Surrealism is hot, hot, hot right now. There’s an illuminating Magritte retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art, shows of the movement at galleries all over town, and a bounty of artworks awaiting eager collectors at next month’s auctions. Blain Di Donna, with an assist from private dealer Timothy Baum, is coming at it from a pleasantly oblique angle in this jam-packed Wunderkammer of a show, which sports 80 objects—editions, sculptures, souvenirs, bric-à-brac—by its practitioners and their immediate antecedents in Dada.
Beginning in the 1910s, the Dadaists and then the Surrealists sidelined (though never fully abandoned) traditional sculpture-making techniques, like carving and casting, in favor of found objects and assemblages, chasing objects and engineering juxtapositions that would explode notions of art and prick the unconscious. They foraged in flea markets, consulted their dreams and did some pretty odd things to existing stuff. Man Ray photographed his eye and stuck it on a metronome. Marcel Duchamp (who flirted with both groups but joined neither) hid something inside of a ball of yarn and sandwiched it between two metal plates. Salvador Dalí combined a high-heeled shoe, a sugar cube, a photo of a nude couple, a pubic hair (of a virgin, he emphasized) and other objects into a sculpture that now delights as a rollicking brand of kitsch, like a lot of Surrealism.
All of those objects are in the Blain Di Donna exhibition, a well-stocked vintage candy store (a comparison I owe to my editor), offering up something for everyone and shaded with tones variously nostalgic, ludic and humorous: spindly Man Ray earrings, brilliant little Joseph Cornell boxes filled with tiny objects and colored sand, ready to be shaken, weirdo chess sets by Alexander Calder (painted wood) and Man Ray (sharp-edged geometric aluminum), and little Cornell pill boxes, not much bigger than a quarter, which were new to me.
If some of this work reads today as cliché, it’s only because it was once so potent—and so sincere in its aims—that it has fully entered our lexicon of visual culture. You can mock it, but it’s a lot more fun to give yourself over to it. Savor Magritte’s blue, resin baguette (“Favorite Food for the Blue Birds,” he explains in his title) or the book Please Touch that Duchamp and Enrico Donati have adorned with a realistic foam breast.
And as you’re enjoying what might strike you as something of a stoner vibe, brace yourself for the pieces that will sneak up on you in one way or another, eliciting unexpected emotional or intellectual reactions, like a Donati sculpture in which leather boots are transmogrifying rather creepily into feet or the sculpture that Duchamp made in 1965, near the end of his life with the young French artist Arman, encasing a piece of paper bearing a list of moves from a 1924 chess match in a sheet of plastic. It ended in a draw, not total victory, but Duchamp went on to play plenty more. (Through Dec. 13, 2013)