with an essay by Mar tica Sawin
Jimmy Ernst in his New Canaan, Connecticut, studio, 1965.
Front cover: Move On Up a Little Higher, 1947 (see p. 27) Back cover: Chronicle, 1964 (detail, see p. 55)
FOREWORD By Rowland Weinstein
IMMY ERNST CLIMBED TWO MOUNTAINS—ONE HISTORICAL, ONE METAPHORICAL—AND arrived on the other side not only intact but thriving. Born in 1920 in Germany, the son of a Jewish mother and Catholic father, Ernst learned to navigate a very difficult German society which had increasingly little tolerance for Jews and even less so for a child of mixed heritage. Raised in an intellectual and artistic milieu, Jimmy was nonetheless subjected to innumerable indignities in the Cologne of his youth. When in 1933 the Nazis’ rise to prominence culminated in the naming of Adolf Hitler as Chancellor, and all the vile prejudice that had been fulminating came into fearful fruition, Jimmy’s divorced mother, Louise Straus-Ernst, was forced to abandon her career as a journalist and arts writer and move to Paris. Jimmy was left with his grandparents, who treated him as the step-child they thought of him as. His mother eventually found him refuge and temporary safety as a printer’s apprentice with a family friend, Hans Augustin. This appointment would save his life, as Augustin had enough clout and money to secure a visa and passage for Jimmy to the United States in June of 1938, just months before Kristallnacht.
Once in the United States, which Ernst describes in his moving autobiography as perhaps not an exile, but “going home,” his evident sensitivity, kindness, and intelligence helped assure his eventual integration into American cultural life. He discovered Hopi rituals, jazz music, and his own group of friends—artists and writers, who were not directly connected to his mother nor his father, the famous Surrealist artist Max Ernst. America allowed him, like his fellow American artists, to escape the “father” of European art. Only in Jimmy’s case, however, was it so literal. A poignant moment came in 1941 when Max was released by U.S. Immigration officials on Ellis Island into Jimmy’s care. It had never been so apparent that the same rules of the pre-war world no longer applied, and this topsy-turvyness favored the young upstart, whose roots might be in Europe but whose future was in America. But Jimmy was also to suffer for this upheaval in a devastating way when his mother was unable to secure a visa out of France and eventually died at Auschwitz. Out of the rubble of World War II, Jimmy Ernst emerged, changed but infinitely more sure of who he was as a man and an artist. His art is testament to a unique combination of rigor and sensitivity, of knowing when content is appropriate and when abstraction is what is needed. I am impressed by Jimmy’s life story and artwork equally, for they are inseparable. I could not be more proud to represent the Jimmy Ernst Estate and share his paintings with our collectors.
Jimmy Ernst welcoming his father, Max Ernst, to the United States, Ellis Island, July 14, 1941.
MEMORIES OF RECENT HISTORY By Eric Ernst
LTHOUGH THROUGHOUT MY YOUTH I WAS AWARE THAT MY FATHER’S CAREER AS AN artist marked him as distinctly unique compared to the parents of my friends and schoolmates, there were, in my boyhood years, definable and definitive instances where this crystallized into moments of true comprehension of how truly different that made him.
The first came when I was eight years old and the family had just moved to New Canaan, Connecticut, where we lived in an upscale neighborhood of houses designed by luminaries such as John Johansen, Eliot Noyes, and Philip Johnson (whose own landmark glass home and underground art spaces were just across the street) and where art collections, while not always particularly cutting edge, were not unusual. (One neighbor, as I recall, boasted a Calder stabile in his living room and a Marini horse in the garden.) So in a neighborhood filled with ostensibly sophisticated sorts of people, it came as a remarkable surprise when the process of building a studio on the property became an issue of profound concern at the zoning meeting, highlighted by a neighbor asking the rhetorical yet highly revealing question, “Why doesn’t Mr. Ernst commute to New York like the rest of us?” Seemingly, art was ok, but artists themselves were a bit more suspect, apparently likely to engage in bongo parties and orgies highlighted by beat poetry readings. Needless to say, regardless of the desirability of owning blue-chip status symbols, the creators themselves were still deemed unfit for proper society. I use the word “still” because I was reminded of this incident years later when my father told a story of how his grandfather, the painter Philipp Ernst, had once said that, “In my time, mothers watching their children playing outdoors might suddenly yell at them, ‘Hey, kids, hide your sandwiches, there’s an artist coming up the street!’” Time, apparently, had done little to ameliorate this perspective in regards to the respectability of the creative community, although some measure of progress may have been achieved years later when a Hamptons realtor was overheard to enthusiastically exclaim that he “likes artists moving in because they attract a better class of people.” Another occasion came when, somewhere around the summer of 1972, a photograph (opposite) arrived unannounced from a publishing house in Europe that was at the time documenting the photographs of the great German portraitist August Sander. I remember seeing it lying on the kitchen table in our house in East Hampton, a portrait of a mother and her son from an earlier time, their gaze direct and absent any overt emotions, yet in the boy’s eyes lurked a certain unease, a tenuousness wrought with portent as he leans into his mother’s side, conjuring a bond both physical and psychological. I remember my father staring at the image of himself from 40 years earlier with a look of nostalgic wonderment and painful bewilderment, searching deeply into a moment he had long ago pushed into a distant corner of his mind but now brought back to the conscious surface with an immediacy and intensity that I knew from one glance would lead that night to considerably more than one drink before dinner. The caption read simply, “Dr. Lu Straus, divorced wife of painter Max Ernst, with her son (France, 1928)” and I remember finding myself staring into the eyes of my father when he was about my age
and perhaps for the first time discovering a frame of reference for all the stories he had told me over the years. Of his father who had abandoned him at the age of two, moving into what was a rather unorthodox three-way relationship with the Surrealist poet Paul Eluard and Gala, the infamous Russian temptress later to marry Salvador Dalí. Of the constant fear he felt growing midst the birth of National Socialism and the horror and degradation he witnessed as Jews were beaten and humiliated in the streets. Of the ostracism and lack of acceptance he received from both his mother’s Jewish family and his father’s Catholic one for his parents’ temerity and blasphemy in having married outside their faiths, a cruelty made even more immediate by his mother’s move to Paris thereby forcing him to live with the very relatives who viewed his existence as little more than a public embarrassment. And, as I watched my father travel back to these days as he pondered the photograph before him, for the first time I also began to truly compreLouise Straus-Ernst and Jimmy in a 1928 portrait by August Sander, hend the sense of guilt he sometimes part of the photographer's Portrait of Germany project. spoke about in not having been able to rescue his mother from her demise in the ovens of the Third Reich’s Final Solution. True, he was instrumental in saving his father, but his own feeling of failure and frustration in not having been able to secure a visa for his mother until it was too late haunted his dreams and his every waking moment for the remainder of his life. I saw it then for the first time in his eyes and I was to later recognize it countless times afterward, at those moments when the mask slipped and the nightmares and sense of pain and futility rushed to the surface and yet he never was subsumed by it. Instead, it appeared in his paintings which became, in his hands, simultaneously an instrument of vengeance against the forces of Fascism that had stolen his childhood and an assertion of the primacy of humanistic ideals over the barbarism and ultimate inhumanity of jingoistic ideologies. Art became, for my father, a refuge from the horrors he had witnessed as a youth as well as his own personal cage of nightmares. It was an outlet for the feelings of suffering that never really vanished no matter how long the time had passed or the distance traveled from where he had begun. It was, without question, in my mind a remarkable revelation to undergo in no small part because by then I was anything but a stranger to my father’s life as an artist. Unlike his own relationship with the rather foreboding Max, I was always welcome in Jimmy’s studio and had spent literally countless hours watching him work while listening to jazz, Mozart, or Yankees games, pestering him with what I’m
sure were rather inane questions about this and that while furtively scanning the European skin mags he used for collages. There had even been times when I was five or six that he would sit me on his lap and, placing the brush in my tiny hands with his covering mine, guide me in placing those feathery strokes of color over the surface of the work, constructing elegant matrices that were reminiscent of nothing so much as light pouring through the windows of a cathedral from his youth. But it was only as I watched my father staring deeply into his own past that I began to recognize where these kaleidoscopic reveries had originated. As time went on, I even became cognizant that those images from more contemporary events that appeared as themes in his works, such as the massacre of innocents in Sharpeville or the self-immolation of a Buddhist monk in Saigon, were always filtered through the sense of anger he felt at having lived through and witnessed atrocities like these before.
Jimmy Ernst in his studio, c. 1960s.
Perhaps most importantly, over time I also began to recognize the manner in which being an artist had become his own salvation, even as it seemed to force him to relive moments that others would choose to leave in the darkest recesses of time and distant memory.
JIMMY ERNST : BETWEEN THE SEEN AND THE UNSEEN By Martica Sawin
EATED UNOBTRUSIVELY BEHIND BARNETT NEWMAN IN THAT FAMOUS 1951 LIFE MAGAZINE photograph so often used as a roster for the New York School, the young German-born artist Jimmy Ernst (1920–84) is a subdued presence amid the self-assured poses of his fourteen American colleagues.
He was there because Newman had phoned asking to put his name on a letter protesting the Metropolitan Museum’s selection of a jury for its national exhibition of American art. The letter ran on the
Top row, left to right: Willem de Kooning, Adolf Gottlieb, Ad Reinhardt, Hedda Sterne; middle row: Richard Pousette-Dart, William Baziotes, Jackson Pollock, Clyfford Still, Robert Motherwell, Bradley Walker Tomlin; seated: Theodoros Stamos, Jimmy Ernst, Barnett Newman, James Brooks, Mark Rothko. Life magazine, © 1951, photo by Nina Leen, Time, Inc.
front page of the New York Times whereupon Life picked up the story and arranged for the artistsignees to meet in the studio of photographer Nina Leen where they were recorded for history as “The Irascibles.” Ernst had appeared nine years earlier at the age of twenty-two in another historic photograph taken in Peggy Guggenheim’s New York apartment to record a gathering of distinguished refugee artists and several recently returned expatriates (John Ferren, Berenice Abbott, and Guggenheim herself). These two photographs represent the poles of Jimmy Ernst’s life as a young artist in New York, and shed light on the dilemmas of self-definition that determined his independent course. Rather than cast his artistic lot with either waning Surrealism or nascent Abstract Expressionism, Ernst chose to develop a path of his own that embodies his position at the nexus of colliding forces, his European formation and his embrace of his new country. A consummate craftsman and obsessive worker with a mind geared to complexity, Ernst produced a unique and rich body of work, a succession of large intricate paintings that manage to be both abstract and imbued with a content that resonates with the viewer despite the absence of a readily identifiable subject. The facts of his biography have often been told, nowhere more eloquently than in his own autobiography covering his first thirty years, A Not-So-Still Life. 1 Unacceptable in his native Germany as the son of a Jewish mother and a father, Max Ernst, on Hitler’s list of degenerate artists, deserted by his father at the age of two, left behind when his mother moved to Paris to escape the rising Nazi anti-Semitism, thrust back and forth between Jewish and Catholic grandparents, helped by his employer to get a U.S. visa and passage to the United States on a ship that departed only shortly before Kristallnacht, Jimmy Ernst found himself at eighteen a lonely, impoverished immigrant in New York. His father may have been an internationally known artist but the son had to live on the $15 a week he earned as a mailroom clerk at the Museum of Modern Art. When Max Ernst arrived in New York three years later, courtesy of the Emergency Rescue Committee and heiress Peggy Guggenheim, Jimmy was employed by the latter to manage her Art of This Century gallery. On the one hand he was exposed to the luxurious lifestyle of the Guggenheim circle; on the other he was suffering constant anxiety over the fate of his mother, Louise Straus-Ernst, who was stranded in Marseilles, awaiting a U.S. visa, but not considered sufficiently important for one to be expedited. Only at the end of the war did he learn that the papers he had finally obtained for her had reached Marseilles in October 1942, but were held up pending a French exit visa. When American troops landed in North Africa the following month the German army moved in and occupied Marseilles, thus cutting off that last escape route to the free world. Sheltered for a time in the countryside, Louise Straus-Ernst was arrested in 1944, sent to the detention camp at Drancy and deported on the next to last train to Auschwitz, where she met her death. Her son’s lifelong residue of guilt was undoubtedly one of the driving forces behind the long hours of obsessive labor in the studio that produced so many large dazzling canvases. Ernst did not elaborate on how these canvases connected to his experiences, but chose to leave interpretation to the viewer. “I prefer,” he wrote, “to think of my work as a thought or an idea which exists or fails without the necessity of elaboration or definition. . . . I feel that I should allow enough latitude for others to make it possible for them to see in the painting a part of their own world.”2 A clue as to how Ernst may have viewed the content of his paintings is offered by Self-Portrait, 1951 (p. 33), one of the very few works containing a specific image that lends itself to interpretation. Tangled lines, like the neurons of the brain, crisscross over a hazy blue ground, through which glow areas of orange and
Jimmy working in the Museum of Modern Art mailroom, a still from the March of Time newsreel series, 1939.
yellow, suggestive of layers of memory. Like a window, a whitish rhomboid opens on the right and, woven into its network of small faceted strokes, are the features of a face that is more likely that of his mother than his own. The “self-portrait” then can be seen as representing the artist’s inner world, haunted by the image of his mother; the two small vermillion flames may testify to the inescapable fact of her immolation in the ovens of Auschwitz. As a rule Ernst avoided literal representation, opting for a form of abstract symbolism that might originate in a dialogue with forms emerging from his unconscious, using the automatism that was his legacy from Surrealism. This small self-portrait, an abstract view of his ongoing state of mind, Artists in Exile group photo, New York, 1942. Left to right, first row: Stanley William Hayter, Leonora Carrington, Frederick Kiesler, Kurt Seligmann; provides a clue to the content un- second row: Max Ernst, Amédée Ozenfant, André Breton, Fernand Léger, derlying many of his works: the Berenice Abbott; third row: Jimmy Ernst, Peggy Guggenheim, John Ferren, layered levels of awareness and Marcel Duchamp, Piet Mondrian. suppression, the unraveling threads of memory, and the efforts to impose a rational structure on the random and impulsive. It is worth noting that at the closed three day conference, Artists Sessions at Studio 35, a question posed by Ernst was read aloud by moderator Robert Motherwell: “Is not a pure painting a self-portrait?”3 Abstract as Ernst’s works may appear, in various of his public statements he argued for content over a vacant formalism and responded in paint to contemporary events. One of the few instances in which a painting is specifically titled for the event that inspired it is Silence at Sharpeville, 1962. The photographic report in Life magazine of a massacre in South Africa had stirred him to make a painting commemorating the brutal killing of thousands. Since he had strong political convictions it is likely that other paintings also encoded references to current events, even though he resisted spelling them out. In a talk to artists from the Soviet Union during a State Department–sponsored trip in 1961 he spoke out strongly on the subject of artistic freedom: “We feel it to be our individual responsibility to advance the adventure of the human spirit by forever testing new opinions and courting new impressions.”4 During his first lonely New York years Ernst had started to paint at night in his small rented room, using the cardboard mailing folders left over from his mailroom job. Despite the many artists among his parents’ friends, he had been antagonistic to art until he was made aware of its potential power when he encountered Picasso’s Guernica in 1937 at the Paris World’s Fair. His study of art had been limited to the training in design necessary to his apprenticeship as a compositor in a printing house. He started painting what he was familiar with: surreal imagery, reflecting the fantastic hybrids and biomorphic elements in Max Ernst’s work of the later 1930s. He worked in a painstakingly precise technique, his powers of observation sharpened by long hours of minute scrutiny of typefaces in the printing plant. At the same time he used certain automatist techniques such as decalcomania, frottage, and blowing on wet paint through a straw to create flow patterns. Examples of his early efforts in the present exhibition
are The Elements and Surreal, both from 1942 (p. 17 and p. 16), and both consisting of composites of natural forms—insects, shells, sea creatures, and suggestions of wind currents, smoke, and clouds. By the time he produced these paintings, he had made friends among young artists, including two recently arrived Surrealist refugees, Roberto Matta and Gordon Onslow Ford, and the American William Baziotes. He acknowledged the important influence Matta had on his work, saying, “Matta was the bridge to the morphological approach,” and he was especially inspired by Onslow Ford’s lectures at the New School for Social Research in the winter of 1941. At the end of his fourth and final lecture Onslow Ford urged his listeners to “turn on the Cycloptic Eye in the middle of your foreheads [the “third eye”] and look inside yourselves at your internal landscape.”5 Jimmy Ernst would often, as time went on, refer to this inner eye as the fountainhead of his work. Regarding Onslow Ford’s lectures he wrote: “He seemed to say ‘Why not?,’ instead of ‘it has to be’. . . . We were not getting ‘the last word’ from Europe but rather the possibility for a further horizon that implied individualism.”6 There has been insufficient attention given to the importance of Onslow Ford’s lectures and Matta’s paintings as an inspiration for younger American artists searching for a way beyond existing styles in the early 1940s.7 As the emergence among these artists of a new hybrid that was neither Surrealist nor a derivative of cubism began to be noticed in the press, the term Abstract Surrealism was tentatively used to embrace these individualized new directions. Much of this experimental work was shown at the Norlyst Gallery, opened in 1943 by Elenor Lust, with the assistance of Jimmy Ernst, whose first three solo exhibitions were held at the gallery in 1943, 1944, and 1946. In the press release for his first exhibition the twenty-three-year-old artist took pains to differentiate himself from Surrealism, saying, “Jimmy Ernst does not consider himself a Surrealist in spite of the fact that he has been close to the group. . . he believes that a painter can rely on certain principles of Surrealism without identifying himself with the movement. . . . His work is largely fantastic. It seeks into the curiosities of science that have piqued his imagination during his youth and he attempts to translate into art forms the scientific inquiries of this generation. In a larger sense this is the presentation of the effect of this new scientific age upon a young artist.”8 The show was well received in the press, and the Museum of Modern Art purchased a biomorphic painting, The Flying Dutchman, by its former mailroom clerk. The interest in science mentioned in the press release was to be an ongoing underlying factor in Ernst’s art, first noticeable in the metamorphosis of one form of life into another, a process that became progressively abstract in the biomorphic phase of his work. Increasingly a knowledge of physics, of atomic theory, and of the structure of matter was to be a basis for his painting, tied in with what he was experiencing in music. In 1938 he had befriended some young African American street performers who smuggled him into a jazz concert, Spirituals to Swing, at Carnegie Hall where he heard such greats as Count Basie, James P. Johnson, and Lester Young. The music struck chords of response, partly because of what it taught him about structure, but also because it was not only American, but African American, and he empathized with the “pain of the rejected” out of which the music had grown. A small 1944 painting, Music from Chicago (p. 18), in which he has used the “flow” process of blowing on the paint through a straw, demonstrates his move toward abstraction via musical inspiration and the equating of color with sound. By the time of his 1946 exhibition entitled Black Music there was no longer any chance of his work being identified with Surrealism. In a short catalogue essay jazz critic Rudi Blesh commented, “Jimmy Ernst has thus made the principles of one art operate successfully in the creation of another. He has removed abstraction from the static field of geometry, from the arbitrary, the capricious, the purely personal and the sentimental; has infused painted abstraction with the cogent and systematic, yet incalculable, significance of the most abstract of all arts: music.” Among the early music-inspired paintings are Abstraction in Green and Black, 1946 (p. 25), with crescendos of dark into light, and Move On Up a Little Higher, 1947 (front cover and p. 27), which suggests notes ascending toward a blaring solo in the upper part of the canvas. In 1949 he painted SeeSee Rider, named for a twelve-bar blues song first introduced in 1924 that had been sung by
Ledbelly among others and that had been the #1 hit song of 1943. SeeSee Rider is made up of diverse components pulling in different directions. Without trying to literally read music from his paintings, one can imagine Ernst responding to soaring notes as the solo was taken up by one instrument, then another, over the steady beat of the drums. Abstraction was not a novelty by that time, but much of what one saw in the work of members of American Abstract Artists was based on the geometric approach of the Abstraction/Creation painters, whereas Ernst offers in this painting a kind of repertoire of various techniques of paint application from networks of ultrafine lines, to amorphous glowing swaths of light, opaque blacks, and intricate ambiguous black and white structures. From the outset, Ernst had been a consummate technician in paint, going against the grain during the advent of gestural painting as he worked with the precision of a fine miniaturist, probably one of the few inherited traits actually discernable in his art.
Photograph for Time magazine of Max and Jimmy Ernst in front of Jimmyâ€™s painting at an exhibition at Grace Borgenicht Gallery, New York, 1961. Photo: Ben Martin/Time magazine.
The decade of the 1950s was a stabilizing period. He was the first artist Grace Borgenicht took on when she opened her gallery in 1951 and she not only did well with sales, but helped secure a major mural commission for him for a bank in Lincoln, Nebraska. Sales and an appointment to the faculty at Brooklyn College made it possible for him to leave the job at Warner Brothers he had held since 1947. His marriage to Edith Dallas Bauman Brody, the births of his children, Amy and Eric, a move to the Connecticut village of New Canaan, and the recognition given to his precise, structured work in the face of the rising tide of heavily gestural abstract expressionism, all contributed to a newfound stability. This is reflected in the stabilizing effect of the scaffoldings in the paintings of the 1950s such as The Mystique of Science, 1955 (p. 39), a canvas divided between bold black calligraphic strokes against white on the left and on the right a delicate architecture in which webs of fine white lines interweave with a horizontal/vertical grid set in a blue/gray haze. There is much to ponder in this enigmatic confrontation, but as usual the artist leaves it to the viewer to reflect on a meaning. The same is true of the black on black paintings, which came about by chance in the mid-1950s when some high sheen black enamel landed accidentally on the matte black ground of a prepared canvas. As it dried he saw the potential of this combination and began to use it deliberately, playing up the contrasting effects produced by the absorption and reflection of light as in Untitled: Black on Black, 1956 (p. 40). He returned to this combination in the emblematic Nightscape series of 1969 (pp. 62â€“63) and again with the dense black versions of his Sea of Grass series in 1982 (p. 77). In 1961 Ernst received a Guggenheim Fellowship and traveled in Europe, visiting his father in France and returning to Germany for the first time. Judging by the subsequent paintings this trip awakened many memories and released a flood of emotions. A Memoir of Recent History, 1966 (p. 57), can be read quite literally as the charred timbers and fallen blocks of stone of the bombed Cologne cathedral, although it could also stand for any number of bombings of more recent years. A number of large, predominantly deep blue paintings reflect his revisiting the restored cathedral. One sees its soaring gothic
vaults in Recollections and Silence, 1962 (p. 49), punctuated by glowing reds that suggest the crematorium ovens, an eerie juxtaposition that may reflect the Catholic Church’s silence on the wholesale murder of Jews. Similarly, in Chronicle, 1964 (back cover and p. 55), there is a suggestion of a Gothic window on the right and, above a barrier of black bars on the left, a fiery explosion. There is a religious quality to these densely layered sonorous paintings of the 1960s that makes one recall that Ernst’s favorite painting was Grunewald’s Isenheim Altarpiece in Colmar, a work that encompasses both darkness and radiance, the starkness of the Crucifixion panel, the triumph of the golden angel musicians in the Nativity, and the blaze of glory of the Resurrection. I think he wanted something of this range of emotions and grandeur of scale in the work that followed his return to Germany. During the same period Ernst did several moving paintings on the theme of Icarus, a subject he had first attempted in 1945 (1964 version, p. 53; a larger 1962 version is in the Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.). In his autobiography he recalls his alarm on seeing Breughel’s Fall of Icarus in an exhibition at the Orangerie in Paris. On a scrap of paper found in his studio were the words: “Recall Icarus legend—the father’s feathers—but would it be art?” Did he think of himself in that role, ascending with wings fashioned by his father and attempting to fly too high? Although Ernst harbored resentful and conflicting feelings about his father, it seems clear that in his paintings as well as his writing he distanced himself from Max, that he sought to live his own life very differently, and that he wanted above all to banish negativity from his art. On another scrap of paper, one with tack holes in it, he had typed in capitals the following words: “No work of art has ever come out of self-pity or hate, indignation or sadness. . . perhaps.” Whatever the underlying motivation may have been, he made two of his most poignant and radiant paintings using the Icarus image. The feathered brushstroke he had developed by lifting his brush in a certain way naturally suited the image of the dissolving wings, useless to stop the freefall of the plummeting youth. The wings are still illuminated but seem about to merge into the surrounding blue, while the sun’s heat is reflected by the reds in the sea below. Through his use of minute touches of paint and meshes of fine lines Ernst achieves the effect of a pulsating nature in which all substances merge and into which the hapless Icarus will be absorbed.
Jimmy and Dallas Ernst and their children, Eric and Amy, with the sculpture Capricorn, 1948, by Max Ernst in Sedona, Arizona, c. 1960.
In 1982 Ernst circled back in time to recuperate an icon from his early experience, the Hopi Kachina. On arriving in the United States he had been driven by his sponsor to New Mexico, where he lived for several months with an anthropologist in a tent a few feet behind a Navajo Hogan. At the trading post that served the neighboring Hopi reservation he first saw a variety of Kachina dolls with feathered headdresses.9 Three years later he was with Max when the latter purchased the entire stock of Kachinas from a local trading post. In the 1950s he and his family stayed in the homestead turned over to them by Max and Dorothea Tanning and they began to acquire Kachinas of their own. The figures in Kachina White, 1982 (p. 79), hover like apparitions in a pale mist. They represent the Hemis Kachina, which traditionally appears in the last ceremony of the year just
after the summer solstice when Kachinas “go home” to the mountains where they are believed to dwell for the rest of the year. In addition to a revisiting of a time long past, perhaps here they are a premonition of mortality since Ernst had already suffered a heart attack and was to have a fatal one in early 1984. Ernst’s last series was landscape-based. In the Sea of Grass paintings (p. 77) he appears to have replaced the tensions of his earlier work with a new and uncharacteristic calm. These horizontally banded paintings of sea grasses reflected in shallow water with a further view of deeper blue sea and low-lying land offer the viewer a tranquil field for contemplation. He had resolved a long standing problem that had troubled him for years and in so-doing had perhaps laid some of his demons to rest. Also, he was living for part of each year in a house he had acquired on one of the Florida Keys with the sea and sea grasses virtually at his door. Yet into this time of newfound tranquility came news that prompted one last harrowing large work, Moments in Cell #12 (Requiem for L.S.E.), 1983. 10 A man had contacted him who had known Louise Straus-Ernst in the weeks before her arrest and who had received her Drancy ID photo and a description of “an exhausted woman in the last rays of a dying sun.” Memories forced into the background behind a barricade of linear meshes had again resurfaced in his art. Gleams and Shadows, 1980 (p. 75), offers an opportunity to sum up Ernst’s contribution and place in him in an historical context. In keeping with the all-over use of surface characteristic of 1950s Abstract Expressionist work as well as the color field painting that followed in the 1960s, Gleams and Shadows has an activated surface made up of interweaving stippled white lines over a variegated blue ground extending to the edges. Instead of large assertive brushstrokes, Ernst’s touches of the brush are myriad and minute, but spontaneous nonetheless. And like his fellow Irascibles, he painted in response to what was emerging on his canvas rather than in accordance with a preconceived plan, although at some point decisions are made. Where the background blue is replaced with red, hovering “gleams” appear in the upper half of the canvas while in the lower half a shift to a brighter blue produces four shadowy squares. It’s a painting one can almost hear as well as see—a low ongoing hum, a melody made up of notes of shifting duration, and deep accompanying chords, the edges blurring slightly as sound diminishes. Today the expression “time-based art” generally refers to video and performance, but much of Ernst’s painting actually engages the eye over an extended time period through its ongoing vibration, its after-images, and the detachment from any fixed point in space; in other words it shifts and changes as one looks. It confronts us with something that resonates yet is ultimately indefinable. Ernst said in a 1962 interview, “It’s the mystery that I as a painter am anxious to crystallize,” which is precisely what he has done in this painting. What in Ernst’s paintings holds the viewer’s gaze, other than the fascinating intricacies of form, is the tension between the seen and the unseen, the coexistence of order and chaos, and that ultimate irresolvable mystery that is part of the human condition. A true child of history, the product of conflicting forces in a perilous time, Ernst was able to transmit on canvas an image of the complexities through which he lived, an image in which he hoped viewers would find a reflection of their own experience. After all, as he wrote, “Artists and poets are the raw nerve ends of humanity.”
Jimmy Ernst, A Not-So-Still Life (New York, St. Martin’s Press, 1984). Statement in Art Journal, vol. XV, no. 1, p. 52. Modern Artists in America (New York: Wittenborn, Schultz, 1951), p. 17. 4. “An Open Letter to Artists of the Soviet Union,” Art Journal, vol. 21 (winter 1961–62), p. 68. 5. From a handwritten draft of the fourth lecture, Onslow Ford papers, Lucid Art Foundation, Inverness, CA. 6. Ernst, A Not-So-Still Life, pp. 196–97. 7. A note on a scrap of paper in Ernst’s studio—possibly a note for his book—reads: “Why is it that surveys of the School of New York studiously avoid even the mere mention of a Bill Hayter or a Matta. . . not to speak of other pioneers. . . .We artists know and are asking the rest of society not to accept self-seeking judgments blindly.” 8. Press release, March 1943, Elenor Lust papers, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C. 9. A Kachina doll is one of the three aspects of the supernatural Kachina who intervenes between the Hopis and their gods; Kachina ceremonies, which involve the whole community, aim to foster rain, fertility, and growth. Another aspect of the Kachina cult involves the spirits of the dead and the Kachina as the medium of communication between the living and the dead. The Kachina that appears in Ernst’s Kachina White is similar to a Hemis Kachina that belongs to the Ernst family. 10. Now in the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, Washington, D.C. Gift of the Estate of Jimmy Ernst. 2. 3.
Ernst in his studio, 1965. Photo: Fred McDarrah.
This is about Jimmy Ernst, born in 1920 in Germanyâ€”our dear friend the painter and writer, who was killed instantly by a stroke on February 6th, 1984. He was at the peak of his powers, and of his happiness, too, by all outward signs. His stunning autobiography had just been published. . . . I will say a word about his father. Max Ernst was surely the most famous artist in any field to sire a member of the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters. To reverse that equation: Jimmy Ernst is the only son of a great artist, that I can think of anyway, who reached for greatness in the self-same art. â€”Kurt Vonnegut
Rudyâ€™s Rag, 1940 Oil on canvas, 12 x 12 inches
Surreal, 1942 Oil on canvas, 12 x 16 inches
The Elements, 1942 Oil on canvas, 20 x 24 inches
Music from Chicago, 1944 Oil on canvas, 16 x 10 inches 18
Biological Discovery, 1944 Oil on canvas, 221⁄4 x 321⁄4 inches
Untitled, 1944 Oil on canvas, 15 x 16 inches
Untitled, 1944 Pencil on paper, 7 x 51â „2 inches
Nova, 1945 Paint resist on paper, 7 x 9 inches
Hip Hop, 1945 Watercolor paint resist on paper, 191â „2 x 14 inches 23
Biomorph, 1945 Oil on canvas, 15 x 8 inches
Abstraction in Green and Black, 1946 Oil on canvas, 28 x 40 inches
Drum Improvisation, 1948 Oil on canvas, 42 x 33 inches
Move On Up a Little Higher, 1947 Oil on canvas, 43 x 32 inches 27
The Window, 1949 Oil on canvas, 24 x 20 inches
Science Fiction, 1948 Oil on canvas, 451â „2 x 50 inches
The Hero, 1948 Oil on canvas 50 x 15 inches
Collage (Black and White), 1951 Collage on paper, 20 x 25 inches
Untitled, c. 1950 Pastel on paper, 9 x 12 inches
Self-Portrait, 1951 Oil on canvas, 24 x 20 inches
Isotope, 1952 Gouache, crayon, and paint resist on paper, 11 x 181â „2 inches
Mineral A, 1951 Oil on canvas, 25 x 29 inches
Personal Appearance, 1952 Oil on canvas, 36 x 48 inches
Untitled, 1952 Oil on canvas, 30 x 36 inches
Animals and Minerals, 1952 Oil on canvas, 43 x 43 inches
The Mystique of Science, 1955 Oil on canvas, 331â „2 x 40 inches
Untitled (Black on Black), 1956 Oil on board, 36 x 48 inches
Untitled, 1957 Oil on canvas, 50 x 47 inches
Dream Glass Draw, 1958 Gouache on paper, 29 x 391â „2 inches
Untitled, 1959 Oil on panel, 30 x 24 inches
Rockface, 1959 Gouache on paper, 10 x 133â „4 inches
Untitled, 1959 Gouache on paper, 111â „2 x 18 inches
Moon Accent White, 1959 Gouache on paper, 18 x 27 inches
Untitled, 1960 Gouache on paper, 14 x 161â „2 inches
Untitled, 1959 Gouache on paper, 91â „4 x 13 inches
Recollections and Silence, 1962 Oil on canvas, 60 x 50 inches
The Carnivorous Garden, 1963 Oil on canvas, 42 x 52 inches
Afterwards, 1963 Oil on canvas, 40 x 30 inches 51
December, 1963 Watercolor on paper, 81â „2 x 11 inches
Icarus, 1964 Oil on canvas, 493⁄4 x 391⁄2 inches
Nightscape III, 1964 Oil on metal, 15 inches diameter
Chronicle, 1964 Oil on canvas, 40 x 50 inches
Homage to Edgar VarĂ¨se, 1965 Oil on canvas, 50 x 65 inches
Memoir of a Recent History, 1966 Oil on canvas, 40 x 48 inches
Untitled, 1967 Oil on metal, 53â „4 inches diameter
Sentinel, 1967 Oil on canvas, 65 x 50 inches
Untitled, 1967 Oil on canvas, 20 x 24 inches
Only Yesterday, 1968 Oil on canvas, 60 x 50 inches
Nightscape IV, 1969 Oil on metal, 15 inches diameter
Nightscape IIIa, 1969 Oil on metal, 15 inches diameter
Nightscape III, 1969 Oil on metal, 15 inches diameter
Nightscape VI, 1969 Oil on metal, 15 inches diameter
Untitled, 1970 Gouache on paper, 91⁄2 x 121⁄2 inches
Oraibi, 1972 Oil and acrylic on canvas, 64 x 78 inches
Another Silence, 1972 Oil on canvas, 73 x 1201â „2 inches
Due North, 1972â€“73 Oil on canvas, 50 x 60 inches
Twice, 1972 Oil on canvas, 50 x 60 inches
Epilogue, 1974 Oil on canvas, 40 x 50 inches
High Frequency, 1974 Oil on canvas, 30 x 40 inches
Exile, 1974 Oil on canvas, 50 x 60 inches
Mombasa, 1975 Oil on canvas, 50 x 60 inches
Without a Sound, 1977â€“78 Oil on canvas, 50 x 60 inches
I am not entitled to say what his best painting was, although I have my favorite—a triptych, black on black, executed so meticulously that the paint might have been laid on by a jeweler using a magnifying glass.—Kurt Vonnegut
Midnight Sun, 1976 Oil on canvas, 511⁄2 x 123 inches
Gleams and Shadows, 1980 Acrylic on canvas, 62 x 76 inches
Four Days, 1979 Watercolor and gouache on paper, 26 x 20 inches 76
Sea of Grass, Nocturne V, 1982 Acrylic on paper 24 x 18 inches
Sea of Grass–Green, 1982 Acrylic on paper 30 x 221⁄2 inches
Fragments of Memory, A Not-So-Still Life I, 1982 Mixed media, watercolor, and gouache on paper, 331â „2 x 25 inches 78
Kachina White, 1982 Oil on canvas, 50 x 60 inches
JIMMY ERNST MUSEUM COLLECTIONS
Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, New York American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters, New York Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto The Art Institute of Chicago Boca Raton Museum of Art, Florida Brooklyn Museum of Art The Butler Institute of American Art, Youngstown, Ohio
New York University, Grey Art Gallery and Study Center Norton Museum of Art, West Palm Beach, Florida Norton Simon Museum, Pasadena, California Oakland University, Rochester, Minnesota Parrish Art Museum, South Hampton, New York Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Philadelphia
Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.
Philbrook Art Center, Tulsa, Oklahoma
Cranbrook Academy of Art, Bloomfield Hills, Michigan
Phoenix Art Museum
Dallas Museum of Fine Arts Des Moines Art Center, Iowa Flint Museum of Art, Michigan Galerie de XX Jahrhunderts, Berlin Grand Rapids Art Museum, Michigan Guild Hall Museum, East Hampton, New York Heckscher Museum, Huntington, New York Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C. Hofstra University, Emily Lowe Art Gallery, Hempstead, New York Israel Museum, Jerusalem Lehigh University Museum, Bethlehem, Pennsylvania McNay Art Institute, San Antonio Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York Munson-Williams-Proctor Institute, Utica, New York Museum of Fine Arts, Houston Museum of Fine Arts, St. Petersburg, Florida Museum of Modern Art, New York Museum Ludwig, Cologne National Museum of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C. Nebraska Foundation for the Arts, Lincoln
Neuberger Museum of Art, State University of New York, Purchase
Pompidou Center, Musée National d’Art Moderne, Paris Rhode Island School of Design Museum of Art, Providence Ringling Museum of Art, Sarasota, Florida Rose Art Museum, Brandeis University, Waltham, Massachusetts San Francisco Museum of Modern Art Sheldon Memorial Art Gallery, University of Nebraska, Lincoln Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York Städtisches Kunsthaus, Bielefeld, Germany Toledo Museum of Art, Ohio United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, Washington, D.C. Southern Illinois University Museum, Carbondale Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Richmond Wadsworth Atheneum, Hartford, Connecticut Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, Minnesota Whitney Museum of American Art, New York University of Colorado, Fine Arts Gallery, Boulder University of Michigan Museum of Art, Ann Arbor University of Connecticut, William Benton Museum of Art, Storrs University of Texas, Jack S. Blanton Museum of Art, Austin
W E I N S T E I N
G A L L E R Y
Jimmy Ernst exhibition catalogue published by Weinstein Gallery in San Francisco