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Kay Sage Photo

Kay Sage

American Painter and Poet

Born: June 25, 1898 - Watervliet, NY, USA
Died: January 8, 1963 - Woodbury, CT, USA
Movements and Styles:
"I have said all that I have to say. There is nothing left for me to do but scream."
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Kay Sage
"I am, primarily, a painter. I paint serious pictures. When I am not quite so serious or in a different mood, I write down certain impressions, observations, and sudden, apparently imperative thoughts that come to me. There is absolutely no conflict between these two forms of expression, nor do they have any connection. They simply replace each other. I have always painted and I have always written but never at the same time."
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Kay Sage

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.

Biography of Kay Sage

Kay Sage Photo

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.

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


Starling, Caravans

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 - Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York


The Passage

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

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Content compiled and written by Pich-Chenda Sar

Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Rebecca Baillie

"Kay Sage Artist Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. . TheArtStory.org
Content compiled and written by Pich-Chenda Sar
Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Rebecca Baillie
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First published on 16 Jul 2018. Updated and modified regularly
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