San Francisco dealer Rowland Weinstein bought his first Kurt Seligmann painting six years ago. “When the painting came into the gallery,” he recalls, “all the young artists on staff went crazy over it. None had ever heard of him, but each had a deep response to the powerful imagery and painterly quality. That reaction inspired me.” It inspired him enough, in fact, to eventually give the Swiss-born Surrealist his first major American retrospective in 55 years. That show, titled “Kurt Seligmann: First Message From the Spirit World of the Object,” runs May 9–June 13 at Weinstein Gallery and features 50 paintings spanning the artist’s four-decade career (he died in 1962 at 62), as well as several important works on paper.
The reasons for this highly original artist’s relative obscurity are themselves somewhat obscure. Maybe it all started when André Breton kicked him out of the Surrealist group because of an argument over the interpretation of Tarot cards. Or maybe it was because Seligmann just had too many interests, activities, and modes of working to fit comfortably into any category. During the 1930s and early ’40s, he was an integral part of the New York art scene, exhibiting widely, at Karl Nierendorf Gallery and other venues, and teaching at Brooklyn College. During the war Seligmann, the first Surrealist exile to arrive in the United States, led efforts to bring fellow Surrealists to safety from Europe.
But during the ’50s he found himself marginalized, and in 1960 he was left out of the influential show “The Surrealist Intrusion: In the Enchanted Domain” at the D’Arcy Galleries in New York. On that occasion, Murdock Pemberton, The New Yorker’s art critic, wrote to John Canaday, his counterpart at The New York Times, “To leave Seligmann out is comparable to trying to build an arch without a keystone.” (To be fair, the D’Arcy Galleries made amends by giving Seligmann a retrospective the following year, accompanied by a catalogue containing tributes by Pemberton as well as such luminaries as Guggenheim director James Johnson Sweeney, critic Parker Tyler, and scholar-dealer Katharine Kuh.)
Weinstein believes that now is the time to put Seligmann back in—and it does feel very much like the artist is having a moment right now. Over the course of the past year, a traveling exhibition that originated at Cornell University’s Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art, “Surrealism and Magic,” highlighted Seligmann’s parallel efforts as a writer and as a collector of rare and beautiful books, manuscripts, and illustrations relating to magic and the occult. These arcana were very much the mainspring of Seligmann’s own art—as anyone who looks closely at the works on view at Weinstein will able to see—and they also enabled him to inform and inspire others through his voluminous writings, particularly his magnum opus, The Mirror of Magic (1948, reprinted many times under various titles).