Stair Brings the Art of the Exquisite Corpse to Auction

Liz Catalano
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This March, Stair will offer an unusual auction that borders on the macabre. Collectors will find drawings of the human body in every style imaginable, from the realist to the absurd. The auction, held live on March 3rd, 2021, highlights the ‘Exquisite Corpse’ game of the Surrealists. 

Annette Lemieux, Doug Starn, Mike Starn, and Timothy Greenfield-Sanders, Untitled, 1992-93. Image from Stair.
Annette Lemieux, Doug Starn, Mike Starn, and Timothy Greenfield-Sanders, Untitled, 1992-93. Image from Stair.

What Is the ‘Exquisite Corpse’ Game? 

The Surrealists sought to access their subconscious minds through whatever means necessary. Artists, poets, and writers often explored dreams and automatic drawings to stimulate their creativity. In the 1920s, André Breton, Yves Tanguy, Jacques Prévert, and Marcel Duchamp started playing Consequences. This parlor game encourages participants to write a collaborative story one sentence at a time. The catch is each writer can only see the previous sentence, not the full story. Breton and his friends delighted in the game, especially after coining the sentence, “the exquisite corpse will drink the new wine.” 

“It was an unfettering,” Surrealist poet Simone Kahn wrote about the game in 1924, as quoted in Surrealist Women. “The suggestive power of those arbitrary meetings of words was so astounding, so dazzling, and verified surrealism’s theses and outlook so strikingly, that the game became a system, a method of research.” 

The artists eventually created a drawing version of the Consequences game. Following the same principles of automatic creativity and spontaneity, each artist added part of a body to form a cadavre exquis or ‘exquisite corpse.’ The game quickly caught the attention of other Surrealists. Frida Kahlo, Man Ray, and Joan Miró were among its devotees. 

Man Ray, Joan Miró, Yves Tanguy, and Max Morise, Exquisite Corpse, 1928. © 2018 Man Ray Trust / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris. © 2018 Sucessió Miró / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris. Image courtesy of the Art Institute of Chicago.
Man Ray, Joan Miró, Yves Tanguy, and Max Morise, Exquisite Corpse, 1928. © 2018 Man Ray Trust / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris. © 2018 Sucessió Miró / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris. Image courtesy of the Art Institute of Chicago.

‘The Return of the Cadavre Exquis’ at the Drawing Center

In 1993, the Drawing Center in New York hosted a large exhibition honoring the Exquisite Corpse game. Ingrid Schaffner, Kim Jones, and Leonard Titzer organized the show. Over two years, 1,200 artists from around the world participated in the project. The resulting drawings yielded a fresh take on the Surrealist parlor game. The Drawing Center later placed over 600 collaborative drawings on display. 

Each invited artist chose partners for the project or was assigned random collaborators. Seasoned artists were paired with unknown names, and both deliberate and accidental style clashes were frequent. After the exhibition ran its course, the Drawing Center sold many of the completed works through a lottery. In the spirit of the spontaneous Surrealists, lottery winners received a random Exquisite Corpse drawing. 

‘The Return of the Cadavre Exquis’ was warmly received by the 1990s New York art scene. As Michael Kimmelman wrote in The New York Times, these drawings are hard to tear apart under the critical eye. “They work by not working, the parts having to come together but not too well. Even when an artist seems to phone in a contribution… others can turn his nothing into something.” 

Gallery view of ‘The Return of the Cadavre Exquis’ at the Drawing Center. Image from the Drawing Center.
Gallery view of ‘The Return of the Cadavre Exquis’ at the Drawing Center. Image from the Drawing Center.

Exquisite Corpse Drawings at Stair

Stair will offer 61 works on paper from the Exquisite Corpse exhibition this March. Estimates range from USD 400 to $4,000. A collaborative piece from Marilyn Minter, David Sandlin, and Sue Williams leads the catalog with a $1,000 starting bid. It combines Minter’s sensual Photorealism with the chaotic whimsy of Sandlin and Williams. As a whole, it’s a colorful, if disjointed, piece.

Other Exquisite Corpse works resemble the human body only in name. An untitled drawing from Tony Oursler, James Casebere, and Charles Golden took an abstract approach to the parlor game ($1,500 – $3,000). This piece replaces the human head with a radio antenna. Below, a photograph of a bench and toilet create a torso. The legs dissolve into a black and yellow blob. 

Tony Oursler, James Casebere, and Charles Golden, Untitled, 1993. Image from Stair.
Tony Oursler, James Casebere, and Charles Golden, Untitled, 1993. Image from Stair.

In many of these pieces, the body can serve as a metaphor, a source of desire, or a vehicle for political messaging. The participating artists embraced this ambiguity with great enthusiasm. One available drawing shows a giant storming through a village with flaming feet and a smoking belly. A composition from Annette Lemieux, Doug Starn, Mike Starn, and Timothy Greenfield-Sanders successfully blends an anatomical head, an emaciated torso, and the crossed legs of a model. The diversity of available styles gives this catalog a distinct flair— nearly every lot is a conversation piece. 

The upcoming Stair auction will begin at 11:00 AM EST on March 3rd, 2021. Visit Bidsquare to place a bid or view the full listings.

Looking for more auction world news? Auction Daily recently explored digital art at auction. 

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James Ardis
James Ardis
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James Ardis is a writer, editor, and content strategist focused on the auction industry. His company, James Ardis Writing, has partnered with auction houses, galleries, and many clients outside the art world.

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