Dorothea Tanning, Birthday, 1942. © ADAGP, Paris. Philadelphia Museum of Art.
Last week, I had the opportunity to visit the archive of the painter Dorothea Tanning, with whom my wife, the poet Brenda Shaughnessy, had had a twenty-year friendship, and who I had gotten to know toward the very end of her life. Dorothea, who died at a hundred and one in 2012, was profoundly intelligent, funny, mischievous, and in possession of her full creative powers almost until the very end. In her late eighties, when her hands were no longer steady enough to paint, she switched to poetry and published two extraordinary collections in her nineties. Her archive is housed in the Destina Foundation offices in downtown Manhattan. As I visited the space and spent some time with the work, I had a socially distant conversation with Dorothea’s archivist, Pam Johnson, who showed me some of the late works on display.
First a little background on Dorothea. She was born in Galesburg, Illinois, in 1910, and first gained notoriety in the early forties with what is still her most famous painting, the self-portrait Birthday. She made her way to New York as a young woman and fell in with the European surrealists who had fled the Nazis. One of them, Max Ernst, visited her studio in 1942 and was astounded by Birthday. That was the start of their thirty-four-year relationship and marriage, which would take them from New York to Sedona, Arizona, and to France, before Dorothea settled in New York after Ernst’s death in 1976. She began as a surrealist, as Birthday, with its winged monkey, endless doors opening into the distance, and botanical dress, makes clear, but the late paintings and fabric sculptures on view in her archives were ample evidence that she moved far beyond her beginnings, into realms for which I’m not sure there’s a handy label. Read More