Slide 1: “Small Portrait” 1950  Oil on canvas 14 ½ x 11 ½ in. / Slide 2: “Tomorrow is Never” 1955 Oil on canvas  37  ⅞ x 53 ⅞ in. /  Slide 3: “Tomorrow Mr. Silver” 1949 Oil on canvas 18.1 x 14 in.

MOURNING BECOMES ELECTRA

The Motif of Scaffolding
in the Works of Artist Kay Sage

The popularity of Surrealist artist Kay Sage never seems to abate. Her paintings have been the object  of exhibitions over the past decade and due to the rarity of her output, her name at auction draws fanfare.  Indeed,  “Tomorrow is Never” (1955) and “At the Appointed Time”  are now on view at “Fantastic Women: Surreal Worlds from Meret Oppenheim to Frida Kahlo” at the Schirn Kunsthalle Frankfurt, (through July 5th).  “Other Answers” 1945 is currently up for auction at Christie’s as of this writing.

Several compelling themes emerge in her work, particularly the motif of scaffolding. Forming a signature in her oeuvre, signs of lattice work first appear in “Midnight” (oil on canvas) from 1944.  Set against a severe backdrop of navy blue, a biomorphic form, in the shape of a sail,  sits in the foreground; the scene is nocturnal. The triangular form, composed of folds and large in scale, stands erect as a sentinel.   Set in a wide expanse of space, a ghost-like appearance of a stick formation looms in the distance. Jagged and skeletal, the structure is made of horizontal and vertical beams.  Echoing the influence of Giorgio De Chirico, Sage paints long shadows behind the form. A lean palette of blue, white and grey is spare and imparts an aura of isolation and somnolence. 

“Midnight” 1944 Oil on canvas 

16 x 13 inches

 “Small Portrait” 1950 Oil on canvas 

14 ½ x 11 ½ inches

Somnolence was not on the artists’ mind when she painted the dramatic “Small Portrait” (oil on canvas)  from 1950. Combining both structural and draped elements, it implodes and gathers simultaneously. Portraits were a rarity for Kay Sage.  Beams overlap amid the grip of drapery. Without eye, mouth or ear socket, there are no orifices except for the placement of folds and interlacing beams to signify a façade. The face is precisely constructed; Drapery stands in lieu of shoulder blades and lintels substitute for  a collar bone. The swirl of a hairline and curve of beams suggest movement. A single light source shines from above while a spare palette of olive, burnt sienna and beige delivers a brooding interior landscape. Replete of humanity, the effect is disquieting.

“Tomorrow Mr. Silver” 1949 Oil Canvas

 18.1 x 14 inches. 

“Tomorrow Mr. Silver” draws the viewer in for the mysterious rock formation in the immediate foreground. Biomorphic forms sit on the picture plane while the curved reach of caged scaffolding is reminiscent of detritus or a husked shell, a  ribcage. “Tomorrow Mr. Silver” conveys an aftermath. Wispy and faint, a forlorn flag hangs limp.

“Tomorrow is Never” 1955 Oil on canvas

37  ⅞ x 53 ⅞ inches

“Kay Sage made this work after a five-month hiatus from painting following the death of her husband Yves Tanguy. Like many Surrealists, she used landscape imagery as a metaphor for the mind and psychological systems of being. Rendered in somber grey tones, “Tomorrow is Never” combines motifs in the later stages of her career, including architectural scaffolding, lattice-work structures and draped figures to evoke feelings of entrapment and dislocation. The painting is one of her last works before her suicide in 1963.”

 – Statement, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

One of her larger works, “Tomorrow is Never” (oil on canvas) from 1955 reflects a shift.  Taking architectural elements, the scaffolding now imprisons furling forms. The elongated structures climb into the air and float untethered. Ladders start and end indiscriminately. The towers continue into a distance.  An elongated cloudlike band to the far right signals stirrings of a tornado. “Tomorrow is Never” reflects pathos. Clearly, the death of husband Yves Tanguy, due to a cerebral hemorrhage, left an indelible mark on Sage. 

She was once quoted as saying: “I have said all that I have to say. There is nothing left for me to do but scream”. In 1963, Sage ended her life with a self-inflicted wound to the heart. It is jarring for a viewer to reconcile the violence with which she took her own life to the muted aspects of her work. The echo of that gunshot wound still carries reverberations.

Portrait of the artist, 1944

Kay Sage continues to capture attention today for her deeply personal iconography. Her lean palette and vocabulary of shapes imbue emotive power and speak to an era of “social distancing”. Her landscapes remain memorable for their ability to tap into our humanity and our shared alienation.