is a metaphor of the relationship of Pop to Surrealism, which turns the movement on its head. Where Dali and his erstwhile comrades sought the marvelous in the commonplace through bizarre combinations of objects, Pop was content with the vacuity of mass produced objects and images in their pure, unadulterated state. The extraordinary gave way to the ultra-ordinary. The marvelous was trumped by the banal.
To a teenage Jeff Koons in 1970s small town Pennsylvania (he was born in 1955), Salvador Dalí was the epitome of cool, a modern artist to adopt as his role model. He sent a fan letter and was duly invited to meet the great man at the St. Regis Hotel, Dalí’s New York residence. An earlier young unkown granted a similar audience was a billboard painter with fine art aspirations named James Rosenquist. He and Mr. Koons each gave keynote addresses at a special three day Dali conference in St Petersburg this spring.
The “blendability”, in Mr. Rosenquist phrase, of Dali’s touch makes sense in relation to Mr. Rosenquist’s own painting, which in turn is a major influence on the recent two dimensional work of Mr. Koons. Dalí might also be reckoned an influence on Claes Oldenburg’s soft sculptures: critics in the 1960s spotted the affinity.
Mr. Koons, who is the subect of a landmark celebration of his own, a quarter century survey at C&M Arts in New York, could be characterized as a post-Warhol Dalíean. Many Koons favorites are here: his pristine vacuum cleaners in florescent light strip-lit plexi vitrines; his blow-up balloon rabbit and dog, rendered in gleaming, polished steel, or his lobster, also in steel, accurately painted the colors of the blow-up plastic beach toy original; his “Ushering in Banality,” (1988), a ribboned piglet led by angels in carved polychromed wood statuary; his 7-1/2 wide silkscreened image of himself and former wife Illana Stoller (aka “La Cicciolina,” sometime porn star and parliamentarian) smeared in dirt and copulating on a rock; and a smiling blond waltzing the pink panther, rendered seamlessly in porcelain of rococo finesse. “Michael Jackson and Bubbles,” (1988), on loan from the San Francisco MoMA, is an especially confounding if prescient image of the pop star, denegrified, fondling a boyish chimp.
This list and description is enough to suggest that Mr. Koons shares with his adolescent idol a whole set of contradictory extremes: fine craft and banal forms; clean surfaces and filthy images; religiosity and denigration; irony and earnestness. Gone are the pictorial complexity, elaborately coded, arcane symbolism, perceptual ambiguities, and luxuriantly polished personal touch that set early Dalí apart. And yet, the ultimate irony is that much as you may hate it, once it has assaulted your consciousness a Koons is very hard to forget. Let’s see what we think in 2055.
“Dalí: Mass Culture” continues at Fundació “la Caixa” until May 23, traveling thereafter to the Reina Sofia, Madrid; the Salvador Dalí Museum, St Petersburg, Florida; and the Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, Rotterdam. The exhibition was curated by Fèlix Fanés and is accompanied by a catalogue with essays by Jean-Michel Bouhours, Jordana Mendelson, Lewis Kachur, Robert S. Lubar, William Jeffett, Juan Antonio Ramirez and Estrella de Diego
“Salvador Dalí,” the retrospective curated by Dawn Ades and Michael Taylor, will be at the Palazzo Grassi, Venice, September 12, 2004 to January 9, 2005, and at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, February 16 to May 15, 2005
2004 will see the publication of the first volume of the catalogue raisonnée being established by the Fundació Gala-Salvador Dalí covering the artist’s output until 1930. The research will be made available on the Internet. The Foundation is also publishing the complete writings of Dalí in an 8 volume Catalan and Spanish edition.
The scholarly 500 page catalogue which accompanied “Dalí: Elective Affinities,” curated by Pilar Parcerisas at the Palau Maja in Barcelona this spring, is available in English.
the Fundació Gala-Salvador Dalí maintains three museums in Catalunya, the Dalí Theater-Museum and Jewel Museum, Figueres; the Gala Dalí Castle Museum, Púbol; and the Salvador Dalí House, Portlligat. For visitor hours and booking arrangements, visit www.salvador-dali.org
A version of this article first appeared in the New York Sun, May 13, 2004