Dreaming Arizona: Surrealists in the Grand Canyon State

I’m down in the Grand Canyon, resting in the shade of the tall cottonwood trees along the shining creek at Bright Angel Campground. I’m thinking about the New Deal programs of the 1930s and how much good they did for Arizona. The Civilian Conservation Corps planted many of these trees and constructed the narrow hanging bridges over the Colorado River, helping to make the inner canyon a green and welcoming oasis well worth the precipitous hike down from the rim (and back up).

A hanging bridge over the Colorado River in Arizona's Grand Canyon. Photo © Tim Hull.
A hanging bridge over the Colorado River in Arizona’s Grand Canyon. Photo © Tim Hull.

When I reach the South Rim several days later, and gaze over the wonderland out of which I’ve hiked, it occurs to me that if the Colorado River had not created the Grand Canyon in this dimension, in this reality, it could only exist in some Surrealist painter’s imagination. I’ve had this thought before while contemplating the canyon’s wild eroded vastness, and it always reminds me of my other favorite gifts the New Deal gave to Arizona, ones that are much easier to reach than the inner canyon: the Phoenix Art Museum and the strange, magical paintings of its founder, Philip C. Curtis.

The New Deal’s Works Progress Administration (WPA) sent Curtis to Arizona in 1937 to create an arts center in Phoenix that eventually became the Phoenix Museum of Art (1625 N. Central Ave., 602/257-1880. Wed. 10am-9pm, Thur.-Sat. 10am-5pm, Sun. Noon-5pm, $18, $9 kids 6-17). Today the museum owns some of Curtis’ best paintings, many of which hang in a room dedicated to his work. Many of the artists who came to Arizona and the Southwest in the 19th and early 20th centuries painted only what they saw, finding more than enough material in the stark deserts and mountains. But Curtis found in Arizona’s land and people augmented his dreamscapes, creating paintings that capture a surreal and magical world just beyond the surface.

The Phoenix Art Museum. Photo © Tim Hull.
The Phoenix Art Museum. Photo © Tim Hull.

Curtis wasn’t the only artist to find in Arizona’s landscapes a prompt and backdrop for his unique imaginings. Max Ernst, one of the founders of the Dada and Surrealist movements in Europe, came to Arizona with artist Dorothea Tanning in 1946. They built a small house in Sedona and lived there on and off into the 1950s. In Sedona’s fantastically eroded red rocks Ernst recognized a natural architecture that he had thought existed only in his imagination, and Ernst’s “experience of the landscape and light [in Arizona] proved decisive in determining the direction his art took from then on until his death.” (Ernst, by Ian Turpin, Phaidon, 1993)

Bell Rock in Sedona, Arizona. Photo © Tim Hull.
Bell Rock in Sedona, Arizona. Photo © Tim Hull.

Ernst created his famous sculpture “Capricorn” in 1948 beneath Sedona’s towering red cliffs. Cast in bronze in 1964 and 1975, the sculpture is now on display at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. And after a trip to the Colorado River, Ernst painted his visionary Coloradeau de Méduse. To me, this painting seems like the very first dream about Arizona, which some god might have had while napping in the cool of the evening beneath the cottonwoods.