"Birthday" is the word that haunts the life and career of Dorothea Tanning (1910-2012). Not only is it the title of her 1986 memoir about her 34 years of marriage to Max Ernst and the life that they shared in Paris (1956-1979) and Sedona, Ariz. (1946-1956), it is also the title of the centerpiece painting from her first solo exhibition at New York's Julian Levy gallery in 1946. That 1942 painting (recently acquired by the Philadelphia Museum in celebration of the artist's centenary) is an allegorical self-portrait that shows the artist in front of a series of open doors regressing in a bare interior, establishing a thematic template for much of her subsequent work. Even though she gradually moved away from Surrealist-inspired imagery, in favor of lushly painted reveries occurring in quasi-abstract baroque spaces, Tanning's main focus remained constant: the attempt to give dramatic form to the moment when consciousness emerges from an undifferentiated state of nature.

This observation was confirmed by the 30 works dating from 1960 to 1979 on view in this exhibition. The majority were oil paintings, mostly large. There were also some still-life drawings in pristine graphite, complemented by two fabric-covered sculptures. The earliest painting, a small untitled work (1960), set the tone for the show. It features lyrically painted fragments of contorted figures enacting some sort of physical combat amid a sumptuous orange and yellow ground, wryly alluding to classical themes such as the abduction of Persephone or the combat between Antaeus and Hercules. A similar wrestling match appears in the 40-inch-tall soft sculpture titled Étreinte (Embrace, 1969), showing two intertwined headless figures with short, stubby limbs, one covered in pink flannel and the other in brown fake fur.

In Pour Gustave l'adoré (For Gustave with Love, 1974), we see only the foreshortened legs and lower torso of a female figure who seems to be struggling against some unseen entity pulling her into a dark void. Similar in painterly spirit is Family Portrait (1977), where a tumult of full-figured, female forms cascade from upper left to lower right. These are clearly indebted to Peter Paul Rubens's Maria de' Medici paintings permanently installed at the Louvre. But in Tanning's version, the figures have monstrously thick legs and undersized forearms, and their bodies undergo transformations as they move through space, with feet becoming pawlike or heads disappearing into clouds—except for one disembodied head at the bottom of the canvas, set deep in a murky shadow.

The large Dogs of Cythera (1963) was the clear choice for showstopper. Although it depicts several fragments of foreshortened figures floating about in indistinct ether, it was the most abstract work on view, and forms a compelling argument against the false dichotomy of figuration and abstraction.    


PHOTO: Dorothea Tanning: Dogs of Cythera, 1963, oil on canvas, 77½ by 117 inches; at Wendi Norris.