Isn’t It Surreal? Dorothea Tanning at The Drawing Center

T: The New York Times Magazine

Dorothea Tanning, the last of the Surrealists, has always been something of a fashion plate. A long-limbed beauty and a piquant dresser, Tanning scoured vintage shops and played dress-up with extravagant 19th-century pieces. Her eclectic style sense is celebrated in the 1942 self-portrait “Birthday” in which the bare-breasted artist sports an Elizabethan-style jacket, a draped skirt and what appears to the be the entire root system of a very large tree.

An exhibition at the Drawing Center of Tanning’s sketches of ballet costumes for the choreographer George Balanchine makes you think that it’s too bad she never tried her hand at fashion design. While clearly steeped in 1940s surrealism, the designs also have a strangely contemporary quality. Clingy witch’s dresses have a raw and revealing aesthetic that wouldn’t look out of place on Alexander Wang’s runway, while a fantastical ship headdress paired with a magnificent crinoline bring to mind the work of Philip Treacy and John Galliano.

“These drawings feature ideas and themes that she was exploring throughout her entire practice,” says assistant curator Rachel Liebowitz, who worked on the show with the Drawing Center assistant curator Joanna Kleinberg. “They really give you an understanding of what she aimed to do.”

Dorothea Tanning

Tanning, whose 100th birthday is Aug. 25, arrived in New York at age 22 with $25 and a dream of being an artist. She quickly fell in with the eccentric — and fiendishly chic — surrealist crowd that included the likes of André Breton, Marcel Duchamp, Salvador Dalí, René Magritte and Max Ernst, whom she eventually married. Another friend was Balanchine, who was so impressed with Tanning’s sense of sartorial drama that he asked her to collaborate on his ballets.

“The costume sketches and her early paintings show a recurrent theme of fabric and drapery, which developed into soft cloth sculptures later in her practice,” Kleinberg says.

Tanning was not directly involved in the exhibition, but gave the curators her blessing and the occasional suggestion. (She resides in the West Village in a crimson and periwinkle apartment filled with Surrealist art.) In recent interviews she displays a sharp wit and the kind of seen-it-all laser-beam intelligence.

“I can only say that if a work doesn’t make being sane and alive not only possible but wonderful, well, move on to the next picture,” she told in 2002.

The work displayed at the Drawing Center is certainly worthy of lingering.