My room has two doors
and one window.
One door is red and the other is gray.
I cannot open the red door;
the grey door does not interest me.
Having no choice,
I shall lock them both
and look out of the window.
The work of Kay Sage (1898-1963) is known to be some of the most abstract art produced during the Surrealism movement. (Chadwick, 1997) Although it does not appear at first glance to be anywhere near as abstract as other Modernist artists such as Sonia Delaunay or Liubov Popova, (Chadwick, 1997. Pg 263 & 267) it has a kind of dreamlike quality about it that transports the viewer to another world.
Kay Sage?s From Another Approach (1944) is one of her early works from when she was starting to experiment in Surrealism. Unfortunately, my search did not turn up any criticisms on that particular piece, so I will use criticisms from other similar pieces from the same time period as From Another Approach, 1940 1954.(Suther, 1997. Pg 89-159)
Modernist paintings are many times described as being universal because ?they?re just a bunch of pretty shapes and colors and everyone likes pretty shapes and colors.? What most people don?t realize is that Modernist art conveys a sense of otherworldly reality through the ?pretty shapes and colors.?
At first glance, From Another Approach seems to fit in with the Modernism stereotype. Its simple geometric figures grouped almost stylishly on the right hand side (of the viewer) and clever variation of the olive tone give it the perfect ?living room picture.? That is, it could be hung on a living room wall not as art, but as a decoration to enhance the living area. This type of association diminishes what the artist was trying to convey. The following is an excerpt from Time magazine, March 13, 1950, on Sage?s painting The Instant.
?I can?t tell you what it would mean to most people, but I do know what it means to me. It?s a sort of showing what?s inside – things half mechanical, half alive. The mountain itself can represent almost anything – a human being, life, the world, and fundamental thing.?
Sage is giving the viewer what she thought of her piece. The piece which has a very strong style of geometric simplicity, melded together to create something disquieting about the scene. Its intent is to evoke emotion in the viewer, whatever emotion being viewer preference. Her works are a more descriptive form of Surrealism. Much like Dali and Tanguy, the setting of her paintings are unreal, very much like a dream. However, her placement of the objects is so precise, it almost evokes the classical still-life. (Miller, 1990. Pg 133)
Time magazine described Sage?s art with a rather asinine reply:
The olive-colored world that Kay Sage confines to canvas is wide, wet, uninhabited, and untroubled. Her private cloudland, on exhibition in a Manhattan gallery last week, might depress some people but would hardly disturb anybody. Surrealist though her paintings were, they had no more wallop than a wisp of smoke. (Time, 1950.)
By turning her painting into something that could be hung on the living room wall as decoration, Time reduced the impact of what her paintings mean to both her and the viewer. The stark bleakness of Tomorrow is Never (1955) created the same year as the death of her husband, Yves Tanguy, is negated to something that is merely ?a curiosity.? When asked where she gets her ideas for such fantastic paintings, she responded with:
?I suppose I start with some sort of composition. I see it in a way in advance, but very often it changes as I go along. I do know that while I?m painting I feel as though I were living in the place.? (Time, 1950.)
She might have been living in her paintings towards the end of her life. The bleakness and loneliness that seems to radiate outward from Sage?s paintings have long been thought of to be reflections of her emotional state, especially after she committed suicide in 1963. She was depressed over the death of her husband, her failing eyesight, and inability to do simple tasks.
Many people claimed that Sage?s work was not pure Surrealism. The landscapes, which were to represent the mind, are ?barren, endless plain, devoid of life-forms, yet littered with the detritus of unrealized human endeavors.? (Witzling, 1991. Pg 231) Surrealism reflects expressions of the mind and Surrealists were heavily interested in psychoanalysis (Miller, 1990. Pg 126) and finding release in ?peeling back the curtains of consciousness.? (Witzling, 1991. Pg 231) Poet Andr? Breton claimed she was a Surrealist because of the structure of her paintings. There was a definite structure that seemed to resist definition. Even the titles of her work did not quite describe the pieces. Using her paintings to recall past memories and current emotions fits with the Surrealist interest in psychoanalysis and dream interpretation. (Miller, 1990. Pg 126)
Her work can be debated on the grounds of whether or not it is Surrealism, but it has all the signs of being Modernism-with-a Capital-M. It was a new art form which expressed abstract concepts as abstract images rather than give the abstract concepts the face of a classical god, or the pose of a traditional nude. Sage did have a formal art education and her paintings express attention to detail as the Academy paintings do. But instead of doing a traditional still-life, Sage makes her paintings play on light and shadows. She takes different forms and experiments on how to arrange them together but without the advantage of a still-life in front of her. She creates variations of themes (the still-life) and develops new, revolutionary ways of making the structure convey meaning that is different for every person who looks at it. (Class Notes. 1999)
Kay Sage is a Modern painter who, like other Modernists, challenged the system by which art was perceived. While Traditional paintings are still considered by some to be the culmination of fine arts, Modernism defies the rules of what can be perceived and Kay Sage was a large part of the Modernist revolution.
1. ArtsNet Minnesota: Inner Worlds: Kay Sage. Http://www.artsnetmn.org/inner/sage.html
3. Miller, Stephan Robeson. ?In the Interim: The Constructivist Surrealism of Kay Sage.? Surrealism and Women. Pg123-145. Caws, Mary Ann, Ed. Kuenzli, Rudolph, Ed. Raaberg, Gwen, Ed. The MIT Press. Cambridge, Massachusetts. 1990.
6. Time, March 13, 1950. ?Serene Surrealist.?
8. Class Notes. 02.11.1999.