Her Wild Entire: On Dorothea Tanning | The Nation


Her Wild Entire: On Dorothea Tanning

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Tanning's poems, by contrast, would never be identified as the work of a Surrealist or former Surrealist. Her engagement with poetry was sparked by a friendship with James Merrill: "Jimmy was poetry--the palpable, unsparing embodiment of poetry." Her approach to the art reflects the exquisite formal wit and poignancy that is so memorable in his writing, with what Denis Donoghue called its "net of loose talk tightening to verse," but she is more than his worthy student. As with everything else she's turned her hand to, she's made poetry her own. I'm tempted simply to end with my favorite of her poems, the one that opens her collection A Table of Content (2004), teasingly titled "Are You?":

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Barry Schwabsky
Barry Schwabsky is the art critic of The Nation. Schwabsky has been writing about art for the magazine since 2005, and...

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The eloquent silences of Albert York and Judith Scott.

Must art confront ugly realities with an ugliness of its own?

If an expatriate is, as I believe, someone
who never forgets for an instant
being one,
then, no.

But, if knowing that you always
tote your country around
with you, your roots,
a lump

like a soul that will never leave you
stranded in alien subsets of
yourself, or your wild

that being elsewhere packs a vertigo,
a tightrope side you cannot
pass up, another way
to show

how not to break your pretty neck
falling on skylights:

then, yes. All homes are home; mirages
everywhere. Aside from
gravity, there are no

never were, nor will there ever be,
no here and there to foil
your lotus-dreaming

Stay on the planet, if you can. It isn't
all that chilly and what's more,
grows warmer by the

Beautifully measured, the poem moves step by step into ever more unexpected terrain in which the seeming reassurance of "All homes are home" becomes a promise of never-ending displacement. And the sting in the final stanzas resonates all the more ominously today.

The advice of a woman in her 90s to "stay on the planet" is to be taken seriously: it comes from someone who has been unusually successful in staying but who is also likely to be facing the possibility of not staying with particular vividness. I'm glad Tanning has continued to follow her own advice. I've never met her, but simply knowing of her existence expands my sense of the possible in art and life--which is why I don't, after all, quite wish to end here.

I'm still thinking about the question I raised earlier. Will Tanning be honored as she should be in this, her centenary year? The great man in whose shadow she stood has himself grown a bit shadowy. Now it's time to shine a different light on Tanning. The most recent exhibition devoted to her, which took place last fall at the Kent Gallery in New York City, was truly a delight, but I couldn't help reflecting on the fact that instead of showcasing Tanning it focused on "Dorothea Tanning and Friends." The exhibition presented her art in the context that nourished it, alongside colleagues like George Balanchine, Alexander Calder, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Alberto Giacometti, René Magritte, Lee Miller and Meret Oppenheim, as well as others I've already mentioned--and, of course, Ernst. Many of the works came from Tanning's collection. The gallery became a box of memories, and for those of us old enough to be Tanning's great-grandchildren, it was a box of vicarious memories colored by a shade of envy. "What a fairyland we find ourselves in," read the first line of a typed and collaged letter on blue paper, written to Tanning on December 29, 1947, and signed "Joseph Cornell." He's talking about a snowfall in Queens, but his words drifted over the exhibition as a whole. The Tannings on view were mostly from the 1940s and as magical as ever; there were just a few glimpses of her subsequent development (a painting from 1977; a fabric sculpture from 1969, reworked in 2008). All of them made me want to see more, to forget about the friends for a while so that I could see more clearly how the artist's work lasts above and beyond her milieu. And then I got a little mad at Tanning too, not right away but when I read Between Lives and, for all the pleasure it gave me--as a piece of writing, few artists' autobiographies surpass it--realized that it told me so much less about her art than about her life and the many curious people, not all of them famous, who populated it. Well, fair enough; that's what the title promised. But it made me want to shout as if she were in the room, "Don't be so modest! Your life is wonderful, but I know your art is more important!" Let's not be fooled by her reticence any longer.

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