LEAP OF FAITH

In her 1944 oil painting "Arizona," Dorothea Tanning stands at the edge of a cliff. She's surrounded by the spires, buttes and mesas of the red rock country around Sedona. Only here, the rocks are blue and green in the eerie, ambiguous light of early dawn. You can't see the valley below. A dense fog, half enveloping blanket, half murky water, creeps into every corner of the vast landscape. Since her back is turned, you can't tell what Tanning is thinking, what she's doing. Is she dreaming, sleepwalking, sightseeing, contemplating a leap? Will she fall or step back? Something is forever about to happen.

The previous year, 1943, Tanning had come to Arizona with her companion, surrealist artist Max Ernst, to spend the summer--and to escape the demands of the city and the pressures of the war. Tanning and Ernst had met the year before in New York City, and in Sedona they hoped to find sanctuary, a place to concentrate on their work. In the end, they found Sedona such a suitable environment they returned in 1946, married and built a home.

Now, after a 40-year absence, Tanning's work, if not Tanning herself, is back in Arizona, in a large exhibit of mostly recent work at the Sedona Museum of Art. The exhibit is a testament to the durability of Tanning's artistic vision. The single, haunting image of Tanning poised at the edge of the precipice pervades the show. It introduces the themes of decision and of stepping into the unknown that recur throughout most of her later work.

But the sum of the later parts doesn't quite equal the original whole. Taken together, Tanning's recent works are like a gentle shove. They're nice, but they don't pack the powerful punch of the two oil paintings from the 1940s, "Arizona" and "Hotel du Pavot," that start the show. The later work seems like a distant echo of a first, strong, clear voice. Fifty years hasn't made Tanning's work any less thematically cohesive, but it has made it less emotionally concise.

Born in Illinois in 1910, Tanning made her way to New York in 1935, after a brief stint at the Chicago Academy of Art. Within a year, she came under the influence of the surrealists--a coalition of artists that grew out of the Dada movement of post-World War I Europe, dedicated to exploring the subconscious sources of creativity. The dominant artistic philosophy of western art between the world wars, surrealism influenced artists from Salvador Dali and Joan Miro to Pablo Picasso and Jackson Pollock.

Inspired by a 1936 show, "Fantastic Art, Dada, and Surrealism" at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, Tanning went to Paris. On arriving in France, however, she discovered the surrealist coalition had disbanded, a fatality of politics and oppression. In fact, she found out, many of the artists had gone to the United States. So she headed back to New York, where she quickly aligned herself with the small, but growing, group of European surrealists in exile.

Tanning met Max Ernst in 1942, soon after an exhibition of her new surrealist work. Nineteen years her senior, Ernst was one of the leaders of the movement, as well as one of its founders. He had a well-established reputation as the quintessential surrealist, and his mixed-media work incorporating Loplop the bird and book collages like "The Woman With 100 Heads" are still considered masterpieces. Ernst had just come to America with his then-wife, Peggy Guggenheim (of art-museum fame), to escape imprisonment by both the Germans and the French.

Tanning and Ernst soon became romantically involved. Ernst and Guggenheim divorced, and by 1946, Tanning and Ernst had settled in Sedona. Their magnetic presence attracted as guests in their Sedona home such art-world greats as Marcel Duchamp, the originator of the ready-made art object and a seminal influence on 20th-century art, and Yves Tanguy, a noted surrealist artist of stark, seemingly endless landscapes. By their years there, Tanning and Ernst created the art-colony image that still lingers in Sedona today.

Whether her new relationship with Ernst provoked a creative flurry or her encounter with surrealism unleashed her own powerful vision, Tanning's work from the 1940s is still her finest. It has the emotional tautness and psychological ambiguity that characterize the best surrealist art.

For example, the 1942 "Hotel du Pavot," the other early piece in the show, is a masterpiece of existential tension. It shows a young girl with her back to us, in a pink frock and a Victorian hat, standing at a V in the road. At the V stands a hotel. It looks only recently abandoned, still somehow habitable. On the fifth floor, the balcony railing is bent and mangled. Someone has fallen, but there's no body as proof. A breeze blows a long, diaphanous strand of hair caught on the third-floor railing.

The whole image is a mystical and frightening portent. To the left of the girl is a grotto with a heavy wooden door holding back a large, red tongue. The left road is lined with burned-out buildings; the right road looks equally bleak. The hotel has the awful presence of a prison. Every choice seems fraught with its own kind of danger. The ultimate choice seems inaction.

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