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Dressed in a crisp tuxedo, Swiss artist Kurt Seligmann stepped into a chalk circle lined with the names of archangels on the wood floor of his Manhattan apartment. It was May 8, 1948, and with sculptor Enrico Donati, he led his assembled party guests in a ritual to summon the dead. The performance recreated a rite by 16th-century magician John Dee and his medium, Edward Kelly, that had been included in Seligmann’s new book The Mirror of Magic. Seligmann was then a central figure to Surrealism in New York City, and the scene’s magic expert. The book compiled his extensive esoteric knowledge of the occult, magic, alchemy, and other topics, as well as his views on these subjects’ historical influence on art.
In Language of the Birds: Occult and Art, now on view at New York University’s 80WSE Gallery, that magic circle is again recreated, this time by contemporary esoteric artist Jesse Bransford alongside a photograph of the 1948 event. Two paintings by Seligmann join the new circle in a gallery space called “Altar.” Among its talismans are Donati’s 1946 sculpture of a fist with two glass eyes — one blue and one black to symbolize the evil eye — as well two new works by Rebecca Salmon: a “Hand of Glory” (a hand of a criminal made into a candle) and a larynx sculpture that hovers above. The exhibition is in conjunction with the Occult Humanities Conference (February 5–7) at New York University and features over 60 modern and contemporary artists who have instilled their work with magic.
“The whole ‘Altar’ room feels like a spirit chamber, and I find it a very moving place to be,” curator Pam Grossman, who’s also the creator of the blog Phantasmaphile, told Hyperallergic. “It is a space for contemplation. It gives historical context. It is an offering of thanks by Bransford, Salmon, and myself to those occult artists who came before us. It is a circle of balance and sacred alignment. There is so much going on in it, and in many ways, it is a big energy axis around which the entire Language of the Birds exhibition rotates.”
The show is an impressive assembly of some of the most influential artists to interpret the occult, such as Aleister Crowley with his trance portraiture and Paul Laffoley with his painted guides to metaphysics, as well as artists less often associated with magic, like Kiki Smith and Francesco Clemente.
“The primary thesis statement, so-to-speak, of Language of the Birds is that art is a form of magic making,” Grossman explained. “We have several works in the show that are not only about magic, but which purport to be spells themselves. That said, it felt important to have a room in the show which felt like one grand magical working, so that’s how the ‘Altar’ evolved.”
Seligmann was born in Basel, Switzerland, in 1900, and arrived in New York in 1940 as one of the first Surrealists to flee the Nazis for the United States. He helped many other artists travel over the Atlantic, including some in the infamous Entartete Kunst (Degenerate Art) exhibition of 1937, and encouraged the Surrealist movement to flourish in a new American home. He saw magic as connected to his art — not a deliberate part of each work, but rather a way of centralizing knowledge of the universe. As he wrote in 1946:
Magic philosophy teaches that the universe is one, that every phenomenon in the world of matter and of ideas obeys the one law which co-ordinates the All. Such doctrine sounds like a program for the painter: is it not his task to shape into a perfect unity within his canvas the variety of depicted forms?
“In addition to being a tremendously sensitive painter and relatively undersung Surrealist, Seligmann was an aficionado of occult symbols and systems,” Grossman stated. He kept a huge library of occult books, and Mirror of Magic was among the first English publications on magic intended for a wide audience. “The Surrealists considered him their resident magic expert, and he had a big influence on the occult tropes and techniques which showed up throughout that movement,” she added.
With their tornadic, abstract figures — influenced in part by carnivals remembered from his childhood — and dreamlike Surrealist imagery, Seligmann’s paintings remain powerful and strange, although not well known. Weinstein Gallery, which is loaning the works on view in Language of the Birds, hosted a retrospective of his work last summer, and in 2014 he was a focus of the Surrealism and Magic exhibition at Cornell University’s Johnson Museum of Art. Yet he remains obscure, possibly due to his occult associations, as well as his falling out in 1943 with Surrealist founder André Breton; some say it was due to a public disagreement over tarot cards.
Seligmann and his wife, Arlette, later moved upstate to a farm in the hamlet of Sugarloaf in Orange County, New York. He died in 1962 in a freak gun accident (he was attempting to shoot rats attacking his bird feeder and slipped on the ice), and when Arlette passed away in 1992, she left his estate to the Orange County Citizens Foundation. It now runs the Seligmann Center in his memory at his farm, and through it his legacy of esoteric knowledge and fantastical art continues. In Language of the Birds, his spirit is temporarily resurrected in New York City, like a phantom conjured through a magic circle.
Language of the Birds: Occult and Art continues at 80WSE Gallery (New York University, 80 Washington Square East, Greenwich Village, Manhattan) through February 13.