Endless Enigma: Eight Centuries of Fantastic Art
Organized in collaboration with Nicholas Hall, a specialist in the field of Old Masters and nineteenth-century art, this exhibition takes as its point of departure Alfred H. Barr Jr.’s legendary 1936 exhibition at The Museum of Modern Art, New York, Fantastic Art, Dada, Surrealism, which not only introduced these movements to the American public, but also placed them in a historical and cultural context by situating them with artists from earlier centuries. Drawn from international museum and private collections, the exhibition at David Zwirner will include works from the twelfth century to the present day.
The exhibition will provide a unique opportunity to examine affinities in intention and imagery between works executed across a broad span of time. Endless Enigma will explore the ways artists have sought to explain their world in terms of an alternate reality, drawn from imagination, the subconscious, poetry, nature, myth, and religion. Works on view range from gothic gargoyles; masterworks from the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries by Herri met de Bles, Hieronymus Bosch, Piero di Cosimo, and Titian; seventeenth- and eighteenth-century works by Damiano Cappelli, Pietro Novelli, and Salvator Rosa; nineteenth-century works by William Blake, James Ensor, Francisco de Goya, Gustave Moreau, Odilon Redon, and James Ward; and works from the twentieth century to the present day by Eileen Agar, Francis Alÿs, Louise Bourgeois, Salvador Dalí, Giorgio de Chirico, Max Ernst, Leonor Fini, Robert Gober, José Gutiérrez Solana, Sherrie Levine, René Magritte, Roberto Matta, Pablo Picasso, Wallace Putnam, Man Ray, Kay Sage, Yves Tanguy, and Lisa Yuskavage, among others.
In conjunction with the exhibition, David Zwirner Books will publish a fully illustrated catalogue, which will include new scholarship by Dawn Ades, Olivier Berggruen, and J. Patrice Marandel.
Image: Contemporary follower of Hieronymus Bosch, The Garden of Earthly Delights, c. 1515 (detail)
In 1936, Alfred H. Barr Jr. introduced Dada and Surrealism to the American public with the now legendary exhibition at The Museum of Modern Art, New York, Fantastic Art, Dada, Surrealism. In that exhibition, which brought together 694 works—the earliest of which were represented by late medieval objects—Barr presented the innovations of Dada and Surrealism in the context of what he called "Fantastic Art" by European Old Masters, whose work displayed unexpected thematic and formal relationships with those of the avant-garde.
Image: Installation view, Fantastic Art, Dada, Surrealism, The Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1936–1937. Photo by Soichi Sunami. © The Museum of Modern Art/Licensed by SCALA/Art Resource, NY
Although he singled it out as one of the primary tenets of Surrealism, André Breton was hardly the first to laud the imagination and its merits. In 1550, Giorgio Vasari wrote about the work of Piero di Cosimo (1462–1522) in Lives of the Most Eminent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects, noting: "Nor is it possible to describe the different fantastic things that he delighted to paint . . . what with the buildings, the animals, the costumes, the various instruments, and any other fanciful things that came into his head."
Describing Giorgio de Chirico’s paintings of spectral piazzas, Breton writes, "How often have we found ourselves in that square where everything seems so close to existence and yet bears so little resemblance to what really exists?"
"We do not know what the dragon means, just as we do not know the meaning of the universe, but there is something in the image of the dragon that is congenial to man’s imagination and thus the dragon arises in many latitudes and ages. It is, one might say, a necessary monster."—Jorge Luis Borges
In this closeup video, Nicholas Hall introduces Endless Enigma and comments on Wallace Putnam’s Mask of the Traveler (1935).
Presented in Barr’s original exhibition and now owned by David Bowie's estate, Putnam’s sculpture features miscellaneous items the artist gathered while walking to and from work—things, as he explained to the art critic Henry McBride, "that spoke to me." A review in The Art Newspaper notes that "A particular pleasure of [Endless Enigma] are its discoveries of little known and anonymous artists, notably Mask of the Traveler . . . with its seemingly random application of found street objects anticipating Robert Rauschenberg’s assemblages that would come 25 years later."