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The Dali effect

At the St. Petersburg museum, a comparative exhibit of 20th century artists clarifies the connection the surrealist had with these modernists - and they with him.

By LENNIE BENNETT, Times art critic
Published December 18, 2005

ST. PETERSBURG - If walls could talk, they would be thrumming at the Salvador Dali Museum. A cranky Jackson Pollock would probably try to pick a fight with Andy Warhol who would stare in blank passivity. Willem de Kooning and Roy Lichtenstein would disagree about pop art's debt to abstract expressionism. James Rosenquist, a youngster in the group, would likely remain deferentially silent. And Salvador Dali would preside grandly over the group, smiling and saying, "You see? We all have more in common than anyone thought."

"Pollock to Pop: America's Brush with Dali" urges that creative suggestiveness, juxtaposing a handful of major 20th century American artists against works by Salvador Dali. The purpose is more than interesting conversation. Curator William Jeffett of the Dali presents a brief furthering the Spanish surrealist's influence on American art during a seminal time beginning in the 1940s and continuing through the 1960s when the nexus of new ideas shifted from Paris to New York.

Dali was living in New York during many of those years, and though he maintained an official distance from the young artists breaking ground in a field that would become known as abstract expressionism, he was keenly aware of what they were doing, and in some cases felt great affinity with them.

Dali wrote of de Kooning, for example, that he "is the greatest, the most gifted and the most authentic finial point of modern painting." About Lichtenstein, part of the pop art movement that supplanted abstract expressionism, he said, "the works which have the greatest amounts of bits of information, as much on the person of the artist himself as on the esthetic and moral reality of today, are certainly the paintings of Roy Lichtenstein."

Seeing de Kooning, Lichtenstein, Rosenquist, Warhol, Pollock, Claes Oldenburg, Chuck Close and Mark Rothko in a Dalinian context gives credence to Jeffett's remarks in the catalog that, "There is a tendency in criticism and scholarship to look at Dali in isolation . . . Here we ask the question of how Dali stood in relation to other artists and how this relation shaped not only his own work but broad strands in post-war New York art, including at least two generations of artists: those associated with abstract expressionism and pop art, and also Chuck Close, whose work fits neither comfortably in the label pop Art nor the new realism of the 1970s."

The question is answered in multiple ways.

Paul, Close's huge grid of abstract images, is an optical illusion that resolves itself into a portrait only at some distance, much like Dali's Gala Contemplating the Mediterranean Sea which at Twenty Meters becomes a Portrait of Abraham Lincoln, which hangs at the other end of a long gallery. Dali's Lobster Telephone is perched near Oldenburg's Soft Pay-Telephone - Ghost Version. Lichtenstein's Benday-dotted Yellow Brushstroke II mimics Dali's earlier Sistine Madonna's surfaced with halftone dots (which incidentally, is the only work not in the museum's permanent collection; it's on loan from the Metropolitan Museum of Art).

Those seem like obvious comparisons now, but most critics have for decades left Dali out of such comparisons. And as disparate as these American artists are, and as Dali himself was through his long career, the connections between the artists go deeper than visual appropriations. Dali prefigured all of them in his use of borrowed commercial images, his photorealist technique borne from his fascination with photography, the exploration of his psyche that surfaced on his canvases.

But, as Hank Hine, the Dali Museum's director, notes in his fine introduction, the artist's narrative bent (his paintings told stories) was seen by most arts watchers as a throwback. The artists themselves, though, clearly were paying attention.

Rosenquist's huge Shadows is mounted in clear view of Dali's monumental Hallucinogenic Toreador. They seem at first an odd coupling. But Shadows' slash of pink paint contains a barely discernible profile of a woman, replicated as a shadow, as is the toreador's face hidden in Dali's Venus de Milo. And the somber grisaille panels on either side of Rosenquist's painting - of a waterfall and a close-up detail of a tire - echo Dali's mystery-laden images. Jackson, so resolute in his abstractions made of dripped paint, seems less automatic, more calculating in the late-career Number 7 as the blobs resolve into a woman's face, as if he were trying to find a new expressiveness in representation. Dali, on the other hand, surprises us in Velazquez Painting the Infanta Marguerita with the Lights and Shadow of His Own Glory, painted six years later in 1958. In it, the little 17th century Spanish princess is almost obscured by gestural strokes of dripped paint.

Rothko famously said, "To classify is to embalm." What becomes clearer with each reading of this exhibition is that labels - surrealism, pop, abstract expressionism - are relevant more as shorthand for writers and critics. The give and take of ideas, even if unacknowledged by an artist, are always present and once evolution ceases, death, as Rothko implied, sets in. All of the artists, even Pollock - who was considered pretty much finished before his death in 1956 - continued to develop a vernacular that could grow and change as language does every time it meets up with new modes of expression.

Remarks by Rosenquist, taken from a presentation at the museum in 2004, include the observation, "I'm always amazed at an artist's ability to paint, the technical ability, because it's very rare. . . . Painting is merely minerals mixed in oil, smeared on a piece of cloth with the hair from the back of a pig's ear.

"Salvador Dali is an incredible artist. And I'm technically amazed by what he can do with a sable brush."

- Lennie Bennett can be reached at 727 893-8293 or lennie@sptimes.com

Review

"Pollock to Pop: America's Brush with Dali" is at the Salvador Dali Museum, 1000 Third St. S, St. Petersburg, through April 23. Museum hours are 9:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Monday through Saturday with extended hours to 8 p.m. Thursday, and noon to 5:30 p.m. Sunday. The museum is closed on Christmas Day. Admission is $14 adults, $12 seniors, military and police, $9 students 10 and older and $3.50 children 5 to 9. Thursdays are $5 after 5 p.m. 727 823-3767 or www.salvadordalimuseum.org

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