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Somehow, it's not surprising that Salvador Dalí was one of the pioneers of an art form that didn't even have a name until near the end of his long, notorious career. In 1939, the flamboyant Spanish surrealist created a pavilion for the New York World's Fair that was a prototype for the sort of art that would gain prominence in the 1970s and that still demands a great deal of attention today: the installation.
The prescient piece in question is documented in "Salvador Dalí: Dream of Venus," one of three exhibitions now at the Museum of Contemporary Art (MoCA) in North Miami. The show includes drawings and sketches, photographs, films, and archival documents associated with the pavilion, as well as an aural component in the form of a tape loop featuring the voices of B-movie star Ruth Ford and a sort of Greek chorus luring people into the pavilion.
As usual with Dalí, there was an agenda. Consider the introduction posted at the entrance to the show: "The organizers... knew that an installation at the World's Fair would do more to advance Surrealism in America than any museum exhibition.... [The pavilion] clearly played a significant role in bringing Surrealism to the masses in the United States and in making Dalí the most famous Surrealist in America." We all know what came of that.
Ever the shrewd self-promoter, the roguishly handsome young Dalí, who was then in his mid-30s, teased his pavilion with a show of his paintings at the gallery of his New York City dealer, Julien Levy, which also coincided with a Dalí-designed window display at the Bonwit Teller department store. The latter was classic Dalí as provocateur: a tableau featuring, among other things, wax female mannequins, a buffalo's head with a bloody pigeon in its mouth, narcissus blossoms, and a water-filled bathtub lined with black Persian lamb fur and inhabited by a mannequin and disembodied hands holding mirrors.
The display drew such large, traffic-disrupting crowds that the store's management grew nervous and began dismantling it, prompting Dalí to climb into the window and send the bathtub crashing through the glass. The artist was arrested and had to pay for the damages, although he later noted that the judge "made a point of adding emphatically that every artist has a right to defend his 'work' to the limit."
The World's Fair pavilion was similarly provocative. In sharp contrast to the sleek, futuristic look of so many of the other buildings in the fair, "Dream of Venus" boasted a pink plaster façade with a variety of organic-looking appendages. The ticket booth was in the form of a huge fish's head, where admission (adults only) was 25 cents. A gigantic reproduction of an Eric Schaal photograph of the booth, with Dalí and wife Gala peeking out of the eyes, greets you at the entrance to the MoCA show.
The pavilion also included Dalí's large reproductions of such classic paintings as Sandro Botticelli's The Birth of Venus and Leonardo da Vinci's Saint John the Baptist, and there was an aquarium featuring scantily clad mermaids performing underwater. To document these creatures, the artist recruited fashion photographers Horst P. Horst and George Platt Lynes.
The show includes video footage and photographs of the mermaids, and there are dozens of photos of sections of the pavilion at various stages. Motifs familiar from Dalí's paintings -- melting watches, crutches, etc. -- appear again and again. There are also a few paintings that seem only marginally connected to "Dream of Venus," including the well-known 1939 oil Telephone in a Dish with Three Grilled Sardines at the End of September. For Le Pervers Polimorf de Freud, Dalí takes a found lithograph of a baby and inserts a bloody rat into the child's mouth.
Most of this material is fascinating to some extent, especially seen in light of the evolution of installation art during the 60-plus years since it was pioneered by Dalí and Marcel Duchamp, who created another seminal environmental display space for the 1938 International Surrealist Exposition in Paris. Ultimately, however, there's something vaguely anticlimactic about this exhibition that might have been avoided if the organizers had somehow found a way to re-create -- even in miniature -- the actual "Dream of Venus" pavilion, which we're able to experience only at a remove.
Adjacent to the Dalí show is a midcareer retrospective called "Jack Pierson, Regrets," which includes paintings, sculptures, photographs, drawings, and multimedia works by the Massachusetts-born artist, who worked in Miami Beach in the early 1980s. I can't muster much enthusiasm for Pierson's photo collages and large-scale color photographic prints mounted on aluminum, although there's a pleasing serenity to some of his large abstract canvases, such as Canvas Dyed with Hibiscus Tea, Salt (2001).
Pierson's word sculptures, which often consist of simply a single word -- Beauty, Time, Water, Stay -- created with mismatched letters made of painted metal, plastic, and wood, have an amiable pop goofiness to them. And his huge collage Heaven offers the treat of trying to identify dozens of movie and music celebrities in their heyday, seen here in 90 autographed, black-and-white photographs.
But Pierson's most satisfying pieces here are, fittingly, installations. Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow?(1994), on loan from the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City, features a freestanding locked case made of glass and battered wood, with a stack of linen sheets inside. On top is an everyday assortment that includes a comb, cigarettes and a lighter, a shell ashtray containing cigarette butts, and a sketch held down by a pair of stones. On the wall a few feet away is a hook holding a key that, presumably, opens the padlock on the case.
Diamond Life (1990) is a more elaborate composition. A section of the museum's wall has been painted pale yellow and festooned with such items as an old post card and some dried twigs. In front of the wall, on a stretch of linoleum on the museum's floor, sits a table and chair. On the table rests an old hi-fi playing a scratched-up vinyl copy of Joni Mitchell's Hejira, with a stack of other albums (including the Rolling Stones' Let It Bleed) on the floor nearby. Other items occupying shelves under the table include paperbacks by Truman Capote and Joan Didion, an ashtray with cigarette butts, and a copy of a book called Art Since 1945.
MoCA rounds out this trilogy of shows with the tantalizing "Hernan Bas: It's Super Natural,"which occupies the freestanding Pavilion Gallery across from the museum's main entrance. As you enter the darkened gallery, a guard hands you a flashlight, which you can use to examine the nearly two dozen small paintings on the walls.
The paintings, in water-based oils on various surfaces, are dark, moody images of what appear to be teenage boys camping out, hiking in the wilderness, etc. In a handout, Bas, a native of Miami, explains that these works are about his attempts to create images of same-sex affection drawn from the adventures of the Hardy Boys in the famous mystery-book series, using, as he puts it, "the 'art' of creative misinterpreting naively innocent representations of heterosexual comradeship...."But these pieces are really just a preface to the show's centerpiece, a large multimedia installation called No Girls Allowed. It's a makeshift shanty with rays of light shining through cracks in the boards and music playing inside. Scattered around the perimeter of this fortress are such items as beer cans and bottles, a Styrofoam cooler, and empty cigarette packs.
The punch line comes when you peer through a small opening in one wall -- shades of Duchamp's large installation Étant Données -- to see not a Hardy Boys retreat but what might be the lair of sophisticated young gays, complete with a red love seat, a cell phone, a Ouija board, a Gucci shopping bag, a volume of Oscar Wilde, copies of men's fashion magazines, and a little bar stocked with such top-shelf brands as Absolut vodka and Bombay gin.
Despite his avowed nervousness about homosexuality, Salvador Dalí would likely both understand and approve of the sly subversiveness of Bas's work, making it the perfect coda to Dalí's "Dream of Venus."