At the Katonah Art Gallery these days is a perfectly remarkable exhibition of Kay Sage and Yves Tanguy, her second husband – the surrealist painter from Brittany. In no way was I prepared for this kind of feast – I have always admired, massively admired, the painting of Kay Sage, have really enjoyed her book of a memoir, China Eggs, and have felt she needed far more publicity. Thank goodness, Stephen Robeson Miller, responsible in large part for this exhibition, and its catalogue, is preparing a biography of Sage, and I look forward to it.
The entire thing is a delight, from the recording of their double interview, well, triple, with Julien Levy – you hear Yves saying how the cheese was a disastrous failure, and how totally unimportant geography is to his work, and you hear Kay talking about how wonderful it is in the quietness of Roxbury, Connecticut, to look out of the window just towards a hill, that acquires a ridge, lookiing like a “piece of cardboard against the sky. “ She keeps remembering the sea, having grown up along the Mediterranean and otherwise, she would never have had the feeling of distance, or the feeling of the sun. Always, she says, she has the sea iin her mind, along with a road going away, like the Appian way, a long road into the distance.
Yves Tanguy points out that beyond this hill is another, still more beautiful since we cannot see it – how deeply surrealist of him! – how it makes him long to do sculptures, just the opposite of all the objects he makes. Always, he says, his subject is vertical before him. Always an open window onto a landscape: how perfect, then, for both of them.
The incredible strength of Kay Sage’s paintings is what has always intrigued me, and stayed with me. From the first drapings of vertical stones (like Monolith of 1937) and posts – that draping revealing a reddish column inside itself in a later painting – to the architectural constructions: those towers! – of her later work (leaning to the left from the right side of Bounded on the West by the Land Under the Sea of 1946,, there is not one painting about which I feel hesitant. The early influence of de Chirico, with the plane tipping towards you and the two stones and a half – I kept thinking, how not? of her China Eggs – never really dies away, but this particular painting fascinated me. It is entitled The World is Blue, and of course that brought to my mind the first line in Paul Eluard’s poem, “the world is blue like an orange…”. Others of her paintings I love are White Silence of 1941, which she gave to André Breton, who kept it with him, and wrote a poem-object for it – the horizontal sweep of the lower figure, like a n increase of volume toward the right, and its echo above, these get to you. And later, there is a Margin of Silence ; I think of Sage’s going blind in one eye, and feel all that like something prescient.
To be sure, there are tiles, like a chess game, in Near the Five Corners, and the tiny figure on the bridge exerts a hold on you, as do the cloth-wrapped personages all over, especially in I saw Three Cities, at which I used to look hard in the Princeton Art Gallery.
Since I have a particular interest in surrealist portraits and self-portraits, I was gripped by the Small Portrait of 1950, in which you see just a face, oval- shaped, with her characteristic slats of wood, and some wrapped forms around, for the shoulders, above which some red hair…you scarcely wonder who this is, you simple marvel at the way you can always recognize a Kay Sage painting.
And then there is the narrative. It was Kay who, having married an Italian prince (so the Surrealists called her “The Princess”) supplied the wherewithal to bring many of the surrealist painters and poets over from Marseille during the war, including André Breton, his wife Jacqueline Lamba the painter, and their small daughter, Aube., as well as providing them funds to live on for their getting settled in New York. When she and Yves were in Connecticut, they were close friends with all the other painters around – many pictures document their get-togethers. Tales abound of Yves, barefooted and very proud of his small feet, intoxicated, and happy….
Perhaps the most moving documents of all are her suicide notes after Yves’s cerebral hemorrhage of January 15, 1955, just a few months after the close of their double exhibition (in separate rooms) at the Wadsworth Gallery, under the auspices of Chick Goodwin, in Hartford. Kay writes to their mutual friend Heinz Henghes, who introduced them in the beginning:
After I knew Yves, everything was obliterated that was not Yves. I can say no more than to say I do not believe there has ever been such a total and devastating love and understanding as there was between us.
After two cataract operations, in 1959 and 1960, she remained blind in one eye and was losing the sight in the other. Before shooting herself in her locked room, on Jnanuary 8, 1963, she left a suicide note:
The first painting by Yves that I saw, before I knew him, was called I’m waiting for you. I’ve come. Now he’s waiting for me again. I’m on my way.
Yves’s ashes were scattered in the Bay of Douarnenez., in the Brittany he so loved.
I want to comment on the last two paintings by Kay – after these, she did collages only, no more paintings. The first, soon after Yves’s death, is called A Bird in the Room, and it is one of the darkest paintings I have ever seen. Dark purple, an empty portal sideways and leading nowhere, and on the sides, small wrapped figures as if huddled, as if clinging to the outside frame. It turns out that the coup were both superstitious, and if a bird flew into the house, this presaged a death of someone in the family. This had happened a short while before Yves’s death….And the final painting, one of the most desolate paintings ever, called The Answer is No, of 1958, is her final oil. As far as you can see – and this is a totally uninviting painting, no way of getting in, should you wish to, there are a countless number, seemingly, of blank canvasses, stretching out towards infinity. No, it is obviously all over. What an end, so magisterially planned. There remain, at the moment, nothing else I can say to or about Kay Sage, a great painter.