Kurt Seligmann: First Message from the Spirit World of the Object

Shotgun Review

Kurt Seligmann: First Message from the Spirit World of the Object

By Shotgun Reviews May 31, 2015

The first U.S. retrospective in over 50 years of Swiss-born surrealist Kurt Seligmann (1900–1962), First Message from the Spirit World of the Object doubles as the first show at the newly relocated Weinstein Gallery. Seligmann was the first of the war-exiled anarcho-communist members of the Paris surrealist group to arrive to America in 1939, and unlike most, he never left. He taught at the New School and Brooklyn College through the ’50s and eventually settled in Upstate NY, but his reputation immediately faded after his early death from an accidental gunshot wound in 1962. First Message thus represents an opportunity to reconsider surrealist abstraction before it was obscured by the rise of Abstract Expressionism.

The strength of Seligmann’s draftsmanship—which would have seemed a liability during Abstract Expressionism—now creates the impression of how ahead of his time he was to our post-Giger, post-anime vantage point. This is especially apparent in a group of minimally colored canvases from the late ’50s, as well as from a series of black ink drawings from a collaboration with poet Nat Herz called Impossible Landscapes (1944). Though he exhibits traces of influence—Arp in the ’30s, Dali, Masson, and Ernst in the ’40s—Seligmann could be no more individual a painter, developing a unique vocabulary suggestive of armor and drapery, on the one hand, and bone and vegetation, on the other. Through such elements he builds curious figures, somewhat reminiscent of 16th-century mannerist Giuseppe Arcimboldo’s portraits made from assemblages of discrete objects.

Kurt Seligmann. Noctambulation, 1942; Oil on panel, 44 x 33 in. Courtesy of the Artist and Weinstein Gallery, San Francisco. Photo: Nick Pishvanov. 

Noctambulation (1942) is a case in point. A seemingly female figure is constructed from elements that evoke shells, hair, a side of beef, a metal pot. A webbed prosthesis, grown from the side of a footless leg, supports it. The landscape it inhabits is equally ambiguous; the sky roils and undulates in such a way to suggest billowing smoke. Seligmann’s canvases—particularly from the ’40s—sparkle with a glitter-like effect that can’t be captured in reproduction,while a pair of paintings on glass hint at the extent to which the surrealist interrogated his media. The palpable ingenuity here gives a sense of what was lost in American art in the postwar critical exaltation of “pure” (nonfigurative) abstraction, and what about abstract surrealism remains viable to our contemporary sensibilities.

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Garrett Caples is a poet and freelance writer whose most recent book is Retrievals (Wave Books, 2014), a series of essays on neglected artists and writers. He also edits books for City Lights.

First Message from the Spirit World of the Object is on view at Weinstein Gallery, in San Francisco, through August 22, 2015.

Notes

  1. The late surrealist poet Philip Lamantia, who, as a teen working at View magazine in 1940s NY, was befriended by Seligmann, once told me that the painter and author of The History of Magic (1948) was a practicing alchemist, altering his pigments through various experiments, though this has not been confirmed to be true.

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