Nearly twenty years ago, I helped run a small gallery in a former church in Akron, Ohio. The driving force behind the space was a very dear artist friend who was utterly obsessed with the Spanish painter Salvador Dali. The distorted figures, the psychosexual content, the melting clocks, the visual double entendres. You name it, he dug it. And he frequently incorporated said elements into his own mysterious and disconsolate work.
I admit, even at the time, I didn’t get it. I thought my buddy’s work was pretty cool, but Dalí? Surely his admiration for the attention-seeking, publicity-loving, proto-Warholian-Kincade must have been a ruse, a cynical inside joke. But no, he really loved Dalí. And it turns out snobs like me are in the minority. Lots of people love Dalí. Salvador Dalí might be the one artist that people who know nothing at all about art “but know what they like” will be familiar with, and probably enjoy.
So, it should have come as no surprise that when I foolishly visited the Art Institute’s new Dalí exhibition at noon on opening day, I was ignominiously placed into a virtual queue with nearly 400 other visitors ahead of me. And I’m a member.
The show, featuring just over a dozen paintings, period photographs, collage, drawings and sculpture is compact and smartly assembled. Neatly arranged in a gorgeously painted soft pink gallery, the curators wisely focus on the creatively fertile period during the 1930s before Dalí’s outlandish public persona and support for the Francoist dictatorship completely eclipsed his art. If you’re already a true believer, this show presents just enough classic hits to be manna from heaven. And if you’re a snob, well, read on.
Subtitled “the image disappears,” the exhibition makes a virtue of the “now you see it, now you don’t” magic-eye gimmicks that litter the surfaces of Dalí’s paintings. Tricks at once seen and understood come off like predictable jump-scares or bombastic explosions in the latest big-budget superhero film. They run the gamut from clever, such as the famous duck/rabbit illusion in “Apparition of a Face and Fruit Dish on a Beach” to the truly juvenile and tasteless: a bent over woman morphing into a literal horse’s ass in “Inventions of the Monsters”—one of the more egregious examples of the “paranoiac-critical” shtick that made Dalí a household name.
Still, by the formal standards of today’s mainstream institutional painting (which never recovered from the de-skilling of late modernism and early postmodernism), Dalí seems a veritable genius of the medium. Issues that he was once roundly criticized for, the flat strokeless surfaces, the easy photographic effects, apoliticism and academic handling of form, all clothed in the thin veneer of “shocking” middlebrow far-outness seem pretty attractive when compared to anything by, say, Jeff Koons or Richard Prince. And the precious few drawings on display, such as the sumptuous reclining “Venus de Milo with Drawers” reveal genuine talent and feel for the figure.
While Willem de Kooning’s masterpiece “Excavation” (upstairs, gallery 291) continues to elicit head scratching and awkward stares, time has been far kinder to artists like Dalí, whose work requires no real knowledge of art’s history and development in the twentieth century to “get” and enjoy. For snobs like me, it’s best filed under “guilty pleasure.” The show will no doubt bring in the crowds and appeal to a wide audience. In the end, that’s hard to argue with.
“Salvador Dalí: The Image Disappears” at the Art Institute of Chicago, 111 South Michigan. Through June 12.