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Dorothea Tanning

Alison Jacques Gallery
16 - 18 Berners Street
September 1, 2016–October 1, 2016

Dorothea Tanning, Convolotus alchemelia (Quiet-willow window), 1998, oil on canvas, 56 x 66".

An artist’s final works invariably provoke morbid speculation—think of Philip Guston’s The Line, 1978, in which a monumental hand stretches from the heavens to score the earth. It’s trickier with Dorothea Tanning’s flower paintings, her very last works, because she was anything but melancholic about them: “In painting these flowers my reward, then, was the simple delight that came with making them happen.” Apparently, in 1997, having stopped painting some years before, Tanning found a dozen unused canvases and worked on them in intense bursts of energy . . . then nothing more until her death in 2012. Six of these midsize pieces are shown here, along with preparatory drawings.

Tanning’s delight notwithstanding, these are nightmarish plants, filled with malevolent languor—their widening orifices and fetid colorings of drained mauve, pink, and orange suggest carnivorous intentions. In five of these pictures’ backgrounds are stretched female nudes, mimicking landscape forms, in putrefying gray green, the bodies obscured (or perhaps consumed?) by the huge flowers. The dry and inexpressive brushwork annuls any reassuring painterly sensuality. Clearly, rules of predation and sexual satisfaction are rewritten in this realm; the paintings could easily refer to some of Charles Baudelaire’s bleaker poems from Flowers of Evil (1857). Fittingly, Tanning invited poet friends to name the flowers and contribute verse for each painting. For Convolotus alchemelia (Quiet-willow window), 1998, Brenda Shaughnessy, to describe an image of gray flesh dissolving into a bed of sharp blue petals, writes, “edges smudged to blur / the violetly-loved body.” Such effective artist-poet collaborations intensify these paintings’ troubling reflections on sex and time.

Mark Harris