Thursday, July 12, 2018

Your Move: Kay Sage’s Surrealist Assemblages

Guest blogger Renee Klann is a Smith College student, class of 2019. She was the 2015-2017 STRIDE Scholar in the Cunningham Center for Prints, Drawings, and Photographs.

Kay Sage was an American Surrealist artist. After growing up in both the U.S. and Italy, she moved to France and met the Surrealists. Their movement, which drew on dreams and the subconscious, inspired Sage. In the late 1930s and early 1940s she developed a personal Surrealist style based on mysterious architectural forms in somber-colored settings. Although the forms are painted realistically, they convey an impression or feeling rather than actual objects.


 Kay Sage, American, 1898-1963. Cooling the Stars, 1957. Oil on canvas. Promised gift from a Private Collection, Houston. SC TR 7808.4

In the late 1950s Sage developed cataracts, which made her eyesight too poor to paint. Rather than giving up on making art, Sage created assemblages and wrote poetry. In a letter to Marcel Duhamel, she said “I’ll have a show . . . of objects I’ve managed to make to replace paintings.” Her 17 small three-dimensional objects were shown at the Catherine Viviano gallery in November 1961.

Sage almost never explained the meaning of her work, and the assemblages were no exception to this rule. The only clues to their meaning are their titles and the lines of Sage’s poem “Your Move” that they were paired with.


Your Move

These are games without issue

some have been played

and are therefore static

others will be

and can still be played

there are no rules

no one can win or lose

they are arbitrary

and irrelevant

but there is no reason why

anything should mean more

than its own statement

two and two

do not necessarily make four


If that is a scientist at my door

please tell him

to go away


The lines “there is no reason why / anything should mean more / than its own statement” reflect Sage’s reluctance to offer explanations of her work. For her, a painting or assemblage spoke for itself, and she did not want to put precise meanings on her dreamlike images. The poem also suggests that Sage was probably influenced by Surrealist games such as Exquisite Corpse, in which each player added part of a drawing or a sentence without seeing the other players’ contributions to create an unexpected final product.

Some of the assemblages included in the exhibition were Sourir D’hiver (Winter Smile), a piece of crinkled foil mounted in a wood frame with a magnifying glass; Your Move, which resembles a chess board with bullet cartridges instead of chess pieces; and Nuclear Tension, made of a spring and a ball bearing inside a glass tube.

 Kay Sage, American, 1898-1963. Tides Will Be High From Now On, 1961. 98 blue and clear glass beads, wood box with four stones, four convex lenses on wood ground. Promised gift from a Private Collection, Houston. SC TR 7808.5


Tides Will Be High From Now On combines ninety-eight blue and clear glass beads with four stones resting on glass lenses, all in a wood box. The corresponding line of the poem is “there are no rules.” This piece can be seen as a game without rules because the beads are free to move in unpredictable patterns in response to a ‘player’s’ movements.

The show Your Move was Sage’s last before she committed suicide in 1963. The objects she made in her final years demonstrate how even in the face of obstacles, Sage continued to make art that was true to her Surrealist vision.


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