Originally mounted in 2011, "Real/Surreal: Selections from the Whitney Museum" was not originally intended to be a traveling show, but we're glad it arrived at the McNay Art Museum from New York. It is a peculiar exhibition that succeeds — whether intended or not — to show that however alienating and unsettling European Surrealism could be with its amorphous glyphs, stalled clocks, and drill bits on a beach, other painters of the time were making equally disturbing works. American practitioners of the realist tradition had entered a strange terrain, especially those focused on social concerns, like George Tooker and Francis Criss, both represented in the exhibition.
In a show that features Man Ray's La Fortune, a cartoonish candy-colored cloudscape over a school boy's exercise in perspective drawing, along with the concussion-blurred storefronts and cottages of Edward Hopper, and the killing jar collage work of Joseph Cornell, we are treated to perhaps one of the most anxiously diagnostic American paintings to vie for space in the heyday of abstract art: The Subway by George Tooker. A graying woman in red with a face alight with alarm walks through a phalanx of men in raincoats, all identical, all threatening in their zombie-like aloofness. Subway is that kind of painting that, seen at the right age, affects one's sense of aesthetics in the same manner that Munch's The Scream can affect a worldview. Tooker's task is pure social painting meant to detail the low buzzing banality of claustrophobic city life, the way gas lights lead to gas chambers. To see Tooker's work here, work that he always made pains to separate from the train of Surrealism, and feel that you are truly visiting a piece that darkly plays on Breton's promise of psychic liberation, is as unnerving as it is pleasing in its paradox.
The tropes of Surrealism: the machines coming apart on a beach, the shrouded faces and isolation that Andre Breton and the French group were all enamored with, in the end look like echoes of mid-century America, where the machines are actually coming apart on the Great Depression landscape, and it's just part of the New Deal.
If European Surrealism has made much use — and it has — of the cloaked figure, the obscured visage lost in the labyrinth, it is no more haunting than the nuns that appear literally cornered on a corner in Francis Criss's Astor Place or the toweled customer in Henry Koerner's The Barbershop. Another kind of mask, the haunted harlequin with the burn of the burlesque, is offered up in Robert Riggs Clown Alley, and you can't dream this kind of backstage pass away.
But context and distance are everything. Though American painters grabbed Surrealist methods of juxtaposition to create unsettling effects when it suited them, the movement never spread to this side of the pond with the same sort of French and Italian clubbiness. The Whitney collected most of these paintings shortly after they were made in the 1930s through the 1950s to further the museum's interest at that time in acquiring both regional art and representational painting. Though the works range from surrealist-like eeriness to magical realism, and — for lack of another term — conventional realism, it is the artists' tactics that hold the collection together. The use of clean edges and strongly defined forms and lines rather than expressionist painterliness, is a constant. But after the 60 to 90 years since they were painted, even what may have appeared bland at the time — Andrew Wyeth's dead crow in a field, for instance — seem to breath wonder.
Selections from the Whitney Museum of American Art
$5-$15 (free 4-9pm Thu)
10am-4pm Tue, Wed, Fri
McNay Art Museum
6000 N New Braunfels
Through May 19