Dorothea Tanning passed away on Tuesday. She was 101.
As I read through various articles and obituaries, then roamed the archives of her life’s work, I stumbled across the drawing Fantastic Heliotherapy and immediately settled on that as the title for this blog. Though Tanning was very definitely a Paris/New York artist, the image of a figure struggling to find shelter from the ocean winds in an overgrown sunflower, seems a fitting image for my life as an artist in Los Angeles. The concept of heliotherapy encapsulates many of the stereotypes about Angelinos (superficial sun worshippers, health and image obsessed, way too relaxed to be serious), and the art produced here (feel good, color field art), whilst, I hope, alluding to the emotionally and intellectually complex work that undercuts those stereotypes, and thrives in this environment.
Certainly, taking Tanning as my patron saint couldn’t hurt. This fiercely creative woman was a prolific painter, who went on to explore sculpture, poetry and prose. She has been a part of my artistic vocabulary since I was an undergraduate, and paintings such as Death and the Maiden, and Eine Kleine Nachtmusik transformed my understanding of Surrealism. I had thought of it as a macho movement, full of clever mental twists, but emotionally distant. Not so with Tanning. Her works use absurdity and whimsy as a method for communicating something dark and personal. In Death and the Maiden the classical theme of death/rape is retold in a deadpan and non glamorous fashion, simultaneously funny, sad and uncomfortable, not that unlike a Miranda July movie.
Though she is best known for her paintings, it was her visceral soft sculptures that grabbed my imagination in recent years. Edward Goldman described the one currently on view in LACMA’s In Wonderland show, as “nasty, very nasty”. Tanning herself described the process of making these writhing masses as “very close to lust” and I can believe it. Forty years after their completion, they still pulse with raw erotic energy.