The crowd that filled the auditorium at the Museum of Modern Art earlier this month twinkled with eccentric glasses and necklaces. Most hair was gray or graying; viewing audience members’ heads from an auditorium perch was a little like gazing down at a cloud from an airplane window. Their color suited the occasion: we had gathered to celebrate the life of Dorothea Tanning, a surrealist poet and painter who turned 101 over the summer.
Best known for her early surrealist paintings, which hang in the Tate Modern, the Pompidou, the MoMA, and other museums, Tanning is also a noteworthy poet. Alice Quinn, former poetry editor of The New Yorker, introduced her with a brief biography. Tanning was born on Aug 25, 1910, in Galesburg, IL—a place where, she wrote in her memoir, “you sat on the davenport and waited to grow up.” After she grew up, she moved to New York City, where in 1937 she visited the MoMA exhibition “Fantastic Art, Dada, and Surrealism.” The show would influence her profoundly. So would a game of chess she played with Max Ernst upon his visit to her studio in 1942 (an experience she describes in the poem “Time Flew”). They fell in love, and in 1946, shared a double wedding with Man Ray and Juliet Browner.
Tanning and Ernst lived in Arizona and then France before Ernst’s death in 1976. At that point, according to Tanning, her paint tubes, canvases, and brushes told her to “go home,” which she did. Back in New York, she continued to paint and started to write. Throughout her life, she gathered a coterie of famous friends, from James Merrill to George Balanchine to the poets sitting at the MoMA on October 3.
In New York, Tanning wrote two years ago, she “breathes words, as well as air, and looks at her paintings with amazement.” Everyone at this event—speakers and spectators alike—seemed to regard Tanning’s achievements with similar amazement. Ann Temkin, the MOMA’s chief curator of painting and sculpture, appeared in a dazzling geometric dress to inform the crowd that surrealism—a movement of poets and painters—produced hardly any adherents who flourished in both fields. Even within art, she added, Tanning manages a rare fluidity, trying out various styles with “no concern for consistency.” That flexibility marks her poetry as well. A Table of Content (2004) and Coming to That (2011) both alternate between lighthearted and serious, earthbound and abstract, often in the course of a single piece.
The audience was then treated to Tanning’s poetry. To paraphrase Robert Frost, good friends make good readers. J.D. McClatchy and Mark Strand delivered spirited presentations, and Richard Howard, shiny-pated and purple-shirted, noted that Tanning had dedicated one of her poems to him. Then he stopped, sniffed the air, and looked proud. “I love Dorothea,” he said.
Catherine Scully read, or rather intoned, a playful and knowing Tanning composition called “Interval with Kook”:
Morning was unreliable
on the way to Kickapoo Hill,
a pebble underfoot slid me sprawling
down the riverbank.
It was then that I saw the kook.
A “kook,” Tanning writes at the beginning of the poem, is “a hybrid of unknown origin, often mistaken for a human being.” Does a painter-poet mélange qualify? Perhaps, and given the collective delight in response to her work, perhaps we all do.
At another point, Brenda Shaughnessy shared one of Tanning’s saddest, funniest, and most graceful poems, “End of the Day on Second.” A woman whose husband is away finds herself in a mall, eying bras, which Tanning describes—with a slight surrealist twist—as “giant pink moths at rest, empty cups clamoring, / ‘Fill me.’” The speaker explains to a floorwalker that her husband has left, and the walker takes her in his arms. The poem concludes:
They stand, unmoving,
among the mothy bras that might at any moment rise
in a cloud and leave them, as I am leaving them now,
in their frozen pose, their endless closing time.
After the poets finished reading, a video projector cast photographs of Tanning and her artworks against a screen. Several members of the crowd remained in the auditorium, transfixed by the images, reveling in Tanning’s own endless closing time.