Dorothea Tanning was born in Galesburg, Illinois in 1910. She arrived in New York in 1935, one year before the “Fantastic Art, Dada, and Surrealism” exhibition opened at the Museum of Modern Art. As a young girl Tanning was captivated by the psychologically charged gothic novels that she read obsessively, and when she saw the iconic show at the Modern, she felt as if she was face to face with a world that she both recognized and had been waiting to see. Inspired, she moved to Paris. But the move was cut short by the onset of WWII, and Tanning returned to New York in late 1939, settling on East 58th Street and making ends meet as a freelance illustrator. In 1941 an art director at Macy’s recognized her talent and vision, and brought Tanning to a party at the Julien Levy Gallery. Several months later Levy made a studio visit and invited Tanning to join his stable; she had her first solo at the gallery in 1944. Tanning and Max Ernst met through Levy in 1942; the next year they summered in Sedona, Arizona, where they would eventually build a house. In 1946, while visiting Man Ray in Los Angeles, Tanning and Ernst were married in a double ceremony with Man Ray and Juliet Brouner. After several years living between Arizona and France, Tanning and Ernst settled in France in 1957. After Ernst’s death in 1976 Tanning returned to New York, where she lived and worked until her death in January of 2012.
Tanning’s ability to visually describe a “limitless expanse of possibility” is first evident in her early jewel-like work, such as her celebrated self-portrait, Birthday, of 1942. It continued to shape her work of the mid-50s, even as she turned away from precise rendering and toward a looser and more abstract language in paintings that conjure a prismatic, faceted world. Works such as Insomnias (1957) address the aesthetic and philosophical concerns of postwar abstraction without yielding their intense engagement with psychological narrative. Sometimes this narrative sense manifests in overt, if oblique, references to art history and literature, as in the masterful Dogs of Cythera (1963) with its evocation of the story of Aphrodite and its unbridled affirmation of the primacy of desire. In the mid-60s Tanning began a series of wildly inventive soft sculptures, bulbous anthropomorphic shapes constructed out of tailor’s wool that evoke both desire and anxiety, as evident in Poppy Hotel, Room 202, a multi-work installation from 1989.
Tanning’s work has been the subject of four retrospectives. The first, “Dorothea Tanning: Oeuvre,” was in 1974 at the Centre National d’Art Contemporain in Paris. “Om Konst Kunde Tala (If Art Could Talk)” opened at the Konsthall in Malmö, Sweden in 1993 and traveled to the Camden Arts Centre in London. In 1992 the New York Public Library had a retrospective of her prints, “Dorothea Tanning: Hail, Delerium!” And in 2000 the Philadelphia Museum of Art mounted “Dorothea Tanning: Birthday and Beyond,” which marked their acquisition of Birthday. Tanning had four exhibitions at Kent, in 1987, 1988, 2005, and 2009.