Guest Post–Annie Coggan's Inspiration: Dorothea Tanning

We are excited that our Delve Fabrication + Art speakers, Annie Coggan and Fiyel Levent, have agreed to write guest blog posts for us this month! First up, we have Annie Coggan, who runs the fantastic blog, Chairs and Buildings, as well as being an educator, artist/designer and entrepreneur based in Brooklyn, NY. 

Canapé en temps de pluie (Rainy-Day Canapé), 1970 Tweed, upholstered wood sofa, wool, Ping-Pong balls, and cardboard, 32 1/4 x 68 1/2 x 43 1/4 in. Philadelphia Museum of Art. Anonymous gift.

Canapé en temps de pluie (Rainy-Day Canapé), 1970
Tweed, upholstered wood sofa, wool, Ping-Pong balls, and cardboard, 32 1/4 x 68 1/2 x 43 1/4 in.
Philadelphia Museum of Art. Anonymous gift.

This terribly non-mainstream piece was, more than anything, a challenge to me, a bet that I made with myself, and only me, that I would give real physical life to a bunch of tweeds and stuffing. Now, when you look at its triumphant? paroxysmic? despairing? physicality you are not quite sure that materials are only tools, that the inert is the inert, that life is something else. But one thing you know: that like you and me and everyone else, this Rainy-Day Canapé will not live for centuries. But how could we care?

-Dorothea Tanning on Canapé en temps de pluie

 With this quote by Dorothea Tanning regarding one of a series of fabric sculptures that resulted in the installation Hotel de Pivot, I realized that working with fabric for anyone creates a tremendous risk or challenge.  For Tanning the five year period of making work that culminated in Hotel de Pivot was a time as an outsider. She was working with materials that she “wasn’t supposed to” as an established painter, and she was working on pieces that were not “marketable” at all. But she was establishing a world with wools and tweeds, and a formal language that had not been previously worked out by anyone on a canvas. Thus, the three dimensional world of Hotel du Pivot becomes more than an image; it’s a pinnacle point in Tanning’s artistic development.

Hôtel du Pavot, Chambre 202 (Poppy Hotel, Room 202), 1970-73 Fabric, wool, synthetic fur, cardboard, and Ping-Pong balls, 133 7/8 x 122 1/8 x 185 in. Musée National d'Art Moderne, Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris

Hôtel du Pavot, Chambre 202 (Poppy Hotel, Room 202), 1970-73
Fabric, wool, synthetic fur, cardboard, and Ping-Pong balls, 133 7/8 x 122 1/8 x 185 in.
Musée National d'Art Moderne, Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris

The idea that the fabric was a challenge is logical yet subversive. At first glance, Tanning comes to fabric owning a sewing machine which she had had and carried about with her a since she was a young woman. But the scale of work that she engages with changes the norm of women working in fabric. Most pieces in this series are furniture sized.  Fabric at this scale has no structural integrity. A formal freedom can easily be imagined, but the actual execution of these forms is the challenge. Tanning succumbs to the structural lethargy of fabric; her tables are tragic and bodies are languid. In the end they need the room to stabilize their emotions, both structurally and narratively. The method of upholstering and stuffing of forms leads Tanning to the ultimate chance operation. It’s not so much the forms that are made in the room but the space around the forms that result in a surrealist condition. Why are forms in the wall blossoming out of the sofa, becoming the fireplace? This is a “triumph,” the manifestation of a dream space.

Table Tragique (Tragic Table) from Hôtel du Pavot, Chambre 202, 1970-73 Wood, fabric, and wool, 43 3/8 x 48 1/8 x 33 1/2 in. Musée National d'Art Moderne, Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris

Table Tragique (Tragic Table) from Hôtel du Pavot, Chambre 202, 1970-73
Wood, fabric, and wool, 43 3/8 x 48 1/8 x 33 1/2 in.
Musée National d'Art Moderne, Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris

Tanning used two mediums to produce the elements in Hotel De Pivot: she embraced the thick wool and tweed that was locally manufactured in the French countryside; and she gathered found objects that resided within her immediate surrounds. The tweed and wool act as a base or canvas for the work and describe the formal qualities. The found lace, ceramic, and sewing pins reinforce her poetic titles and narrative. One can read the fabric as the structure of the poem and the found objects as the filigree.

Emma, 1970 Fabric, wool, and lace, 11 11/16 x 25 3/8 x 21 5/8 in. (body: 11 1/4 x 22 x 12 1/2 in.) The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City, Missouri, acquired through the generosity of the William T. Kemper Foundation—Commerce Bank, Trustee, 2006.27

Emma, 1970
Fabric, wool, and lace, 11 11/16 x 25 3/8 x 21 5/8 in. (body: 11 1/4 x 22 x 12 1/2 in.)
The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City, Missouri, acquired through the generosity of the William T. Kemper Foundation—Commerce Bank, Trustee, 2006.27

Finally, I like to think of Tanning as working much as any wife, neighbor, or citizen of the world works; not the stereotypical image of the artist at work. Tanning’s marriage to Max Ernst meant that she was his help mate. Her time to work was after Ernst’s needs were satisfied. So this five year burst of fabric manipulation is intriguing in relation to her life time of work. Before this period she painted, and after this she devoted herself to writing. Tanning the polymath, and her journey as a polymath, is an exciting image, and the aforementioned structure of the fabric work establishes the sculptural work as a bridge to her final career as a poet. The framework of Tanning’s painting always involved a three dimensional space, so her need to actually build that condition to resolve the stories in her imagination is obvious. Imagining Tanning somewhere in a studio wrestling with Tweed and Wool to build the images in her head is truly inspiring.

—Annie Coggan

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