Max Ernst ‘Beyond Painting’

Max Ernst came first to New York in 1941 and then followed Fernand Léger and Lucia Christofanetti to East Hampton
Max Ernst’s “The Hat Makes the Man‚” from 1920, in gouache, pencil, oil, and ink on paper, is part of the Museum of Modern Art’s permanent collection. Paige Knight/Artists Rights Society, New York and ADAGP, Paris

Although Alfonso Ossorio, and then Jackson Pollock and Lee Krasner, receive all the credit for starting the midcentury modernist art colony in East Hampton, a group of European émigrés actually preceded them during and just after World War II.

One of them, Max Ernst, will have a show opening at the Museum of Modern Art on Saturday. 

Ernst came first to New York in 1941 and then followed Fernand Léger and Lucia Christofanetti to East Hampton. They came initially as guests of Gerald and Sara Murphy, as recounted in “Hamptons Bohemia: Two Centuries of Artists and Writers on the Beach” by Helen Harrison and Constance Ayers Denne. Then Lucia, who used her first name professionally as an artist, rented an apartment in Amagansett that she shared with Ernst and Dorothea Tanning, who would become Ernst’s wife.

It became a center of European expat congregating and socializing, with guests such as Marcel Duchamp, André Breton, Robert Motherwell, and Léger playing chess and debating the ideas behind Surrealism. 

Jimmy Ernst, the artist’s son, came to visit his father back when he was a child, and then later returned with his own family, including his wife, Dallas, and their children, Eric and Amy Ernst, to live here full time. Jimmy and Dallas, who are now deceased, were artists and part of the group who came after the early arrivals. Amy and Eric have continued their family’s tradition of pursuing art. In 1953, Max and Dorothea moved to France.

The MoMA show serves as a survey of Ernst’s career, from his early forays into Dadaism, his embrace of Surrealism, and his lifelong love of experimentation, which ended with his death in 1976.

The show features 100 works drawn from the museum’s permanent collection in many mediums and formats. The museum describes them as “paintings that challenged material and compositional conventions; collages and overpaintings utilizing found printed reproductions; frottages (rubbings); illustrated books and collage novels; sculptures of painted stone and bronze; and prints made using a range of techniques.”

His mature work evolved in response to the end of both World Wars, attempts to “articulate the irrational and the unexplainable,” according to the museum. He was born in Germany in 1891, but his nationality is listed as French and American.

The exhibition will include projects that represent key moments in his career, “from early Dada and Surrealist portfolios of the late 1910s and 1920s” to “65 Maximiliana, ou l’exercice illegale de l’astronomie,” a 1964 illustrated book with 34 aquatint prints, his own typographic designs, and a secret hieroglyphic script the artist invented.

Starr Figura, who is the curator of drawings and prints for MoMA, and Anne Umland, the museum’s painting and sculpture curator, organized the show with Talia Kwartler. The exhibition will remain on view through Jan. 1.