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Date of Release: 
Wednesday, January 8, 2014
Contact Info: 

Erika Monroe-Kane, Director of Communications

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Real/Surreal Exhibition Brings Powerful Artwork to Madison

Real/Surreal Exhibition Brings Powerful Artwork to Madison

paired with a companion exhibition The Mystery Beneath



January 25, 2014–April 27, 2014

MADISON, WI--Organized by the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City, the critically acclaimed Real/Surreal exhibition will be presented by the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art (MMoCA) from late January until early April 2014. Featuring works of art by major American artists, such as Edward Hopper and Andrew Wyeth, Real/Surreal will be one of the most important exhibitions in the region this year. With its emphasis on Surrealism, the exhibition highlights an art movement with great popular appeal.

Theexhibition takes an unusual approach,” stated Richard Axsom, MMoCA Curator. “Real/Surreal focuses on the tension and connections between two powerful currents in twentieth-century art: realism and Surrealism, rather than featuring just one well-known art movement.” The term realism broadly refers to believable depictions of what is seen, while at the heart of Surrealism lays the subversion of reality through the imagination and subconscious. These approaches are different and even oppositional, however when they do converge it encourages new ways of looking at American art of the 1930s and ‘40s.


The Mystery Beneath

January 25, 2014–April 13, 2014

As a complement to Real/Surreal, MMoCA has developed The Mystery Beneath, drawing from the particular strengths of MMoCA’s permanent collection. Including paintings, prints, and drawings by Aaron Bohrod, Marshall Glasier, Walter Hamady, and John Wilde among others, The Mystery Beneath explores the lasting traditions of Surrealism and Magic Realism as they developed in Wisconsin during the twentieth century.

Real/Surreal Exhibition Detail

Real/Surreal draws from the significant holdings of the Whitney Museum’s permanent collection in American art. The exhibition features seventy works in a variety of media, including painting, drawing, photography, and printmaking. The exhibition boasts important works of art by well-known American artists, such as Thomas Hart Benton, Charles Burchfield, Marsden Hartley, Man Ray, Charles Sheeler, John Wilde, and Grant Wood. Among the jewels in the exhibition are two exceptional paintings: Edward Hopper’s Cape Cod Sunset (1934) and Andrew Wyeth’s “Winter Fields” (1942). The exhibition has been expanded to include five works from MMoCA’s permanent collection, notably a major landscape painting by Hartley.

Real/Surreal Exhibition Background

Real/Surreal explores the interconnections between the real and the imagined in American art in the years before, during, and immediately after the Second World War (1939–1945). Surrealism was an international movement in literature and art originating in Paris in the mid-1920s. Through the incorporationof chance effects and unexpected juxtapositions, its practitioners wished to visualize the imaginative workings of the inner mind, particularly of dreams.  While some employed abstraction and used the subconscious to directly influence the structure of their work, others developed a meticulously detailed realism with strong roots in representational painting. This latter vein of Surrealism flourished most famously in the art of Salvador Dalí and René Magritte, and it influenced a host of artists in the United States, many of whom are represented in Real/Surreal. As the movement spread internationally and some of its major figures moved to America during the upheavals of war, its ideas became more diffuse and infiltrated both art and popular culture.

The term “realism” has many connotations but generally refers to a basic connection to the observable world. Most of the artists in Real/Surreal were academically trained in the realist tradition and had a full command of illusionistic painting and drawing techniques. Those American artists directly connected to European Surrealism or strongly influenced by it, such as Peter Blume, Federico Castellón, and Man Ray, used these techniques to subvert and alter the observable world and create fanciful imagery. Castellón, for example, in The Dark Figure (1938), presents a mysterious woman shrouded entirely in black. With hands clutched, she presides over a cluster of strange figures and body parts, including a giant head of the artist in self-portrait, disembodied arms whose hands support misshapen hoops. Presenting an incongruous event that springs from the subconscious rather than from everyday reality, The Dark Figure poses unanswerable riddles.

Harder to categorize are those artists whose work has certain qualities in common with Surrealism but who tinkered more subtly with reality rather than dramatically changing it, creating a plausible vision that is nevertheless peculiar. Many of these artists, including Paul Cadmus, Jared French, and George Tooker, have been referred to as Magic Realists. In Tooker’s The Subway (1950), an anxious woman walks through a claustrophobic maze of passageways, stalked and spied upon, if only in her anxious imagination, by a number of men who eerily seem to be the same person.

Other artists, like Edward Hopper and Andrew Wyeth, who eschewed the overtly fantastic may still be associated with the Surrealists and Magic Realists in their creation of enigmatic, often haunting, works of art. In Hopper’s painting Cape Cod Sunset (1934), a tall, white clapboard house with red brick chimneys sits isolated with no apparent human presence. Although illuminated by the falling light of the day, the house stands vulnerable against the dark grove of trees behind it.

All of the artists in Real/Surreal, in their various ways, wished to find an uncanny space between reality and the improbable. Sigmund Freud, who pioneered modern ideas about the psyche and whose theories were seminal to Surrealism, stated in a 1919 essay that the uncanny happens when “the distinction between imagination and reality is effaced,” a fitting description of the work in this exhibition.

Real/Surreal Exhibition Credit and Sponsorship

Real/Surreal was organized by the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York. Unless otherwise noted, all works are from the collection of the Whitney Museum of American Art. Additions to the exhibition are drawn from the permanent collection of the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art. The exhibition will be on view at MMoCA through April 27, 2014.

Generous support for Real/Surreal has been provided by Mary Ellyn and Joe  Sensenbrenner; Mildred and Marv Conney; Ellen S. Rosner and Paul J. Reckwerdt; James and Sylvia Vaccaro; Peggy and Tom Pyle; Marvin J. Levy; the Steinhauer Charitable Trust; Nancy Doll and Michael Bernhard; Deirdre Garton; JoAnne Robbins and David Falk; Hooper Corporation/General Heating and Air Conditioning; McGladrey; Webcrafters-Frautschi Foundation; a grant from the Wisconsin Arts Board with funds from the State of Wisconsin and the National Endowment for the Arts; and MMoCA Volunteers.

The Mystery Beneath Exhibition Detail

Drawn from MMoCA’s permanent collection, The Mystery Beneath is a complementary exhibition to Real/Surreal in the main galleries. Including paintings, prints, and drawings by Aaron Bohrod, Marshall Glasier, Walter Hamady, and John Wilde, among others, the exhibition explores the lasting traditions of Surrealism and Magic Realism as they developed in Wisconsin during the twentieth century.

Beginning in the late 1930s, the vocabularies of Surrealism and Magic Realism, which expanded the expressive potential of traditional realist styles, became acompellingchoice for Wisconsin artists. Surrealism, with its inception in France during the 1920s, was the dominant avant-garde movement in the arts in the years between the First and Second World Wars. By creating fantastical imagery through odd juxtapositions of precisely detailed figures, objects, and settings, artists working within this vein aimed to reveal the workings of dream states and the subconscious. Magic Realism arose during the same time in Europe, and likewise embodied a mixture of realistic and fanciful elements. In contrast to the Surrealists’ preoccupation with Freudian psychological states, Magic Realist artists imbued material reality—the outer world—with strangeness.

During the 1940s, lively debates ensued in Madison, both within the University and the larger art community, about the proper course for American art. Marshall Glasier and like-minded supporters led the charge against the conservative thrust of American Regionalism. In developing a critical alternative to Midwestern realist traditions, the artists represented in The Mystery Beneath championed the ideals of Surrealism and Magic Realism as a lively alternate for a true modern art in America.

The Mystery Beneath Credit and Sponsorship

Generous support for The Mystery Beneath has been provided by Dane Arts, with additional support from The Evjue Foundation, the charitable arm of The Capital Times; a grant from the Wisconsin Arts Board with funds from the State of Wisconsin and the National Endowment for the Arts; and MMoCA Volunteers.

Exhibition Opening Event and Lecture

Friday, January 24 • 6–9 pm • Throughout MMoCA                MMoCA Nights

The public is invited to celebrate the opening of the major exhibition, Real/Sur­real, organized by the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York. This MMoCA Nights will begin at 6:00 pm with an opportunity to preview the exhibition. At 6:30 pm, guests will be invited to the lecture hall to hear a dialogue between MMoCA’s curator, Richard H. Axsom, and Carter Foster, the exhibition’s curator from the Whitney Museum of American Art. Mark Adkins, singer-songwriter for subvocal, will perform live. Hors d’oeuvres from Fresco will round out the evening. Members free/$10 MMoCA Nights admission.

MMoCA Nights are sponsored by Newcomb Con­struction Company; The Alexander Company; and BMO Harris Bank; with additional support from Fresco and media support from Isthmus|

Friday, January 24 • 6:30–7:30 pm • Lecture hall                      Lecture Detail

Curator to Curator: Making an Exhibition        

A Lussier Family Lecture

Carter Foster and Richard Axsom will discuss curatorial decision-making in defining, honing, and installing a major traveling exhibition. As originating curator for Real/Surreal, Foster conceived of and selected works for the exhibition and was instrumental in designing its presentation at the Whitney Museum of American Art. Richard Axsom coordinated the installation at MMoCA, including the addition of several works from the museum’s permanent collection. They will offer their perspectives on how curators from different institutions stage an exhibition and the considerations that inform their decisions.

Carter E. Foster is the Steven and Ann Ames curator of drawings at the Whitney Museum of American Art. Most recently, he organized the Whitney’s major exhibition Hopper Drawing, devoted to the drawings and working process of Edward Hopper, and authored the accompanying catalogue. Richard H. Axsom is curator at MMoCA and professor emeritus of art history, University of Michigan. He has published extensively in the area of modern and contemporary American prints. Lecture hall; Members free/$10 MMoCA Nights admission.


Hours at the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art are Tuesday–Thursday (noon–5 pm); Friday (noon–8 pm); Saturday (10 am–8 pm); and Sunday (noon–5 pm). The museum is closed on Mondays.

Admission to exhibitions at the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art is free of charge. MMoCA is supported through memberships and through generous contributions and grants from individuals, corporations, agencies, and foundations. Important support is also generated through auxiliary group programs; special events; rental of the museum’s lobby, lecture hall, and rooftop garden; and sales through the Museum Store.



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