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Arizona conference is first to examine the American West’s influence on Surrealism

August 09, 2006

TEMPE, Ariz. – During the 1940s and 50s, New York-based surrealist artists began exploring the Native American art and culture of the American West. Modern art history has almost forgotten this episode, but leading art historians will convene to bring it back into the fold at the Surrealism and the American West conference at Arizona State University?s Herberger College of Fine Arts, Oct. 26-27. The event is free and open to the public.

“This conference is the first extended scholarly discussion of the sustained engagement by both American and European surrealists with Arizona, the Southwest and the greater American West, as they looked beyond the urban context that had defined the practice of modern art during the first part of the 20th century,” says conference organizer Claudia Mesch, assistant professor of art history in the Herberger College.

The collection and promotion of Native American art began with leading surrealists André Breton, Max Ernst, Claude Levi-Strauss and Salvador Dali. Ernst and Dali made their way West – Dali to Los Angeles and Ernst and his wife Dorothea Tanning to Sedona, Ariz. The Surrealism and the American West conference coincides with the 60th anniversary of Ernst and Tanning’s arrival in Arizona, where they lived and worked for nearly a decade.

“By shifting the focus from New York to the American West, this conference suggests that the West formed as much a nexus of European/American/Native cultural exchange as did New York,” says Mesch.

International art historians, photographers and filmmakers to speak at the conference include: Ellen Landau, Case Western Reserve University; Ian Walker, University of Wales; W. Jackson Rushing, University of Texas; Lewis Kachur, Kean University; Marie Mauzé, Laboratoire d’Anthropologie Sociale, Paris; Ludger Derenthal, Museum of Photography, Berlin; and documentary filmmaker Robert McNab, Cargo Press/Artists on Film Trust.

Robert McNab, filmmaker and author of Ghost Ships: A Surrealist Love Triangle (2004), delivers the keynote lecture on Thursday, Oct. 26, in AED60, Architecture North building, on the ASU Tempe Campus.

Panel discussions on Oct. 26 and 27 include: 1). “Surrealists Collect the West: Native American Culture, Display, Ethics,” which examines surrealism’s obsession with Native American culture; 2). “Surrealists in the West” focusing on painting and sculpture by David Hare, Paalen, Dalí, Alfonso Ossorio, Ernst and Tanning; and 3). “The Surrealist Lens” about photography by Frederick Sommer in Arizona, Clarence John Laughlin in New Orleans, and the influence of surrealism in the West on the American filmmaker David Lynch.

For more information about the conference and to register, call 480-965-9567 or visit:

Surrealism and the American West is funded by a grant from the Terra Foundation for American Art, dedicated to fostering exploration, understanding and enjoyment of the visual arts of the United States for national and international audiences; and by the School of Art a division of The Katherine K. Herberger College of Fine Arts at Arizona State University. Its printmaking, photography and art education programs are nationally ranked in the top 10, and its Master of Fine Arts program is ranked eighth among public institutions by U.S.News & World Report. To learn more about the School of Art, visit

Media Contact:
Denise Tanguay