The Back Room

Alice Rahon in Paris, c. 1934-35. Photographer unknown. Photo courtesy Gallery Wendi Norris.

Only Correspond

Tausif Noor
in situ
with time

our quiet, gleaming box
takes stain from the wood

splinters ripen and rot
sun pours in

—Cole Solinger, "Preamble"

[Gallery Wendi Norris, San Francisco, 2022]

When writing history, which details make it into the final version? How do you separate the splendid from the unremarkable — the chaff of memory? What I hold most vividly from the evening of October 1st, at a poetry reading hosted by Small Press Traffic and Gallery Wendi Norris to inaugurate the exhibition Uncovering Alice Rahon, are the varied instances of feeling warm: uncomfortably so in my coat while walking briskly to the venue; pleasantly, when seeing the familiar faces of friends and poets and teachers; slightly dizzyingly when I gulped down a drink I would later learn boasted a mixture of tequila, mezcal, agave, lime, and bird’s eye chili.

Sitting on a metal folding chair, having moved to the front of the room to better hear Mary Ann Caws, Cole Solinger, Layla Forrest-White, and Yedda Morrison, I thought about history writing in the present — a topic I return to frequently in my art history studies, the reason I moved to the Bay last year. For much of what passes for my (very short) professional life, I have been challenged to scope out that which has been “neglected,” “overlooked,” and “underappreciated,” all of which are not only relative terms, but value judgements hinging on the thrill of discovery. Implicit in this challenge is the demand to make these histories relevant, to find the coordinates where past concerns cross the shining present. This is the kind of history I have been taught to pursue, and so I wanted to know what Uncovering Alice Rahon (with emphasis on the gerund) could mean. 

I’ve also been conditioned — trained — to resist the temptation of weak comparison and not be dependent on promises of proximity. To search instead for proof of shared places, times, and preoccupations that are meaningful rather than merely coincidental. Surrounded by Rahon’s quixotic, richly textured paintings and the warmth of audience members all leaning slightly forward while Caws read Rahon’s poems, followed by Cole and Layla and Yedda reading from their work, I’m more aware of how critical the contours of an environment, an atmosphere, are to a work’s reception. I’m told that the poets didn’t consult one another on their selections, so when I write in my notebook that the poems, “like Rahon’s paintings, touch on ideas of excavating the past,” I feel — embarrassingly, upon later reflection — like I’ve touched on something heretofore untrammeled, as if discovering something new, and not synthesizing it or allowing it to seep into myself, were the point of making critical assessments. 

Some weeks later, I am trying again to find the threads I could unspool to bridge the worlds of Alice Rahon, the Bay Area of the 1960s, and their resonances in poetry here, today. I feel stuck, too far outside any of these worlds. For hints, I read Jack Spicer’s After Lorca (1957), an exercise in creative appropriation galvanized by Spicer’s imagined connections with the gay Spanish poet killed on the command of Franco’s right-wing military in Granada in 1936. Spicer’s fabulations open with an introduction by Lorca, bringing a ghost into Spicer’s company; he returns the favor with meditations on poetry in the form of letters to the dead writer:

Things do not connect; they correspond. That is what makes it possible for a poet to translate real objects, to bring them across language as easily as he can bring them across time. That tree you saw in Spain is a tree I could never have seen in California, that lemon has a different smell and a different taste, BUT the answer is this — every place and every time has a real object to correspond with your real object — that lemon may become this lemon, or it may even become this piece of seaweed, or this particular color of gray in this ocean. One does not need to imagine that lemon; one needs to discover it.  

That tree, that lemon: it is through language, by way of metaphor and the possibility of correspondence, between the real and the unconscious, the material and the intangible, that poetry operates. 

[The Altamira Caves, Cantabria, Spain, 1933]

Alice Rahon, ¡Torito, toro! (1951), oil and sand on canvas. Photo courtesy Gallery Wendi Norris.

Alice Rahon is peering at the polychrome paintings of bulls and bison etched on the cave walls near Santillana del Mar. The paintings were said to be discovered by chance when the daughter of a Spanish nobleman glanced up, recognizing the familiar form of a herd seeming to move along the stone. Years of debate would transpire among archaeologists before consensus was reached on their prehistoric origin; their formal splendor captured the artistic imaginations of Matisse and Picasso. Rahon arrived on the recommendation of the painter Joan Miró, with her lover, the painter Wolfgang Paalen, whom she had met in Paris. There, her life was full of creative camaraderie, days and nights spent with a Surrealist circle that included Valentine Penrose and André Breton. 

Imagining Rahon’s encounter with the cave paintings brings to the fore the fascination of the so-called primitive for artists (European and not) associated with modernist practices. Paalen translated his fascination into possession, acquiring — often illegally — ancient artifacts that guided his paintings and drawings. Rahon shared her future husband’s appreciation for time long past, exploring this interest in free verse poems laden with themes of circumstance and fortune: “Floating chances/slipped/into the tar of sleep/avid/for catastrophes vertical horizontal.” 

In 1936, she published her first collection, On Bare Earth, under the encouragement of Breton, who lauded Rahon’s upholding of the Surrealist credo to dialectically withhold and reveal sensation and experience. In his 1924 Manifesto of Surrealism, Breton had called for an artistic impulse that would marshal language and mobilize the unconscious into new forms. He would continue to revise these principles, drawing on psychoanalysis and Marxist theory and studies of madness and paranoia to advocate for merging imagination and reality into a transcendent supra-reality. Above all was the need for aesthetic autonomy and liberation from the tyranny of historicism: guided by desire, wielding juxtaposition and metaphor, the artist could discover the union of the poetic and visual image.

Rahon’s early poetic excursions are marked by their invocations of the oneiric and the eternal (“Jacob’s ladder in a dream/endlessly climbed by lost souls”), and rife with references to exotic lands visited and imagined, distances shrunk. “For these parallel fates/there is no horizon/where to meet where to rest/where to flee these cruel fish/of anguish and trouble.” Reclining Hourglass (1938) and Bone Black (1941) continue this vital desire to leap through time and space, bringing the specificity of experience into the realm of the marvelous, “days off outside enfeebled time.” 

[Palace of Fine Arts, Legion of Honor, San Francisco, 1942]

Having just seen exhibitions of Salvador Dalí and Miró in San Francisco, Philip Lamantia, a preternaturally talented poet of fifteen, wrote to the editors of the Surrealist magazine VVV in New York, expressing his profound recognition of the movement’s ethos to shift the logic of reality. Lamantia’s poems made an impression, and by 1944 he left school for New York, working as an assistant editor at the journal View and spending time with Yves Tanguy, Breton, and Marcel Duchamp. The European exiles had been gathering in New York, exhibiting their work and holding court in restaurants and salons even as the country’s wartime mood shifted toward the muscular gestures of Abstract Expressionism. With the Surrealists meeting a decidedly cooler response, a disillusioned Lamantia returned briefly to the Bay Area to study medieval literature and English poetry at Berkeley, where he developed a lifelong interest in the Indigenous cultures of the Americas. 

In 1950, Lamantia made his first trip to Mexico, having read Artaud’s Voyage of the Land of the Tarahumara (1945). For the next decade, he would frequent the desert, partaking in rituals with the Cora people of Nayarit and the Washoe tribes near Lake Tahoe. He mingled with the painter Leonora Carrington, the poet Ernesto Cardenal, and the painter Aymon de Sales; his frequent association with drug dealers led him to be expelled from the country in 1959 and again in 1962. Lamantia’s poetry of this period declared his interests in the occult and hermetic, sharing with his Surrealist forebears the aspiration to transcend time and level distances through an anthropological interest in the Other, as suggested by the poems written between 1955 and 1962 and gathered in The Collected Poems of Philip Lamantia:

When first I saw you we built a bridge
linking our cities for a thousand years years
Between us orbs of old races touched in nets
entangling our thoughts in a blue wine glass
You were given to me, a rare crystal 
never seen before or since
Looking at you I watched an entire evolution
of unwritten history take form in a sea of comets

The restless Lamantia teetered among forms and social circles, circling Allen Ginsberg and the Beats without committing. By 1960, he had renounced poetry and burned a large portion of his unpublished work, only to renew his commitment to poetry and Surrealism in 1965 after meeting Nancy Peters, his future wife (who would eventually become a co-owner of City Lights). In the following years, Lamantia became involved with the Chicago Surrealists; its founders, Franklin and Penelope Rosemont, were former labor organizers whose revolutionary worldview gave the Chicago faction and its magazine, Arsenal: Surrealist Subversion, a decidedly more militant politics. Writing in Arsenal, Lamantia argued for the idea of Surrealism as a living tradition — a way to make writing “a rigorous reconstruction against the past, an adamant refusal to be entangled in previously conquered areas of association.

[San Ángel, Mexico City, 1939]

Objects are not anything at all if they are not replicas of promise, sourced, procured, and fussed over. They will be slowly, slowly unveiled.
     —Yedda Morrison, The Arrangement

With the threat of war imminent, Rahon and Paalen traveled to the Americas in the summer of 1939, driving from British Columbia down the Pacific Northwest coast to observe and record Indigenous totem poles and wood carvings; by the fall, they had arrived in Mexico City on the suggestion of Frida Kahlo. The country’s desert expanses and the tree-lined streets of the capital attracted a coterie of Surrealist exiles by the mid-1940s, those fleeing fascism and those seeking new adventures, including the painters Leonora Carrington and Remedios Varo, who lived near one another in Colonia Roma. 

Alongside Kahlo, Diego Rivera and other Mexican artists, this international network forged new horizons for Surrealism and modernity. It was in this context that Rahon ceased writing poetry and began creating and exhibiting visual art, first watercolors and sculptures, then oil painting; she exhibited her paintings for the first time in 1940 at the International Exhibition of Surrealism in Mexico City, organized by Paalen and the Peruvian poet and painter César Moro. Committed to pursuing the marvelous in her new medium, she physically incorporated the surrounding landscape. In La cuadra (1942-50), she packed sand onto canvases she had painted with geometric forms in primary colors, building up the surface with dense, cragged layers; in Untitled (1947), she scratched crude, linear forms from within a palimpsest of cool blue and green strokes reminiscent of the ocean in which she swam almost daily. 

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Cole Solinger, "Creation Myth"

Rahon reacted against the figurative social realist critiques prevalent in the symbolic frescoes of the city and the stark, stylized compositions of her peers. While she and Paalen continued to collect and study pre-Columbian and folk-art forms for their mythic inspiration, she bristled at the idea of being labeled an abstractionist, as the art historian Maggie Borowitz notes in her essay for the Norris gallery’s Alice Rahon monograph. From homages to the fictive cities of Paul Klee to the animals emerging from dusky blue-black ground in ¡Torito, toro! (1951), Rahon was determined to situate her fantastical imagery within specific subjects and memories, hewing closely to the Surrealist aspiration to instantiate the real through the imagination. In this, Rahon veered away from Carrington’s compositions, with their depictions of magical spells and divinities, and Varo’s enclosed interiors populated with attenuated figures; Rahon’s focus was always to unite grounded experiences and memories with her interiority. Varo and Carrington had met in Paris and formed a close bond after their arrival in Mexico City (Varo was born in Spain, Carrington in England). The pair, along with the Hungarian photographer Kati Horna, lived in Colonia Roma and were studied in occultism and astrology. No matter their differences, this constellation of women émigré artists flew in the face of the early Surrealist meetings in Paris, where the question of women’s potential as artists was initially dismissed entirely. The violent social and political shifts engendered by World War II, as well as the prodigious talent of the female artists themselves, contributed to Surrealism’s hesitant crawl toward inclusivity.

Rahon’s commitment to a union of the real and fantastic also staked her position away from the influence of Paalen, whose aversion to Breton’s Surrealist orthodoxy led him to break with the group via an incendiary editorial, “Farewell to Surrealism,” published in his new magazine Dyn in 1942. Though Rahon contributed to Dyn with illustrations and commentary, her commitment to painting helped her reach new audiences when she was given a solo show at the San Francisco Museum of Art (now SFMOMA) in 1945, and in the succeeding years exhibited in New York and Paris. 

It was a breakthrough era. In 1946, Rahon renounced her French birth and became a Mexican citizen; the following year, she divorced Paalen. She soon married and began collaborating with the cinematographer Edward Fitzgerald, the set designer for Luis Buñuel. She continued to paint and to adhere to a spiritual understanding of her art, remarking on the occasion of a 1951 exhibition that it was painting’s “primordial principle,” its ability to unlock hidden doors of perception, which allowed for deep contemplation.

Alice Rahon, Untitled (1947), oil on canvas. Photo courtesy Gallery Wendi Norris.

[North Beach, San Francisco, 1965]

The history of objects is so sordid.
     —Yedda Morrison, from The Arrangement

How does an idea like Surrealism take form? Were we to chart its evolution, its morphologies and distortions, from Paris to New York to Mexico to California, we would find ourselves tracing a jagged path, full of stops and starts and detours. Influence is a slippery thing, built from avowals and disavowals that fluctuate with ego, personality, desires; the best we can do is to make note of how traditions change over time, according to the needs of adherents and detractors alike. 

Consider the poetry of Bob Kaufman, whose peripatetic youth aboard Merchant Marine ships and political activism shaped a searching, eclectic poetic sensibility that fully crystallized in the late 1950s, when he settled in North Beach. His self-conscious practices (such as his decade of self-imposed silence from 1963-1973) are sometimes dismissed as eccentricities. But for all its mystic references and celestial spins, Kaufman’s verse is acutely self-aware of the hazards of history and influence, as well as the vagaries of reception. In “Sullen Bakeries of Total Recall,” Kaufman jaunts across a litany of references from Moses to Charlie Chapman to Shakespeare, acknowledging “the demands of Surrealist realization” but wholly on his own terms and in the context of contemporary events. In a cutting condemnation of poetic detachment, he goads Apollinaire to “write about a poem about the Rosenbergs’ last days in a/housing project,” and invokes an image of Jesus “speeding to the voltage mass of St. Sing Sing,” peaking in breathless, sermon-like intensity on the “burning ghats on the banks of the/sacred Hudson.” Kaufman recognized the self-congratulatory tendencies of San Francisco’s well-heeled hipsters, observing the insularity of their world, one removed from the violence to which Kaufman was repeatedly, brutally subjected throughout his life, spending time in and out of jails and hospitals. Upon his death in 1986, the poet’s friends celebrated his vision with a parade through the streets of North Beach that had served as his stage, scattering his ashes in the bay. 

Kaufman wrote down his poems infrequently at best, preferring to narrate to friends who would help him gather his writings for publication. His idiosyncratic inflections of the Surrealist tradition have garnered him cult devotion in France, where he is lauded as the “Black Rimbaud.” Stateside, his legacy has been upheld by poets such as devorah major, who penned the foreword to his collected poems published in 2019 by City Lights, and by D. Scot Miller, founder of the Afrosurrealist Arts Movement. 

Published November 29, 2016, during D. Scot Miller’s Open Space residency.

Taking up the Surrealist tradition of bulleted lists, Miller’s 2009 Afrosurrealism manifesto insists on the immediacy of the present as the fulcrum for a revolutionary poetics — a clear tenet of Kaufman’s unruly verse. A “living document,” the manifesto names, reclaims, and honors bygone poets, revisiting the past with fresh perspectives and mobilizing hybrid arrangements across the literary, visual, poetic, and theatrical arts. Like the European Surrealists before them, an emphasis on personal freedom and desire characterizes the Afrosurrealist movement, and a distinct recombinatory aesthetics are key to both. However, Afrosurrealism’s programmatic mission to reclaim pasts and futures lost to colonialism — for Black Americans as well as Asian-American, Latinx, and queer people — marks a crucial distinction from Breton’s orthodox Surrealism and its romanticization of theft, greed, and possession. 

[Berkeley, 2022]

They took bodies possessing no image
No thought or form of reference in language
But enough strength in spine & a vertiginous chance at an afterlife
     —Layla Forrest-White, "Here in the Tomb Room"

As a movement, Surrealism exceeded Breton’s febrile attempts to limn its aesthetic and political contours. And so in attempting to map how the Surrealist ambition to level consciousness across time and space operated at the level of language and metaphor, I am left with more questions, more paths to chart and uncover. Did Lamantia meet Rahon, and did they discuss their ideas? When Rahon passed through the Bay Area, what marks did it leave on her psyche? In writing this text, I seem to have misremembered an anecdote I can no longer find proof of, concerning Picasso’s use of lemon rinds in a painting — did I imagine it? To what extent does the circumstance of sharing the same time and same space enable pseudomorphic analogies? 

Like the Surrealists, I attempted to paper over gaps with stark juxtapositions and in so doing, was plagued with the historian’s fear of making connections when there are none, of drawing conclusions from misrecognitions.1

I am thinking that this is the function of colossal inquiries about influence, resonance, and legacy: that in the process of “uncovering” Rahon’s legacy, or any legacy presumed to be lost or obscured, we face a slew of new clues, hints, distractions, and derailments. Because of this inevitability, we must be even more attuned to the desires and agendas that drive our inquiries. Language can be soaked in blood. Alongside every aesthetic aspiration of the Surrealists to flatten histories and forge connection was some mark of violence, every recognition of similarity underpinned by the relegation of culture to a “savage” nobility.2

What is it that we want Rahon and her work to tell us about Surrealism, about its reach, and about ourselves? I struggle with the idea that Alice Rahon and the particularities of her work ought to map easily onto our present tense, that the conclusions we draw from her work today carry enough weight to last too far into the future, or that by simply situating her work within a canon of Surrealist traditions we can necessarily capture the diffuse network that Surrealism produced globally. When we rely on canons to build counter-canons, we end up eliding forms of correspondence in favor of connections, however fraught. 

What a reconsideration of Rahon’s poetry and prose within and across her varied locales and contexts does do is alert us to the fact that successful revisionist history writing requires more than the thrill of discovering new archival treasures. Imagination is an instrument or tool — like a kaleidoscope or hearing trumpet — that when wielded sympathetically helps us expand our horizons to our dreams and those of others, rather than shrink the space of experience to our limited sensory range. As Layla Forrest-White writes in Spaces of Empire: “A reconstitution of imagination will require visionaries and visions, the desire and ability to see a different space than the one we currently inhabit, rather than repetition by a different name, an ongoing recycling of empire and imperialism in different realms.”

Nothing maps so cleanly onto another time or place, and always there is the residua of the past twinned with a gap, however minor, in translation. Rahon understood this as she moved from locale to locale, from verse to paint, from her origin in France to her last days in Mexico, dynamically shapeshifting her art to accommodate new knowledge and new aspirations. She corresponded between worlds of ether, ecstatic visions, and grounded reality. Across her poetry and paintings, Rahon retained a fundamental fidelity to her imagination, a gift that we receive in the present.

“Only Correspond” and Anne Walsh’s “In a Room Occupied by One or More Cats” were commissioned by The Back Room in conjunction with Uncovering Alice Rahon, a reading hosted by Small Press Traffic and Gallery Wendi Norris to celebrate the opening of the eponymous Rahon exhibit.

1. I am thinking here of the literary historian Joanna Pawlik’s stimulating reminder that the complexity of Surrealist “influence” resists both narrow definitions of Surrealism and ahistorical claims of basic similarity and difference between Beat and Surrealist writers. See Pawlik’s 2013 essay in Literature Compass, “Surrealism, Beat Literature and the San Francisco Renaissance.”
2. Paalen and Moró explicitly used the term “savage” to refer to the Indigenous works of art on display in the 1940 collection. In 1959, as Mary Ann Caws notes in her introduction to Rahon’s Shapeshifter, Paalen committed suicide upon learning that he would be exposed for his role in stealing and smuggling pre-Columbian art works.

Lead image: Alice Rahon in Paris, c. 1934-35. Photographer unknown. Photo courtesy Gallery Wendi Norris.

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