Abstract Expressionism

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André Breton: Surrealism, Dada and the Abstract Expressionists (cont.)

by Gary Comenas

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Breton's comments to "the readers of Comoedia" were later published in the "After Dada" section of Breton's Three Dada Manifestos.

André Breton:

"... I inform the readers of Comoedia that M. Tzara had nothing to do with the invention of the word 'Dada,' as is shown by the letters of Schad and Huelsenbeck, his companions in Zurich during the war, which I am prepared to publish, and that he probably had very little to do with the writing of the Dada Manifesto 1918 which was the basis of the reception and credit we accorded him. The paternity of this manifesto is in any case, formally claimed, by Max Serner, doctor of philosophy, who lives in Geneva and whose manifestos written in German before 1918 have not been translated into French. Moreover it is known that the conclusions formulated by Francis Picabia and Marcel Duchamp, even before the war, plus those formulated by Jacques Vaché in 1917, would have been sufficient to guide us without the manifesto. Up to now, it has seemed distasteful to me to denounce the bad faith of M. Tzara and I have allowed him to go on using with impunity the papers of those whom he robbed. But now that he has decided to exploit this last opportunity to be talked about, by wrongfully attacking one of the most disinterested undertakings ever put under way [the Congress], I am not reluctant to silence him." (RD205)

Tzara later explained the problems he had with the Congress (and the Dada movement in France) in a letter to Christian Zervos dated February 16, 1937. In the letter Tzara complained about a "newspaper release" that referred to him as a "publicity hungry imposter" which "occurred only a few days after the official invitation to participate in the Committee of said Congress" - presumably a reference to Breton's comments in Comoedia. (RD304). He also made reference to a performance of his play Le Coeur a gaz which took place at the Galerie Montaigne in Paris on June 10, 1921 as part of the Salon Dada Exposition Internationale exhibition which ran from June 6 to June 30, 1921. Although the performance of Tzara's play was meant to be the high point of the program of Dada performances, the audience walked out soon after it started. (PJ355/356) Tzara asked in his letter to Zervos, "Is it not likely that this demonstration, the hostility of which was directed... against the second part of the program, the performance of my play Le Coeur a gaz, was not the expression of a principle, but of a personal vengeance directed against myself?" (RD305).


According to Ribemont-Dessaignes, "the situation [between Tzara and Breton] became so strained that it was decided to liquidate. A meeting took place at the Closerie des Lilas, the old cafe on the Place de L'Observatoire. Breton was summoned to explain his 'un-Dadalike' conduct... Far from pacifying tempers, this effort merely brought about a final break, and officially marked the death of Dada." (RD117-19) The funeral of Dada in France took place on November 30, 1924. An announcement of the funeral appeared in Le Mouvement accéléré: "The friends and acquaintances of Dada, deceased in the prime of life from acute literaturitis, will assemble the 30th of November 1924 at 2:30 around the tomb of their brother in nothingness so as to observe a minute of silence. We will gather together at the entrance gate of the Montparnasse cemetery. - Attendees are asked not to wear any badge of a literary school." (AI263) About a month before the funeral of Dada, Breton published a manifesto for a new movement - Surrealism. (The term "Surrealist" was first used in print in 1917 when the poet, Guillaume Apollinaire, subtitled his play Les Mamelles de Tiresias as a "Drame Surrealiste." (MF))

André Breton [from the Manifeste du surréalisme (published October 15, 1924) (AJ)]:

"We are still living under the reign of logic... Under the pretence of civilization and progress, we have managed to banish from the mind everything that may rightly or wrongly be termed superstition, or fancy; forbidden is any kind of search for truth which is not in conformance with accepted practices. It was, apparently, by pure chance that a part of our mental world which we pretended not to be concerned with any longer - and, in my opinion by far the most important part - has been brought back to light. For this we must give thanks to the discoveries of Sigmund Freud... Freud very rightly brought his critical faculties to bear upon the dream. It is, in fact, inadmissible that this considerable portion of psychic activity... has still today been so grossly neglected.... I believe in the future resolution of these two states, dream and reality, which are seemingly so contradictory, into a kind of absolute reality, a surreality, if one may so speak. It is in quest of this surreality that I am going, certain not to find it but too unmindful of my death not to calculate to some slight degree the joys of its possession."

Included as part of the manifesto was Breton's definition of Surrealism:

"SURREALISM, n. Psychic automatism in its pure state, by which one proposes to express -- verbally, by means of the written word, or in any other manner -- the actual functioning of thought. Thought, in the absence of any control exercised by reason, exempt from any aesthetic or moral concern. Surrealism is based on the belief in the superior reality of certain forms of previously neglected associations, in the omnipotence of dream, in the disinterested play of thought. It tends to ruin once and for all other psychic mechanisms and to substitute itself for them in solving all the principal problems of life."

Surrealism then, was initially conceived by Breton as "psychic automatism" in its "pure state" - or the application of automatism to the psyche. The "unconscious" or subconscious was more important than the conscious or rational state. The "superior reality" was based not on God or religion but on the "omnipotence of dream," "previously neglected associations," and "disinterested play of thought." God was replaced by Freud and the search for a "new myth." When Breton contributed "The Legendary Life of Max Ernst" to the April 1942 issue of Charles Henri Ford's View magazine, he subtitled the article, "preceeded by a brief discussion on the need for a new myth." (VP33)

André Breton [from "The Legendary Life of Max Ernst preceeded by a brief discussion on the need for a new myth," View (April 1942):

"... I have often reflected on the fact that the average man, in France, for example, derived less and less support from secular beliefs and institutions during the last twenty years. No further point can be reached in the process which has separated the symbol from the thing for which it stands. Very well then, making a clean break with all that benefits only from external marks of veneration or respect, I do not fear to say that I have seen engendered - oh! after how many attempts! - the embryo of new signification... The prophets are Rimbaud, Nietzsche, Kierkegaard, many others: only yesterday there were more than enough of them to agitate the schools. You cannot deny that some of them handle imperatives powerful enough to deflect the course of a young man's life and to decide the adoption of heroic careers. This much I can assure you of. The obscurity of their language as it reflects their exhortation is not different in kind from that of John or Daniel. Notice, too, that the most active are those who left no portraits: Sade, Lautréamont, or those who have left ambiguous testaments: Sade, Lautréamont, Seurat. You see, I cannot grant you that mythology is only the recital of the acts of the dead..." (VP34)


Breton had been contributing articles to View magazine before he arrived in the U.S. and continued to contribute after he arrived.View was an American avant-garde magazine edited by Charles Henri Ford which initially focused on Surrealism but became increasingly oriented toward Existentialism during the mid - late 1940s . (View was published from September 1940 to Spring (March) 1947.) When Breton began producing his own magazine in America, VVV, he also explored the concept of myth in the first issue. (The first issue - No. 1 - was the June 1942 issue. The last issue was No. 4 - the February 1944 issue.)

VVV No. 1 (1942)

The first issue of VVV featured a cover by Max Ernst and contributions from Robert Motherwell, André Masson, Kurt Seligmann, Gordon Onslow Ford and Charles Henri Ford, among others. David Hare was designated the editor of the magazine. Matta had originally suggested that Robert Motherwell be the editor and Motherwell had written to William Carlos Williams suggesting that he become the American literary editor of the magazine. In his letter to Williams, Motherwell noted the importance of automatism to his own work: "Now I have taken a partisan stand, in the creative sense that Surrealist automatism is the basis of my painting." (SS214) By the time the first issue of VVV was published Motherwell had resigned.

Robert Motherwell:

"I'll tell you what I remember - and there's a lot I don't remember. In France before the war I think Skira - but I'm not sure - published an extremely elaborate deluxe art magazine called Minotaure that increasingly became a vehicle for the Surrealists. The Surrealists were proselytisers. Which the other artists weren't at all. They very badly wanted a vehicle here. By hook or by crook slowly some money was raised. The actual editor was André Breton who always was the chief of everything Surrealist. I think Marcel Duchamp and Max Ernst if I remember were associate editors. But the Surrealists had a feeling - not really realizing that artists in America are not taken very seriously - that they were politically radical, etcetera, they were aliens, exiles, etcetera, and that ostensibly there should be an American editor. There was also some effort to get some Americans to contribute. William Carlos Williams and so on. And so for a time I accepted the role simply to help them out. Then one day it became clear to me in an angry discussion in French, which I only partly understood, that they had also assumed that I had American connections and could raise some money. Which I didn't have, and couldn't. Then I got furious and resigned. And the compromise was that Lionel Abel and I co-edited. And then what transpired was that Abel, who had no job, no money, no anything, asked for the colossal sum of twenty-five dollars a week simply in order to exist while he was gathering the manuscripts and all the rest of it. And again, they got furious at that and fired him. Then I said, "I resign." Then David Hare who had, I think, an independent income agreed to be the nominal editor. (SR)

Motherwell, who in 1951 would publish an anthology of Dada painters and poets, also provided an explanation of the title of Breton's magazine. VVV was meant to be a new letter of the alphabet.

Robert Motherwell:

"Something very interesting to me... is how the name VVV came about. They wanted to invent a twenty-seventh letter in the alphabet. In French the letter W is double V (VV). And so they hit on the idea of having triple V (VVV) as the twenty-seventh letter. And Breton also didn't know a word of English. And as sort of their American adviser, lieutenant, liaison officer, I pointed out to him that for reasons I didn't understand double V in English is pronounced double U so that it would not translate; in English you would have to call it triple U when nevertheless the sign was three V's and it really wouldn't work. He would not accept that it wouldn't work. And it used to confuse everybody. People didn't know whether to say V-V-V or triple V or triple U or whatever. But if it were literally transcribed into English the proper title would have been triple U. And the fact that they choose V with the way that English-speaking people say V made it not translate. Well, if you said triple U [as] the name of the magazine [then] immediately Americans would have got the point. But it was always called triple V and nobody got the point. It seems senseless." (SR)

For the first issue of VVV Breton promised a new manifesto but instead provided a "Prolegomena" - in which he railed against Salvador Dalí, Aragon and Paul Éluard and those "who follow either the Bible or Lenin" as well as Surrealist imposters ("Tomorrow it will be Matta's turn to be imitated.") He then asked "Can society exist without a social myth?"

André Breton [from "Prolegomena to a Third Manifesto of Surrealism - or else," VVV no. 1 (Spring 1942)]:

"Man is perhaps not the center, not the focus of the universe. One may go as far as to believe that there exists above him on the animal level beings whose behaviour is as alien to him as his own must be to the day fly or the whale. There is nothing that would necessarily prevent such beings from completely escaping his sensory frame of reference since these beings might avail themselves of a type of camouflage, which no matter how you imagine it becomes plausible when you consider the theory of form and what has been discovered about mimetic animals." (SS215)

The article was accompanied by a drawing by Matta, presumably his interpretation of Breton's 'camouflaged' beings as the new myth, titled The Great Transparents. In 1943 Kurt Seligmann would also take up the concept of invisible myths and paint Melusine and the Great Transparents. The American Surrealist artist, Gerome Kamrowski who attended Matta's gatherings during the early 1940s, would later refer to the Great Transparents as "a myth that didn't fly." (SS217)


Around the same time that Breton and Matta were attempting to create a new myth, the concept of myth was also being explored by some of the New York artists who would later be referred to as Abstract Expressionists, particularly Mark Rothko and Adolph Gottlieb. Both artists were classified as Surrealists in Sidney Janis' book Abstract and Surrealist Art, when it was published in November 1944. (SS351) According to Janis, Rothko had specifically requested to be included in Surrealist section of book.

Sidney Janis:

"My book Abstract and Surrealist Art was finally published in 1944. It included many artists who had not yet reached their image - works that might be termed Pollock before Pollock, Hofmann before Hofmann, Rothko before Rothko. When I visited Rothko at his studio in 1943, I selected a picture for my book that was quite unlike those of his later years. At the end of the evening, Rothko asked me, 'What section do you think you'll put me in? I would like to be in the Surrealist section.'" (AD35)

Robert Motherwell later recalled that "Mark [Rothko] was very interested in psychic automatism," adding that "He was one of the few American painters who really liked Surrealist painting, went to Surrealist shows and understood" what they were doing. According to Motherwell, Rothko told him that "there was always automatic drawing under those larger forms" of Rothko's paintings. (RO185)

Rothko devoted a considerable amount of space to the subject of myth, including two sections titled "The Myth" and "The Attempted Myth of Today" in a book he worked on during 1939 - 1941. The notebook/folder containing his essays was discovered after his death and published in 2004 as The Artist's Reality: Philosophies of Art with an introduction by his son, Christopher Rothko. In his introduction to the book, Christopher notes that "the bulk" of Rothko's "book" was probably written around 1940 - 1941 - the same period that Rothko and Gottlieb were painting mythological subjects. (CRxvii)

Cover of Mark Rothko's Artists Reality

Mark Rothko [from "The Attempted Myth of Today" in The Artist's Reality: Philosophies of Art]

"Ultimately, this attempt to represent the universal rests upon one of a few solutions. The artist must either fall back upon the treatment of a single figure... or they must await the evolvement of a series of anecdotal myths which will give a universal significance to their newly found unity, or they must fall back upon the allegories of the past... In the hope for the heroic, and the knowledge that art must be heroic, we cannot but wish for the communal myth again." (CR104)

Rothko's use of the term "communal myth" can be likened to Breton's search for a new "social" myth. But whereas Breton, Matta and other Surrealists were searching for a new myth, such as the "Great Transparents," Rothko, as well as Gottlieb, turned to classical mythology for inspiration. The first time that Rothko's myth paintings were displayed publicly was at the "Contemporary American Paintings" exhibition/sale at Macy's department store in January 1942 which included Rothko's Antigone and Oedipus paintings. (RG185) Gottlieb also borrowed from the Oedipus 'myth' for two pictographs he painted in 1941 - Oedipus and The Eyes of Oedipus. Two other mythological paintings by Gottlieb and Rothko were included in the third exhibition of the Federation of Modern Painters and Sculptors in June 1943 - Gottlieb's Rape of Persephone and Rothko's The Syrian Bull. When Gottlieb was later asked why he and Rothko adopted mythological themes, Gottlieb recalled that he came up with the suggestion. According to Gottlieb he asked Rothko "How about some classical matter like mythological themes?" and "we agreed... Mark chose to do some themes from the plays of Aeschylus, and I played around with the Oedipus myth, which was both a classical theme and a Freudian theme." (AG35)

Adolph Gottlieb:

Well, I think what happened in the early Forties after the war started was, first of all, a number of Surrealists came to this country and we were able to see them in the flesh, and see that they were just ordinary people such as we are. Then we were also cut off from the periodicals that used to come over like Cahier des Arts. So that we weren't so continuously immersed in French art. I think there was some kind of sense of crisis so that you had to, at least I felt that I had to, dig into myself, find out what it was I wanted to express, what it was possible for me to express. .. That was when I started doing what I called the pictographs which a lot of people think have something to do with primitive art, my interest in primitive art. Like when you were saying that Surrealists seemed to think it had something to do with some sort of universals. My recollection is that it was Jung who came out with the idea of the collective unconscious. I was interested in reading Jung at the time and the idea interested me. Then it just appeared; I mean it just corroborated my idea that I wasn't really interested in primitive art, that if I decided to use certain symbols in my painting, for example an egg shape, I did this without extending it to be a symbolic reference. Why couldn't I come up with the idea of an egg as signifying fertility just as well as some aborigine in Australia? ...

I decided to restrict myself to those shapes which I felt had a personal significance to me. And I wanted to do something figurative. Well, I couldn't visualize a whole man on a canvas. I couldn't see him in a flat space. I felt that I wanted to make a painting primarily with painterly means. So I flattened out my canvas and made these roughly rectangular divisions, with lines going out in four directions. That is, vertically and horizontally. Running right out to the edge of the canvas. And then I would free associate, putting whatever came to my mind very freely within these different triangles. There might be an oval shape that would be an eye or an egg. Of if it was round it might be a sun or whatever. It could be a wriggly shape and that would be a snake -- whatever I felt like doing. Then there would be very little editing or revision..." (AS)

In "playing around" with the Oedipus myth, Gottlieb was looking for new symbols or a new meaning for old symbols or symbols used merely as visual elements without any other meaning. In Artists Reality, Rothko also explores the use of symbols in one of the few references he makes to Surrealism in his book, noting that the Surrealists are "attempting to bridge the impassable darkness between the world of the mind and the world of emotion" through "symbolism and the study of dreams and other atavistic, subconscious repositories of this, at once, new and old demonology, hoping that through ordering the symbols they can reconstruct the expression of this essence." (CR108) Gottlieb's pictographs can be seen as an attempt at such an "ordering" of symbols. Gottlieb's comments about using symbols with a "personal significance" or the use of a symbol "without extending it to be a symbolic reference" are similar to Breton's comments about "new signification" and the separation of "the symbol from the thing for which it stands" as quoted earlier. The technique used by Gottlieb of painting by free association with "little editing or revision" is also reminiscent of the Surrealist technique of automatic writing or painting - a correlation he draws himself in another interview when discussing his interest in Freud and Jung - an interest also shared by Breton and the Surrealists. Breton visited Freud in Vienna in 1921 in addition to corresponding with him during the 1930s. In 1937 Breton asked Freud to contribute to a planned anthology, Trajectoire du rêve, which Breton published in 1938. (AQ)

Adolph Gottlieb:

"My interest in Freud and Jung started with my interest in Surrealism - because the Surrealists were interested in Freudian theories of dreams. In the early 1940s I was very much influenced by Surrealism and was using a type of free-association which was one of the Surrealist techniques. I was putting images into the compartments of my painting as if I were doing automatic writing... I admired Miro, early [Salvador] Dali, Max Ernst; the automatism of Masson certainly was an influence. At the same time Rothko was also doing some mythological subjects, partly semi-abstract, partly Surrealist in style." (SS299)

Although Gottlieb and Rothko borrowed from Surrealism during the early 1940s, they were never particularly close to its founder on a social level. Breton spoke hardly any English and tended to socialize with the other European exiled Surrealists. Breton was also primarily a literary figure rather than an artist. Matta, who had arrived in the U.S. a couple of years prior to Breton, socialized more with the New York artists than Breton and, being a visual artist himself, exerted more of an influence on their work. Of the artists already living in New York at the time of the Surrealist invasion it was probably Arshile Gorky who was the closest to Breton on a personal level. Matta would also befriend Gorky but with ultimately tragic consequences.


Arshile Gorky had emigrated to the U.S. in February 1920 after surviving the Armenian Genocide (see April 1915). Barnett Newman would later refer to Gorky as "the white-haired boy of Breton and the Surrealists" (HH557) It was largely through Breton's efforts that Gorky got his first dealer - Julian Levy - and his first solo show in New York for which Breton wrote the preface to the catalogue. Breton's preface ("The Eye-Spring: Arshile Gorky") would also be included in the second edition of Breton's book Surrealism and Painting published in 1945.

Arshile Gorky (L) and André Breton at Roxbury, Connecticut (March 1945) (Gorky's daughter is on his shoulders)

Andre Breton [from "The Eye-Spring: Arshile Gorky"]:

"The eye-spring... Arshile Gorky - for me the first painter to whom the secret has been completely revealed!... One can admire today a canvas signed by Gorky, The Liver is the Cock's Comb, which should be considered the great open door to the analogy world... Gorky is, of all the Surrealist artists, the only one who maintains direct contact with nature - sits down to paint before her... Here is an art entirely new... a leap beyond the ordinary and the known to indicate, with an impeccable arrow of light, a real feeling of liberty." (HH478)

Gorky did not actually meet Breton until early 1944. Jeanne Reynal, a friend of Gorky's wife, wanted to meet Breton herself so she asked Isamu Noguchi to help arrange a dinner that included herself, Gorky, Gorky's wife Mougouch and Breton. Jeanne and Mougouch could speak French and acted as translators for Breton and Gorky during the dinner. Mougouch later recalled that Gorky "had found a soul mate" in Breton. According to Mougouch, "Breton promised to see Gorky's work in the next day or so" and "Gorky and I danced all the way home." (HH450) They invited Breton to Gorky's Union Square studio for dinner and a chance to look at Gorky's work.

Mougouch [Arshile Gorky's wife]:

"I had never had a poet to dinner... I walked all over New York getting out dinner. We had artichokes, rice pilaf and a large Brie for dinner... We scrubbed the darkest corners [of their apartment] but it couldn't have mattered if we had sat in the dust and eaten straw, it was all so emotional and exciting. Breton gave without measure, and this was what Gorky needed; Breton didn't, as Gorky said, 'miss the point.' He understood about all those childhood memories, all the mythology of Gorky's childhood, he didn't laugh or look embarrassed but instead made sympathetic noises and had tears in his eyes and was exquisitely polite, and Gorky and I nearly went up to heaven then and there with happiness." (HH430)

Gorky had, of course, been aware of Surrealism for a considerable period of time prior to meeting Breton. Gorky's first dealer, Julien Levy, later recalled that when Levy's book, Surrealism, was published in 1936, "he [Gorky] straightaway read it in the back room of my gallery and soon borrowed it to take home." (MA284) Initially Levy was reticent to take on Gorky.

Julien Levy:

"Arshile Gorky did not come to my gallery directly to show me his own work. In the winter of 1932 he came urging me to look at the work of a friend of his named John Graham, and it was Graham who generously suggested that I also look at a portfolio of Gorky's own drawings. 'My portfolio is already in your back office,' Gorky reluctantly confessed, and my secretary told me that 'that man is always leaving his portfolio in the back office. He comes back days later and pretends he has forgotten it.' 'Yes,' said Gorky shamelessly, 'and I always expect you will have opened it and discovered masterpieces....' So I sorted through them, and I answered Gorky gently... I listened to the woes of his financial disorder, and I lent him $500. Later, when he couldn't repay, I bought some of his drawings. But I could not promise him an exhibition." (MA283)

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Abstract Expressionism

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