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Kay Sage - Important Art

American Painter and Poet

Kay Sage Photo
Movement: Surrealism

Born: June 25, 1898 - Watervliet, NY, USA

Died: January 8, 1963 - Woodbury, CT, USA

Important Art by Kay Sage

The below artworks are the most important by Kay Sage - that both overview the major creative periods, and highlight the greatest achievements by the artist.

Afterwards (1937)

This is a relatively early work made when Sage was still experimenting with various styles, and especially with geometric abstraction. The painting is composed of tri-dimensional rectangles of different sizes that have been stacked together randomly and precariously. There is a great sense of perspective based on oblique lines converging towards a vanishing point in the upper middle of the canvas, and also the sense that the structure could topple down before our eyes. Colors mostly belong to a muted blue palette and give a cool, oceanic or sky-like atmosphere to the whole painting. Brushstrokes, precise and not visible, add a quality of stillness and clarity and highlight the artist's abilities as an incredible draughtswoman.

With the use of geometric forms, the artist paints an enigmatic scene and invites the viewer to imagine the story behind it. The title gives a hint that we as the viewers are the onlookers to the remnants of some past events. Typically in the work of Sage, we never, or very rarely, 'see' a human, but we are given subtle clues to the presence of something softer than the surrounding dominant and harsh constructions. Here, the presence of emotion and hope comes in the form of the white curve in the upper part of the painting, as though placed there as a celestial pathway for escape from a less forgiving setting at large. Made in Paris, this painting was exhibited at the Salon des Surindependants and was among the works that first attracted Breton and Tanguy's attention.

My Room Has Two Doors (1939)

This is an early surrealist work that shows de Chirico's strong influence on Sage and also introduces the artist's recurrent motif of the egg. The artist borrows several elements from the older Italian, including the stairwell and open archway, and in turn builds in her own distinctive voice. The egg is at the very center of the canvas and seems to lean against a curved wall that divides the space in two. Like de Chirico, by using objects from daily life and setting up uncanny juxtapositions, Sage creates a "metaphysical space". The shadows suggest further spaces invisible to the viewer, while the horizon line extends the space further into the background as well. This work is one of a cluster made at the time, all of which depict a variant combination of eggs, drapery, arches and stairways.

Many other Surrealist women artists working simultaneous to Sage, including Leonora Carrington, Leonor Fini, and Remedios Varo used the image of the egg. Whitney Chadwick points out, that there is an "alchemical identification of the egg with the woman's creative powers". This motif does indeed appear many times in Sage's early canvases, but there is a point when it disappears completely, along with the punctuating color of red. Chadwick observes that in the case of Sage, the egg remains ambiguous and serves both as a formal device to relieve the strict geometry of her compositions and as a momentary bearer of mystery "implying life and landscapes otherwise devoid of human presence." Sage quite unusually always puts the egg in a precarious position, as though about to roll away, perhaps there is a sense that it represents something grasped for but never reached.

The work is associated with a poem written by Sage and given the same title. One cannot help but extract a conflict and division at work here in both the painting and in the psyche of the artist. It is as though the 'red door' signifies the hope of new life, but this is the door that 'cannot be opened' and the grayness that remains brings nothing. An overall feeling of isolation and entrapment seems to be underlined in the poem. The author sees no escape and looks outside at the infinity.

As she wrote:
My room has two doors
And one window.
One door is red and the other is gray.
I cannot open the red door;
The gray door does not interest me.
Having no choice,
I shall lock them both
And look out of the window.

I Saw Three Cities (1944)

This painting is a desolate, geometric landscape dominated by a tall, cloaked guardian in the foreground. The human looking figure is composed of a central pole and swirling drapery. The fluid and animated drapery is well rendered. As a critic noted in 1947, "Sage paints draperies like the masters did". The feeling of movement and blowing wind through the cloth made the figure contrast with the extreme stillness of the landscape. Surrounding the figure, a 'building block' landscape is depicted with simple shapes, mainly triangles and rectangles. An interesting perspective is created and underlined by the various sizes of the shapes and by the horizon line in the background. Colors are soft and similar all across the canvas. Only the partially visible pole stands out with its red tone, as though at this point Sage still has an internal core of red; there is life inside.

In typical Surrealist style, Sage puts in place a set of oppositions in this painting. The animated drapery contrasts with the inanimate setting and there is a parallel to be made in the opposition between the verticality of the pole and the horizontality of the landscape. These contrasts create a disorienting effect. The guardian humanized only by her drapery seems to preside over a city once inhabited. The cloth recalls that of the victorious Greek statue, Nike of Samothrace that the artist probably saw at the Louvre. One wonders though, as war rages in Europe and cities fall, that this is an image of defeat rather than one of victory. The title adds a further clue to the fact this is a painting made in mourning. Like the Louvre statue that survives through history, the guardian here bears witness to tragic current events but lives on. At this point in her career, Sage depicts the egg less and drapery and the color red more. Indeed, if the egg is an obvious symbol of womanhood and the urge to bring forth new life, drapery is a subtler motif and can be easily related to death as well as life. The cloth could become a shroud and the color red expresses the feeling of pain. Also arguably freer than the closed space of the egg and, especially in this painting, drapery poetically recalls the flowing hair of a woman.

Starling, Caravans (1948)

In this painting, a contorted, insect-like structure with exposed innards is set against a lonely horizon. This could be the scene of a broken creature fallen from flight (the starling?), a ship-wreck, or, as suggests the title, a caravan of travelers moving through the desert. Once again, there is no human figure to guide us so elements of meaning are only suggested and open to vast interpretation. The painting is well structured with clear and simple lines that confer with vitality even though the image is static. The drapery is beautifully rendered and the painting has more details and colors in general than other works by Sage. The influence of Tanguy can be seen as he included many small multi-colored organic shapes in his work. Sage picks up the color and maybe some of the playfulness of her husband's paintings but integrates them here in her own serious linear and structured composition. As with other works by the artist, the painting deals with the theme of travel. Instead of depicting actual sailing though, or the path of flight in motion, Sage presents the aftermath of such activities. Debris, pieces of cloth, wood pieces or bones, of what appears to be a broken vessel hint to the prior presence of life in this now deserted landscape.

This work was exhibited first in the 1948 Carnegie exhibition in Pittsburg and recognized at the time as one of Sage's best surrealist works. With great maturity and balance, it includes almost all of Sage's signature elements and themes. The structure is more complex and is not comprised into a strict geometrical composition. The artist begins to incorporate the scaffolding and latticework elements that become so typical of her iconography in later career. Instead of blank, impenetrable, flat walls, Sage uses now an open ribbing structure. This presence of more curved lines and shapes give a less oppressed atmosphere despite the suggested scene of a wreck. It is a desolate scene but it is also colorful and the cage is open making the feeling of entrapment and isolation not as strong as in many other works.

The Small Head (1950)

Art Historian Whitney Chadwick writes that this portrait directly addresses the issue of "psychic barrenness". The motif of hair that we saw in the I saw Three Cities painting comes up again here, but this time as a sort of red mane and the only natural aspect of an otherwise entirely mechanically constructed face. Interestingly a very similar shock of red hair appears in an earlier work by Tanguy called Girl With Red Hair, painted in 1926. This subtle and hidden reference to a woman's hair, gives the viewer a clue to what Sage is generally interested in her own highly complex and difficult to interpret language. She is interested in the overarching question, What is Woman? She considers the possibility that the egg, and thus perhaps birth makes a woman, but then she asks if the answer to the question may lie in our hair. There is a constructed idea created by a patriarchal society to what a woman is or should be and Sage is perpetually challenging and de-constructing this notion.

There is also a revealing visual comparison to be made between Small Head and both the Lovers (1928) painting by René Magritte, and the cloth sculpture by Eileen Agar, Angel of Anarchy 1940, made ten years earlier. All of these faces lose their actual biological features either to be shrouded in the case of Agar and Magritte, or rebuilt in the case of Sage. The message is one about the intensity of internal work, as though the self is distracted by the external world and that knowledge of any personality is found entirely by looking within, by somehow 'seeing' that which is invisible to see.

Tomorrow is Never (1955)

This painting depicts four tower-like constructions in a gray and foggy landscape. Each tower is different and built of wooden scaffolding. They are not all on the same ground and divide the space into foreground, middle ground, and background. The pole on the right suggests the possibility of further construction yet to take place. It is unclear whether these structures are standing on the ground or floating in the air, either way they are vulnerable and unstable. Each tower contains a trapped cloth-wrapped figure.

This work was the first painting Sage realized five months after the passing of Tanguy in 1955 and one of her last large compositions before she commits suicide in 1963. It is mostly considered as a grim metaphor of her grief. All the elements convey a sense of loneliness and of isolation. In a barren landscape, the scaffoldings are left half-built or half-destroyed. The towers stand incomplete, exposed, and open to attack. The wrapped figures within are powerless to escape, and at the same time seem not to be willing to try. The title, Tomorrow is Never, confirms this reading. There is no future, hence no past, just the very present of this intense isolation and heavy grief. The creation of mist is unusual in Sage's vocabulary usually linear and clear, and reflects the state of suspension and uncertainty experienced by the artist.

Some critics and scholars also add sexual connotations to this work: the cloth that often symbolizes a female figure in Sage's work is enclosed in a phallic male tower. This perfect match represented by these latticework towers can also be interpreted as a last homage of Sage to her life within a couple and the representation of physical love. The tower is a repeated motif used by female artists, most notably by Louise Bourgeois, who like Sage uses the symbol to visualize an eternal, internal, and paradoxical feeling of strength and fragility.

The Passage (1956)

This was Sage's last self-portrait painted before her death and unusually depicts the human figure. The artist herself sits naked to the waist looking over a bleak and barren landscape. The parallel to be made with Frida Kahlo's The Broken Column (1942) is a revealing one. Kahlo too wears only a loincloth, as though imitating the condemned Jesus Christ. Kahlo depicts her own psychological pain through the fissure through her torso and small nails that pierce her skin. As we have come to know is typical of Sage, she does not make her suffering so explicit. She simply turns her back on the viewer - unable to look us straight in the eyes - she internalizes her grief entirely. With no motif or means for release, Sage is consumed by her own internal struggle and cannot be free from it.

The Answer is No (1958)

In one of her very last paintings, Sage depicts a mass of frames, canvas, stretchers, and blank rectangular shapes. The horizon line suggests an infinite number of these essential painter's tools. The strictly linear structure of the composition conveys a feeling of order and organization despite the multitude and layers of objects. A palette of browns, greys, and muted blues dominate making the whitish canvas in the foreground with the shadow cast a highlight.

The artist seems to make a statement on her own legacy. Her usual latticework is transformed into empty stretchers and the blank canvasses become at once paintings that would never be created, but also explanation that she has nothing to say. The title clarifies this idea and underlines Sage's artistic negation of now refusing to go on with life. The work is said to be a partner piece for Quote, Unquote of the same year. According to Judith D. Suther, most of the last paintings by Sage were conceived and painted in pairs. These two paintings indeed, as Suther states, echo one another in design and composition as well as in the particular configurations of the blank canvas and empty easels. Actually in this group of last paintings, Sage experiments with a different kind of iconography of emptiness: the repetition of the same element ad infinitum. Always made in a pairing, one cannot help but suggest that the artist begins to create in this way as homage to her lost love, Tanguy.

Indeed, the work also seems to reference Tanguy's Multiplication of the Arcs (1954) where he represents an infinite number of rubble against a blue sky signifying emptiness through saturation. With all of these references to her late husband, Sage appears to justify why the answer is now 'no'. Sadly, 1958 is the year when the grieving artist attempted suicide for the first time. When she didn't die she stopped painting and made some collage until her later "successful" suicide in 1963.

Related Artists and Major Works

The Enigma of an Autumn Afternoon (1910)

By: Giorgio De Chirico

The Enigma of an Autumn Afternoon is the first painting in de Chirico's Metaphysical Town Square series, and the first painting in which he settled upon the style and imagery for which he is now famous - quiet, enigmatic, strangely simplified scenes of old towns. It is also the first in a number of canvases that he titled with the word "enigma." We may speculate that the enigma in question is the relationship between the real and the unreal, as this picture was painted after the artist felt a revelation in Florence's Piazza Santa Croce in which the world appeared before him as if for the first time. The painting depicts a portion of that square in a simplified fashion. It has many of the features that would become hallmarks of his work: a desolate piazza bordered by a classical facade, the long shadows and deep colors of the city at dusk, and a stationary figure, here a statue. The sail visible in the distance may have been inspired by de Chirico's memories of visits he made as a youth to the harbor of Piraeus in Greece.

Poeme Objet (1935)

By: André Breton

Breton made many Poem Objects, such as this assemblage constructed around a plaster egg. Many of his Poem Objects were assemblages. The text on the plaster egg in this work translates as "I see / I imagine" though the poem beneath is deliberately cryptic. Like the Exquisite Corpse, Breton made these objects as a reflection of his inner mind, and also thought of them as analytical tools that could be analyzed, like dreams.

Rose of the Four Winds (1950)

By: Yves Tanguy

In this late canvas, a tower of hard architecture, built from clusters of sharp, spiky objects dominates a steely gray and purple sky. The ground is covered with forbidding rubble (in 1955, the MOMA exhibition called a 'breathless congestion of boulders, pebbles and bones'). The interplay among these elements (the looming tower, threatening sky, and low heaps of pebbles) is forbidding, bordering on the apocalyptic, and the stuff of nightmares rather than dreams. Reminiscent of bombed-out cities (war was never far from Tanguy's mind) these bleak aerial views are typical of the artist's late period. These often include sharper, non-organic and apparently mechanical elements, piling up and stabbing into vast skies (as found in works like From Pale Hands to Weary Skies (1950) and The Hunted Sky (1951)). After the bomb tests and the horror of Hiroshima, Tanguy, a sensitive observer, continued to evolve in relation to his environment and other artists. The impact of his wife Sage's larger, geometric forms is visible here, as is the vastness of the American landscape. Tanguy's admiration for the work of the younger American artist, Frederick Sommer, who photographed bones in the desert, is also visible here. One further influence, no doubt, is also present: in the garden at Sedona, Tanguy's friend Ernst had built a vast metal and cement sculpture named Capricorn. The tower here is reminiscent of this monumental sculpture sitting under the bleak open skies.

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