On ViewHelly Nahmad Gallery
Ring of Iron, Ring of Wool
May 9 – July 29, 2023
Newly separated from an Italian prince, the American-born painter-poet Kay Sage (1898–1963) snuck into the studio of the surrealist Kurt Seligmann—enticed by a stack of paintings visible from the hallway of the Hotel Grosvenor in Paris. Later that summer, at Seligmann’s urging, she visited Galerie Charpentier and saw a painting titled Je vous attends (I am waiting for you) (1934)—the first she would glimpse of her future husband, Yves Tanguy (1900–55). The chance encounter proved transformative: already a student of landscape painting, she resolved to move to Paris from Italy and earn her place among the ranks of the Surrealists. In 1938, the seemingly predestined couple met and remained constant companions until Tanguy’s death in 1955.
The third-ever joint exhibition of the couple, Ring of Iron, Ring of Wool, at Helly Nahmad Gallery, New York, explores the lockstep and divergences of their practices. Curated by Dr. Victoria Noel-Johnson, the show chronologically traverses across the tightly honed oeuvres of each. The format acknowledges the artists’ hesitation to exhibit together by largely grouping the sixty works on view according to their maker. Retaining their independence engenders refreshed insights into the stylistic developments of painters as well as their abiding commitment to Surrealism. Yet this body of work also extends a quiet counter to any single categorization, nudging toward their embrace of alternate modes of visual expression and participation in broad creative matrices.
For both painters, the exhibition starts very close to the beginning. The earliest work, Sans titre by Tanguy, dates to 1927. Most prior to this were destroyed; Tanguy fed his eclectic juvenilia to a fireplace in his Montparnasse studio in 1926. A prototype of his mature style, the untitled painting features biomorphic figures with plumes of hair sprouting from their heads and bodies holding flags and arrows amid a telluric landscape. Its specificity is atypical: the more anthropomorphic attributes are eradicated in later works. In their place, figures transform into sensuously shaped forms resembling polished stone; the defined landscape gives way to atmospheric gradients of color with ever-fading horizons where nightfall greets daybreak. For Sage’s part, the earliest work is Afterwards (1937)—an incisively named painting that confers the ramifications of her exposure to Surrealism. Transitional in scope, it adumbrates geometric abstraction with the metaphysical and oneiric spirit of surrealist painting. Ever pragmatic, Sage cloistered herself once in Paris, toiling in isolation on a presentable batch of surrealist compositions. Once confident in the merits of her work, she gained an introduction to the movement’s figurehead André Breton and from him to Tanguy.
As the exhibition sweeps through keynotes of Tanguy’s career, primarily sourced from the Nahmad collection, the vision of his stylistic orthodoxy dissolves. Though the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) curator James Thrall Soby dubbed Tanguy an “almost mediumistic interpreter” of the surrealist aesthetic articulated by Breton, his steadfast visual language nevertheless saw intrusions from outside influence. Residing in New York during World War II, Tanguy admitted the influence of the city into his compositions. In Parce que (1951), two vertical structures summon billboards or satellites—indexes of urbanism and scientific invention. These futuristic devices recalibrated the temporality of his painting, which in its established recollection of menhirs and dolmens (prehistoric stone configurations) typically spun back to a primordial past. At the same time, works from the 1940s onward are marked by incursions of white geometric shards that break the unity of his surreal landscapes as in Elle viendra (1950). With a palette reduced to grey and white during these years, his geological phenomena of boulders, pebbles, and stones were put to service—building densely populated cityscapes of steel and concrete.
If the evolution of Tanguy is pronounced in Ring of Iron, Ring of Wool, this same treatment is redemptive for Kay Sage. Prevailing interpretations tend to analyze her compositions according to her relationship with her husband—her intense infatuation, prodigious efforts in securing the union and controlling his vices, deep melancholia on his passing. Yet these biographical rationales neglect the near prophetic exigencies of her paintings, which predict Conceptual art and Land art alike.
In defining paintings like The Instant (1949), Sage cracks open a mountain to reveal theater stage-like intestines: “It’s a sort of showing what’s inside—things half mechanical, half alive,” her description shored up the caption of this painting in the March 13, 1950 issue of TIME. Sage’s Freudian revelation of the interiority of things runs across her paintings. The recurrence of coverings, drapes, and curtains symbolizes the repression of internal chaos and conflict, while her panoply of motifs—cluttered cabinets, compulsively organized slates and portable infrastructures, winding hillsides, coiled flags suspended in space—are equally enigmatic. Indeed, Sage denies sensory faculties, overtly so in titles like No One Heard Thunder (1939) and I Walk Without Echo (1940).
One room of the exhibition is dedicated to The Minutes (1938–43)—twenty-four drawings that trace the lifecycle of an egg from birth to sanctification. Relating to genesis and apotheosis (despite her repudiation of organized religion), each sequence is paired with a passing minute—a prefiguration of the methods of Conceptual art. A further testament to Sage’s reach, vitrines display her illustrated books of poetry—bilingual and some decorated by Jean Dubuffet. Prior to meeting Tanguy, Sage already lived a full creative life in Milan and Rome, befriending poetic luminaries Sinclair Lewis, Ezra Pound, and T.S. Eliot. And though the artist was not one for sculpture, in the end, with eyesight failing, she turned to it. Two objet-collages assemble sticks, stones, and metals into neat, latticed compartments. (Tidiness is a leitmotif of her work and was an idiosyncratic irritant to those in her orbit.) The collages on display evidence a subdued utilization of the medium; other examples bespeak a turgid morbidity in their incorporation of bullet shells. A loan from MoMA, Watching the Clock (1958), is pierced by two BB-gun bullet holes. In 1963, despondent following the death of Tanguy, Sage committed suicide.
The critic and poet Nicolas Calas argued that “nowhere in Tanguy’s work is there an indication of his sinking into sentimentality,” but those pieces made expressly for Sage are the fault line. A miniature, Pour Kay… (1940), presents one of Tanguy’s rare figurative paintings—an auburn-haired woman in a white dressing gown occupies his dreamscape. A portrait of his wife, the painting radiates the adoration that went both ways.