• Biography
    Born in Galesburg, Illinois, 1910
    Died in New York, New York, 2012

  • "Around 1955, my canvases literally splintered. Their colors came out of the closet, you might say, to open the rectangles to a different light. They were prismatic, surfaces where I veiled, suggested and floated my persistent icons and preoccupations, in another of the thousand ways of saying the same things."
         –Dorothea Tanning, from Between Lives: An Artist and Her World. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2001, p. 178.

  • Dorothea Tanning’s artistic career defies simple categorization. Primarily a painter, Tanning expanded her practice to include sculpture, collage, printmaking, and...
    Dorothea Tanning’s artistic career defies simple categorization. Primarily a painter, Tanning expanded her practice to include sculpture, collage, printmaking, and ultimately writing. An American artist, she also lived and worked for 30 years in France. Best known for her early Surrealist imagery, she would go on to test the boundaries of figuration and abstraction, arriving at a unique approach that hovers between the two. Over the course of seven decades, Tanning created radical and provocative representations of the human form and human drama, evoking literature, myth, desire, sensuality, and pure imagination in work that continues to resonate today.

    Tanning was born in 1910 and raised in the Midwestern town of Galesburg, Illinois. By age twenty, she decided to pursue her artistic ambitions and moved to Chicago, where she taught herself painting techniques by studying the collection of the Art Institute. In 1936, a visit the Museum of Modern Art in New York to see the landmark exhibition Fantastic Art, Dada, and Surrealism introduced her to the Surrealist idiom. There she found an affinity with the movement and what she called its “limitless expanse of POSSIBILITY.” Before long, her own surreal paintings were discovered by the gallerist Julien Levy, who signed her on and introduced her to the luminaries of the Surrealist circle—both Americans of the avant-garde and Europeans who had taken refuge in New York during World War II, among whom was the artist Max Ernst. Tanning and Ernst were married in 1946.
  • Tanning’s paintings from the 1940s—several of which have become icons of the period—render figures in disquieting dreamscape settings, often in varying stages of transformation. The self-portrait Birthday (1942, Philadelphia Museum of Art) depicts the artist with a fantastical winged creature opening the first in a series of doors symbolizing those endless possibilities of what might lie ahead, while Eine Kleine Nachtmusik (1943, Tate) represents a pair of young girls in a supernatural hotel-like environment. In the years that followed, many spent in Sedona, Arizona, Tanning’s images become increasingly enigmatic and ambiguous, often including the likeness of her beloved Lhasa apso, Katchina, as an outsized character in their suggested narratives.

    By the late 1950s, Tanning had moved to Paris. During this period, her representational style yielded to greater abstraction, and ethereal bodies began to shift and merge in an “ever-intensifying complexity of planes.” A painting emblematic of this period, Insomnias (1957, Moderna Museet), appears as a fractured stained glass window washed in hues of blue, violet, and rust. “I wanted to lead the eye into spaces that hid, revealed, transformed all at once,” said Tanning of the work, “where there would be some never-before-seen image, as if it had appeared with no help from me.”  Throughout the 1960s, Tanning explored the plays of color, light, shape, and volume in increasingly opaque atmospheres, bringing her compositions to the brink of abstraction, but never abandoning the figure completely. In 1969, artist began fashioning corporeal forms from fabric stuffed with wool that appear to both emerge from and melt into their settings. These pioneering soft sculptures culminated in an immersive installation, Hôtel du Pavot, Chambre 202 (1970–73, Centre Georges Pompidou). She rediscovered the expressive potential of more discernable figures and settings in her paintings of the 1970s, still holding to the Surrealist philosophy that, as she described, “there are realities that have nothing to do with logic; and that diving into the subconscious—I call it surconscious—is the way to find them.”

    Relocating once again to New York City following Ernst’s death in 1976, Tanning maintained an active studio practice through the 1980s and ‘90s, creating some of her most ambitious paintings, collages, and works on paper. In the later years of her life, Tanning dedicated more of her time to writing, publishing two memoirs (1986, 2001), a novel (2004), and two collections of poems (2004, 2011), the last of which was released just months before she died in 2012 at the age of 101.

    Although Tanning celebrated the female form, Tanning believed that gender-based analyses of her work did more to confine it than to illuminate it. She emphatically rejected the categorization of woman artist, stating: “You may be a woman and you may be an artist; but the one is a given and the other is you.”

    In her lifetime, Tanning was the subject of major exhibitions at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, Pennsylvania (2000); the Camden Arts Centre, London (1993); Malmö Konsthall, Sweden (1993); and the Centre Pompidou, Paris (1974). In 2018, she was the subject of a major retrospective at the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía in Madrid, which traveled to Tate Modern in London until 2019. In 2022, Tanning’s work was included in The Witches Cradle, one of five historical sections embedded within the 59th Venice Biennale. Earlier that year, Kasmin organized the most comprehensive exhibition of Tanning’s work for a U.S. audience in decades, Doesn’t the Paint Say It All?, in collaboration with the Destina Foundation and the Dorothea Tanning Foundation. The exhibition was accompanied by a fully illustrated catalogue that featured three newly commissioned essays by noted scholars of Surrealism and a 1995 essay by Tanning entitled “To Paint,” named one of the best art books of 2022 by Hyperallergic. The most recent definitive monograph on the artist, authored by Victoria Carruthers, was published by Lund Humphries in 2020.

    Tanning’s work is held in numerous prominent U.S. and international institutions, including the Art Institute of Chicago, Illinois; the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, California; the Menil Collection, Houston; the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; Moderna Museet, Stockholm; the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris, France; the Musée National d’Art Moderne, Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris; the Museo Centro Nacional Reina Sofía, Madrid; the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston; the Museum of Modern Art, New York; the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.; the National Gallery of Australia, Canberra; the Philadelphia Museum of Art, Pennsylvania; the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, California; the Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, D.C.; Tate Modern, London; the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, Hartford; the Walker Art Center, Minneapolis; and the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, among others.

  • Works
    • Dorothea Tanning, Turbulents, c. 1965
      Turbulents, c. 1965
    • Dorothea Tanning, Controversy, 1997-99
      Controversy, 1997-99
    • Dorothea Tanning, Portrait de famille (Family Portrait), 1977
      Portrait de famille (Family Portrait), 1977
    • Dorothea Tanning, Inutile (Useless), 1969
      Inutile (Useless), 1969
    • Dorothea Tanning, Far From, 1964
      Far From, 1964
    • Dorothea Tanning, La Chienne et sa muse (The Dog and Her Muse), 1964
      La Chienne et sa muse (The Dog and Her Muse), 1964
  • Exhibitions
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