A Woman in a Man’s Surrealism: Kay Sage
American Gems: Small Artworks, Enduring Impact: Kay Sage (1898–1963)
By Kate Faulkner, Associate Curator of Education for Public Programs, Norton Museum of Art
This series features short essays on artworks in the American collection that visitors may have missed simply because of their intimate scale. Despite their size, these works and the artists who made them provide important insights into the expanding field of American art. It is our pleasure to explore these gems with you.
Kay Sage’s painting The Wind in a Corner presents an atmosphere of quiet mystery. We see a bleak, vast, dream-like landscape. Our physical entry into this space is interrupted by an array of giant and densely packed forms in the painting’s foreground. These peculiar remnants recall machine-like structures and other familiar objects, such as a monolithic tower comprised of vague industrial elements. The tower abuts a wall jutting forward into space and truncated by the right edge of the canvas. Almost completely obscured by a dark shadow cast by the tower’s immense architectural shape, the wall is also masked by another shadow created from a mass of loosely draped fabric evoking a sail. Similar fabric-like forms dominate the foreground at the bottom of the composition. The strange formations seem to cover other ambiguous objects, further impeding our view. The painting features not only Sage’s obscure structures, but the artist’s signature palette of somber tones of gray, brown, and ocher. The impact of the austere, uninhabited terrain is underscored by the narrow range of color, heightening a powerful sense of absence or loss.
Kay Sage achieved notable success as one of the few women Surrealists. Born near Albany, New York, she grew up with artistic aspirations and eventually moved to Paris in 1937 where she entered the orbit of several artists involved with Surrealism. She experimented with different subject matter such as floating biomorphic forms, tilted perspectives, shadows, ribbons, and arched doorways, and admired the metaphysical paintings of Italian artist Giorgio de Chirico, an older who profoundly influenced Surrealist imagery.
Sage eventually married French artist Yves Tanguy and moved to New York at the onset of World War II where she continued to paint and worked to secure passage to the US for many French Surrealists. Fascinated with Surrealism, Sage did not shift into Abstract Expressionism during the 1940s unlike other American artists. Rather she continued her exploration of densely packed geometric forms against contrasting flat, simple background settings. Like her contemporaries, Sage used landscape imagery to mirror psychological conditions. Her enigmatic work often conveyed a disquieting mood, melancholy, and disorienting dream-like visions.
In Sage’s own words, “…things are half mechanical, half alive.” Large totemic shapes, or “personages” considered by some as abstracted substitutions for the human figure, frequently animate Sage’s paintings. Suggesting a feeling of isolation, these “personages” rise above the infinite expanse of the landscape to evoke a powerful presence. In The Wind in a Corner, the drapery serving to hide the underlying vertical structure has been pulled away to reveal the curious tower it was meant to protect. Motifs such as draped figures, futuristic architecture, and wasteland settings frequently appear in paintings and suggest feelings of disturbance, dislocation, and confusion. Although often considered haunting because of their lack of human presence, Sage’s work also shines with moments of mysterious serenity through her compelling imagined dreamscapes.