The Spellbinding Totality of Kay Sage and Yves Tanguy’s Love 

It is hard enough to forge a successful marriage when one artist is involved — let alone two. But married artists are a phenomenon that, though unusual, is not entirely anomalous. A forthcoming monograph, Kay Sage & Yves Tanguy: Ring of Iron, Ring of Wool (edited by Victoria Noel-Johnson and Marzina Marzetti and published by Skira with Helly Nahmad Gallery) highlights one such relationship, and the Surrealist paintings produced during and influenced by their union.

The couple married in 1940, when both were in their 40s, affording each of them enough time to establish their own artistic vision separately. The monograph hones in on the meeting of their minds, emphasizing their interpersonal chemistry and the impact it had on their internal and artistic landscapes.

The French-born Yves Tanguy was consumed with Surrealist discourse in Paris in the 1920s, and spent a lifetime refining imagined landscapes populated by biomorphic forms typical of that movement. Kay Sage’s work is more linear and architectural: Her dreamlike compositions are filled with window frames, fragmented walls and statuary, and draped cloths. When viewed together, a complementary vision emerges, united by muddy palettes, open-sky backgrounds, and an almost complete lack of human figuration.

Ring of Iron, Ring of Wool places greater focus on Sage as an act of historical correction. Though somewhat recognized in her time, her painting career was, unsurprisingly, hampered by the gender norms of her era, as well as eclipsed by her partner’s fame within the Surrealist scene. The book traces Sage’s activist arc: She devoted herself to the tempestuous geopolitics of World War II, which particularly threatened their French colleagues as Nazi occupation progressed. She co-founded the Society for the Preservation of European Culture in 1939, which facilitated the escape of artists, including Tanguy, Gordon Onslow Ford, and eventually André Breton, from France to New York.

When her attention wasn’t consumed by activism, she divided her energies between painting and writing plays, publishing poems, and writing a memoir, China Eggs (1955) — as well as fiercely championing her husband’s work, up to and following his unexpected death in 1955.

The title of both the book and accompanying exhibition at Helly Nahmad Gallery is borrowed from an eponymous Sage painting referencing the couple’s seventh wedding anniversary. As those of us who are involved with artists can attest, the same characteristics that can make them difficult can also make them compelling: passion, torrid emotionality, and lacerating expressiveness. Sometimes that depth of feeling can be too much — as seemed to be the case for Sage, who made at least one unsuccessful attempt to die by suicide following Tanguy’s sudden death, and eventually did take her own life in 1963.

“After I knew Yves everything was obliterated that was not Yves,” Sage wrote in a letter to Heinz Henghes on November 6, 1959, as quoted in the monograph. “I can say no more than to say I do not believe there has ever been such total and devastating love and understanding as there was between us. It was simply an amalgamation of two beings into one blinding totality.”

Whether a romance for the ages or a cautionary case of dual obsession, Ring of Iron, Ring of Wool is a detailed and fascinating recollection of two artistic lives that grew together as one, producing a fantastical oeuvre that captures the surreality that attends all human attempts to understand and connect with one other.

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