For a long time the near universal judgment on Salvador Dali was that he had outlived himself. The Surrealist work he did from 1929 to 1939 was brilliant and durable. After that came decades of repetition and kitsch, the years of his collaborations with Walt Disney-- never completed--and his magazine ads for Elsa Schiaparelli lipstick. It didn't help that from early on he was art's state-of-the-art goofball, the guy who would show up in public in a deep-sea diving suit or a Rolls- Royce filled with cauliflowers. Then came the Spanish Civil War. When it was over Picasso refused to set foot in Spain so long as the victorious Franco still reigned. But Dali was soon returning for a part of each year--and worse, giving his blessing to the Generalissimo's wretched regime. "I have reached the conclusion," he once said, "that [Franco] is a saint." There are people who have never forgiven him.
By the time he died, in 1989, at 84, Dali's wobbly postwar output and his threadbare shenanigans had tarnished his reputation for good--or so it seemed. But reappraisal is the bread and butter of the art world. Which brings us to the major Dali retrospective that opens this week at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. It's another step forward in what you might call the late Dali rehab project. Five years ago a show organized by the Zurich Kunsthaus, "Hypermental: Rampant Reality 1950-2000: From Salvador Dali to Jeff Koons," toured Europe to spread the not unreasonable idea that Dali was a significant precursor of Pop and postmodernism. In the same spirit he is being re-examined by academics and curators as a pioneer of the artist as public performer, role model par excellence for Andy Warhol and Koons. It might not seem like a good thing to re-emerge as the original media whore, but there's no denying Dali's role in making showmanship an art-world career tactic.
But is there more than that? Is it truly possible to look at the later Dali, at the endless recyclings of his Surrealist mannerisms or his hologram of Alice Cooper, the '70s rock nuisance, and not shrug? The well-argued Philadelphia show says it can be done--just pick your way carefully among the works. "Salvador Dali," which runs through May 15, doesn't reposition him as a master of the postwar era. But it rescues him from the status of purest kitschmeister and brings back some spectacular pictures.
It also rattles the walls with room after room of his initial brilliance and originality. Most of the 200 works in the show, which was organized by the British Dali expert Dawn Ades and Michael R. Taylor, the Philadelphia museum's curator of modern art, are from the agreed upon golden age before 1940, when Dali's great topic was sex and how much it frightened him. Whatever was limp, runny and detumescent--plus anything disgusting--found its way into his canvases. He generally placed all of that in a space adapted from Giorgio De Chirico's plunging distortions of classical perspective, which he merged with his erotically charged memories of the receding horizons of the beaches around Cadaqués, the Catalonian village of his childhood. What it all led to were images that were both recognizable and weirdly disordered, sunbleached and unwholesome.