A Surrealism of hokey séances and dripping clocks has long superseded the movement’s political and conceptual radicality in the contemporary imagination. Such a retroactive sanitation has less to do with Dalí dormitory posters than the annals of official history: recall that in his famous art-genealogical flowchart, the art historian and founding director of the Museum of Modern Art Alfred H. Barr fed Surrealism and Dada into “non-geometrical abstract art.” And while Barr was only working through the Modernist tradition of abstraction, this two-dimensional worldview and its attendant narrowing of Surrealism’s legacy has proven difficult to rehabilitate. Sam Durant’s recent exhibition at Paula Cooper Gallery, Invisible Surrealists, offered a subdued yet polemical critique of this neutered inheritance.
Not quite an alternative history, Durant’s show redrew the historical record in graphite, reconfiguring the photographic record of Surrealism’s European “great men” with the insertion of such practitioners as the Martiniquais Aimé Césaire, the Cuban Wifredo Lam, and the Egyptians Georges Henein, Fouad Kamel, and Joyce Mansour, among others. So too are the contributions of the Great War’s trenches made evident, from a depiction of André Breton in a hospital ward, “1916, Shell Shock, Psych Ward, André Breton Becomes Aware of the Unconscious” (2014) — which Durant told me was Surrealism’s “primal scene” (an intentionally Freudian term) — to the literal art of the trenches, period handicrafts from soldiers that the artist collected and presented on a table, along with a purpose-built homage to the genre, a suspended wind chime made of large-bore artillery casings called “Non-Vicious Circle” (2014).
“[T]radition is never given but always constructed, and always more provisionally than it appears,” the art historian and critic Hal Foster, who was also an early proponent of Durant as an exemplar of “archival art,” has written. Here the omissions from our constructed Surrealist tradition — and cultural history in general — are presented in “There’s No Such Thing as a Time Line” (2014), an annotated chronology that revisits the well-traveled notion of contingent histories, with a nod to the limits of such linear constructions in the first place. These casual yet frenetic hand notations of key radical moments in Surrealist and broader cultural history were at first only a part of Durant’s notes, but his choice to present the work was prescient: underscoring that the historicist task at hand is far from over, Karen Rosenberg, writing in the New York Times, distressingly referred to the annotations as “conspiratorial.”
The strength of Durant’s strategy lies in its near-total restraint from overt didacticism, even as he insistently pushes toward a revision of our historical understanding of one of the 20th century’s most important (and wide-ranging) art movements. And although the academic scholarship is beginning to catch up — for example, Breton’s account of his time in Martinique was translated into English for the first time in 2008 — there remains the matter of disabusing the general impression of Surrealism’s thin political and conceptual content, no small task given the easy populism of such exhibitions as MoMA’s recent blockbuster Magritte: The Mystery of the Ordinary, 1926–1938. This is a question of sensibility as much as it is one of education. As far as the latter goes, a stacked display adjacent to the entrance of the gallery, “Another Future Was Possible (Kiosk from Mai 68)” (2014), presented undoctored maps and manifestos attesting to Surrealism’s political and geographical reach.
This is not to say that the “alternative” narrative of Surrealism within Durant’s scope here is itself beyond reproach. The relationship between Breton and Césaire, in particular, was critiqued by Frantz Fanon, who in the first chapter of Black Skin, White Masks wrote, “there is no reason why André Breton should say of Césaire, ‘Here is a black man who handles the French language as no white man today can.’” Almost thirty years before Tom Wolfe gave us Leonard Bernstein’s version of “radical chic,” Breton was off to Port-au-Prince to abet an indigenous revolution with a lecture called “Surrealism and Haiti.”
The inclusion of trench art in Invisible Surrealists was on one level a salient introduction of the dimension of class into the legacy of Surrealism, through the trauma of the war as experienced by the anonymous soldier; it cohabited with the racial and colonial tensions at hand, stepping away from manipulating the historical record to present vernacular found works. Durant also hosted an engaging historical talk with the scholar Robin D.G. Kelley, whose essay on anti-imperialist Surrealism, “Keepin’ it (Sur)real: Dreams of the Marvelous” inspired the show, but , to further question the false narrative of passive marginalization, to underscore that the non-European Surrealists were in fact appreciated by their contemporaries — Breton, for example, reportedly referred to Joyce Mansour as a genius.
Durant’s exhibition nonetheless demonstrated that there’s more to Surrealism than the facile specter of Freud or the mythologized antics of “great men,” and as such was an important intervention in the record, and one which we should hope to see more of. If Shana Lutker’s production of The Nose, The Cane, The Broken Left Arm for Performa 13 scratched the surface in demonstrating that the self-serious machismo of Surrealism’s progenitors was not without absurdity, Invisible Surrealists carries the torch considerably further, shedding light on a global cast of artists and writers whose presence argues, from history’s margins, for Surrealism’s centrality.
Sam Durant’s Invisible Surrealists ran at Paula Cooper Gallery (521 West 21 Street, Chelsea, Manhattan) from September 12 through October 18.