Exhibit gathers works of surrealist painter Kay Sage

Show at Williams College Museum of Art

War does not habitually inspire major new art movements. World War One? It spawned two: dada and surrealism.

If dada makes you think of urinals and photomontage (as it should), surrealism will to take you into dreams, desires, and outright hallucinations. In the realm of pure paintings, it is surrealism that has most easily entered the popular mainstream, as with Salvador Dali's melting clock and René Magritte's pipe that is not a pipe.

So when a small solo show appears of mid-20th-century surrealist paintings by Kay Sage, born into a prominent Albany family: wake up! In a simple curatorial coup, Williams College Museum of Art guest curator Jessie Sentivan has collected every extant painting that Sage included in her exhibition at the Catherine Viviano Gallery in midtown Manhattan in 1950. That makes 12 of 14, all told, a perfect snapshot of the artist's work at that time.

How do we approach "Kay Sage: Serene Surrealist" with its understated, precise midcentury works by a significant and largely neglected surrealist? By looking, mostly.

Take the rather literal interior drama of "Small Portrait." This head is shown not with a face, but with a construction that is part engineering materials and part theater. The armament of a supposed face is given, along with a cloth thrown around the front and some hair, a reminder that the word surreal itself breaks down to something like "beyond the real." It isn't pure fantasy, but, like a dream, it plays off of a very familiar reality.

The hues of "Small Portrait" are muted, with lots of yellowy grays and restrained warm olive browns. It feels a bit like a tabletop still life. Likewise, "Page 49" seems like a study of rectangular shapes against a plain gray ground, scraps of cloth breaking up the geometry. There is a necessary attention to fine detail, implying (incorrectly) that there must be a reality to the subjects.

This gets amplified in more complex, less obvious works like "Mother of Time" and "The Instant," which create nearly believable landscapes with either architectural remains or with some simplified wreckage, a structure behind and a barren horizon far away. These are deserted worlds, other planets, with only fragments left for a viewer's reconstructing.

Sage's work is severe. It is difficult to traverse even though the elements she includes are limited and few. Her vision might and should have some bearing on our understanding of surrealism as a whole, but it also works the other way around: other surrealists raise questions about Sage's place in that part of art history.

Clearly, these paintings are well resolved, which is a kind of litmus test for success on the artist's own terms. For the interested contemporary viewer, they maintain an eerie, apocalyptic mood. But Sage certainly borrows freely from the vocabulary of earlier artists, including from her husband, the French surrealist Yves Tanguy (though we must suppose the influence went the other way, as well). Sage's earliest work derives from the heart of the movement, in the mid-1930s, but this is a long decade after the truly formative paintings of de Chirico, an admitted influence, and the essential poetry of Breton.

More Information

If you go

"Kay Sage: Serene Surrealist"

Where: Williams College Museum of Art, 15 Lawrence Hall Drive, Williamstown, Massachusetts

When: Through Jan. 13, 2019

Hours: 10-5 p.m. Thursday-Tuesday. Open Thursdays until 8 p.m.

Admission: Free

Info: https://wcma.williams.edu/kay-sage-serene-surrealist/ or 413-597-2429

The current installation at Williams makes the individual paintings difficult to experience. For me, the mostly small works are dispersed in a space too large and too tall, with broad, even light. This bland emptiness is especially noticeable because the other exhibitions at this remarkable museum (the Jacob's Pillow retrospective, the dark and brooding potpourri from their permanent collection, the giant glowing hair gel sculpture by Anicka Yi mounted in the floor) greet you with ingenuity and drama.

But do visit anyway. Force yourself to step close and give these rare Sages their deserved one-on-one moments. They are uncompromising, crystalline examples of a style—a manner of working and a spirit—that still holds water. Sage is significant, and her life eventually tragic. After the sudden death of her husband in 1955, she struggled to persevere, eventually taking her own life with a bullet in 1963.

Luckily, we have her work as lasting, provocative consolation. Here and now.

William Jaeger is a freqient contributor to the Times Union