Why Salvador Dalí’s paintings are the junk food of art.

I hate to spoil the fun of the connoisseurs of kitsch. But no matter how hard I try, the truth is that I rarely find that something is so bad that it’s good. Mostly I find, at least as far as art and literature are concerned, that what is really bad is really bad. I will, however, make a partial exception for the later work of Salvador Dalí, which is the subject of an exhibition that has just opened at the High Museum of Art in Atlanta. The stuff that Dalí did from the 1940s until his death in 1989 is god awful, but there is a sicko integrity about its awfulness. The deviousness of Dalí’s vision is something to behold. Although the emotions that Dalí stirs up are fraudulent—a marketing director’s version of Sturm und Drang—the paintings are not hackwork. They exude a strangely fermented intellectuality. You cannot deny the authority of these lunatic creations.

This is not to say I care enough about “Salvador Dalí: The Late Work” to go to Atlanta and see the show. In my experience, Dalí’s paintings are so lifelessly executed that you might just as well look at them in reproduction. The impersonality of his technique is not perversely sensuous, like the smooth surfaces of Ingres, but mechanistic and repressive, reminiscent of nineteenth-century French academics such as Meissonier and Détaille, whose work Dalí admired. Dalí saw himself as the prophet of a reactionary avant-garde. There is an authoritarian melancholy—maybe even a dystopian melancholy—about the wastelands and skyscapes that were his abiding themes in his later years. He was a man who cultivated contradictions, a connoisseur of open spaces who also seems to have been afflicted with an acute case of horror vacui. The paintings are cosmic junkyards. Dalí fills them with ideas about atomic structure and topology derived from pop physics and math; with naked or nearly naked men in various states of perfection or dissolution; and with cultish renderings of the artist’s wife, Gala, impersonating the Madonna or Galatea or Saint Helena. These canvases, with their megalomaniacal variations on Christological themes, are the damnedest mix of busyness and desolation. There is much too much in them. There is also far too little. Your eyes are simultaneously over-stimulated and starved for something to look at. This is the visual equivalent of junk food.

Has any other artist ever squandered so much energy and intelligence on such absurdities? The upsurge of interest in Dalí’s later work is fueled by historians and curators who want to construct a prehistory for Andy Warhol and Jeff Koons, those reigning deities in the it’s-so-bad-it’s-good sweepstakes. (A couple of years ago, Elliott H. King, who organized the show in Atlanta, published an essay called “Little Black Dress, Little Red Book: Dalí, Mao, and Monarchy (with Special Attention to Trajan’s Glorious Testicles)” in an anthology called The Dalí Renaissance.) Compared to Dalí, however, Andy and Jeff are a pair of lazybones, with hardly an idea in their heads. Part of what holds our attention in Dalí is the ingenuity of his art historical allusions, the way he adopts ideas of distortion and metamorphosis from sixteenth-century Mannerists such as Arcimboldo, Cambiaso, and Bracelli. The man took some responsibility when it came to dreaming up his own crap; he knew how to do a little research, at least from time to time. He liked to mix his whirls and twirls of late-Renaissance decadence with images rendered in the Ben-Day dots of modern halftone reproduction or with geometric forms derived from textbook diagrams of crystal structures. He was the sort of conservative madman who likes to stay contemporary, accessorizing his visionary trash with up-to-the-minute frills. The convergence of artistic and scientific sensibilities suggests a bargain basement Leonardo da Vinci. But in place of the optimism of the Renaissance, there is a pessimism so all-encompassing as to suggest that what Dalí was really doing were illustrations for Spengler’s The Decline of the West.

The work is worthless. But the man was not bogus. I doubt that anybody but an authentically crazy person would have had the temerity to title a painting Dionysus Spitting the Complete Image of Cadaqués on the Tip of the Tongue of a Three-Storied Gaudian Woman. That’s one of the canvases in which the forms are all atomized, so that what at first glance looks like a tree turns out, on closer inspection, to look more like a detail of a Jackson Pollock. Dalí liked to say that he was improving on Pollock by combining the Abstract Expressionist’s dissolving forms with his own academic technique. You have to salute the man’s chutzpah. And I will admit that I keep turning to the reproduction in the catalogue of Portrait of Mrs. Chisholm (1961). Who else would have dared to set this Grace Kelly-style beauty, with her low-cut white evening dress and elaborate jewelry and upswept blonde hair, against a bleak desert landscape? There is artistic ingenuity—an instinct for striking effects—in the way Dalí silhouettes the pinkish yellow of Mrs. Chisholm’s immaculate face and icy-erotic naked shoulders against the blue-gray desolation of what amounts to a backdrop, with a couple of weird rock formations set off way in the distance against an overcast sky. This is a suavely ridiculous painting, a wet dream of a sophisticated portrait (just the right combination of sex and enigma), engineered to appeal to the last holdouts of café society, with their chrome-plated cocktail shakers and shimmering-silk interior decors . I am not convinced that Portrait of Mrs. Chisholm is so bad that it’s good. But Dalí’s deracinated glamour does earn my grudging respect.

Jed Perl is the art critic for The New Republic.       

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