Kay Sage - Biography and Legacy
American Painter and Poet
Watervliet, NY, USA
Woodbury, CT, USA
Biography of Kay Sage
Katherine Linn Sage was born on June 25, 1898 in Waterliet, NY, north of Albany. She was the second daughter of a well-established family who had made their fortune in the Northwest timber industry. Her father, Henry Sage, was president of the Sage Land and Improvement Company. He was also the director of various banking and business enterprises, and had served as a state senator from 1911 to 1921. Sage's mother, Anne Ward, married Henry when she was very young, age eighteen, in order to satisfy financial and social needs. She defied expectations and proved to be a recalcitrant wife. As historian Stephen Robeson Miller states, speaking of Sage, "the combination made for an unstable childhood". Very early on in their marriage, the artist's parents established separate lives. Henry remained in Albany while Anne traveled around multiple European cities to escape the duties of the spouse of a wealthy politician and businessman. Sage often accompanied her mother on these extended trips while her sister would only join them during the summer.
In 1908, Sage's parents officially divorced. Sage would continue to follow her mother and spent most of her childhood traveling. She spent a lot of time in Rapallo, Italy where her mother had a house. She learnt to speak Italian and as most of her governesses were French, she also learnt to speak that language. Sage developed a preference towards the "bohemian" lifestyle of her expatriate mother as opposed to the formal and controlled type of existence of her father. Sage recalled in her autobiography China Eggs how she hated all of her upstate New York cousins who were so different from her. She did though identify with both of her parents, thus making her adult personality "quite unpredictable" as Stephen Robeson Miller describes. She felt closer to her mother but wrote many long and detailed letters to her father.
Early Training and Work
Very early in her life, Sage was interested in painting and drawing, as well as in writing. In her solitary moments, she would paint and draw and would never allow anyone to touch her working materials. In 1914, when the war broke out in Europe, she was sent to the Foxcroft School in Middleburg, Virginia. She had three short stories and three poems published in the school yearbook, for which she also designed the cover.
After the war, partly because she fell in love with a Virginian man, and partly because she wanted to study art, she decided not to follow her mother to Europe and instead to pursue her art training at the Corcoran Art School in Washington D.C. She enjoyed this training and attended many life-drawing classes. It was here that she met Flora Whitney, the daughter of Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney who was soon to be the founder of the Whitney Museum of American Art, and the two became lifelong friends. Still, in 1920 she left the U.S. and traveled to join her mother in Italy where she had settled in Rome. Sage took art classes privately and also enrolled in the British Academy and the Scuola Libera delle Belle Arti. She met a group of artists self-called Venticinque della Campagna Romana - The Twenty-Five of the Roman Countryside and joined them on their regular outings outside of Rome. These excursions proved to be influential for her later artistic career.
In 1925, Sage married the Italian Prince Ranieri di San Faustino and put her artistic career on standby. Perhaps happy the first few years of this relationship, she quickly grew bored. As with her own mother, she was expected to fulfill the social obligations of a high-ranking lady; there was no time for painting, not even writing. However, a chance meeting with American poet Ezra Pound and through him, also the avant-garde German sculptor Heinz Henghes, she was encouraged to return to painting. Pound also had a residence in Rapallo and the three ferociously creative characters would meet frequently reawakening Sage's interest in making art.
In 1935, she divorced Ranieri and in 1936, under the name K. di San Faustino, she had her first show at the avant-garde Galleria del Milione in Milan where she exhibited six abstract oils alongside the sculptures of her friend Henghes. According to her biographer, Judith D. Suther, Sage "appears to have considered it the launching point of her career. She would include [it] in supporting material she prepared for subsequent exhibits, listing it as her first solo show". Soon after, Sage decided to devote herself entirely to painting and followed Henghes' advice to move to Paris. She departed Italy in 1937.
On her arrival in Paris, Sage anticipated introduction to the Surrealist group but wanted to paint more before revealing her work. She had discovered and known of the movement since the 1936 International Exhibition that she had seen in London. It was from 1937 though, she started to paint "seriously", in her own words in the surrealist vein. She acquired at that time her first painting: La Surprise (1914) by the Italian surrealist Giorgio de Chirico whose art was a great influence. By 1938, Sage had managed to get six 'Surrealist paintings' accepted into the Salon des Surindependants. This Salon was created in 1928 in reaction to the famous Salon des Independants that had by then become a place mainly for conventional art. Surrealism founder André Breton and group member Yves Tanguy visited the 1938 Surindependant show and noticed Sage's works. Tanguy recalled "Kay Sage - man or woman? I didn't know ... I just knew the paintings were very good." Apparently, it was Henghes who personally introduced Sage to the Surrealists. She befriended them and hosted many meetings in her Paris apartment. Her generosity was noticed and appreciated. However, the idealistic inner circle never totally accepted her as their peer. As a wealthy woman coming from the upper-class bourgeoisie once married to a Prince, she was often unfairly judged. Sage quickly started a relationship with Tanguy that Breton apparently disapproved of. Sage had admired Tanguy's works at the 1936 exhibition in London and especially remembered a painting prophetically called I am waiting for you (1934). Indeed, the two met and fell in love.
In 1939, the war broke out in Europe and Sage decided to go back to the United States. In order to help Tanguy and other artist friends to escape the situation, she created 'The Society for the Preservation of European Culture' with the help of the American Ambassador and the French Minister of Education. An exhibition program by contemporary foreign artists was organized in the U.S. and all funds raised were donated to children affected by the conflict. Using her power of finance and charity, before she left Paris in October 1939, she arranged that Tanguy would arrive later, in 1940 in time for a show at the Pierre Matisse Gallery in December of the same year.
Once in the U.S., Sage settled down in New York and started to paint again. Pierre Matisse gave her her first solo show in June 1940. He then exhibited Tanguy's work in December as scheduled. In August 1940, the two artists got married in Reno while on a trip to the West Coast. They first lived in Washington Square in Manhattan where their apartment became a gathering place for expatriate artists. Indeed, Sage managed to help many other artists move to the U.S. through the travel program that she had initiated. Despite the fact that Breton and Sage, although respectful of one another, had never become friends, Breton himself arrived safely in New York in 1941 entirely because Sage had helped him. Sadly, Breton is said to have strongly disapproved of Tanguy's marriage to Sage and to have cut ties with him after that. Nevertheless, Breton dedicated Sage one of his Poème-Objet (1941), which the artist added to her growing art collection. It has since been acquired by MoMA.
In 1941 Sage and Tanguy decided to move out of the city and they bought a farmhouse in Woodbury, Connecticut where Alexander Calder became their neighbor. Sage had her own studio and began to develop her signature style. She spent her happiest and most productive years in Woodbury. A small artistic community gathered at the artists' home that included Andre Masson, Hans Richter, David Hare, Arshile Gorky, and Roberto Matta. Most of this creative circle had also fled the war in Europe and were now living in exile in the US. Sage hosted many dinners and parties but apparently remained very cold and distant, almost arrogant. People who knew her often said that they were friends of Tanguy but only acquaintances of Sage. It seems that Sage had a cryptic and difficult to un-code personality. Her relationship with Tanguy however was very strong. The two were inseparable, they shared a studio, accompanied each other everywhere, and they communicated in French. Despite such intense togetherness, friends described the marriage as "strange" and "uneasy". Indeed, Tanguy with his strong personality, and his tendency to drink heavily, would sometimes humiliate and downgrade Sage and her work in front of their friends. Sage would remain silent during these cruel undressings but was miraculously encouraged to paint even more.
At this moment in time, Sage's career took a positive turn. Already in the 1940s, she had participated in two of the most important shows of these years: the First Papers of Surrealism exhibition in October-November 1942 organized by Andre Breton, and Exhibition by 31 Women in January 1943, curated by Peggy Guggenheim and held at her newly opened and revolutionary gallery, The Art of This Century.
After the war in 1945, many European Surrealists decided to go back home, including Breton who left the US in 1946. It was much easier for Sage to concentrate on painting with the entourage of colleagues in need of financial support now gone. In 1947, the art dealer Julien Levy offered Sage a solo show at his gallery in New York where she exhibited 11 paintings. Later, gallerist Catherine Viviano started to represent her and she had a series of solo shows at Viviano's gallery in New York, including a very important one in 1950. By this year, Sage's style was assured and she had arguably already produced her most important works. In 1954, she and Tanguy had their first solo show together in a museum, the Wadsworth Athenaeum in Connecticut. They had never considered themselves as an artistic couple working together and both found the experience difficult. They only accepted this joint opportunity to show work on the condition that they exhibited their paintings in two separate rooms.
In 1955, Tanguy tragically and suddenly died of a stroke. Sage was totally devastated. She sank into a deep depression and developed a cataract that affected her vision. She painted less and less and withdrew herself from society to live as a recluse. In 1959, she attempted suicide with sleeping pills. After this failure, she decided to devote her time to the preparation of Tanguy's catalogue raisonné. It was really through her efforts that the project came to life and the book was published in 1963 with a preface written by her. She was however still grieving and had become partially blinded by a failed cataract surgery. Unable now to find any other reason to continue with life, she fatally shot herself in the heart on January 8, 1963.
As instructed in her will, Pierre Matisse who was the executor, buried urns containing Sage and Tanguy's ashes in the waters off the coast of Tanguy's native Brittany. In a suicide note, Sage had written, "The first painting by Yves [Tanguy] that I saw, before I knew him, was called 'I'm Waiting for You.' I've come. Now he's waiting for me again - I'm on my way."
The Legacy of Kay Sage
Kay Sage is among the few Americans associated with early Surrealism. She fully integrated the language of the movement within her own practice and achieved notable success during her lifetime. Although her work bears the influences of her colleagues, Sage developed her own highly personal and uniquely recognizable style. She rejected vibrant colors and the tendency toward figuration and chose instead to compose muted canvases that blur the line between realism and fantasy. She used landscape as a metaphor for the mind, and is credited with contributing the most abstract and geometrical vocabulary to the movement. Sage was a pioneer moving towards abstraction; letting go of symbolist motifs and figuration she instead shifted focus entirely onto the combination of forms. This is a theme that grew organically, and as it gained momentum in the U.S. it provided inspiration for the beginnings of the subsequent movement, Abstract Expressionism.
Art historian Whitney Chadwick has said Sage's work possessed a "purified form and a sense of motionlessness and impending doom found nowhere else in Surrealism." Whilst married to the more famous and successful French Surrealist, Yves Tanguy, Sage continued to sign her works with her maiden name, and exhibited very infrequently with her husband. She was instrumental in ensuring the safe passage between war torn Europe and America for many fellow Surrealists. She had her own considerable art collection and upon her death bequeathed many works to public institutions to promote Surrealism and Modern Art. As a painter, she successfully promoted the incongruity, strangeness, and complexity of self and her canvases are widely studied. As a poet, her work remains largely forgotten. Able to speak various languages, she wrote poetry in French, English, and Italian. She published five volumes of mostly surrealist poetry that defied social and artistic conventions, but these have still not been rigorously researched or thus rediscovered.