Surrealism Comes to America

The Totemic Mind

The flight from a Eurocentric worldview and the search for an “other,” Native American spirituality, had started before 1940. Mike Kelley observed that “Taos, New Mexico, became an artists’ Mecca [in the 1920s],” a time when Breton, Eluard, or Donati bought Hopi kachinadolls and pre-Columbian totemic objects. In the early 1940s, Max Ernst and Jackson Pollock, influenced by the exhibition Indian Art of the United States at the Museum of Modern Art, made sand paintings, executed flat on the ground in the manner of the Navajo.

The combined and sometimes contradictory influences of Native American art and surrealism would be felt in the United States for decades. For example, artist Lee Mullican (1919–1998), who had cultivated a deep interest in Indians since his summer vacations in Taos, was literally “set in motion” by the 1943 “Amerindian” issue of the art journal DYN. He started to collect masks and textiles and to practice meditation. In 1951, he joined forces with two former surrealists, Wolfgang Paalen and Gordon Onslow Ford, in the landmark exhibition Dynaton at the San Francisco Museum of Art.

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