Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Patron Saint #9: Kay Sage - "I Walk Without Echo"

The Instant - Oil on canvas - Kay Sage, 1949 - Mattatuck Museum, CT

“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, any fundamental thing.” 

- Kay Sage, Time magazine, March 13, 1950, on her painting "The Instant"

"Consider Kay Sage (1898-1963) the anti-Thomas Kinkade. She was America’s great painter of menace, dread, and the post-apocalyptic future. Her trademark was “the sulphurous light before a thunderstorm,” observed biographer Régine Tessier. Like a thunderstorm, Sage’s art could be depressing and exhilarating. A true contrarian might nominate Sage as the best of all the Western Hemisphere surrealists."

- excerpt from Kay Sage, Painter of an Odd Future - William Poundstone
via an April 30, 2012 Art Info article

"And what's in it for me my pretty young thing?
Why should I whistle, when the caged bird sings?
If you lose a wager with the king of the sea
You'll spend the rest of forever in the cage with me"

- Verse from "Soul Cages" - Sting - 1991


The "anti-Thomas Kinkade" is an apt description for Kay Sage, American Surrealist, who found her artistic voice in Paris in the late 1930's, at the age of 44. Counterpoint to Kincaide's illustrations of lush, kitschy cottages in idealized, antiquated country settings, we have Sage's silent and spare views of some timeless, alien stratosphere. Then again, in comparison to the veritable cottage industry (pun intended) generated by Thomas Kincade (January 19, 1958 – April 6, 2012) Sage's subliminal messages on canvas are relatively obscure.

"! Walk Without Echo" was the title of the posthumous exhibit of Sage's collection in Mattatuck Museum, Connecticut, 2007. I'm not sure if this line was taken from one of her poems, a journal entry, or the creation of the curator, but it, too, is an apt description of Sage's work, and, perhaps, an ironic illusion to her legacy as an artist. (Regarding all images which follow - click on for a larger view.)

In the Third Sleep - Oil on Canvas - Kay Sage,1944 - The Art Institute of Chicago

Despite having been associated with the coveted circle of artists that surrounded Andre Breton, the founder of Surrealism, in the early half of the 20th century, Sage was a peripheral figure, never to know the encouragement and acceptance afforded to male members of that regime. Of course, the Surrealist movement was famous for its inherent misogynistic stance, but Sage was especially unpopular. To begin with, she hailed from the upper-crust  bourgeoisie, and had been married previously to an Italian nobleman. Her presence in Paris was only made possible by an inheritance from her deceased father. As it so happened, she was intensely disliked as a matter of course by the other artists and their wives, especially when she married Yves Tanguy, a Surrealist illuminary. Their alliance apparently enraged Breton to such a degree that his deep friendship with Tanguy eventually evaporated in 1949. All of this, in spite of the fact, that it was, albeit indirectly, through Sage that Breton, and a number of other Surrealists, were able to flee Paris at the beginning of World War II, and relocate to New York. Apparently, even as guests to the Tanguy's eventual home in Woodbury, Connecticut, Kay Sage would not win any lasting friendships within the Surrealist cabal. As late as 1974, and more than a decade after Sage's death, Enrico Donati still found it necessary to remark:
"Tanguy was the painter. I mean, we were the friends of Tanguy because he was the painter, the master. She was his wife, but we went there, to Woodbury, to see Tanguy. She was Mrs. Tanguy so she was there, too, but he was our friend. She was the friend of nobody." * 

The journalists of the day were no better. After a Sage painting  had won 1st prize in the Eastern States Exposition - in which Tanguy had also exhibited -  in Connecticut in 1951, the Hartford Times reported the news under the headline: "Housewife Wins Art Exhibition".

Danger, Construction Ahead- Oil on canvas - Kay Sage, 194o - Yale University Art Gallery

As tragic a figure as Kay Sage was in many respects, I think in the last analysis, her work resonates more with the 21st century zeitgeist than most of her more celebrated peers. And, unlike them - with the exception of Tanguy and Matta - her paintings portray an inner reality witnessed, and masterfully documented, as opposed to a number of Surrealistic creations which were contrived primarily to shock and/or entertain. We may not be able to name the world in which Kay Sage's psyche wandered, but that she wandered there is something we immediately accept. We may not, for that matter, find her observations of this enigmatic world altogether pleasant - few have; often describing her images as dismal and devoid of life - but we never question their validity. My personal interpretation, however, is that "life", or its metaphor, is certainly apparent in her work. It is organic life which is represented by the swathes of wind-blown, or, preternaturally suspended fabric, undulating silently and phantom-like within each of her eerie linear vistas. Presented as a life-form in this way, the fabric takes on an immortal aspect - an almost sentient presence - while, at the same time, transcends the limits imposed by both gender and species. Often, Sage's vistas have the ambience of seascapes receding to a blank, ocean-like horizon. Upon closer inspection, however, the backgrounds are not comprised of water at all, but are of a static substance, engraved with geometric abstractions.  This is especially true in the painting "In the Third Sleep" (second image from the top), a strange image which brings to mind a landing strip on an almost Martian-like planet.**

  As for it, and the image "Danger, Construction Ahead" (directly above), both are examples of paintings that may have spawned half a dozen contemporary Sci-Fi illustrators, despite having been painted in the 1940's.

On the First of March, Crows Begin to Search - Oil on canvas - Kay Sage,1947 - Wellesley College, MA

That being said, most of Sage's contemporaries describe her as being introverted, distant, and somewhat chilly in comparison to Tanguy, the proverbial life of the party. And comparing the work of the two artists, one might find evidence of this. Both artists drew their inspiration from inner  - almost paranormal - dimensions (see this description of Tanguy's work), and both artists, to some degree, were influenced by the early work of de Chirico. But, whereas Tanguy's biomorphic shapes (see "Phantoms" below) are somewhat whimsical, Sage's strange figures generally are not (with the possible exception of the image above). Later in her career, she developed an attraction to a variety of latticework (see detail below), solemn structures, in which her biomorphic fabrics are trapped within... veritable "Soul Cages" looming over a murky, slack water.

(Left) Phantoms - Oil on Canvas - YvesTanguy, 1928
(Center) Photo of Kay Sage with her painting, Suspension Bridge for Swallows, 1957 
(Right) Detail of Tomorrow is Never - Oil on canvas - Kay Sage, 1955 - Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY

As it stands, had I written this post 20 years ago, Patron Saint # 9 would've probably been Kay Sage's husband, Yves Tanguy - who, incidentally, was both friend and mentor to Matta, Patron Saint #2 - the more celebrated Surrealist. I hadn't even known about Kay Sage 20 years ago. Why is this? Well, for the same reason I hadn't known about Surrealist painter, Leonora Carrington***, the lover of the Surrealist, Max Ernst, 20 years ago... nor, for that matter, Surrealist artist and designer, Dorothy Tanning, Ernst's second wife. Female artists who bonded with male artists in the 20th Century did so at the risk of anonymity, most especially in the Surrealist community, where women may have been idealized as muses and objets d'art in themselves, but thoroughly dismissed as intellectual and creative equals. Another case in point, the Surrealist, Gerrie von Pribosic Gutmann, wife of the photographer and painter, John Gutmann. Ever hear of her? I'm willing to bet you haven't. She has a handful of paintings in cyberspace and no Wiki entry. A number of links to Imogen Cunninghams's photographic portrait of Gerri Gutmann is what you're most likely to find in a search.

Photo of John and Gerri Gutmann found here

Not all Surrealists in the dual role of Surrealist wife/Surrealist artist fell into obscurity, however. Frida Kahlo (deservedly) was to eventually outshine her husband, Diego Rivera, as the world slipped into the 21st century. Then again, if it means anything, both Carrington and Tanning out-lived Max Ernst by decades - Carrington passing away in 2011 at the age of 94, and Tanning, earlier this year at the age of 101 - both artists remaining prolific and relevant till their very last dance. Sage and Gutmann, however, did not fare so well. Eight years after the death of Tanguy in 1955 (due to a cerebral hemorrhage), Kay Sage, despondent, and in ill health, fatally shot herself through the heart, January, 1963. As for Gerrie Gutmann, her suicide is currently no more than a mere caption to one of her husband's photographs online.

And, once again, referring to the "enlightenment" one is likely to find in cyberspace, we only have to look at the roster of artists included in Wiki's definitive collection: WikiPaintings, Visual Art Encyclopedia. Neither Sage, Carrington, Tanning (nor, for that matter, my previous female "Patron Saints":  Alice Pelton, Louise Nevelson, Vali Meyers, and Sakiko Ide) are included. (Note: Thomas Kincaide, on the other hand, is.)

Below is a video featuring a collection of Kay Sage's work. The video, along with a content description and short biography of Sage can be found here.

For those who might be interested, Kay Sage's posthumously published memoirs - "China Eggs" - covering the period from 1910-1935 can be found for sale in limited form on the net. Apparently this is a paperback edition published in 1996. However, I note that a mysterious hardcover edition does exist, supposedly published in 1955. Very curious.

* My major source of reference for this post, and, for which I am grateful, is Judith D. Souther's biography of Sage, A House of Her Own, Kay Sage, Solitary Surrealist.

** (Footnote added 12/10/12) Regarding Sage's "static substance, engraved with geometric abstractions", it occurs to me now that they might also appear as the detritus in the foreground of the first image "The Instant"... in this case, appearing as the dismantled platform. The word which first came to my mind, however, was "deconstructed", which has an interesting definition which may or may not be relative, but, I'll copy it here anyway: "to analyze (a text or a linguistic or conceptual system) by deconstruction, typically in order to expose its hidden internal assumptions and contradictions and subvert its apparent significance or unity."

*** Leonora Carrington - Patron Saint # 8  Note: The post linked to here has been updated with videos for both Carrington and Patron Saint #7, Remedios Varo.

Here are individual links for examples of the following artist's works: Kay SageLeonora Carrington, Dorothy Tanning, and Gerrie Gutmann.

For other listings of Surrealist women, try here, and here.


  1. Fascinating! I had never heard of this artist -- presumably because she was female..and therefore not worth knowing. "Mrs. Tanguy" indeed. How can any REAL artist be that blind to the work of genius??? This series certainly brings that dark divide of gender out into the light.

    And what's more...her work is simply incredible - one of the best surrealists I have seen.

    Thank you for delving into the dusty recesses of time to bring forth the shining examples of 'saints' that you have.

    1. Yo, Bob!
      I've just trashed my previous reply - too much of a heat-of-the-moment feminist rant, really... and inappropriate. I'm guessing you saw it already anyway.

      I am glad you appreciated the Sage post. I guess I've been concentrating on artists - of either gender - who seem the most unique and uniquely inspired to me. Of course, qualifying as a "Saint" requires having shuffled off the mortal coil... so, inevitably, we're talking about "dusty recesses," but, at the same time, I think the work of my Patron Saints still holds up.

      But, yeah, that housewife crap really rankles! ;-)