American Painter and Poet
Watervliet, NY, USA
Woodbury, CT, USA
Summary of Kay Sage
As Sage's vision grows increasingly hopeless, glimmers of red, flowing drapery, and rolling eggs metamorphose to become complex and unstable architectural hiding places. After a privileged childhood, Sage moved to Italy, where she lived and worked in the company of a group of artists. Having married an Italian Prince however, she soon felt stifled and without artistic inspiration, so moved to Paris, where she met fellow painter Yves Tanguy, became involved with the Surrealist group, and started what she would later call, her "real life". She began to favor the geometric over the organic, and landscapes turned from natural vistas into barren psychological spaces. Constructed in mind, Sage built stage sets on canvas that typically look transitional, temporary, and unstable like scaffolding or theatre rigging. Following the unexpected death of her love, Tanguy, she suffered greatly at the end of her life. As a concluding tragedy that one wonders from the overarching tone of sadness that her paintings had already foreseen, Sage became partially blind and took her own life.
- The work of Sage differs dramatically from that of other Women Surrealists. Whilst other women involved in this movement often depicted symbolic motifs imbuing their pictures with ethereal positivity and relatively obvious meaning, Sage obscures such meaning and instead presents a typically nihilistic, cold, and impenetrable view of the world.
- Like Giorgio de Chirico, Sage is interested in constructed artifice, sharp perspective, and poetry, but where the older Italian's scenes typically suggest uncanny narrative, Sage's settings are more foreboding and sometimes even apparently dangerous. Like the English Vorticists, who made desolate wartime paintings, Sage too depicts broken, threatening, and uninhabitable terrains.
- Sage had a complex and destructive personal and working relationship with Yves Tanguy. Although it seems that Sage could not live without her partner, friends recall that they did not live together harmoniously either. Their work developed in parallel but was also markedly different. Whilst Tanguy held on to biomorphic forms and a jewel-like palette, Sage maintained a color wheel much more subdued and scenes became all the more constructed and formally abstract. The couple was very reluctant to exhibit together and did so only once close to Tanguy's death.
- The presence of the egg in Sage's work links her childhood and her autobiography. Her father had a collection of rare and unusual birds eggs that she would look at as a child and she titled her autobiography China Eggs (1955), focused on the fragile time before she moved to Paris. The egg is also perhaps the most meaningful object in her pictures. More typically Surrealist, it points to notions of alchemy and transformation and suggests hope of new life in a way that little else in her oeuvre does.
Progression of Art
This is a relatively early work made when Sage was still experimenting with various styles, and especially with geometric abstraction. The painting is composed of tri-dimensional rectangles of different sizes that have been stacked together randomly and precariously. There is a great sense of perspective based on oblique lines converging towards a vanishing point in the upper middle of the canvas, and also the sense that the structure could topple down before our eyes. Colors mostly belong to a muted blue palette and give a cool, oceanic or sky-like atmosphere to the whole painting. Brushstrokes, precise and not visible, add a quality of stillness and clarity and highlight the artist's abilities as an incredible draughtswoman.
With the use of geometric forms, the artist paints an enigmatic scene and invites the viewer to imagine the story behind it. The title gives a hint that we as the viewers are the onlookers to the remnants of some past events. Typically in the work of Sage, we never, or very rarely, 'see' a human, but we are given subtle clues to the presence of something softer than the surrounding dominant and harsh constructions. Here, the presence of emotion and hope comes in the form of the white curve in the upper part of the painting, as though placed there as a celestial pathway for escape from a less forgiving setting at large. Made in Paris, this painting was exhibited at the Salon des Surindependants and was among the works that first attracted Breton and Tanguy's attention.
Oil on canvas - Colorado Springs Fine Art Center at Colorado College
My Room Has Two Doors
This is an early surrealist work that shows de Chirico's strong influence on Sage and also introduces the artist's recurrent motif of the egg. The artist borrows several elements from the older Italian, including the stairwell and open archway, and in turn builds in her own distinctive voice. The egg is at the very center of the canvas and seems to lean against a curved wall that divides the space in two. Like de Chirico, by using objects from daily life and setting up uncanny juxtapositions, Sage creates a "metaphysical space". The shadows suggest further spaces invisible to the viewer, while the horizon line extends the space further into the background as well. This work is one of a cluster made at the time, all of which depict a variant combination of eggs, drapery, arches and stairways.
Many other Surrealist women artists working simultaneous to Sage, including Leonora Carrington, Leonor Fini, and Remedios Varo used the image of the egg. Whitney Chadwick points out, that there is an "alchemical identification of the egg with the woman's creative powers". This motif does indeed appear many times in Sage's early canvases, but there is a point when it disappears completely, along with the punctuating color of red. Chadwick observes that in the case of Sage, the egg remains ambiguous and serves both as a formal device to relieve the strict geometry of her compositions and as a momentary bearer of mystery "implying life and landscapes otherwise devoid of human presence." Sage quite unusually always puts the egg in a precarious position, as though about to roll away, perhaps there is a sense that it represents something grasped for but never reached.
The work is associated with a poem written by Sage and given the same title. One cannot help but extract a conflict and division at work here in both the painting and in the psyche of the artist. It is as though the 'red door' signifies the hope of new life, but this is the door that 'cannot be opened' and the grayness that remains brings nothing. An overall feeling of isolation and entrapment seems to be underlined in the poem. The author sees no escape and looks outside at the infinity.
As she wrote:
My room has two doors
And one window.
One door is red and the other is gray.
I cannot open the red door;
The gray door does not interest me.
Having no choice,
I shall lock them both
And look out of the window.
Oil on canvas - Mattatuck Museum, Waterbury, CT
I Saw Three Cities
This painting is a desolate, geometric landscape dominated by a tall, cloaked guardian in the foreground. The human looking figure is composed of a central pole and swirling drapery. The fluid and animated drapery is well rendered. As a critic noted in 1947, "Sage paints draperies like the masters did". The feeling of movement and blowing wind through the cloth made the figure contrast with the extreme stillness of the landscape. Surrounding the figure, a 'building block' landscape is depicted with simple shapes, mainly triangles and rectangles. An interesting perspective is created and underlined by the various sizes of the shapes and by the horizon line in the background. Colors are soft and similar all across the canvas. Only the partially visible pole stands out with its red tone, as though at this point Sage still has an internal core of red; there is life inside.
In typical Surrealist style, Sage puts in place a set of oppositions in this painting. The animated drapery contrasts with the inanimate setting and there is a parallel to be made in the opposition between the verticality of the pole and the horizontality of the landscape. These contrasts create a disorienting effect. The guardian humanized only by her drapery seems to preside over a city once inhabited. The cloth recalls that of the victorious Greek statue, Nike of Samothrace that the artist probably saw at the Louvre. One wonders though, as war rages in Europe and cities fall, that this is an image of defeat rather than one of victory. The title adds a further clue to the fact this is a painting made in mourning. Like the Louvre statue that survives through history, the guardian here bears witness to tragic current events but lives on. At this point in her career, Sage depicts the egg less and drapery and the color red more. Indeed, if the egg is an obvious symbol of womanhood and the urge to bring forth new life, drapery is a subtler motif and can be easily related to death as well as life. The cloth could become a shroud and the color red expresses the feeling of pain. Also arguably freer than the closed space of the egg and, especially in this painting, drapery poetically recalls the flowing hair of a woman.
Oil on canvas - Princeton University Art Museum
In this painting, a contorted, insect-like structure with exposed innards is set against a lonely horizon. This could be the scene of a broken creature fallen from flight (the starling?), a ship-wreck, or, as suggests the title, a caravan of travelers moving through the desert. Once again, there is no human figure to guide us so elements of meaning are only suggested and open to vast interpretation. The painting is well structured with clear and simple lines that confer with vitality even though the image is static. The drapery is beautifully rendered and the painting has more details and colors in general than other works by Sage. The influence of Tanguy can be seen as he included many small multi-colored organic shapes in his work. Sage picks up the color and maybe some of the playfulness of her husband's paintings but integrates them here in her own serious linear and structured composition. As with other works by the artist, the painting deals with the theme of travel. Instead of depicting actual sailing though, or the path of flight in motion, Sage presents the aftermath of such activities. Debris, pieces of cloth, wood pieces or bones, of what appears to be a broken vessel hint to the prior presence of life in this now deserted landscape.
This work was exhibited first in the 1948 Carnegie exhibition in Pittsburg and recognized at the time as one of Sage's best surrealist works. With great maturity and balance, it includes almost all of Sage's signature elements and themes. The structure is more complex and is not comprised into a strict geometrical composition. The artist begins to incorporate the scaffolding and latticework elements that become so typical of her iconography in later career. Instead of blank, impenetrable, flat walls, Sage uses now an open ribbing structure. This presence of more curved lines and shapes give a less oppressed atmosphere despite the suggested scene of a wreck. It is a desolate scene but it is also colorful and the cage is open making the feeling of entrapment and isolation not as strong as in many other works.
Oil on canvas - Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco
The Small Head
Art Historian Whitney Chadwick writes that this portrait directly addresses the issue of "psychic barrenness". The motif of hair that we saw in the I saw Three Cities painting comes up again here, but this time as a sort of red mane and the only natural aspect of an otherwise entirely mechanically constructed face. Interestingly a very similar shock of red hair appears in an earlier work by Tanguy called Girl With Red Hair, painted in 1926. This subtle and hidden reference to a woman's hair, gives the viewer a clue to what Sage is generally interested in her own highly complex and difficult to interpret language. She is interested in the overarching question, What is Woman? She considers the possibility that the egg, and thus perhaps birth makes a woman, but then she asks if the answer to the question may lie in our hair. There is a constructed idea created by a patriarchal society to what a woman is or should be and Sage is perpetually challenging and de-constructing this notion.
There is also a revealing visual comparison to be made between Small Head and both the Lovers (1928) painting by René Magritte, and the cloth sculpture by Eileen Agar, Angel of Anarchy 1940, made ten years earlier. All of these faces lose their actual biological features either to be shrouded in the case of Agar and Magritte, or rebuilt in the case of Sage. The message is one about the intensity of internal work, as though the self is distracted by the external world and that knowledge of any personality is found entirely by looking within, by somehow 'seeing' that which is invisible to see.
Oil on canvas
Tomorrow is Never
This painting depicts four tower-like constructions in a gray and foggy landscape. Each tower is different and built of wooden scaffolding. They are not all on the same ground and divide the space into foreground, middle ground, and background. The pole on the right suggests the possibility of further construction yet to take place. It is unclear whether these structures are standing on the ground or floating in the air, either way they are vulnerable and unstable. Each tower contains a trapped cloth-wrapped figure.
This work was the first painting Sage realized five months after the passing of Tanguy in 1955 and one of her last large compositions before she commits suicide in 1963. It is mostly considered as a grim metaphor of her grief. All the elements convey a sense of loneliness and of isolation. In a barren landscape, the scaffoldings are left half-built or half-destroyed. The towers stand incomplete, exposed, and open to attack. The wrapped figures within are powerless to escape, and at the same time seem not to be willing to try. The title, Tomorrow is Never, confirms this reading. There is no future, hence no past, just the very present of this intense isolation and heavy grief. The creation of mist is unusual in Sage's vocabulary usually linear and clear, and reflects the state of suspension and uncertainty experienced by the artist.
Some critics and scholars also add sexual connotations to this work: the cloth that often symbolizes a female figure in Sage's work is enclosed in a phallic male tower. This perfect match represented by these latticework towers can also be interpreted as a last homage of Sage to her life within a couple and the representation of physical love. The tower is a repeated motif used by female artists, most notably by Louise Bourgeois, who like Sage uses the symbol to visualize an eternal, internal, and paradoxical feeling of strength and fragility.
Oil on canvas - The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
This was Sage's last self-portrait painted before her death and unusually depicts the human figure. The artist herself sits naked to the waist looking over a bleak and barren landscape. The parallel to be made with Frida Kahlo's The Broken Column (1942) is a revealing one. Kahlo too wears only a loincloth, as though imitating the condemned Jesus Christ. Kahlo depicts her own psychological pain through the fissure through her torso and small nails that pierce her skin. As we have come to know is typical of Sage, she does not make her suffering so explicit. She simply turns her back on the viewer - unable to look us straight in the eyes - she internalizes her grief entirely. With no motif or means for release, Sage is consumed by her own internal struggle and cannot be free from it.
Oil on canvas
The Answer is No
In one of her very last paintings, Sage depicts a mass of frames, canvas, stretchers, and blank rectangular shapes. The horizon line suggests an infinite number of these essential painter's tools. The strictly linear structure of the composition conveys a feeling of order and organization despite the multitude and layers of objects. A palette of browns, greys, and muted blues dominate making the whitish canvas in the foreground with the shadow cast a highlight.
The artist seems to make a statement on her own legacy. Her usual latticework is transformed into empty stretchers and the blank canvasses become at once paintings that would never be created, but also explanation that she has nothing to say. The title clarifies this idea and underlines Sage's artistic negation of now refusing to go on with life. The work is said to be a partner piece for Quote, Unquote of the same year. According to Judith D. Suther, most of the last paintings by Sage were conceived and painted in pairs. These two paintings indeed, as Suther states, echo one another in design and composition as well as in the particular configurations of the blank canvas and empty easels. Actually in this group of last paintings, Sage experiments with a different kind of iconography of emptiness: the repetition of the same element ad infinitum. Always made in a pairing, one cannot help but suggest that the artist begins to create in this way as homage to her lost love, Tanguy.
Indeed, the work also seems to reference Tanguy's Multiplication of the Arcs (1954) where he represents an infinite number of rubble against a blue sky signifying emptiness through saturation. With all of these references to her late husband, Sage appears to justify why the answer is now 'no'. Sadly, 1958 is the year when the grieving artist attempted suicide for the first time. When she didn't die she stopped painting and made some collage until her later "successful" suicide in 1963.
Oil on canvas - Yale University Art Gallery, New Haven, CT
Biography of Kay Sage
Katherine Linn Sage was born on June 25, 1898 in Waterliet, NY, north of Albany. She was the second daughter of a well-established family who had made their fortune in the Northwest timber industry. Her father, Henry Sage, was president of the Sage Land and Improvement Company. He was also the director of various banking and business enterprises, and had served as a state senator from 1911 to 1921. Sage's mother, Anne Ward, married Henry when she was very young, age eighteen, in order to satisfy financial and social needs. She defied expectations and proved to be a recalcitrant wife. As historian Stephen Robeson Miller states, speaking of Sage, "the combination made for an unstable childhood". Very early on in their marriage, the artist's parents established separate lives. Henry remained in Albany while Anne traveled around multiple European cities to escape the duties of the spouse of a wealthy politician and businessman. Sage often accompanied her mother on these extended trips while her sister would only join them during the summer.
In 1908, Sage's parents officially divorced. Sage would continue to follow her mother and spent most of her childhood traveling. She spent a lot of time in Rapallo, Italy where her mother had a house. She learnt to speak Italian and as most of her governesses were French, she also learnt to speak that language. Sage developed a preference towards the "bohemian" lifestyle of her expatriate mother as opposed to the formal and controlled type of existence of her father. Sage recalled in her autobiography China Eggs how she hated all of her upstate New York cousins who were so different from her. She did though identify with both of her parents, thus making her adult personality "quite unpredictable" as Stephen Robeson Miller describes. She felt closer to her mother but wrote many long and detailed letters to her father.
Early Training and Work
Very early in her life, Sage was interested in painting and drawing, as well as in writing. In her solitary moments, she would paint and draw and would never allow anyone to touch her working materials. In 1914, when the war broke out in Europe, she was sent to the Foxcroft School in Middleburg, Virginia. She had three short stories and three poems published in the school yearbook, for which she also designed the cover.
After the war, partly because she fell in love with a Virginian man, and partly because she wanted to study art, she decided not to follow her mother to Europe and instead to pursue her art training at the Corcoran Art School in Washington D.C. She enjoyed this training and attended many life-drawing classes. It was here that she met Flora Whitney, the daughter of Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney who was soon to be the founder of the Whitney Museum of American Art, and the two became lifelong friends. Still, in 1920 she left the U.S. and traveled to join her mother in Italy where she had settled in Rome. Sage took art classes privately and also enrolled in the British Academy and the Scuola Libera delle Belle Arti. She met a group of artists self-called Venticinque della Campagna Romana - The Twenty-Five of the Roman Countryside and joined them on their regular outings outside of Rome. These excursions proved to be influential for her later artistic career.
In 1925, Sage married the Italian Prince Ranieri di San Faustino and put her artistic career on standby. Perhaps happy the first few years of this relationship, she quickly grew bored. As with her own mother, she was expected to fulfill the social obligations of a high-ranking lady; there was no time for painting, not even writing. However, a chance meeting with American poet Ezra Pound and through him, also the avant-garde German sculptor Heinz Henghes, she was encouraged to return to painting. Pound also had a residence in Rapallo and the three ferociously creative characters would meet frequently reawakening Sage's interest in making art.
In 1935, she divorced Ranieri and in 1936, under the name K. di San Faustino, she had her first show at the avant-garde Galleria del Milione in Milan where she exhibited six abstract oils alongside the sculptures of her friend Henghes. According to her biographer, Judith D. Suther, Sage "appears to have considered it the launching point of her career. She would include [it] in supporting material she prepared for subsequent exhibits, listing it as her first solo show". Soon after, Sage decided to devote herself entirely to painting and followed Henghes' advice to move to Paris. She departed Italy in 1937.
On her arrival in Paris, Sage anticipated introduction to the Surrealist group but wanted to paint more before revealing her work. She had discovered and known of the movement since the 1936 International Exhibition that she had seen in London. It was from 1937 though, she started to paint "seriously", in her own words in the surrealist vein. She acquired at that time her first painting: La Surprise (1914) by the Italian surrealist Giorgio de Chirico whose art was a great influence. By 1938, Sage had managed to get six 'Surrealist paintings' accepted into the Salon des Surindependants. This Salon was created in 1928 in reaction to the famous Salon des Independants that had by then become a place mainly for conventional art. Surrealism founder André Breton and group member Yves Tanguy visited the 1938 Surindependant show and noticed Sage's works. Tanguy recalled "Kay Sage - man or woman? I didn't know ... I just knew the paintings were very good." Apparently, it was Henghes who personally introduced Sage to the Surrealists. She befriended them and hosted many meetings in her Paris apartment. Her generosity was noticed and appreciated. However, the idealistic inner circle never totally accepted her as their peer. As a wealthy woman coming from the upper-class bourgeoisie once married to a Prince, she was often unfairly judged. Sage quickly started a relationship with Tanguy that Breton apparently disapproved of. Sage had admired Tanguy's works at the 1936 exhibition in London and especially remembered a painting prophetically called I am waiting for you (1934). Indeed, the two met and fell in love.
In 1939, the war broke out in Europe and Sage decided to go back to the United States. In order to help Tanguy and other artist friends to escape the situation, she created 'The Society for the Preservation of European Culture' with the help of the American Ambassador and the French Minister of Education. An exhibition program by contemporary foreign artists was organized in the U.S. and all funds raised were donated to children affected by the conflict. Using her power of finance and charity, before she left Paris in October 1939, she arranged that Tanguy would arrive later, in 1940 in time for a show at the Pierre Matisse Gallery in December of the same year.
Once in the U.S., Sage settled down in New York and started to paint again. Pierre Matisse gave her her first solo show in June 1940. He then exhibited Tanguy's work in December as scheduled. In August 1940, the two artists got married in Reno while on a trip to the West Coast. They first lived in Washington Square in Manhattan where their apartment became a gathering place for expatriate artists. Indeed, Sage managed to help many other artists move to the U.S. through the travel program that she had initiated. Despite the fact that Breton and Sage, although respectful of one another, had never become friends, Breton himself arrived safely in New York in 1941 entirely because Sage had helped him. Sadly, Breton is said to have strongly disapproved of Tanguy's marriage to Sage and to have cut ties with him after that. Nevertheless, Breton dedicated Sage one of his Poème-Objet (1941), which the artist added to her growing art collection. It has since been acquired by MoMA.
In 1941 Sage and Tanguy decided to move out of the city and they bought a farmhouse in Woodbury, Connecticut where Alexander Calder became their neighbor. Sage had her own studio and began to develop her signature style. She spent her happiest and most productive years in Woodbury. A small artistic community gathered at the artists' home that included Andre Masson, Hans Richter, David Hare, Arshile Gorky, and Roberto Matta. Most of this creative circle had also fled the war in Europe and were now living in exile in the US. Sage hosted many dinners and parties but apparently remained very cold and distant, almost arrogant. People who knew her often said that they were friends of Tanguy but only acquaintances of Sage. It seems that Sage had a cryptic and difficult to un-code personality. Her relationship with Tanguy however was very strong. The two were inseparable, they shared a studio, accompanied each other everywhere, and they communicated in French. Despite such intense togetherness, friends described the marriage as "strange" and "uneasy". Indeed, Tanguy with his strong personality, and his tendency to drink heavily, would sometimes humiliate and downgrade Sage and her work in front of their friends. Sage would remain silent during these cruel undressings but was miraculously encouraged to paint even more.
At this moment in time, Sage's career took a positive turn. Already in the 1940s, she had participated in two of the most important shows of these years: the First Papers of Surrealism exhibition in October-November 1942 organized by Andre Breton, and Exhibition by 31 Women in January 1943, curated by Peggy Guggenheim and held at her newly opened and revolutionary gallery, The Art of This Century.
After the war in 1945, many European Surrealists decided to go back home, including Breton who left the US in 1946. It was much easier for Sage to concentrate on painting with the entourage of colleagues in need of financial support now gone. In 1947, the art dealer Julien Levy offered Sage a solo show at his gallery in New York where she exhibited 11 paintings. Later, gallerist Catherine Viviano started to represent her and she had a series of solo shows at Viviano's gallery in New York, including a very important one in 1950. By this year, Sage's style was assured and she had arguably already produced her most important works. In 1954, she and Tanguy had their first solo show together in a museum, the Wadsworth Athenaeum in Connecticut. They had never considered themselves as an artistic couple working together and both found the experience difficult. They only accepted this joint opportunity to show work on the condition that they exhibited their paintings in two separate rooms.
In 1955, Tanguy tragically and suddenly died of a stroke. Sage was totally devastated. She sank into a deep depression and developed a cataract that affected her vision. She painted less and less and withdrew herself from society to live as a recluse. In 1959, she attempted suicide with sleeping pills. After this failure, she decided to devote her time to the preparation of Tanguy's catalogue raisonné. It was really through her efforts that the project came to life and the book was published in 1963 with a preface written by her. She was however still grieving and had become partially blinded by a failed cataract surgery. Unable now to find any other reason to continue with life, she fatally shot herself in the heart on January 8, 1963.
As instructed in her will, Pierre Matisse who was the executor, buried urns containing Sage and Tanguy's ashes in the waters off the coast of Tanguy's native Brittany. In a suicide note, Sage had written, "The first painting by Yves [Tanguy] that I saw, before I knew him, was called 'I'm Waiting for You.' I've come. Now he's waiting for me again - I'm on my way."
The Legacy of Kay Sage
Kay Sage is among the few Americans associated with early Surrealism. She fully integrated the language of the movement within her own practice and achieved notable success during her lifetime. Although her work bears the influences of her colleagues, Sage developed her own highly personal and uniquely recognizable style. She rejected vibrant colors and the tendency toward figuration and chose instead to compose muted canvases that blur the line between realism and fantasy. She used landscape as a metaphor for the mind, and is credited with contributing the most abstract and geometrical vocabulary to the movement. Sage was a pioneer moving towards abstraction; letting go of symbolist motifs and figuration she instead shifted focus entirely onto the combination of forms. This is a theme that grew organically, and as it gained momentum in the U.S. it provided inspiration for the beginnings of the subsequent movement, Abstract Expressionism.
Art historian Whitney Chadwick has said Sage's work possessed a "purified form and a sense of motionlessness and impending doom found nowhere else in Surrealism." Whilst married to the more famous and successful French Surrealist, Yves Tanguy, Sage continued to sign her works with her maiden name, and exhibited very infrequently with her husband. She was instrumental in ensuring the safe passage between war torn Europe and America for many fellow Surrealists. She had her own considerable art collection and upon her death bequeathed many works to public institutions to promote Surrealism and Modern Art. As a painter, she successfully promoted the incongruity, strangeness, and complexity of self and her canvases are widely studied. As a poet, her work remains largely forgotten. Able to speak various languages, she wrote poetry in French, English, and Italian. She published five volumes of mostly surrealist poetry that defied social and artistic conventions, but these have still not been rigorously researched or thus rediscovered.