Journal of Surrealism and the Americas, Vol 1, No 1 (2007)

The Vernacular as Vanguard: Alfred Barr, Salvador Dalí, and the U.S. Reception of Surrealism in the 1930s

Sandra R. Zalman


This paper works to characterize the relationship between Surrealism’s art, its critical reception and its popularity in American culture, a relationship often mediated by Salvador Dalí’s public embodiment of the movement. Alfred Barr’s 1936 exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art introduced a broad view of Surrealism to a receptive American audience. While Surrealism’s investigation into the irrationality of everyday life resonated with the American public, it was Dalí who ensured that the movement stayed in the spotlight, designing among other things, department store windows, magazine covers, and several series of advertisements; by 1939, when Dalí and his dealer Julien Levy promoted a Surrealist Pavilion at the New York World’s Fair, it made sense that the pavilion was located not in the Fine Arts section of the Fair, but in the Amusements Arena. The same year, despite, or perhaps, because of Dalí’s flamboyant articulation of the infiltration of market forces and mass media, he was also recognized as dramatizing the constraints of the circumscribed art world which had just begun to feel the influences of formalism. This paper argues that Dalí posed a challenge that placed Surrealism’s mediation between art and life at the center of the making of an American artistic culture.

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