The Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago presents Surrealism: The Conjured Life, featuring more than 100 paintings, sculptures, drawings, and photographs that demonstrate the deep currents that Surrealism sent through the international art world—and especially through Chicago—since its emergence in the first half of the 20th century. The exhibition highlights major works by those now considered “classical” Surrealists—including Rene Magritte and Max Ernst—and works by major artists working today, many Chicago-based, who are inspired by the continuing lure of “the conjured life” that results in strange, magical, and sometimes disturbing imagery. The exhibition is on view November 21, 2015 through June 5, 2016 and is curated by MCA Curator Lynne Warren.
A global movement that encompassed a wide number of art forms, including film, theater, poetry, and literature, Surrealism came of age with poet André Breton’s formal declaration in 1924. This deeply emotional and psychological art form flourished in the 1930s and 1940s—turbulent times of economic instability, rapidly changing social mores, and war. Surrealism’s focus on both formal issues and personal expression continues to inspire contemporary artists. The exhibition design features a large freestanding spiral in the center of the gallery, whose inner wall displays the work by the classical surrealists, including works by Balthus, Claude Cahun, Leonora Carrington, Dorothea Tanning and Remedios Varo. The outer wall of the spiral showcases international contemporary figures with influences from and affinities to surrealism, including Forrest Bess, Lee Bontecou, Mark Grotjahn, Jeff Koons, Wangechi Mutu, Cindy Sherman, and Francesca Woodman. The four gallery walls feature artists associated with Chicago, beginning with those known as the “Monster Roster,” such as Don Baum, Leon Golub, and June Leaf; a number of the Imagists, including Jim Nutt, Gladys Nilsson, and Christina Ramberg; and a range of more recent work from a diverse group of Chicago-based practitioners including Patty Carroll, Marcos Raya, and Ann Wilson. Outliers such as Gertrude Abercrombie, Henry Darger, and Joseph Yoakum are also on view.
Many of the works in the exhibition are from the Chicago collectors who brought the European visual arts aspect of Surrealism to their hometown. Joseph and Jory Shapiro and Edwin and Lindy Bergman traveled to Europe, where they met members of the Surrealist group including Paul Delvaux, Matta, and Magritte, piquing their interest in this “art of the irrational.” Mary and Earle Ludgin collected in depth the works of eccentric American painter Forrest Bess. These arts patrons were among the founders of the MCA, and when the museum began collecting in the mid-1970 they donated major works to the MCA, forming an early and continuing collection strength of Surrealist works.