Subscribe for 99¢

"Dreamscapes," an exhibition currently on view at the Pulitzer Foundation for the Arts, assembles 39 objects by 22 artists, ranging from such images as the small and painstakingly crafted Albrecht Dürer (1471-1528) engraving "The Temptation of the Idler" to the strongly evocative large-scale installation "Staircase — Pulitzer Version," by Korean artist Do Ho Suh.

The exhibition purports to incite "questions about the act of dreaming — a succession of thoughts, images, sounds, and emotions, which the mind experiences during sleep." And it tries to achieve this goal by juxtaposing the fantastical imagery of artists Rene Magritte, Joan Miró, Giorgio de Chirico, Constantin Brancusi, Georg Baselitz, Philip Guston, Paul Delvaux, Katharina Fritsch and others against the architecture of the Pulitzer Foundation itself.

Certainly visual context is relevant to an exhibition. And Tadao Ando's architectural achievements in the Pulitzer are deservedly celebrated — it's handsome by any reasonable contemporary measure. Nevertheless, the exhibition's insistence that the work be considered in relation to the building does less to recontextualize it, and more to cultivate the sense of a pretty girl finding ways to bring up her good looks in conversation.

An example of these forced relationships is a piece by Scott Burton (1939-1989), titled "Rock Settee." It's precisely as one might imagine, half an enormous granite boulder provided with seating opportunities. However, in this case the exhibition proposes to rhyme it and its placement relative to the Pulitzer's central Watercourt, with the images of boulders featured in Magritte's "Invisible World" and "Active Voice," and Georg Baselitz's "Landscape with Pathos." However, while riffing the two Magrittes and the Baselitz against one another feels plausible, the attempt to induce "Rock Settee" into an otherwise earnest dialogue feels like an awkward introduction at a cocktail party.

Granted assembling a group show of heavyweight personalities, such that a late period Guston will smile benignly across the room at a Delvaux, is no small feat. Nevertheless, the premise that the architectural context somehow allows them to be dreamy together is ambitious in its overstatement.

Take for example, Magritte's "Invisible World," in which a lichen-covered boulder sits at the threshold of a balcony overlooking the evening sea and sky: a painting concerned with the various dichotomies of subject, object, expectation and experience. But appearances to the contrary, one not about dreams.

Or Alberto Giacometti's "Hands Holding the Void (Invisible Object)," in which a highly stylized female figure, perhaps kneeling at a pew, holds within her hands an object we may alternatively interpret as absent or unseen — suggesting considerations of belief and certainty pertaining to art world dogmas and otherwise. But not dreams.

Even Max Beckmann's "The Dream," does not portray dreams, but rather the unabating nightmare of a reality in which a society's humble populace is victimized, manipulated and made to suffer inescapable personal costs shouldering the burden of a ruinous war.

But if the work of de Chirico, Max Ernst, Guston and the others, is simply too immense to fit beneath so small a conceptual rug — and it is — what then? Well, as if to forestall just such an eventuality, there seems a curatorial failsafe. And in this case one whose access key appears in the form of a now largely unknown German artist.

Max Klinger (1857-1920) was a Symbolist sculptor, printmaker, painter and noteworthy artist of his time. His contribution to "Dreamscapes" comes by way of 10 small engravings collectively entitled "A Glove, portfolio of 10 etchings."

The plates describe a narrative in which the artist finds a woman's glove at a skating rink. The story appears to begin simply: the artist discovers the glove, picks it up and takes it home. But what followed was new, or was for the time, because Klinger didn't proceed then to scour the kingdom in search of the hand perfectly fitted to it. Rather, far from a Cinderella story, the gratification and reward of the hero didn't figure in his tale, but instead only imaginative doubt and longing.

In addition, however, to confounding our narrative expectations, perhaps more significantly Klinger employed a compelling and inventive graphic language to probe the inner details of his narrative. And it was this vocabulary of personal symbolism, which, apart from being merely dreamlike and nonlinear, was to endure — eventually figuring to ease the transition from Symbolism to Surrealism.

Klinger is among the hidden seeds of Surrealism — he is among de Chirico's admitted influences, and it was de Chirico (among others) who later went on to influence Ernst and Delvaux, and Guston; a progression whose distillate strain touches even the concern of Katarina Fritsch or Do Ho Suh. And it is this exhibition, this abbreviated survey, graphing the chords of personal symbolism, from Surrealism, through Neo-Expressionism, and on to the very timbre of contemporary art, which rather more instructively and cohesively unites the work, joining titan to heavyweight without the effort of contrivance.

This exhibition was here the whole time, but it requires no architectural reframing, and no hypnotherapy.

Hesse Caplinger is a freelance writer based in St. Louis.


When • 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Saturdays, noon-5 p.m. Wednesdays; through Aug. 13

Where • Pulitzer Foundation for the Arts, 3716 Washington Boulevard

How much • Free