June 30, 2011

"Double Solitaire" at the Katonah Museum of Art

The tiny hamlet of Katonah is located about 40 miles north of New York City in Westchester County. It is known for famous residents past and present including John Jay, the first Chief Justice of the United States, Bill W., the founder of Alcoholics Anonymous and currently domestic doyenne, Martha Stewart. It is also noted for its outstanding cultural institutions including the Caramoor International Music Festival and the small but very significant Katonah Museum of Art.

The Katonah Museum of Art is a non-collecting museum that mounts ten to twelve shows annually, either guest-curated or developed in conjunction with another small institution. I became familiar with the museum several years ago when they produced a superb exhibition dedicated to the art of Joseph Cornell entitled "Andromeda Hotel" that was so well done it warranted a train ride to the suburbs to visit. This summer, in conjunction with the Mint Museum of Art in Charlotte, North Carolina, the Katonah Museum is presenting "Double Solitaire: The Surreal Worlds of Kay Sage and Yves Tanguy". Several years in the planning and already postponed once, this show has overcome its esoteric subject matter to achieve both critical and popular success and is proof that the public really will come out for something they don't quite understand but find intriguing.

Yves Tanguy was born in Paris in 1900 and grew up on the Brittany coast, an environment that influenced his work during his life. He was one of the original followers of André Breton's Surrealist Manifesto and remained a key member of the Movement throughout his career.

Katherine Linn Sage was the daughter of a wealthy Albany family whose parents divorced when she was quite young and she spent her formative years with her mother traveling in Europe. Although always interested in art, she did not begin her painting career until she was almost middle aged and divorced from an Italian nobleman.

At the International Surrealist Exhibition in London in 1936, Kay Sage saw Yves Tanguy's painting "I Am Waiting For You" and fell in love. Not just with the painting but with the artist whom she finally met in person two years later after he came to an exhibition of her work in Paris. "Kay Sage - man or woman? I didn't know. I just knew the paintings were very good" and Yves Tanguy was hooked. They fled Europe together (helping a few other refugee artist friends along the way) during World War 2, were married in Reno, Nevada, in 1940 and set up housekeeping in a farmhouse in Woodbury, Connecticut, turning the barn into two studios so they could paint.

As a couple Kay and Yves were inseparable, but as painters each retained his own identity and they refused to be considered a "team" of painters. The title of this exhibition, "Double Solitaire", aptly refers to their artistic lives together, dueling yet companionable, private yet shared, and was the name of the only other exhibition ever dedicated to this Surrealist "It" couple presented at the Wadsworth Atheneum in 1954.

For the first time their works are co-mingled, with 25 paintings by each artist hanging together in two galleries accompanied by revealing documentary photographs and printed material. It is easy to tell who painted what, but it is fascinating to see how they influenced each other in subtle but definite ways. Tanguy's early anthropomorphic landscapes with their dreamy, maybe nightmarish, overtones, hang alongside Sage's menacing monoliths of the same time. As their lives intertwine his works become less cluttered while hers get more complicated. Eventually a balance occurs as their compositions become more similar although Sage tends toward science fiction architecture and Tanguy a post-apocalyptic rubble.

When Yves Tanguy dropped dead of a cerebral hemorrhage in 1954, his widow was devastated. Her life had no meaning without him and the prophetic title of the original painting she saw of his, "I Am Waiting For You", became true when she shot herself in the heart to join him in Eternity. The 15 year marriage of Tanguy and Sage was remarkable partnership on many levels and they were able to live their lives as they painted their canvas', separate but together, a "Double Solitaire".

As I drove back to the City, past the many lovely homes and estates in the area, I thought about what it must have been like to live in Woodbury during the 1940's and 50's, surrounded by fellow artists including Calder, Matta and Gorky. Although they all socialized, Yves Tanguy and Kay Sage remained true to their Surrealist roots and never made the transition to the popular Abstract Expressionist movement. Their 15 year marriage was a remarkable partnership both emotionally and creatively, and they were able to live their lives as they painted their canvas', separate but together, a "Double Solitaire". Congratulations to curators Jonathan Stuhlman and Stephen Robeson Miller on a wonderful exhibition!

Left: Yves Tanguy "There, Motion Has Not Yet Ceased", 1945
Right: Kay Sage "I Saw Three Cities", 1944

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