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“Gathered Another Way”: Early Surrealist Exhibitions at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art
Humboldt State University
This essay examines the early surrealist exhibition history of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA), formerly the San Francisco Museum of Art. Under the direction of its first curator, Dr. Grace McCann Morley, SFMOMA presented its audiences with a dynamic and comprehensive representation of surrealism that was not available elsewhere in the United States, featuring international figures including David Hare, Stanley William Hayter, Jaqueline Lamba, Alice Rahon, and the Dynaton Collective, as well as locally established artists such as Lucien Labaudt, Jeanne Reynal, and Jean Varda. The early surrealist exhibition history of SFMOMA illustrates Morley’s larger curatorial strategy and vision for presenting modern art to local audiences. SFMOMA’s early surrealist exhibitions—many borrowed from a vast network of individual artists and collectors, galleries, and museums—emphasized distinctive arguments and connections between avant-garde artists and art movements. Moreover, Morley deliberately avoided a singular curatorial voice by soliciting the advice and assistance of numerous artists, art dealers, collectors, and outside curators. In doing so, Morley cultivated a representation of surrealism, and modern art more generally, that stressed many diverse viewpoints.
Keywords: Grace McCann Morley / SFMOMA / exhibitions / San Francisco / surrealism
The first survey exhibition of surrealism shown in the Bay Area, Fantastic Art, Dada, Surrealism, appeared at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, or SFMOMA (then the San Francisco Museum of Art), in August 1937. The Museum of Modern Art in New York (MoMA) had organized the traveling show in 1936, just a year after SFMOMA opened on the top floor of the newly constructed Veterans Building across from San Francisco’s City Hall. Grace McCann Morley, SFMOMA’s formidable first director, had recently returned to her birthplace, the Bay Area, after earning a doctoral degree in art and literature from the Sorbonne and serving as the first general curator of the Cincinnati Art Museum. SFMOMA had no endowment yet to fund the acquisition of a permanent collection, but it received a generous subsidy from the city to finance hosting traveling exhibitions. As a result, Morley depended on shows organized by a diverse group of outside institutions, including MoMA, with its innovative circulating exhibitions department, as well as smaller institutions such as Stendahl Gallery in Los Angeles, Art of This Century and Nierendorf Gallery in New York, Galería de Arte Mexicano in Mexico City, and more. During its early decades of operation, SFMOMA featured between fifty and more than one hundred exhibitions each year.
The surrealist exhibition history of SFMOMA exemplifies Morley’s deliberate and methodical approach to introducing the local public to modern art. The many shows she presented emphasized different arguments and connections in order to expand visitors’ knowledge of specific movements and international styles. She described this tactic in a letter to Peggy Guggenheim dated October 9, 1944: “We tend to stress comparatively small shows definitely planned to illustrate one particular point, run them three weeks, then follow with others. Thus gradually, by filling in the picture of contemporary art, slowly but steadily, we build up a background by repeated experience for those of our visitors who come more or less regularly.” Morley’s curatorial approach stemmed from her recognition that San Francisco’s access to modern art lagged far behind that of the East Coast. In a 1960 interview with Suzanne B. Riess, she explained that when the museum first opened, artists in the Bay Area were “ten or fifteen years behind the movements of their time, simply because they didn’t see enough of what was going on in art” (107). In fact, Alfred Barr, then director of MoMA, explicitly designed Fantastic Art, Dada, Surrealism, and MoMA’s earlier exhibition Cubism and Abstract Art, which was shown at SFMOMA in 1936, to introduce US artists and publics to modern art movements. In the catalogue for Fantastic Art, Dada, Surrealism, Barr described the show as “the second of a series of exhibitions planned to present in an objective and historical manner the principal movements of modern art” (7). But whereas Barr sought to represent dada and surrealism as canonical and strictly defined, Morley supplemented MoMA’s exhibitions with her own shows and others borrowed from smaller institutions in an effort to highlight international, under-represented, and women artists, as well as local art developments. For instance, SFMOMA’s early surrealist exhibitions featured the international artists David Hare, Jaqueline Lamba, Alice Rahon, and Kay Sage, as well as surrealists who established residency in the Bay Area, including Stanley William Hayter, the Dynaton collective (Lee Mullican, Gordon Onslow-Ford, and Wolfgang Paalen), Jeanne Reynal, and Jean Varda.
SFMOMA’s critics and visitors were not always receptive to modern art, particularly in the early years. Even though Fantastic Art, Dada, Surrealism made a strong case for surrealism as an established movement, the show was too radical for many Bay Area viewers. In a review titled “Comments and Cautions Evoked by the Year’s Most Sensational Show,” San Francisco Chronicle art critic Alfred Frankenstein celebrated the dada works included in the exhibition, such as Jean Arp’s “wood forms” and Kurt Schwitters’s lyrical “string and yarn,” but his appraisal of surrealism was considerably gloomier:
It is a good show but it is also in some respects a singularly nasty one. Dali, Miro and Ernst are marvelous craftsmen, yet the total effect of their work is terribly depressing. The show as a whole is a cross between a three-ring circus and a chamber of horrors. After an hour of ghastly monstrosities, disemboweled corpses, and landscapes that freeze the blood with horror, one feels as if romantic individualism has here reached the dismal end of its long course. It is just to insist upon the artist’s right to expose his own personal dream, but it seems at least to have come to the artist’s right to parade his own perversion....The stronger personalities, it seems to me, are Dali, Miro and the protean Max Ernst, who does everything surrealism can do.
Frankenstein found something redeeming in Meret Oppenheim’s fur-lined teacup, Object (1936), although he mistakenly referred to the artist as a man. Object, he asserted, demonstrated the universal qualities of surrealism—“quaint gimcracks, grotesque humor and bizarre toys of technique are likewise an important part of the picture at any and all periods,” and “may not be so far from [Hieronymus] Bosch’s ‘St. Anthony.’” After some remarks on the particularity of taste, Frankenstein warned viewers that “it won’t do much good to get mad at the show and call for its suppression. It will do still less good to try to make fun of it. . . . Least of all look for profound, hidden meanings in what you see.” He concluded:
The final and grossest mistake is to assume that this exhibition is representative of all modern art. This error accounts for most of the exasperations and tongue chuckling the show has met....As it happens there are plenty who still confront life and reveal it as it is, plenty who share the ideals and noble purposes to which life-nurturing art is always dedicated.
Art historian Martica Sawin notes that Fantastic Art, Dada, Surrealism “offered American artists and the museum-going public a view of surrealism as part of the established canon of twentieth-century art, along with cubism, futurism, neoplasticism, and the rest, not simply the result of the collective activities of an outrageous, scrappy avant-garde” (101). Yet for Frankenstein, surrealism clearly came across as gimmicks and tricks, incapable of attaining the higher ideals of art.
It would be some years before Morley made substantial progress toward demonstrating the full range of surrealism, especially its developments in exile during World War II and its progenies in the United States. Despite her enthusiasm for the movement, by the 1940s SFMOMA itself had only arranged one survey exhibition of surrealism, Abstract and Surrealist Art, which was shown in two parts, in 1944 and 1948 (Fig. 1) and organized by Sidney Janis.
The museum edited and published the catalogue and arranged the show’s traveling circuit, which involved Midwest and West Coast institutions, including the Cincinnati Museum of Art, the Denver Art Museum, the Seattle Art Museum, and the Santa Barbara Museum of Art. In the 1944 edition of the catalogue, Morley recognized Janis’s selection of works: “The exhibition reflects his taste and judgment.” SFMOMA had of course previously exhibited “contemporary art, including this particular type,” but Morley argued that Abstract and Surrealist Art represented “a slightly different approach to the subject,” highlighting “the young and active—and in some cases not yet widely known—artists of this country whose work may be described as abstract or surrealist” (9). While Barr’s Fantastic Art, Dada, Surrealism chiefly sought to establish surrealism as canonical, Abstract and Surrealist Art included many lesser-known American artists, such as Morris Graves, Charles Howard, Lee Krasner, and Irene Rice Pereira, to emphasize the movement’s impact in the United States. Morley’s commitment to representing emerging artists, a distinctive quality of SFMOMA’s early exhibitions, clearly informed the show.
In 1935, SFMOMA’s inaugural year of operation, Morley presented three exhibitions dedicated to Joan Miró, who was not yet well-known in the United States: Drawings and Pastels of Joan Miró in June, Selected Watercolors by Lurçat, Miró, and Dufy in August, and Paintings by Joan Miró in December. This was a dedicated effort to slowly expose museum visitors to Miró’s work—through his efforts in different media, and in relation to other abstract styles such as the expressionist and fauvist watercolors of Jean Lurçat and Raoul Dufy, respectively. Morley described this strategy to Klaus Perls of Perls Gallery in a 1944 letter: “We find out here that with unfamiliar material, it is a very good idea to repeat in several different connections.” Paintings by Joan Miró was presented concurrently with a traveling show of post-surrealist paintings that included Grace Clements, Lorser Feitelson, Lucien Labaudt, Helen Lundeberg, and Knud Merrild, all of whom were from Los Angeles except Labaudt, who lived and worked in San Francisco. In his 1941 essay “What Is Postsurrealism?” Feitelson, the leader of the post-surrealist group, described the movement as logical and cerebral, and in direct opposition to surrealism: “Post-Surrealism is the antithesis of the introspective illustration of the popular expressionist-Surrealists....The graphic objectification of conscious and subconscious psychic meanderings in itself does not create art” (6). By exhibiting Miró, an established European surrealist painter, alongside a group of Californian artists, Morley presented two divergent views of surrealism, while highlighting new and local developments. Feitelson had initially organized the post-surrealist show at his Los Angeles gallery, Hollywood Gallery of Modern Art, and while the show was at SFMOMA Morley invited him to give a public lecture. Therefore, Feitelson acted as both curator and spokesperson for the post-surrealist exhibition.
Morley cultivated relationships with numerous artists, collectors, and dealers, and these connections shaped the exhibitions at SFMOMA, which thus came to reflect the perspectives of many individuals. Peggy Guggenheim proved to be one of the most influential. The relationship began when she and Max Ernst were touring California, looking for a place to settle and establish Guggenheim’s collection. They tried to meet Morley while they were visiting SFMOMA, but Morley’s secretary informed them that she was too busy. Fortunately, Janis happened to be in the city at the time, and he arranged an introduction. As Guggenheim recalled in her memoir, Morley took them “to a wonderful fish dinner, in what seemed to be America’s Marseilles, and drove us all over the countryside showing us the sites. She was hospitable and charming and so full of life. I asked if I could send her exhibitions when I got my museum going and she replied she would like it very much” (253). When Guggenheim established her New York gallery Art of This Century, she sent Morley many significant exhibitions, including the first solo shows of Robert Motherwell, Jackson Pollock, and Mark Rothko.
Guggenheim even considered bequeathing her art collection to SFMOMA. In a letter of September 6, 1944, she wrote to Morley, “I want to ask you under what conditions I can will The San Francisco Museum my collection of paintings and sculpture or rather on what conditions they would be acceptable. I am making out a will and decided this was the best way of settling their fate—though I don’t expect to die. So please don’t thank me.” She enclosed a list of works from her collection, including drawings, paintings, and sculptures by Jean Arp, André Breton, Marc Chagall, Marcel Duchamp, Leonor Fini, Wifredo Lam, Roberto Matta, Francis Picabia, and Yves Tanguy. Morley responded on October 9, thanking her, but also discouraging her:
It is always encouraging to be considered so seriously in connection with such an important bequest. Such a group of works, if they did come out here to the west, could be a very valuable means of public art education. However, I expect them to do their service there in your gallery and the east for many years to come, still, and I suspect that you will outlive me. None the less I do thank you for the thought of us.
This may seem an inexplicable sentiment today, but at the time, SFMOMA was using its small permanent collection to supplement courses, exhibitions, and lectures, and did not keep any works, as Morley wrote, “on view permanently.” Thus she believed that Guggenheim’s collection would be more useful in New York, where it would be on display rather than packed away in storage. The gift, had it come to fruition, would have given SFMOMA one of the most significant holdings of surrealism in the United States, including works by artists who Morley was unable to represent in the permanent collection. For instance, on March 22, 1943, she wrote to Guggenheim, despairing over how the museum might “manage even the hundred and twenty-five dollars” for Marcel Duchamp’s From or by Marcel Duchamp or Rrose Sélavy, a limited-edition box containing miniature versions of his works. The version Morley hoped to purchase did not even have the deluxe suitcase enclosure or an original work of art by Duchamp, which were included in the more expensive edition.
Husband and wife Wolfgang Paalen and Alice Rahon were two important surrealists whose shows Guggenheim offered Morley over the years. Paalen, an Austrian artist and theorist, was a member of the surrealist group in Paris and made essential contributions to automatism through his fumage technique, which involved staining canvases with candle smoke. After meeting Frida Kahlo in Paris, Paalen and Rahon decided to travel to Mexico, and they settled in Mexico City, where Paalen organized the 1940 International Surrealist Exhibition with Peruvian poet César Moro at Inés Amor’s Galería de Arte Mexicano and established his revisionist surrealist journal Dyn. Rahon (née Phillippot; Rahon was her mother’s maiden name), a painter and poet, was born in eastern France and was also a key contributor to the surrealist group in Paris, the 1940 International Surrealist Exhibition, and Dyn. On May 23, 1945, Guggenheim wrote to Morley, inquiring, “Would you be interested in shows by Wolfgang Paalen or Alice Paalen?” and enclosed brochures for both exhibitions (Fig. 2 and Fig. 3).
Coincidentally, Morley had recently learned about another exhibition of Rahon’s work through a letter marked February 19, 1945, from Earl Stendahl of Stendahl Art Galleries in Los Angeles. Stendahl had seen Rahon’s work at Galería de Arte Mexicano, and in his letter to Morley described the paintings as “very, very interesting—many of them on the order of Paul Klee.” He himself presented Rahon’s Galería de Arte Mexicano exhibition in March, then sent it along to the Pasadena Art Museum in April.
When SFMOMA displayed Paintings and Drawings by Alice Rahon Paalen in fall 1945, Frankenstein gave the exhibition an affirmative, though sexist, review: “She is no severe mathematician,” he wrote, “but a very sensitive, feminine and gifted colorist; her patterns are rich, strange and dreamily imaginative; and some of them especially the crystal networks of white line on black, seem to have been done, at least partly, by the ‘automatic’ method once beloved by the surrealists.” Morley featured Paintings and Drawings by Alice Rahon Paalen concurrently with Paintings by Charles Burchfield and Cuban Painting Today, the latter of which included work by vanguardia painters Cundo Bermúdez, Mario Carreño, Felipe Orlando, Amelia Peláez, and René Portocarerro; the three shows offered SFMOMA’s visitors a rich, diverse, and international demonstration of abstraction. Morley wrote to Rahon on January 3, 1946, declaring the show an absolute success, and informing her that the museum had sold three paintings, Aztec Village of the Sun, Marine, and El Castillo, to buyers that included Jeanne Reynal, a local artist and art collector. In 1953 Morley organized another exhibition of Rahon’s paintings through Galería de Arte Mexicano. In a letter to Amor dated September 22, 1953, Morley described Rahon as “an interesting and extraordinarily sensitive artist.” From that exhibition, Louise Sloss Ackerman purchased Rahon’s painting Northern Port for SFMOMA’s collection.
Notably, while Morley rushed to exhibit Rahon’s paintings as soon as she learned about the 1945 Galería de Arte Mexicano exhibition, she did not show Paalen’s work until 1948 even though Paalen, celebrated by André Breton in the pages of the surrealist journal Minotaure, was the more established of the two. (Earl Stendahl indicated as much in a February 19, 1945, letter to Morley by referring to Rahon as “Alice Paalen, the wife of Wolfgang Paalen, publisher of the magazine Dyn.”) No doubt this demonstrates Morley’s dedication to representing women artists. Indeed, while MoMA did not organize its first one-woman exhibition, Josephine Joy: Romantic Painter, until 1942, SFMOMA presented more than forty solo shows by women artists between 1935 and 1940. Further, between 1936 and 1943 SFMOMA hosted a “one-man show series” dedicated to artist members of the San Francisco Art Association, and nearly half of them focused on women artists, including repeated presentations of Dorr Bothwell, Claire Falkenstein, Anna Klumpke, and Miné Okubo.
Between 1947 and late 1949 Morley took an extended leave of absence from her directorial role at SFMOMA to work for UNESCO in Paris as the head of the Museum Division. Just before her departure, she received a letter from Paalen, proposing an exhibition of his new paintings. She wrote back in a letter dated June 27, 1947, that her impending departure prevented her from arranging a show on his behalf, but made plans to see him in Mexico in November, during the second session of UNESCO’s general conference. Morley also connected him with Richard B. Freeman, who managed the museum during her absence. In August 1948 Freeman organized Paintings by Wolfgang Paalen, which subsequently traveled to the Denver Art Museum. Paalen personally delivered his paintings to SFMOMA and was in attendance for the exhibition’s opening. At the time, he had several friends living in Northern California, including the writers Henry Miller and Anaïs Nin, the artist Jean Varda, and the British painter Gordon Onslow-Ford, who had recently moved to San Francisco with his wife, writer Jaqueline Johnson, a Stanford University graduate. Onslow-Ford had also been involved with the surrealist group in France, working alongside Matta and Tanguy. Like Paalen and Rahon, Johnson and Onslow-Ford moved to Mexico during World War II, and lived there from 1941 to 1947. Both Johnson and Onslow-Ford contributed to Paalen’s journal Dyn, and Johnson coedited its final issue (Rosemont 185). In 1949 Paalen relocated from Mexico to San Francisco with his new wife, painter Luchita Hurtado, perhaps motivated by the proximity of friends and the promise of additional exhibitions at SFMOMA.
Paalen was familiar with the Bay Area and may have considered moving to San Francisco with Rahon even earlier. On February 28, 1945, Reynal wrote to Morley, notifying her that Paalen and Rahon might visit: “It is possible that they will come to San Francisco. I have heard that they have wanted to live there for a while.” In 1939, Paalen, Rahon, and Eva Sulzer visited San Francisco while en route from Alaska and British Columbia to Mexico. During their brief stay, they attended the Golden Gate International Exposition on Treasure Island where they saw the Pacific Cultures exhibition, from which Paalen gained inspiration for Dyn (Winter 88). As Dawn Ades argues, Dyn engaged more seriously with indigenous cultures than previous surrealist projects (6). While Breton and the French surrealists often turned to indigenous cultures for inspiration, their interests were mostly superficial, whereas for Dyn, Paalen solicited substantial texts on pre-Columbian art and architecture by Alfonso Caso and Miguel Covarrubias. Incidentally, Covarrubias, an artist and ethnologist, created six illustrated maps representing Pacific cultures for the Golden Gate International Exposition, which were a focal point at Pacific House, the fair’s central thematic building; Paalen undoubtedly saw them there. Morley was involved in the organization of Pacific House and arranged additional exhibitions for the exposition, including South and Central American Art and A Pageant of Photography, the latter co-curated with Ansel Adams.
When Hurtado and Paalen moved to California, they purchased a Victorian house in Mill Valley in Marin County, which they eventually shared with Johnson, Onslow-Ford, and a young artist from Oklahoma, Lee Mullican; together the artists formed Dynaton. Dynaton embodied the ideas Paalen developed through Dyn, which renounced surrealism, pushing for a more scientific approach to painting while still championing automatism. SFMOMA dedicated several shows to the Dynaton artists. The earliest, Paintings by Lee Mullican, presented in the summer of 1949, and Paintings by Gordon Onslow-Ford, which directly followed Paintings by Wolfgang Paalen, were organized by Freeman. Freeman and Onslow-Ford had first met in 1947 in SFMOMA’s galleries. Freeman recounted the moment in the foreword for Towards a New Subject in Painting, the catalogue he prepared for Paintings by Gordon Onslow-Ford:
I recall vividly walking through one of the exhibition galleries at this Museum last fall and seeing a man who by his attitude of concentration was completely immersed in a painting before which he stood. It happened to be Van Gogh’s Landscape with Ploughed Fields. A half-hour later he was still there completely oblivious of mine or anyone else passing. Still later when the opportunity seemed least discourteous I presumed to interrupt his preoccupation to speak to him, and I learned it was Gordon Onslow-Ford....From that first meeting developed others and soon a personal friendship that has been an unalloyed pleasure....A newcomer to San Francisco, he was then filled with enthusiasm for the incomparable qualities of the city and the whole region—an enthusiasm which now, after a year’s residence, seems only to increase.
Paintings by Gordon Onslow-Ford featured the artist’s paintings and additional works from his collection by artists such as Matta, Miró, Paalen, Tanguy, and Varda. Certainly, the close relationship between Freeman and Onslow-Ford helped to create a space for the Dynaton artists at SFMOMA. In fact, as Mullican later recalled, the three exhibitions organized by Freeman brought the artists together:
We were three painters. Separately, we had each been given one-man shows at the San Francisco Museum of Art, and as we met and observed each other’s work we began a natural bridge that would support a manifestation—something beyond another exhibition. There would be a catalog, statements of position; it was important to tell who we were, predict where we were going. (Mullican 38)
That “something beyond” became Dynaton, which culminated in the 1951 exhibition A New Vision: Wolfgang Paalen, Lee Mullican, Gordon Onslow-Ford and the catalogue titled Dynaton 51. A letter from Freeman to Paalen dated December 20, 1949, suggests that planning for the exhibition began as early as September 1948, conceived at first as a representation of Paalen’s primarily indigenous Pacific Northwest and pre-Columbian collection. Morley took over the exhibition plans when she returned to San Francisco in late 1949. A New Vision also included works from Paalen’s personal art collection. Paalen derived the name Dynaton from a Greek word meaning “the possible.” The artists did not see themselves as a formal movement. In fact, it was the unity and restrictions of surrealism that had partly led to Paalen’s rejection of the group. The Dynaton artists jointly created some automatic drawings, an activity they called “the creation of the world,” but they primarily worked as individuals with shared interests in universalism, discovering new depths of consciousness, and treating paintings as “objects for meditation” (Jones 11).
Just as Feitelson had served as a spokesperson and curator for the post-surrealist exhibition, Onslow-Ford and Paalen gave a series of lectures in conjunction with their exhibition. The Dynaton artists also curated A New Vision. Mullican recalled that after some trouble with SFMOMA’s staff regarding the installation, “we were eventually taken to Dr. Grace Morley, the director. She gave us free rein and we were then in a position to do with the show as we pleased....I remember Gordon brandishing a hammer above his head and shouting to the departing crew, ‘We are going to transform this Museum.’” The result was an unconventional installation: “Paintings were positioned in clusters, some high, some low, few on a continuous eye level” (Barron 40). For the catalogue Morley wrote a brief foreword, in which she emphasized the artists’ autonomy: the “artists themselves, by words as well as by visual means, complete their statement. In this case, three artists, from very different parts of the word, out of widely different experience, have joined together” (n.p.).
Johnson and Paalen served as the theorists for the movement and composed substantial essays for Dynaton 51. In a letter dated June 14, 1950, Morley assured Paalen that his lectures and the catalogue would “make a substantial contribution to the studies of art here.” In the essay she contributed to the volume, “Taking a Sight,” Johnson celebrated Breton and automatism, but distinguished Dynaton from surrealism’s dogmas: “In this work, representative neither of reality nor of idea, there is a poetry proper to painting, inseparable from the means which are the painter’s alone; a poetry which is, in painting, the great liberation of our time” (40).
Frankenstein acknowledged the artists’ independence in his mostly positive review of A New Vision:
Dynaton is not a “movement,” at least in the commonly accepted sense of that term. The [catalogue] contains no catechism, no prescriptions, no anathemas, and its philosophy, which is one of continuous potential, is broad enough to contain a great many things in art which are vastly different than the paintings of these three men.
Frankenstein commended Paalen above Mullican and Onslow-Ford as a “virtuoso,” but admitted that he could not reconcile Paalen’s theories as outlined in the catalogue with his paintings: “If as Paalen insists, ‘a work of art has to bring about an awareness of universal concerns,’ I frequently find myself liking him for the wrong reasons.” Still, he celebrated Paalen’s work as “ingenious posing and solving of space” and “an achievement in abstract art.” Despite the success of A New Vision, the group did not endure: shortly after the exhibition closed, Hurtado and Mullican became romantically involved, and Paalen returned to Paris. Johnson and Onslow-Ford remained in Marin, and SFMOMA would consistently present Onslow-Ford’s new work throughout the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s.
More than any other individual artist, Jeanne Reynal arguably made the greatest impact on SFMOMA’s early exhibitions and collections. She was born into an affluent family in White Plains, New York, in 1903, and although she never received a formal education and was tutored at home, she developed a passion for art at an early age. As a young girl she admired a print by Rosa Bonheur that hung outside her nursery; at age eleven she visited the famed Armory Show in New York, where she saw Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase. While living in England in her twenties, Reynal met Russian mosaicist Boris von Anrep, who inspired her interest in mosaics. She moved to Paris and worked as Anrep’s assistant between 1930 and 1938 before returning to the United States and joining the avant-garde. Anrep’s style was purely decorative, but Reynal’s training emboldened her to “create a new art of the mosaic, a contemporary and fresh look for this ancient medium” (Campbell 98). In New York she befriended European artists in exile such as Breton, Duchamp, and Ernst, as well as young Americans such as John Cage, Willem de Kooning, Barnett Newman, Isamu Noguchi, Mark Rothko, and Dorothea Tanning. The most important relationship she formed was with Arshile Gorky and his wife, Agnes, who had a profound impact on her career. In her words: “I owe the most, I suppose, to Arshile Gorky” (Campbell 99). As a mosaicist, Reynal drew inspiration from ancient and Byzantine works, but the influence of the avant-garde is evident in her use of assemblage, and engagement with dreams and the imagination. Reynal was one of eight artists (the others were Helen Phillips, Arshile Gorky, Gerome Kamrowski, David Hare, Wifredo Lam, Roberto Matta, and Isamu Noguchi) to be featured in Bloodflames (1947), the final show of the New York surrealist group in exile (Rosemont 218).
Reynal moved from New York to California in 1940, first living on Montgomery Street in San Francisco and later relocating to Soda Springs, near Lake Tahoe. She remained in California for six years, and her correspondence with Morley reveals her profound impact on the young museum. Reynal frequently donated money to the institution and also counseled Morley on emerging artists working in New York. On October 19, 1943, Morley described Reynal to Peggy Guggenheim as “a good artist” and “always a sensitive appreciator of others’ work.” On December 20, 1943, Morley and Reynal exchanged letters about the work of Jackson Pollock, who was having his first show at Art of This Century. Reynal had just purchased Pollock’s 1941 painting Magic Mirror from Guggenheim, and Morley asked to see it to determine whether or not she wanted to show his work at SFMOMA. On December 20, 1943, Morley wrote to Reynal:
Miss Guggenheim wrote me about Jackson Pollock. I do not know his work of course and I am very anxious to. She has promised to send me some photographs, but I shall count on your letting me see the one you purchased some time when you are in town. I am very glad to have you make suggestions of people you think especially interesting. We may not always be able to bring their work out immediately, but it helps to have opinions and to know about names. I naturally cannot get East as often as I should like. I do think we are going to have some good shows this coming year.
The materials of Magic Mirror, an oil painting with glass fragments, would have appealed to the mosaicist, and it certainly enticed Morley, too, because in the summer of 1945 SFMOMA presented Jackson Pollock, the first-ever museum exhibition of the artist’s work. Jackson Pollock included Magic Mirror and Guardians of the Secret (1943), which Morley purchased for SFMOMA’s collection. Morley tried to encourage more West Coast institutions to host the exhibition but was unsuccessful. On October 4, 1945, she wrote to Reynal, asking about her recent six-week trip to the Southwest with Breton, and proudly updated her about the museum’s new Pollock: “With yours included in local collections we have at least two good examples in the region from which we can draw.” Reynal also enjoyed Pollock’s work, yet described it as underdeveloped in her response to Morley on October 7: “I am so glad that you have purchased a Pollock. He would be a very interesting artist if he knew what he was doing. He is more instinctive than intuitive, I find. But there is a place for that too. And I like so much to hear that the [museum] is so encouraging to young artists for there is not more sound proof than a purchase.”
Reynal, a passionate art collector, bought notable works from her friends, including, among many examples, an early sketch of Duchamp’s The Bride Stripped Bare By Her Bachelors, Even, Barnett Newman’s Horizon Light, and Joseph Cornell’s Deserted Perch and Sandbox. She donated essential works to museums throughout the United States, including SFMOMA, which received Gorky’s Enigmatic Combat (1936–37). Reynal’s role as a patron often overshadowed her career as an artist. For example, on December 22, 1964, Patricia Van Ingen of PV Gallery wrote to Esquire, notifying the editor that the magazine had mistakenly identified Reynal as a hostess: “Miss Reynal should not be listed in a chart under the heading of ‘Hostesses,’ but that of an artist.” Reynal’s mosaics and paintings were frequently shown in the San Francisco Art Association’s annual exhibitions, hosted by SFMOMA. Additionally, Morley arranged Reynal’s first solo show, Mosaics of Jeanne Reynal, in 1941, and a second exhibition, Paintings by Jeanne Reynal, in 1943 (Fig. 4). SFMOMA organized a retrospective of Reynal’s work in 1965, well after Morley left the museum.
In addition to recommending young abstract expressionists like Gorky and Pollock, Reynal encouraged Morley to feature work by surrealists, many of whom were her friends. Based on Reynal’s suggestion, Morley organized an exhibition of Jean Varda’s paintings and collages in 1943, noting in a letter of March 17, 1943, “Yes, I have thought of the works of Jean Varda for some time in the future....I do appreciate you calling my attention to this work, for I did not know he was still in Monterey and that he had any considerable amount of work at hand.” Varda, also known as “Yanko,” was born in Greece and worked as a portrait painter before moving to France and England in 1913 and pursuing a short career as a ballet dancer. In France he studied at the École des Beaux-Arts, attended lectures by Breton, and befriended Paalen and the poet Roland Penrose. After briefly relocating to New York in 1939, he moved to Big Sur and then Monterey, while keeping a studio in the North Beach neighborhood of San Francisco and teaching classes at the California School of Fine Arts (now the San Francisco Art Institute). Incidentally, he was responsible for luring Henry Miller to Big Sur. Varda met Miller in Los Angeles in 1943 and invited the writer to visit him at his home in Big Sur, the “Red Barn” (Stroman n.p.). The trip inspired Miller to publish the essay “Varda: The Master Builder,” initially printed in 1944 in the experimental Berkeley journal Circle, and later published as a book in 1947. Miller introduced Varda to Onslow-Ford, and they became close friends. In 1949, Varda and Onslow-Ford purchased an old ferryboat, the Vallejo, which they docked in Sausalito. Mullican, Onslow-Ford, and Paalen used the boat as a studio. Varda moved onto the Vallejo in 1950, which also served as a home for the philosopher and writer Alan Watts. Initially Varda was a mosaicist, like Reynal, but by the time Morley arranged the exhibition of his work, he had transitioned to collage and painting. The San Francisco Art Association annual exhibitions at SFMOMA regularly featured Varda’s work. In 1950 Morley included Varda in a group show featuring Los Angeles printmaker June Wayne, Adolfo Halty from Uruguay, and Felipe Orlando from Cuba. The exhibition, New Works by June Wayne, Adolfo Halty, Felipe Orlando, Jean Varda, exemplified Morley’s interest in juxtaposing lesser-known contemporary artists from many different regions, both local and international.
In a letter to Morley dated February 28, 1945, Reynal proposed an exhibition involving Stanley William Hayter, Jaqueline Lamba, Matta, Paalen, and Rahon. It never materialized, but every artist Reynal suggested was still somehow featured at the museum. SFMOMA had hosted an exhibition of Hayter’s work in 1940, and, as already noted, Morley included Rahon and Paalen in several shows in the 1940s and 1950s. On January 23, 1946, Morley wrote to David Hare and Jaqueline Lamba proposing an exhibition of their work: “Jeanne Reynal tells me that you are expecting to come out here next summer, and at that time it might be possible to persuade you to bring or send some of your works here for showing in the museum.” Reynal was close friends with the artists, so she organized a party to celebrate their visit and encourage sales from their exhibition. She personally purchased Hare’s sculpture Dead Elephant (1945) from the show, which she presented to SFMOMA as a gift. Using her personal finances and with help from Reynal, Morley acquired Lamba’s La Galere for the collection (unfortunately, it was deaccessioned in the 1970s).
Morley was also interested in organizing a solo exhibition of Cuban surrealist Wifredo Lam. She borrowed Lam’s Mother and Child (1939) from MoMA for her 1941 traveling exhibit Contemporary Latin American Art, the first survey exhibition of modern Latin American art organized in the United States. However, Pierre Matisse, Lam’s representative, only agreed to loan solo exhibits to institutions that made purchases, which SFMOMA could seldom afford to do. Thus, Matisse’s restrictions prevented Morley from arranging a solo exhibition dedicated to Lam. She also wanted to host an exhibition of Matta’s paintings, but Matisse represented him as well, and as a result, SFMOMA would not arrange an exhibition of Matta’s work until 1950. As Morley wrote to Reynal on February 15, 1945, “Our difficulty is that so very often we have not funds to buy work we recognize as good while the artist still is in the process of becoming known. Usually, we have to wait and then by that time can’t afford to acquire the work.” At the time, donations to SFMOMA’s collection were still scarce, so the generosity of patrons like Reynal made an immense impact.
SFMOMA’s surrealist exhibition history is an excellent example of Morley’s broader curatorial strategy and vision. Her approach did not involve imposing her personal understanding of surrealism, or modern art more broadly, onto SFMOMA’s exhibitions or their audiences. This distinguishes her from contemporaries like MoMA’s Barr, who endeavored to define modern art for US museum audiences. Morley’s objectives were no less pedagogical than Barr’s, but her tactics were rooted in her desire to represent contemporary art through many different lenses. In the catalogue for Surrealism and Abstract Art, she warned that the exhibition was “less inclusive than it might be if gathered another way” because it represented Sidney Janis’s “single point of view.” Such disclaimers give insight into her larger thoughts concerning the weaknesses, even hazards, that come with spotlighting a single curatorial voice. Morley embraced inclusivity by soliciting the help of many individuals, from collectors to art dealers to the artists themselves. And thus, SFMOMA’s surrealist exhibition history does not reflect Morley’s taste alone, but rather the appraisals, interests, and viewpoints of Amor, Feitelson, Guggenheim, Janis, Johnson, Paalen, Stendahl, Reynal, and numerous other individuals. Morley was determined to represent many distinct voices at SFMOMA, where they could speak to one another, and the museum’s audiences could listen in on the conversations.
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