Stepping into Off The Wall Gallery, I was thrust into the world of all things Salvador Dalí—a destination between imagination and reality.
The exhibition included an astounding breadth of work: etchings, ceramic plates, sculptures, and handwoven tapestries organized according to the works and movements that inspired Dalí, including Faust, Mao Zedong poems, Hippies, and Greek Mythology, to name a few. The atmosphere was filled with the kind of energy and excitement one would expect Dali’s works to inspire, and the crowd just as eclectic as Dalí might hope for: A fur-laden mother strolled along with her son, a pair of friends donned costumes complete with top hats and mesh tights, and a man proudly wore his Astros jersey.
They were all here to see Dalí's artwork and to hear Christine Argillet, the daughter of Dali’s publisher Pierre Argillet, speak about her father’s collection and her experience growing up with the renowned Surrealist. In fact, she is now the rare living person who can share a first-hand account of Dalí. According to Argillet, her father was drawn to Dalí in the 1930s because of his skill, imagination, and pure creativity. His spontaneity would be wonderfully unexpected, like the time Dalí used Argillet’s mother’s lipstick to make a beautiful sketch. “He liked to surprise himself and others,” she said.
While Dalí had great momentum as an artist, he could also be challenging to work with because of his unpredictability. One day he might tell Pierre that he had two ceramic plates to sell and when it came time to pick them up, they would already be sold. To avoid more incidences like this, Pierre would bring his family to Spain every summer so that he could keep an eye on Dalí. Because of this, Argillet would encounter Dalí many times.
The artist was different, an eclectic figure whose shyness often led him to overdo things in public to be the center of attention, leading to the bizarre public performances for which he was famous. Once, Dalí came to a public demonstration with a crazy look in his eyes and proceeded to scrawl out a bunch of circles. Though Pierre begged Dalí to do more and jokingly threatened to cut his mustache off, the artist left. Later when Dalí was shown the circles he had drawn, he could not remember having done any of it; however, he did remember taking LSD that day because his American friend had told him it was the latest fad of the Hippie movement. To make up for the incident, Dalí promised Pierre he would transform the circles into one of his best pieces of art, turning them into a whirlpool in Women in the Waves.
Dalí was also inspired by Greek mythology because it spoke of fate. In order to emulate this sense of destiny, Dalí would splash acid on copper plates so there would be some unpredictability as to how the acid would splatter. Afterwards, he would control the design around it. For his piece Medusa, he was inspired to dip a dead octopus found on the beach in acid and imprint it on the paper as Medusa’s hair.
Dalí's wide range of interests also included the West versus the East. Pierre once found a book of Mao Zedong’s poems in a bookstore, which he thought might inspire Dalí. Indeed, the poems led to several pieces like The Bust of Mao which portray Eastern symbols. These pieces were a way for Dali to explore the reciprocal fascination between Westerners and Easterners.
Argillet recalls that Dalí adapted to different movements and eras and was always willing to try something new. She said that he enjoyed keeping up with new technology and incorporating it into his work. But, he also had an appreciation for more classical artists like Leonardo da Vinci and the Renaissance style. “Dalí used classic technique to illustrate his dreams,” Argillet said. “He contributed to film by working with Hitchcock. He worked with Disney and Warhol.”
Which is to say Dalí's work is familiar, if difficult to parse. That's where Pierre Argillet’s collection succeeds, allowing the public a taste of the man who brought his subconscious into reality through a variety of mediums, allowing everyone who saw his art to dream with him.
Salvador Dalí: The Argillet Collection. Extended thru Nov. 8. Off the Wall Gallery, 5015 Westheimer Rd. 713-871-0940. More info at offthewallgallery.com.