Is Alice Rahon the next surrealist rediscovery?
No one has played a greater role in the recent reassessment of the market for female surrealist artists than San Francisco dealer Wendi Norris. Through a combination of exhibitions, publications and symposia, she has increased the visibility and value of artists such as Remedios Varo, Leonora Carrington and Dorothea Tanning. Drawing on early scholarship from his friend, art historian Whitney Chadwick, Norris helped bring these fiercely imaginative artists out of the shadows cast by their lovers and husbands (Max Ernst in the case of Carrington and Tanning) and into the mainstream of contemporary art. art, culminating in museum exhibitions and acquisitions and a 2022 Venice Biennale exhibition curated by Cecilia Alemani that sometimes feels like a tribute to Norris’ gallery program.
Now Norris is focusing on another surrealist overshadowed by her husband: the French-born Mexican transplant Alice Rahon (1904-1987), who also made an appearance at this year’s Biennale with her colorful and legendary work. This week the dealer launched an online archive developed with the help of researcher Rahon Tere Arcq to serve scholars and fans. (Rahon’s paper archive is at the Getty.) And from October 1 to November 5, Norris is curating the exhibition Discover Alice Rahon in a new space on Jackson Street in San Francisco. Most of the 17 works in this exhibit, priced at $20,000 to $750,000, haven’t been on display for years. A handful are on loan from institutions. (After the show, the space will serve as the concessionaire’s headquarters, with occasional public projects.)
According to Norris, this is the artist’s first solo exhibition in 45 years. “She had two gallery shows in the 1970s, both in Mexico City, and nothing since,” she said. “For years collectors, curators and scholars have told me to really look at his work.”
She did it in 2016, while visiting a collector in Mexico City who owned Rahon’s Self-portrait and autobiography from 1948, which she has since sold to the Art Institute of Chicago. She was struck by both its intimate pictographic language and its rich texture. “Her work has a shimmering quality because of the sand,” she says.
“Rahon is the first artist we know of who used sand and crushed volcanic stone mixed with oil on his canvases in the 1940s – Rufino Tamayo and Francisco Toledo got this technique from her,” says Norris. “I think she was trying to imitate those rock drawings she saw in Altamira, Spain, to give her that surface. There’s a nice luminosity to the work.
Born in 1904 in the village of Chenecey-Buillon in eastern France, Rahon married Austrian artist Wolfgang Paalen in 1934 and joined the surrealist movement in Paris around the same time. They made trips together to Spain, India and the Pacific Northwest in the 1930s and traveled extensively in avant-garde circles. A timeline on the new website traces some of those relationships, from her brief affair with Pablo Picasso, which ended when Paalen threatened to commit suicide, to her friendship with Frida Kahlo, who invited her to Mexico in 1939, where she settled among a group of émigrés that would include Carrington and Varo. She and Paalen divorced in 1947 and he soon married artist Luchita Hurtado, while she married filmmaker Edward Fitzgerald.
The main focus of the site is to sketch his arc as an artist, from his beginnings writing surrealist poetry to his transition to painting in the 1940s. According to current estimates, Rahon created around 750 works of art in all, but in the absence of an estate it is difficult to know how many works survive. The online archive, which currently features around 50 works of art, aims to answer this question as it grows. “This website is a living, breathing organism that we want to continue to feed into images, so people can begin to understand the scope and importance of his work,” says Norris.
- Discover Alice RahonOctober 1-November 5, Wendi Norris Gallery, San Francisco.