Defining "Late Dal": A Conversation With Curator Elliott King

Curator Elliott King's survey of the late work of Surrealist Salvador Dalí, at the High Museum of Artin Atlanta, has been winning positive reviews recently for his reconsideration of what had long been considered a kitschy, embarrassing period of the artist's career. To talk about the exhibition and learn more about his interest in Dalí, Homa Nasab spoke with King about his work. This article first appeared on Nasab's Museum Views blog. To read part two of this interview, visit Museum Views.

Homa Nasab: When did you start you research on Salvador Dali and what attracted you to his work?

Elliott H. King: I began studying Dalí as an undergraduate at the University of Denver in 1998. Like many students, I had a requisite number of Dalí posters in my dorm room, though I didn’t really understand them when I bought them. I became serious about Dalí after enrolling in a seminar on Dada and Surrealism, where I had the opportunity to read some of his writings — "The Secret Life of Salvador Dalí," "Diary of a Genius," etc. It was actually my undergraduate thesis advisor, M. E. Warlick, a Max Ernst specialist, who first recommended that I research late Dalí. In fact, at that time, there were practically no secondary sources on Dalí’s work after 1940: Haim Finkelsteins English translations of Dalí’s writings were only just coming onto the market and stopped abruptly in 1968; even Dawn Ades original 1982 monograph on Dalí allotted only 18 of its 216 pages (about 8 percent) to the last four decades of Dalí’s career. Ian Gibsons biography, "The Shameful Life of Salvador Dalí," basically dismissed everything after 1940 as commercial junk.

Lacking many books and articles, I began building my understanding of Dalí from the ground up, reading the magazines he read (he had a longstanding subscription to Scientific American), following up on his arcane references and so forth. I received a grant to conduct thesis research at the Dalí Museum in St. Petersburg, Florida, where I was fortunate to meet its founders, Eleanor and Reynolds Morse. I was particularly interested in Dalí’s allusions to nuclear physics in the 1950s — what he called "nuclear mysticism." Some of his scientific references were reasonably pedestrian, but others suggested a fairly advanced understanding of conceptual physics, and all were drawing from the most recent discoveries of the period. It became clear very quickly that Dalí was not merely a clown, as he was often deemed: his post-1940 work simply had not been subjected to much serious consideration beyond what amounted to the formalist verdict that it was "kitsch."

After my thesis on Dalí and atomic physics, I realized that here was an enormous body of art by a major twentieth-century artist whose work I sincerely loved — and it was virtually untouched by scholarship; basically I had found my niche, but more than a niche, it was a wide-open frontier. I went to the Courtauld Institute in London where I received my MA and PhD on Dalí, with the eminent Surrealism scholar Dawn Ades. As you can tell, I’m a committed "Dalínian."

What were the main technical challenges in organizing the show?

The biggest challenge we faced was time. The High Museum approached the Dalí Museum in Florida about hosting a late Dalí exhibition in the spring of 2009, and the Dalí Museum put them in touch with me to be the guest curator. Normally exhibitions are planned about three or four years in advance, but because the Dalí Museum is scheduled to open its new building in January 2011, we had a very short window in which to put this show together. When we began contacting potential lenders, we were already behind, and — to be candid — most of the works I planned to include had already been committed to other exhibitions. Increasingly uncertain as to whether we’d actually be able to pull off much of a late Dalí exhibition at all, I drafted a list of what I called "destination paintings," which were paintings that, as a Dalí aficionado living in Colorado, I would travel to Atlanta to see. My strategy was that if we could get just one of those rarely seen, rarely lent paintings, we would have an anchor around which to build the rest of the show. We sent six letters requesting what I felt were extraordinarily unlikely loans, following up with numerous phone calls, emails, and letters. I have to say that the High is super when it comes to negotiating, and in the end, four of those "impossible" paintings were lent: "The Christ of Saint John of the Cross," "The Madonna of Port Lligat," "Assumpta Corpuscularia Lapislazulina," and "Santiago El Grande." None of those had been exhibited in the U.S. in at least forty-five years. We actually ended up with a number of works that hadn’t exhibited since the 1950s, and one painting, "Portrait of Mrs. Chisholm," that had never exhibited publicly prior to coming to the High. Walking through the galleries, I’m still blown away by what’s there.

The challenge ended up being a good thing, actually, because it made us think outside the box. If we had started sending out loan letters a few years ago, we would have ended up with a very nice exhibition, but it wouldn’t have included nearly the number of star works we have now. Because time was so short and the number of available paintings so few, we shot for the moon. There’s that old saying, "Shoot for the moon. Even if you miss, you’ll land among the stars." We shot for the moon and we got it — more than once. And then we got the stars, too.

What about thematic or interpretative challenges that you faced while organizing this exhibition?

One of the first challenges we faced on an interpretive level was how to deal with the gravity of Dalí’s work in contrast with the humor of his showmanship. When the museum proposed hosting a late Dalí exhibition, some had in mind something a bit zany to complement the artist’s histrionics. This wasn’t a bad idea, but as we began investigating the narratives underlying works like "The Christ of Saint John of the Cross" and "A Propos the Treatise on Cubic Form by Juan De Herrera," it became clear that Dalí was a much more serious artist than many people realized. There are still fun elements in the show, of course — the bubblegum pink in the Pop rooms and the giant Philippe Halsman photos of Dalí that decorate the galleries, for example — but overall it’s a respectful installation that takes Dalí seriously, even when he’s doing something that may seem silly. Dalí used to say that he never knew himself when he was joking and when he was serious, and there’s a bit of that question throughout the show.

Another issue was how to balance having an exhibition that made an important scholarly contribution with one that was at the same time approachable and entertaining for the public. Effectively, the narrative of the show was reassessing a subject that most laypeople don’t realize to be an issue: the average museum-goer does not generally have a bias against Dalí’s post-1940 work, so here we were with what was basically an academic premise, trying to present it in such a way that everyone could be a part of the debate. The High has a really outstanding curator of interpretation with whom I worked closely in making the exhibition effective on a variety of levels. I think now that if someone is very familiar with the critical issues surrounding late Dalí, he or she will find the exhibition engaging and intelligent; at the same time, if a visitor doesn’t know anything at all about Dalí, they, too, will find it stimulating and enjoyable.

The exhibition starts around the critical years of 1930-41. What makes this period so significant in the artist’s career?

The 1930s tends to be the period we know about Dalí, when he was affiliated with the Surrealists. In 1939, he was expelled from the Surrealist group, and in 1940 he moved to America. In 1941, he shocked everyone by denouncing his Surrealist painting and declaring himself "classic." In the exhibition, I opened with this period mainly to situate how I hoped visitors would receive the rest of the exhibition. In point, I think we need to question why late Dalí is necessarily "late"; how is it different from earlier Dalí? What changed, but just as importantly, what remained the same? If one understands late Dalí to have emerged with his 1941 "classic" exhibition at the Julien Levy Gallery, then one should expect acute differences between the works exhibited in 1941 and those in, say, 1939 (remember, too, that the 1939 exhibition was the last to take place while the artist was still officially a member of the Surrealist group). Compellingly, this does not prove to be the case. Looking strictly at the pictures, very little — if anything — designates Dalí’s "classicism" from his Surrealism. If we think of "classic" as a reverence for the Old Masters, for example, this had appeared in Dalí’s work much earlier, in the mid-1920s. The "paranoiac" double-images that typify much of his 1930s painting are also present throughout. That’s basically the story of that first room: comparing later works with earlier pieces so we can ask, "What defines late Dalí?" It’s far more ambiguous than one thinks. I think that’s an important consideration with this exhibition: it’s not meant to be a retrospective of post-1940 Dalí; it’s questioning what is late Dalí and proposing a somewhat radical way of thinking about the work.

What are people’s biggest misconceptions about Dali?

Probably one of the biggest misconceptions, I would say, is that Dalí was arbitrary in what he did. It’s easy to look at his art or writings and take it as nonsense. But Dalí was very intelligent and very systematic: everything makes sense, but sometimes there are some challenging mental gymnastics involved with following his train of thought! I can’t tell you how frustrating it is as a researcher to read an interview with Dalí that suddenly cuts out, saying, "At this point, the artist began rambling incoherently about rhinoceros horns," or something along those lines. It’s not that he was incoherent, but most haven’t taken the time to try to follow him. For example, there’s an essay Dalí writes in 1960 called "The Divine Cheese," in which he declares that Christ was made of cheese. He repeats it several times in other writings, attributing it to Saint Augustine, and on the surface it sounds ridiculous. Most people would probably just say Dalí was being "crazy" and leave it at that, but I followed up. It took me about four years, actually. I contacted Saint Augustine scholars around the world asking if he had ever described Christ as cheese. After about four years of investigating his reference, I found that he was indeed making an abstruse connection to Book 9 of Augustine’s "Confessions," which he had encountered through the writings of the sixteenth-century theologian Luis de León. Fray Luis’ book, "The Names of Christ," written around 1583, addresses the Biblical image of Christ as a mountain, quoting Psalms 67:22-23, "that mountain flowing with milk, that fruitful mountain" – literally monte incaseato, "the mountain of curds." The Latin Vulgate employs the word coagulatus, which Fray Luis explained to his readers originally meant cheese, leading St. Augustine to apparently read the passage as "mountain of cheeses." Thus Augustine had, in fact, described Christ as a "mountain of cheese," just as Dalí said. There are so many examples of Dalí finding some bizarre footnote in history and making a thesis out of it, but the real point is that he always had a point.

What is the most outrageous rumor about Dali that is true?

Wow… he did so much. He showed up to lecture at the Sorbonne in a Rolls Royce filled with cauliflowers; he walked floating fried eggs down the street; he gave a lecture in a diving suit and nearly suffocated; he seduced his would-be wife by covering himself in goat manure. What rumors have you heard? Dalí was an artist who could go into a restaurant, order everything, and instead of paying simply sign the tablecloth; almost everything about him was outrageous.

One of my favorite stories was when he was solicited by director Alejandro Jodorowsky to play the Emperor of the Galaxy in Jodorowsky’s adaptation of "Dune": Dalí accepted the role but refused to even read Jodorowsky’s script, telling him, 'My ideas are better than yours.' Then he told the director that he wanted to be paid $100,000 per hour so he would be the highest paid actor in history. They actually managed to negotiate a contract – Dalí would only work for one hour but would be paid $100,000, and all the rest of his scenes would be performed by a life-sized puppet. It was ridiculous. Eventually the picture fell through, and I don’t know what happened to the puppet. Dalí was always ending up in outrageous situations because he cultivated them.

When I came to see the show at The High, the last thing that I was expecting was to learn about "nuclear mysticism," "divine geometry," and cybernetic aesthetics.

There’s a great documentary, "Dalí Dimension," produced in Barcelona a few years ago that includes interviews with a number of scientists about Dalí’s work. It’s amazing how much respect these men of science had for Dalí. There’s an interview — we have it playing in the exhibition, too — with James Watson, who, with Francis Crick, theorized the double-helix. In the 1960s, Watson and Crick were in Boston and saw Dalí’s DNA painting, "Galacidalacidesoxyribonucleicacid." Watson thought Dalí might be interested in illustrating a book for him about DNA, so he and Crick headed to New York to visit Dalí at the Saint Regis Hotel. Watson tells the story that when he arrived, he sent a note up to Dalí’s room saying, "The second brightest man in the world wishes to meet the first." Maybe that should have been my 'outrageous' story about Dalí! Rarely was it Dalí seeking these people out but vice versa.

You mentioned "nuclear mysticism," which describes most of Dalí’s work from the 1950s. We couldn’t have asked for a better checklist as far as 1950s paintings are concerned, from "The Christ of Saint John of the Cross" through to "The Sistine Madonna" and "The Ecumenical Council." The basic idea behind nuclear mysticism was that Dalí was attempting to infuse religion with science in order to prove to himself the veracity of Catholicism as a surrogate for faith. He had written in the conclusion of his autobiography, "The Secret Life of Salvador Dalí," published in 1942, that he had returned to the Catholicism of his youth but that he still lacked faith. After the atomic bomb explosion in 1945, he embraced nuclear physics to help fill that void. The results are often unusual, but they are creative. His 1952 painting, "Assumpta Corpuscularia Lapislazulina," for example, depicts his unique take on the Assumption of the Virgin Mary, which had in 1952 only recently been declared Catholic dogma by Pope Pius XII. Dalí hypothesized that the Virgin’s ascent to heaven was not miraculous but the product of a spiritually guided atomic reaction; he wrote in "Diary of a Genius," "The Virgin does not ascend to heaven while praying. She ascends by the very strength of her antiprotons." Dalí theorized that the Virgin’s protons and anti-protons collided, creating enough kinetic energy to rocket her into heaven like a missile. That religious, atomic explosion is depicted in the painting, complete with a hydrogen atom at the bottom of the canvas.

I think there’s probably a surprise for everyone in the exhibition, no matter how much they may already know about Dalí before walking in the door. An audience mostly familiar with his enormous moustache and antics or with his painting "The Persistence of Memory" likely will be surprised by the breadth and depth of Dali’s post-1940 work: his interest in optics, including stereoscopy; his enduring fascination with science; his more abstract and performative works; and his enthusiasm for new media, including video art, and later, holography.

I admit that I was looking forward to seeing some of Dali’s naughtier pictures. For example, "Virgin Auto-Sodomized by Her Own Chastity" is illustrated in the catalogue but does not appear in the show. Did you leave them out because of the venue in Atlanta which is a fairly conservative Christian city?

[Laughs] "Young Virgin Auto-Sodomized by her own Chastity" has always been one of my favorite paintings. I saw it for the first time around 2001, when it was still owned by Playboy Magazine and was hanging in the entryway of the Playboy Mansion in Beverly Hills. They’ve since sold it to a private collector, who lent it to the Tate for "Dalí & Film" in 2007. I love that Dalí described that painting, which is so overtly erotic, as his "most chaste of all."

The decision not to pursue paintings such as "Young Virgin Auto-Sodomized by Her Own Chastity" mostly had to do with the High’s mission to be a family-oriented museum. We have a lot of families come through, and a lot of school groups, and they need to be comfortable bringing young people into the galleries. We talked about whether it would be interesting or important to have an "adults only" room that exhibited, say, "Les Métamorphoses érotiques" and other more explicitly erotic works, but as the exhibition developed, this seemed tangential. It was never something we were expressly avoiding however, as certainly sexuality and sensuality are relevant subjects to late Dalí. A couple years ago, I was part of a terrific colloquium in Cerisy la Salle, France, devoted to the issue of Dalí and eroticism. So yes, there’s much one could have done there — it could have been its own exhibit, really. But it doesn’t strike me as a lacuna since we were presenting something more along the lines of his development of classicism into Pop. Indeed, there are also still a few "naughtier" works in the show if you look carefully. Concerns arose over whether some visitors might object to, say, the nude women photographed in "In Voluptate Mors"; scatological references abound in "Ten Recipes for Immortality"; and even I was a little concerned about the imagery in "Dionysus Spitting the Complete Image of Cadaques on the Tip of the Tongue of a Three-Storied Gaudinian Woman." But none of it has been a problem at all. We have a children’s audio tour that leads younger visitors through the show without dwelling on certain works, but honestly most children are coming through with their parents, seeing everything, and having their parents read them the wall texts. As far as I know, no one has had issues with any of the content.

To read part two of this interview, visit Museum Views.