And in four years, Sage (1898-1963) and Tanguy (1900-1955) would be married, living out the Surrealist belief that there is no such thing as coincidence: That mysterious painting’s title was “I Await You.”
There are plenty of famous art couples: Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg; Lee Krasner and Jackson Pollock; Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera, to name a few. But this pair of quieter Surrealists flew under the radar. Unlike Dali or Miró, neither became a household name. And, according to Sage, they “dislike[d] terribly the idea of being a team.” In 1954, they agreed to a joint exhibition at the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art in Hartford, Conn., on the condition that their paintings be hung in separate galleries.
Today, though, their work has been reunited, displayed together in museums across the country — including the National Gallery of Art and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. Sage’s paintings are more architectural and Tanguy’s more biomorphic, but the unreal places they capture — impossibly vast plains, devoid of figures but full of sensation — distill feelings that lack language and logic. Seen together, their work is a testament to the harmonic yet harrowing experience of two vivid inner worlds meeting.
Human connection, particularly this time of year, is often reduced to marketable truisms. We see love glorified in gushy social media posts and one-size-fits-all cards. I’ve found refuge from the commercialism and cliches in Sage and Tanguy, because their art and relationship capture something more honest about love.
The year they married, for instance, Sage painted “I Have No Shadow.” A narrow, dark passageway opens to two tiny figures standing on an empty horizon, as if plucked from the ether and paired for eternity. Conjuring the expansive, defenseless feeling of a new romance, it’s an austere image, imbued with anxiety and hope.
Sage and Tanguy were both influenced by metaphysical painter Giorgio de Chirico, but they developed their own distinctive styles. Sage’s signature canvases lure you into carefully designed, post-apocalyptic visions. With billowing textiles, staunch towers and bridges to nowhere, they suggest some quiet “after,” when functionality is long gone.
By contrast, Tanguy seems to capture the primordial. Scholars have likened his biomorphic imagery to the ancient rock formations of his native Brittany. Looking at them creates the sensation of having a word stuck on the tip of your tongue.
Over Sage and Tanguy’s careers, sexism prevented close comparisons of their work. A 2011-2012 show, “Double Solitaire: The Surreal Worlds of Kay Sage and Yves Tanguy,” at the Katonah Museum of Art in New York and the Mint Museum in Charlotte, marked the first time they had shared an exhibition since 1954.
In an essay for the catalogue, curator Jonathan Stuhlman detailed Sage’s influence on Tanguy. His forms moved closer to the viewer; he started using tall figures (Stuhlman calls them “personages”); and the bubbly shapes of his early work calcified into hard structures. Even his palette faded to Sage’s demure olives, khakis and grays, epitomized in her “I Saw Three Cities” (1944). Put Tanguy’s 1929 painting “The Look of Amber” beside such later works as “The Mirage of Time” (1954) or “Indefinite Divisibility” (1942), and you can see his evolution.
Tanguy first saw Sage’s work in 1938 and later recalled, “Kay Sage, man or woman, I didn’t know; I just knew the paintings were very good.” They were introduced by a mutual friend and soon became a couple. With Europe on the brink of war, Sage, who had been living in Paris, returned to the United States and founded the Society for the Preservation of European Culture, which brought French artists to the United States. Among them was Surrealist leader André Breton and, of course, Tanguy. Sage and Tanguy married in 1940 and, a year later, moved to Connecticut, not far from fellow artists Alexander Calder and Arshile Gorky.
While some friends described their partnership as uneasy, artist Roberto Matta saw a smitten pair. “They even had happy fights. They invented fight humor,” he said. They went everywhere together, shared a studio and spoke only French. “Everything was obliterated that was not Yves,” Sage said.
Through art, they often documented their lives together. They exchanged paintings when they married, and Tanguy created several works titled “Pour Kay.” In 1947, Sage painted “Ring of Iron, Ring of Wool,” likely referencing traditional gifts for sixth and seventh wedding anniversaries. In the work, one of two triangle forms stands closer to the sea — possibly a nod to Tanguy’s deep ties abroad. After Tanguy died suddenly in 1955, Sage made “Tomorrow Is Never.” Tall dark towers trap twisted sheets, a recurring motif that she usually painted fluttering free.
Space and constriction in Sage’s and Tanguy’s art might speak to their lives together, balancing intense connection with artistic independence.
One of Tanguy’s favorite paintings, “The Hunted Sky” (1951), hung in their living room. It shows two megalithic, abstract heads composed of the same tiny organic shapes. From one perspective, the figures look as if they could be merging into one. From another, they appear to be facing each other, frozen in a perpetual, cryptic gaze.
Sage described their bond as “an amalgamation of two beings into one blinding totality.” Viewing their work is similar: You have to forgo reason and succumb to an alternate, mystifying realm. Understanding it is like trying to truly know another person — there is no endpoint, no takeaway, just a lifetime of learning.
By Kelsey Ables