“When I bought my first Kurt Seligmann painting, I thought that I had bought a great Surrealist painting,” says Rowland Weinstein, the owner of Weinstein Gallery. And it’s true. He had bought an important piece from the renowned artist. But it was the overwhelmingly positive reaction from some of Weinstein’s staff that floored him. “When the painting came in, they didn’t really know who Kurt Seligmann was. All they could do was just look at the painting for what it was.” And what it was must have been something else, because the group was unanimously moved — one person even claimed that it was the best piece of art they had ever seen.
[jump] Weinstein, whose gallery of big-deal Surrealists contains work by Joan Miró and Max Ernst, is no stranger to incredible talent. Still, with a reception like that, it’s not hard to see why Seligmann would hold a special place with the owner, who this month presents Kurt Seligmann: First Message From the Spirit World of the Object, the first American retrospective of the artist’s work in nearly 60 years.
“I was blown away because they weren't responding to it as Surrealism, they weren't responding to it as 'he’s an important artist,’ they were just responding to it as art for art's sake,” Weinstein said.
And this is a notion that probably would have gone over favorably with Seligmann, who, along with his Surrealist contemporaries, believed that art doesn’t necessarily have to contain highbrow subject matter or a political message. The fact that an art piece exists at all is enough of a reason to recognize its validity.
And so influenced by this freedom — and by the work of Sigmund Freud — Surrealists leaned toward the sort of subconscious style that’s normally so easy to recognize. Seligmann’s, however, are a little different.
“A lot of [the Surrealists] were exploring the subconscious,” explains Weinstein Gallery Executive Director, Kendy Genovese. In fact, the Surrealists created a set of games that were designed to randomly generate images from the artist's subconscious, rather than producing than hyper-controlled imagery. “But Kurt continued to explore the subconscious through mythology,” says Genovese. “He was probably one of the most scholarly of all of the Surrealists — which definitely sets him apart.”
Seligmann’s pursuit of intellectual practices did set him apart from his fellow painters, a difference that’s marked in his work. Where another artist might simply depict a series of dreams, Seligmann would incorporate ancient, occult symbolism. And his penchant for the paranormal was extreme, so much so that Seligmann even wrote a book on magic. “I don’t know another Surrealist painter who was also writing a book on their obsession with magic,” Genovese states, “and who was so scholarly about it.”
Whether it’s his infatuation with witchcraft, or simply the beauty of the images, Seligmann’s pieces provoke a strong reaction from viewers.
“That’s, I think, what makes Seligmann so powerful,” says Weinstein. “You can like something because it’s historically important — but that's not what's going on here. People are just liking it because they’re responding to the power of the imagery.”
Kurt Seligmann: First Message From the Spirit World of the Object, May 9-June 13, at Weinstein Gallery, 444 Clementina, 362-8151.