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Mary Ann Caws

Mary Ann Caws is Distinguished Professor of Comparative Literature, English, and French at the Graduate School of the City University of New York. Her many areas of interest in 20th-century avant-garde literature and art include Surrealism, poets René Char and André Breton, Virginia Woolf and the Bloomsbury group, and artists Robert Motherwell, Joseph Cornell, and Pablo Picasso. Conceptually, one of her primary themes has been the relationship between image and text.

Guest Critic

Translating Communities

Picking up on a thread from the last Brooklyn Rail Critics Page, about haunting, and who and what haunts you, I first think of André Breton’s Nadja and its beginning: “Who am I? If this once I were to rely on a proverb, then perhaps everything would amount to knowing whom I ‘haunt.’”

In Conversation

JACOB COLLINS with MARY ANN CAWS: Thinking About Ateliers

Upon occasion and in some places, reading and looking seem to interconnect geographically, textually, visually, and personally with a kind of intensity. It seems to me to happen especially in the atelier system. With this in mind, I set out to visit the Grand Central Atelier in Long Island City, founded by the right-now-contemporary painter and teacher, Jacob Collins, a contemporary realist, known for his championship of the classical art revival.

A Night of Philosophy in NYC, 04-24-2015 7 P.M. To 7 A.M.

If philosophy takes in everything, it was all here on this night-morning. Of course, you might say to yourself, why just a night of philosophy, why not, perhaps, a day and a night, or several of each, or what about a life of it?

Mary Ann Caws

Linda Nochlin, certainly the most influential writer ever on feminist art, was also a poet. Maura Reilly's edition of The Linda Nochlin Reader in 2015 includes the celebrated essay “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists” seen freshly, thirty years after, and in fact all Nochlin's essays help the reader to see freshly—not just feminist art but details and fragments, bathers and politics, Courbet and realism, and more.

Max Ernst Big Brother: Teaching Staff for a School of Murderers

In the original title of Max Ernst’s extraordinary bronze statues of 1967, Corps enseignant pour une école de tueurs (Teaching Staff for a School of Murderers), there is no specific reference to a “Big Brother.”

Painters of the East End

Many of the European avant-garde artists who arrived in New York during World War II found themselves reaching out for a less expensive kind of living, and discovered larger studios in a rural landscape and waterscape on Long Island’s South Fork.

New York 1962–1964

“EXHIBITING THE CITY” reads one heading, and indeed this extraordinary exhibition includes, at its beginning, a few works from key exhibitions in New York in 1962 and 1963, feeling remarkably full.

Jane Freilicher: Abstractions

These abstractions date from 1958–62, and you can feel in them the figurative works from before and where Freilicher took them later. Thus, these are bridge works, some with, as Molly Taylor of the gallery put it to me on my viewing, “a tickle of figuration.” Indeed, some sort of tickle went through me instantly upon my entering and did not leave, even on my departure.

New York Food Exhibitions

As I write, there is at the Museum of the City of New York, a gigantic and vividly colorful exhibition entitled Food in New York: Bigger Than the Plate, which opened on September 16 to great acclaim in the newspaper and radio.

Kathy Ruttenberg: Sunshine at Midnight

Has anyone ever (this is a rhetorical question) thought/seen/activated the observer this way? Sunshine at midnight indeed! From and in every crevice in every stone, creatures are peeping out or lying down: butterflies all over and everywhere. Nothing feels left out and everything feels included.

Seeing It Now

Kerstin Brätsch, “Blocked Radiant.”Before you even go in, on either side of the doors, you encounter this oxymoron: the doors are not blocked, but they are surrounded by panels designated as “blocked.” Wow.

SARAH PLIMPTON Black Light: New Works

Sarah Plimpton’s new work, Black Light, at the June Kelly Gallery is, like her other paintings and books, instantly recognizable. Never would you say: “Oh, isn’t this like…?”

Jay DeFeo: Inventing Objects

Jay DeFeo (1929–1989) and Bruce Conner (1933–2008) had that kind of telephone talk marathon a listener feels present at, despite time and place making such an experience impossible. It endures in its strangeness, having been imitated by a photograph of Conner’s telephone dial, to which Defeo responded by a sending of one of his body photos with the dial stuck on: about which he writes: “I had become the telephone.” But we hear it, savor it, and applaud Bruce Conner for memorializing it five years after her death.

Man Ray’s Paris Portraits: 1921–1939

As Emmanuel Di Donna says in his introduction to this splendid display of vintage portrait photographs by the indisputably great Man Ray, these works do indeed capture “the essence of Parisian life between 1921 and 1939.” How not already to love the verb “capture”?

Mary Ann Caws
on Leon Golub

Of course, in 1966 it would seem to require a necessary immensity to portray, in any possible way, the alliance of myth and antiquity: the battle of Greek gods and human giants against the background noise of Vietnam, so iconic and gigantic as they appear in Naples and Berlin, where I well remember gasping in front of the Pergamon frieze in the Pergamon Museum.

Stephen Antonakos: Late Light Gold Works 2010–2013

This past Friday the 13th of December, in the dismal rain, was a deliciously gilded day for anyone who went to Chelsea to contemplate the undismal sheen of these “late light gold works.” Created late in the life of Stephen Antonakos, and luminous, all these radiant outpourings and inpourings of a sun inside a mind shine forth.

Surrealist Collaboration: Poetry, Art, Literature, Ingenuity and Life Itself

A stupendous exhibit. I won’t put an exclamation point there, for that punctuation would be repeated, excessively. Here is a fine example of what a gallery can do in an exhibition if the focus is on a specific kind of thing, in this case on an historic collective and collaborative art-making activity, repeated differently as an off and on ritual event.

Underground Modernist: E. McKnight Kauffer

Both catalogue and exhibition provide us a close look at Kauffer and his work—a subject surely due more attention on this side of the Atlantic.

A Revolutionary Impulse: The Rise of the Russian Avant-Garde

Revolution has not been, at least recently and in my view, so colorfully demonstrated as here, in this staggering exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art.

James Rosenquist: His American Life

These seventeen paintings, early 1960s to early 1980s, each so clearly marked by Rosenquist’s experience painting billboards, are pop beyond pop. Riveting indeed and way beyond, each sporting flash points apparently unconnected. “I don’t do anecdote, I accumulate experiences,” says Rosenquist.

JON SCHUELER 1975 – 1981, The New York Years

After studying with the great and eccentric Clyfford Still at the California School of the Arts, exhibiting with the Abstract Expressionists in New York, and having endured stints of teaching on the East Coast and in the Midwest, Jon Schueler left New York in 1970 for the isolation and particular weather of the Scottish Highlands.

Where is Surrealism Now?

Rare are the pictures of André Breton lying down. This time he is reclining before Giorgio de Chirico’s Enigma of a Day (1933), as if indeed he himself were to be posing as one of those reclining Roman statues within the piazza, observing us observing him.

Endless Enigma: Eight Centuries of Fantastic Art

It is a fantastic feeling to have been here before, as we surely have, and to return here refreshed. In 1936 Alfred H. Barr, Jr. brought his Fantastic Art, Dada, Surrealism to the Museum of Modern Art, and traces of it survive and are now not just resurrected but, well, remembered. The present recall and revision set the same non-limits on the time and geographical framing, and so this exhibition is gratifyingly wide-ranging, from the twelfth-century to right now in 2018.

Works from the Collections of Roland Penrose, Edward James, Gabrielle Keiller and Ulla and Heiner Pietzsch

An exhibition jointly organized by SNGMA, the Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, Rotterdam, and the Hamburger Kunsthalle, where it will be shown after the only United Kingdom showing in Edinburgh.

Arakawa: Diagrams for the Imagination

Important to so many poets and thinkers and theorists, this brilliant Japanese erstwhile neo-Dada painter and thought-provoker has to be read (seen, but more fittingly, read) with enough leisure to have the visual-verbal complications, as beautiful as they are diagrammatic, permeate your imagination.

Lee Krasner: Collage Paintings 1938–1981

Kasmin’s current exhibition is presented in collaboration with the Pollock-Krasner Foundation and contains several masterpieces from the very debut of her collage paintings at the Stable Gallery in 1955.

Tjebbe Beekman: Symbiosis

We are looking at his great paintings of 2019, with their garlands and drums and death heads, like a festival and yet with a menace lurking beneath.

The Symbolist Vision

I was mesmerized by two totally new-to-me pieces: one by Schlüter, of the Austrian school, with a whopping skull, a candle, a watch, two books (whose titles are, of course, indecipherable), and a few other tools/signs weighted with symbolic mood.

Robert Motherwell: Early Paintings | Enormity of the Possible

Not far apart, about two minutes or a bit more by foot, depending on what friends you see along the way, are the two present exhibitions at Paul Kasmin Gallery, at 293 and 297 Tenth Avenue.

Vues d’en Haut

Philip Hughes, a British painter celebrated for his paintings of various walks, is exhibiting, in the Maison de la Truffe et du Vin here, some extraordinary works focusing on some “scenes from above”—in other words, scenes of the earth shot from the sky.

Brancusi & Duchamp: the Art of Dialogue

It would be difficult to come up with a more challenging duo than this one. The exhibition is packed with sculptures, photographs, objects, films, little magazines—nothing is lacking—but we could just stop where it starts: with those two gorgeous faces of Brancusi and Duchamp by Man Ray, from 1920 and 1934, preceded by a sweater-clad Brancusi rarely seen. Here we are given the proper spin to this remarkable dialogue.

SADE: Artists Under the Influence

Saying that the divine Marquis had something to do with eroticism is a bit like saying Donald Trump has a little something not to do with truth. Beloved for every brick literally there in the face of Man Ray’s imaginary portrait of 1970 with his baleful and fleshy stare, the Marquis de Sade has haunted every subsequent surrealist discoverer of his works and perpetually-imprisoned self.

Surrealism in Mexico

This wonderfully hung exhibition celebrates the wondrously worded “robust creative moment” when a group of internationally colorful surrealists left Europe for Mexico, fleeing World War II.

Max Ernst Collages

Well, the most wonderful things about this most wonderful exhibition—and goodness knows, we have all seen many exhibitions of this Dada/Surrealist/genius guy—are the “Lettrines".


At the Agora Gallery, there opened "an immersion exhibition" entitled FIAT#LUX where Chantal Westby's paintings merge with Lénaïc Mercier's multi-media installation, in a length of light.

Moon Dancers: Yup'ik Masks and the Surrealists

The Surrealists were impassioned by the idea of the spiritual, mental, and aesthetic connections between pre-modern societies.

Specific Forms

So many delights here, so many forms that I can’t help comparing with other displays of form, even within one single author like Lydia Davis as she works out the ways (that’s the word she uses) of treating a topic.

Sacred Spaces

Loretta Howard and her gallery have planned this amazing and ongoing celebration of the way in which art can enhance an entire life of religious ritual. This immediate burgeoning of new work, relating, in the case of the great Greek artist Antonakos, to Byzantium and the sacred gold background, responds to just what we might have been suffering lately, in view of the crises in the world beyond the building whose art we are celebrating.

Measuring the Weight with Richard Serra

You walk around, you compare the weight of the sculptures with the density of the black in his drawings, the way the curves fit into one another, the way it has an impact on your mind, and physical state.

Robert Motherwell’s Opens and Elegies: Drawing as a Living Art

These drawings need no elaboration. As the artist himself pointed out, their famous origin was simple. He had seen one of his paintings leaning against a larger, more vertical painting and had outlined in charcoal the edges of the small painting on the larger one, creating a door-like image. He then found the proportion “rather beautiful…"

Cruel Theater

Many of us know Antonin Artaud first from his face. Those high cheekbones, that deeply serious stance and gesture, holding up the Bible to the Joan played by the very great Falconetti in Dreyer’s Joan of Arc at the Stake as she is about to be burned. That encounter with the flames we might see as lasting beyond his performance.

The Noise of the Rain

It has always been the case, as long as I have—or anyone I know has—been reading the poems of Sarah Plimpton and looking at the (apparently) drastically simple forms of the drawings she constructs that are so instantly recognizable.

Are the Arts Essential?

Straight off, Alberta Arthurs declares that this book was slow in its growth, and we can certainly see why—from the magnificent display of thought in many parts, from many places and many celebrated persons—it could scarcely have been rushed into print.

Christopher Prendergast’s Living and Dying with Marcel Proust

I well remember—and thinking memory, how not, in speaking of or reading or writing about Proust—that we were each allowed to choose the place to read from, and how important that choice seemed. And was.

Undying Unica

And the walls they did indeed come a-tumbling down…crashing earthwards from the start of this narration of a to-be-mother, very much not-wanting-to have this child with whom she lives at the beginning, in a tower with some bats and ravens, in a “gruesome inner union.”

Approach of the Word

The language of poetry can’t be enclosed in any category, can’t be summed up in any function or formula. Neither instrument nor ornament, it scans a word carrying the ages and the fleeting space, founding both stone and history, welcoming their dust. It moves about in the energy that makes and breaks empires.

I Love Being A Gourmande

Given my solid reputation as a gourmande, many readers imagine me seated at a table, framed with patés and bottles, like the “Gourmand” of a famous poster. That’s too flattering. It’s actually embellishing the truth, taking me for a cordon bleu, while I am only able to manage one dish, and give some advice somewhat brightened up by enlightened gastronomy.

Two Poems from Earth Absolute and Other Texts

one day, after so many years of not waiting / like a divine promulgation a cloud / too heavy to pass breaks: it’s the flood

René Char - Resistance in Every Way

I am writing here as one of the numerous persons to whom René Char has given a reason for so many things, moral, psychological, and creative. And it’s of his life as a résistant that I’d like to write just a few words. He was not only a resistance fighter in the war—to which the Leaves of Hypnos bears witness—but a fighter all along on the moral plane, his whole life long.

André Breton's Nadja: fac-similé du manuscrit de 1927

This is the manuscript of the 1927 masterpiece, thought lost for a very long time. The present reader, confronted by the manuscript in its truly majestic overwritings, with these notes in their disorganization and distortion of the “original,” feels as if Surrealism itself—of which this is surely the major document—were to be imbued with yet more mystery in its mythology.

The Collages of Helen Adam

Prepare to be astonished. How on earth, you wonder, can a Scot woman poet and collagist possessed of an overcomingly remarkable imagination, combined with an intense involvement in Scottish history, Dante, the Victorian Romance novel and art, and in really weird animals in various beings and doings, fit so perfectly, no matter how oddly, into the San Francisco Renaissance? Prepare to meet Helen Adam.

Stéphane Mallarmé's The Book and Un Coup de dés jamais n’abolira le Hasard

To take just the 72 pages of Stéphane Mallarmé’s Le Livre (originally posthumously published in French in 1957), at once fragmentary and yet feeling so completely itself, every time we encounter it, it seems a more astonishing piece of work.

Meeka Walsh’s Malleable Forms: Selected Essays

These writings grasp the most seemingly insignificant detail and weave an entire text around it. We might direct our attention to just plain objects, knitting texts about them, concentrating our focus upon them, or simply collecting them for no particular reason.

Brian Dillon’s Affinities: On Art and Fascination

Brian Dillon’s involvement with the word and meaning of “affinities” is in itself worth any time spent perusing these pages.

Remedios Varo: Science Fictions

The introduction to this catalogue of this perfectly amazing painter-writer-scientist, a poet in everything she undertook, is entitled “Spirit, Matter, Story, Soul” and so says it all.


The Brooklyn Rail

NOV 2023

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