by Susan Laxton. Duke University Press, February 2019. 384 p. Ill. ISBN 9781478003076 (pbk.), $27.95.

Reviewed July 2019
Stephen Bury, Andrew W. Mellon Chief Librarian, Frick Art Reference Library, bury@frick.org

LaxtonThis is not about surrealist games. Instead, Susan Laxton, Associate Professor of Art History at the University of California, Riverside, and author of Paris as Gameboard: Man Ray’s Atgets (2002), provides an alternative history of surrealism, 1922-39, with the ludic at its center. Laxton acknowledges the work of Miriam Hansen on Walter Benjamin and applies Benjamin’s construct of Spielraum, play space, or ludic techno-logic in opposition to technological functionalism, to explore the boundaries of Dada and surrealism, and surrealism and its dissidents, such as the Rue Blomet group.

There are four main chapters (Blur, Drift , System and Pun), the single word titles of which recall and are perhaps a nod to those in Formless: A User’s Guide (1997). A final chapter, Legacy, with a discussion of post-war writings on play by Huizinga, Benveniste, Breton and Caillois, connects to the postmodern.

Blur (Flou) explores photographic indeterminacy through Man Ray’s rayographs during the époque floue, “the threshold moment between Dada and surrealism”, comparing Man Ray and Christian Schad’s photograms. Laxton sees rayographs as “copies of…ludic readymades” and the transitional moment from Dada to surrealism.

Drift (Errance) investigates Man Ray’s Atget album, now at George Eastman House, and the surrealists’ interest in such quotidian photographs. Laxton speculates that the Atget photographs in Man Ray’s album may even have been intended to illustrate Breton’s Nadja (1928) and explores how surrealism influenced Benjamin’s Arcades Project.

System offers a completely new approach to the cadavre exquis/exquisite corpse, the surrealist game in which participants contribute collectively to a drawing of a body but without knowledge of the other contributions. Laxton sees the exquisite corpse as posed between automatism and the entry of the psychographic into art. She notes how the rules governing the game evolved over time, firstly onto black paper and then the abandoning of the concealing fold: in 1931 Breton would re-use his contribution to a 1927 corpse, Silence (cils, anse), as an autonomous work of art, an auratic commodity.

Pun looks at the influence of Raymond Roussel on the renegade surrealist group around the Documents periodical. It also looks at the early work of Miro who imposed rules on his painting, even telling his dealers in advance the number and size of works he is making. Additionally, Pun presents the Giacometti horizontal game-boards e.g. On ne joue plus (1932), which Breton ignored in favor of his vertical works.

Surrealism at Play is a major contribution to the study of surrealism: Laxton balances a close reading of artwork with theoretical analysis. Every art school and college that covers surrealism in its curriculum and every museum with surrealist works in its collection should acquire this work. Surrealism has become without question a major subject for innovative research.