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Wikipedia About Kay Sage

Katherine Linn Sage (June 25, 1898 – January 8, 1963), usually known as Kay Sage, was an American Surrealist artist and poet. Full Wikipedia Article

essay Kay Sage, Walker Art Center Collections, 2005

Kay Sage, one of the few prominent women associated with Surrealism, was born to a wealthy family in upstate New York but spent much of her youth traveling in Europe with her restless mother. Their peripatetic lifestyle resulted in a desultory artistic education for Sage, who maintained throughout her life that she was self-taught as a painter. This is not quite the case, but it is certainly true that she did not find her mature artistic voice until after 1937—the year she left behind both her Italian husband and their life of languorous but aimless privilege. In Paris, she rented a garret studio overlooking the Seine and began to paint in earnest.

Like the other women associated with the mostly male Surrealist group, Sage was only grudgingly accepted by them as an artist, and never as their equal. According to her biographer, Sage’s affiliation with them was strained, and came at a price of internalized misogyny and self-loathing that was exacerbated by her stormy second marriage to preeminent French Surrealist Yves Tanguy.1 Her sense of autonomy was further damaged by critics’ constant dismissal of her as merely “the wife of,” and she struggled with a fear that her work was derivative of her husband’s.

Sage had no reason to worry: her mature style was unlike anything else in Surrealism. She rejected biomorphism and instead developed her own austere iconography of wide open vistas and architectonic structures rendered in muted tones. Human presence is suggested but rarely revealed, and in her canvases there is a sense of both unlimited freedom and impending doom. She admitted to being strongly influenced by the work of Giorgio de Chirico (she owned his 1914 painting The Torment of the Poet), but her style also likely comes out of her alfresco study, in the 1920s, of the open, light-filled Roman countryside.2

Typical of her strongest works is the painting On the Contrary (1952), one of the first of Sage’s canvases to enter a museum collection.3 Completed in her barn studio in Woodbury, Connecticut, where she and Tanguy had settled in 1941 after fleeing the war in Europe, the painting depicts a still life of boxes, boards, drapery, and rope in an apparently unfinished architectural space. Like the best Surrealist images, it is an unsettling mix of parts that don’t add up to an understandable whole. Sage embraced this kind of mystery. One of her poems, written in 1961, ends with the lines “two and two do not necessarily make four/If that is a scientist at my door please tell him to go away.”4

  1. See Judith D. Suther, A House of Her Own: Kay Sage, Solitary Surrealist (Lincoln and London: University of Nebraska Press, 1997).

  2. This is proposed by Whitney Chadwick in Women Artists and the Surrealist Movement (London: Thames & Hudson, 1985).

  3. Suther, House of Her Own, 156. (Suther’s book incorrectly dates the painting as 1954.) It was purchased for the collection in 1953 after its inclusion in the Walker exhibition The Classic Tradition in Contemporary Art.

  4. Ibid., 213.

Rothfuss, Joan. “Kay Sage.” In Bits & Pieces Put Together to Present a Semblance of a Whole: Walker Art Center Collections, edited by Joan Rothfuss and Elizabeth Carpenter. Minneapolis, MN: Walker Art Center, 2005.

© 2005 Walker Art Center