This exhibition, drawn entirely from the deep holdings of the Whitney Museum’s permanent collection, will focus on the tension and overlap between two strong currents in twentieth century art. Although the term “realism” has many facets, a basic connection to the observable world underlies all of them; the subversion of reality through the imagination and the subconscious lies at the heart of Surrealism. Yet there are convergences in these different and even oppositional approaches to experience, and they encourage new ways of looking at the art of the twenties, thirties, and forties in America. For example, Edward Hopper, famous for chronicling New York urban life, is also a painter whose own subjectivity and imagination are integral to his work. Many artists who developed imagery based on new and very specific, concrete conditions of industrial American, such as Charles Sheeler, were essentially interested in artificial worlds and presented these as distillations of reality. Even totally abstract painters such as Yves Tanguy depended on techniques developed from traditional, realist art to render bizarre worlds. By willfully distorting such techniques, Helen Lundeberg and Mabel Dwight could quietly undercut our sense of stability even while showing us recognizable and even mundane objects and settings. Understanding surrealism as above and beyond the real necessarily ties it to representation and reality, just as realist painting can be imaginative and bizarre without breaking with rational observation. The exhibition will feature sixty-five works in painting, drawing, photography, and printmaking juxtaposed in ways that elucidate how artists developed qualified degrees of reality where the imagination held more or less sway, depending on intention and influence.
Real/Surreal is organized by Whitney curator Carter Foster.