Surrealism, the second Atom Bomb and the iPhone…
Fotofiber, November 29, 2021 — January 28, 2022, Robert Mann Gallery, 14 East 80th Street, Penthouse, New York City
Surrealism Beyond Borders, October 11, 2021– January 30, 2022, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1000 Fifth Avenue, New York City AND February 24 — August 29, 2022, Tate Modern, Bankside, London SE1 9TG
If you’re looking for charm, and who isn’t right now, go to Robert Mann’s newish photography gallery space — down from 6,000 square feet in Chelsea to an intimate 1,200 on the Upper East Side. He’s in his penthouse, masked and welcoming to a few collectors at a time. He’s got a sweet show but it’s coming to an end. So hurry. Or go whenever you’re in New York. The most fun is to go to the MET Museum first because Mann’s shows can be seen in loose tandem with their photography exhibitions, his premises being a half a block away. That’s what I did. And the experience of both was so rich that I had to think about it for weeks. And here is what I was thinking.
A little over a hundred years ago, Andre Breton came home to Paris with his traumatic experiences of World War I (working in a neurological ward.) And with a handful of like-minded poets, Breton developed the Surrealist Manifesto in 1924. The writers had decided that the world is irrational and destructive. Technological weaponry had made that War far more devastating than anyone could have imagined previously. The artists rebelled against reason and materialism. They relied on dreams to break free in their work and create a new place for themselves. They launched a publication, “La revolution surrealiste” with poetry and paintings by like-minded artists. Surrealism is one of the great ideas in the terrible twentieth century.
After World War II, in 1946, Rene Magritte painted a self-portrait in which he wears a sober dark business suit, a top hat to match, orderly, but with an apple obscuring our view of his face. It’s like a Vaudeville joke. At first. There is a wall behind him and a blue wash of water behind that. For centuries painting had been built on perspective, but this picture used layers, the images are sandwiched together. That was a shake-up for the viewer at least as important as the floating apple. It took the organizing structure in the picture out of the viewer’s control.
And the apple: was it sweet fruit or a bomb waiting? An apple a day…we say. But the apple is what terminated Eden. The picture was painted after the atomic bomb had been dropped, and perhaps more importantly,
the second explosion, which was more destructive, and punitive than anything that had ever happened in history. It said don’t trust morality in human beings, there is only power. And the power in that bomb was a display of energy. Power=Energy=America. The new equation. The painting was made in Belgium, but it was a cry in a godless and lawless world that life was absurd. The man peeking Stasi like from behind the apple says to you hopefully, “Go ahead, laugh. It’s all you’ve got.”
And yet, artists all over the world had not given up. Surrealist art, we learn in a new extraordinary show called Surrealism Beyond Borders now on at the Met, was being made to fight against oppressive regimes from Hatillo to Bucharest, from Seoul to Sao Paulo, from Calcutta to Port-au-Prince, from Serbia to Guangzhou and from Havana to Matalana. Surrealist art was being made in protests against cultures, societies and personal prejudices. We can see that now, thanks to the 275 paintings, photographs, sculptures, films and sound recordings in the exhibition. Once, Andre Breton thought it was his art form and he kept a grip on the narrative. Women artists were primarily left out of the European story. But now we know they were working, too, like playful rats in our ruins.
The photograph below was an illustration for a magazine column in Buenos Aires where a psychologist gave advice to women in the 1940s and 50s during Juan Peron’s leadership. The man in the white coat could be a psychologist and the woman a patient and the lamp being turned on or off is his advice. Anyone would believe that. But that was a cover; this illustration is actually art.
Grete Stern was a German artist who’d fled Nazism in 1935 and then found herself in Argentina under the brutal dictatorship of Juan Peron after the War. She was a successful collagist who used her pictures like a freedom fighter. You see how the man in the white coat fills the frame but remains unseen as an ideology. And he’s many times larger than the whole figure of the little woman with her hands above her head. Is she holding up the pretty shade like his words or is she about to be arrested? Either way, somebody stop her before she starts crying.
If you look at the objects in the image as symbols, a surrealist technique, the man is Juan Peron, she is labor and the lamp is power. Pretty good, right? Stern was talented. Her images are made from magazine cutouts, black and white because color came later. Photographs were popular with surrealists who were trying to speak to the masses and the masses read magazines. But in the next few years after this was made, in America, television advertisements would run riot with surrealism so that the independent viewer who hated the idea of being sold to was excited and seduced by the surprise in the collision of images.
The programs on television were steady, they built reliable narratives that fit into genres, they never challenged social norms. The engine of every crazy situation on the I Love Lucy show was that the wife was trying to keep her husband. Keep him happy, keep him coming back for more, like us. She was our ball and chain whereas the ads were the real wild bits, you never knew how far they’d go to sell you something, but they were strong enough to interrupt Lucy and Desi, they were the milk keeping the cereal afloat.
Ads were independence, too. So you could support the show by buying those Phillip Morris cigarettes whether anybody liked it or not. You didn’t have to justify yourself, you were being American. Soon everyone wanted to be American. The whole stupid world. Buying stuff is fun for everyone. And in the 60s there was money, too.
In 1967, the Beatles named their many artistic/business ventures Apple. The logo was still a green one. The symbol of absurdity had been repurposed as the definition of cool. Buy this record and you’re cool. Art was becoming transactional. Their single, Lennon’s song “Revolution,” became part of the branding with Apple. Politics was becoming transactional. We might’ve realized then that the masses were being groomed to make the advertisers rich. But we didn’t. Buying felt too good.
Advertisers should have paid us to take their tvs. We should have put them in churches and public gyms and watched together and decided what products to support. We should have formed a union with a manifesto if we wanted to stay in power. The Surrealists kept asking what it was doing to our will to buy the tv so you could see what to buy. But we believed purchasing was our will.
In 1976, America’s 200th anniversary, Steve Jobs named his computer company “Apple” which connected it to the Beatles and that was cool in being random and artsy. His advertising firm painted the apple rainbow which made it ‘for the people’ and that tied it to political purpose, but they took a bite out of the Apple, daring anyone in the Western world to call this new product evil. Some advertising firm no doubt sold Jobs on “the Apple revolution.” You can hear the executive telling Jobs that it would be a sales Manifesto to reach more people.
Right now Jobs is being celebrated all over the place. Celebrated as a packager and a salesman: a genius in business. My favorite example this week is a headline in Airmail magazine — Wedgwood: the Steve Jobs of Pottery. That’s Josiah Wedgwood (1730–1795). Your grandparents had some of his tableware. The two great white men span three hundred years but what they had in common in the beginning of their transformations was that they made beautiful products for the rich and some priced for the masses. Wedgwood continued that way throughout his career, but Jobs realized he could sell hyper expensive products to the rich and the poor. So in 2007 he brought the iphone to market and the cheapest one cost $499.
So they offered financing. Just like RCA had to get people to buy tvs in the beginning. That way the phone could be turned in for an upgrade at an increased cost before it stopped working. You’d never have to be a day without it. Information on the cloud sealed that deal. We have come to expect a monthly payment to Apple. We are paying to be connected, connection is power. We want it to look at us, to know us, so we sell them our attention willingly.
The phone looks at us more reliably than anyone else in our lives. All we’ve got to do is keep it turned on. Simple. When we don’t we are left out, alone, disconnected. Ending the relationship is unthinkable now. You don’t feel oppressed. You’re buying what you want when you want to where you want to. And every time you do you’re expressing your freedom.
No? You mean your phone is like the guy in the white coat and you’re keeping the light on for him? Is it too late? Have I lost my liberty? Oh freedom is like a language that can become extinct. And the way to keep it alive is to use it, huh? Ah, go to the MET show and look at pictures on the wall where your thoughts are your own, where it won’t lead to an advertiser telling you what to buy. Ok, but what am I going to do afterwards?
I saw where a couple of professional basketball players are teaching how to buy bitcoin? Maybe I can check that out. Everyone says this year is the one for the metaverse to really take off. Isn’t it a free market where anyone can start their own currency and sell their own links to digital files or experiences or anything you can think of? All you need there is nerve. Right?
Some people are saying the things being sold are just there to keep people buying the cryptocoins but does it matter when everyone’s making a bundle right now? The whole thing is the vision of some gamer bros, you can’t get more of the people than that? Ok so it’s a new unsupportable energy suck like a cherry on top of your phone which is the whipped cream over the ice cream which is everything else and melting, but that’s an early kink. Somebody’ll invent some way out of all this. And who’s smarter than geeks?
Please don’t think I’m unpatriotic but thinking about power and energy and what I’m supposed to do about it is making me feel kinda crazy. And that makes me tired. When I went to the MET to see Surrealism Beyond Borders it felt so good not to have to be anybody while I was looking at the pictures. Not to know what I was thinking to endorse someone’s popularity. And not to interrupt my own thoughts.
And feeling refreshed after a couple of hours of being able to concentrate there I walked a half a block over from the MET to the Robert Mann Gallery. He is having a show called Fotofiber of embroidered photographs. It’s a surreal art form so the pictures were like leftovers after the feast, sometimes some of them look even better. It was a day of original art, one-offs which feel rarer every day. Even so, embroidery is still an art form in need of respect. Happily, Robert Mann is the one to take on that kind of challenge.
He was trained in the business as director of Harry Lunn, Jr.’s gallery in Washington, D.C. It was the 1970s and Lunn had been outed as a CIA operative. He happened to see a print by Ansel Adams that moved him so much he became the man who persuaded America to buy photography. And from America, the world. So when you meet Robert Mann, you’re meeting the history of photography appreciation. Lunn is gone but Mann is still inspired by artists, their work and the people who want to look at their work on their walls.
“In person Lunn could be irascible, courtly, funny as hell, and terrifying.” Robert Mann is congenially expansive, confidently knowledgeable without being pushy. He’s available but not inquisitive.
He’s got more reason than most to appreciate an outlier art like embroidery on photographs. His second wife, Orly Cogan is an embroidery artist. She has work in the group show. Indeed, it is one of her pictures that I think the MET should pair in their collection with the Grete Stern above. In Cogan’s remade image seventy years after the original the woman is sexy. Woman on fire is the first thing that comes to mind. Look at the way that upper lip and that hair turns her gaze into longing. She’s reaching for the butterfly which is even larger, proportionally, than the man in the coat: the butterfuly is the ideology. Transformation, one of the surrealist ambitions, is hers to make.
The woman is alive and the man may please her, if she so chooses. It is an erotic fantasy perhaps. Or is the world burning? Wait, if the world’s burning where’s my phone!