The Magic of Kurt Seligmann

By Janet Hamill

sugar loaf studio.jpg

How is it that one of the greatest cultural treasures in the Hudson Valley remains a relative secret? Is it because the Kurt Seligmann Center’s 55 glorious acres are tucked away in the remote southern Orange hamlet of Sugar Loaf? Is it because most people don’t know who Kurt Seligmann is? Is it because Seligmann practiced Surrealism – a school of visual and language art popular during World Wars I and II, primarily in Europe – and magic? Or is it because, with few exceptions, art in Orange is largely under siege?

Kurt Seligmann

Kurt Seligmann

 Prior to leaving New York City for south-western Orange over 15 years ago, like many an aficionado, I was well aware of some of the history and highlights of the Hudson Valley’s visual arts: I knew of Storm King and its monumental sculptures; I knew of the luminous Hudson Valley School and its painters Cole, Bierstadt, Durant, Moran and Cropsey; within a year of relocating, I’d visited Frederic Church’s magnificent home, Olana, in Hudson; and as soon as it opened in 2003, I strolled the enormous galleries of minimalist paintings and sculptures at Dia:Beacon. However, even though I knew the name Seligmann, had seen numerous reproductions of his work in collections of Surrealist art, had read his comprehensive history of magic, and had stood in front of his paintings and drawings in exhibitions at MOMA and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the fact that his home and studios were only a 40-minute drive from my home remained completely unknown to me.

The story of Kurt Seligmann is as dramatic as his paintings.  He was born in Basel, Switzerland in 1900 to parents who, very successfully, manufactured and sold furniture. As a young man, he was drawn to painting and received classical training at the Ecole des Beaux Arts in Geneva. After art school, he made a failed attempt to work for his father before moving to Paris to pursue his dream of becoming a fine artist. Paris, at the time, was having its “heroic” Surrealist moment, and poet Andre Breton was its “Pope.” Writers and painters drawn to Surrealism’s love of irrationality, the dream world, and automatism could launch a successful career if they were fortunate enough to win Breton’s favor. Through introductions from Jean Arp and Giacometti, Seligmann became part of Breton’s circle and began to show his Abstraction-Creationist paintings of heraldic, peculiarly shaped, Carnival Day figures (recalled from childhood images) beside the work of Oscar Domínguez, Jacques Hérold, Richard Oelze and Hans Bellmer.

In 1935 he met and married Arlette Paraf, the granddaughter of the founder of the famous Wildenstein Gallery. For their honeymoon, they traveled around the world, seeking artwork of indigenous cultures, something especially admired by the Surrealists. In 1936 they returned to North America, where they had become enamored of New York City and the spectacles of the American west. In 1938, at the request of pioneering ethnographer Claude Levi Strauss, they visited British Columbia.  They stayed with a tribe on the north-west coast that honored them with tribal membership and a totem pole. The Seligmanns boxed and shipped the totem pole to Paris, where it stands to this day in the Musee De L’homme.

Artists in Exile group photo, New York, 1942. Left to right, first row: Stanley William Hayter, Leonora Carrington, Frederick Kiesler, Kurt Seligmann; second row: Max Ernst, Amédée Ozenfant, André Breton, Fernand Léger, Berenice Abbott; third row: Jimmy Ernst, Peggy Guggenheim, John Ferren, Marcel Duchamp, Piet Mondrian.

Artists in Exile group photo, New York, 1942. Left to right, first row: Stanley William Hayter, Leonora Carrington, Frederick Kiesler, Kurt Seligmann; second row: Max Ernst, Amédée Ozenfant, André Breton, Fernand Léger, Berenice Abbott; third row: Jimmy Ernst, Peggy Guggenheim, John Ferren, Marcel Duchamp, Piet Mondrian.

In 1939, at the outset of WWII, the Seligmann’s returned to New York. Kurt was supposedly returning to exhibit paintings, but he and Arlette’s real intention was to escape the growing Nazi threat in Europe, a threat particularly felt by Jews. Among the first to escape the war, Kurt and Arlette became active with Varian Fry’s Emergency Rescue Committee to help bring potentially persecuted “degenerate artists” to safety in New York. Among those they assisted were Breton, Max Ernst, Dali, Man Ray, Matta and Yves Tanguy.

The war years were a prolific period for the exiles, often credited with initiating the New York School. Alfred Barr, the first director of the Museum of Modern Art, exhibited their art work, as did gallerists Julien Levy and Peggy Guggenheim. With the financial help of Charles Henri Ford, an avant-garde New York poet, they produced the influential magazines VVV and View. Robert Motherwell picked up painting tips from Seligmann. Bound by language and culture, the exiles socialized frequently, and their salons became a breeding ground for ideas about art and literature, as well as places to draw magic circles and summon spirits.

Understandably, once the axis powers were defeated, a majority of the exiles returned to Europe, but the Seligmanns, perhaps because of their Jewish backgrounds, decided to stay on in their adopted country. They bought an apartment in the Beaux Arts Building near Bryant Park, and with the help of art critic Meyer Shapiro, in 1940 they purchased the homestead in Sugar Loaf.  (The 55 acres of active farmland are said to have reminded Arlette of her grandmother’s home in the French countryside, where she spent much of her childhood.) Kurt painted in New York and Sugar Loaf, he exhibited at galleries and museums in the city, he designed costumes for the ballet and he taught at Brooklyn College and the New School. Amidst all this activity, he found time to write the first comprehensive book on one of Surrealism’s strongest areas of interest. Seligmann’s The Mirror of Magic was followed by Magic Supernaturalism and Religion and The History of Magic and the Occult. (The latter two remain in print to this day)

The cosmopolitan Seligmanns enjoyed their active city life – in addition to the apartment in New York, they maintained an apartment in Paris – but they especially enjoyed inviting busy art world friends to the sleepy hamlet in Orange County. Throughout the 40s and 50s, the homestead was regularly visited by Yves Tanguy, Kate Sage, Peggy Guggenheim, Marcel Duchamp and Alexander Calder. It’s even thought that Marc Chagall was a guest. Calder made use of Kurt’s printing press (now, beautifully, restored by collage artist, Jonathan Talbot), and Duchamp famously used the exterior wall of a chicken coop for target practice.

As subject to trends as the fashion world, the art world eventually lost interest in Surrealism and embraced a new enthusiasm – Abstract Expressionism. Without a demand for his work in New York galleries, the Seligmanns sold their apartment near Bryant Park and settled permanently in Sugar Loaf. Arlette farmed and maintained a menagerie of animals and Kurt continued to paint, though his palette was growing darker.

On the morning of January 2, 1962, Kurt Seligmann died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound on the grounds of the homestead.  To this day, controversy surrounds the death. Some say it was purely accidental, and it was reported as such at the time by local authorities. It was believed that Kurt had taken his rifle to shoot at the rats and squirrels that were eating the seeds he and Arlette had scattered on the snow for the songbirds. He slipped on ice and the rifle went off. Others contend that it was a suicide brought on by Kurt’s increasingly depressed moods. 

There’s even a theory that Arlette killed Kurt over an alleged affair. Whatever the cause, Kurt’s death would prove to be indirectly responsible for the creation of The Seligmann Center, “committed to celebrating the artistic and intellectual legacy of Kurt Seligmann, honoring the history of its site, and presenting contemporary work by emerging and established artists.”

The Seligmann Center had its first stirrings in the fall of 2011 when rustic sculptor and organizer extraordinaire, Dan Mack of Warwick, brought together a group of artists to plan a one-day event to mark the 50th anniversary of Seligmann’s death. The visual and language artists Dan gathered were drawn to the avant-garde, the Surreal and the new.  Most were familiar with Seligmann’s paintings, even if they were just discovering that Kurt and his wife had lived in Orange County since 1940. (Arlette survived her husband by fifteen years. When she died, she donated the homestead – the land and all the buildings – to the citizens of Orange County.)

As a result of the abundance of ideas and excitement at the first gathering, the group decided to meet on a regular basis and extend its scope to encompass more than a one-day event. On the day of the 50th Anniversary, a few hearty artists donned costumes in the bitter cold and made a short film in the snow-covered cemetery on the property where Kurt and Arlette are buried. By that date – January 2, 2012 – the size of the group had swelled, as had the enthusiasm for the place and its former occupants, and subsequently the Seligmann Center was created, becoming the focal point in southern Orange County for art that “interprets Surrealism, traces its origins, and explores its contemporary resonance.” In its five years, the center has presented works by such notable artists as Chaim Gross, Robert Whitman, Hiroaki Sato, Jacob Kirkegaard, Katinka Fogh Vindelev, Philip Pearlstein, Cy Twombly and Lynne Sharon Schwartz.

In 2014, the group of volunteer artists who started the Center acquired a director, painter Olivia Baldwin. With someone at the helm, things really took off. Works from the Center’s collection of over 70 prints and 10 paintings began to be loaned out; the Robert Fagin Library – the largest public collection of art books in the country – was donated to the Center, and, perhaps most importantly, people began to hear about and attend the goings on in the four galleries and performance spaces at the Seligmann Center – rotating exhibitions, outdoor installations and sculptures, workshops, experimental film viewings, performances, Surreal Cabarets, masquerades, and innovative poetry readings. 

All of this couldn’t be happening at a better time:  The fickle art word is now rekindling its interest in Surrealism, the study of magic and the occult is being embraced by the Academy, and Seligmann paintings are fetching handsome prices. In 2014, Cornell University held the exhibit “Surrealism and Magic,” borrowing a great many prints from the Seligmann Center’s collection. In 2015, the Weinstein Gallery in San Francisco hosted “Kurt Seligmann: First Message from the Spirit World of the Object,” the largest retrospective of Seligmann’s work in the U.S. in 55 years.  The retrospective featured a number of paintings from the Center’s collection. On January 12 of this year, Pam Grossman’s curated exhibit, “Language of Birds: Occult and Art,” opened at the 80 Washington Square East Gallery at New York University. This widely attended exhibit had an entire room devoted to Kurt Seligmann. As a follow up, on March 5, Ms. Grossman presented “Witch Pictures: Female Magic and Transgression in Western Art,” to a packed house at the Seligmann Center. Another sign of the times is Grazina Subelyte, a curatorial assistant of the Guggenheim Collection in Venice and great friend of the Center, who is doing her doctoral dissertation on Seligmann and Magic.

And more is yet to come: The Seligmann Center will soon start publishing its own zine. Each volume will reproduce one of Seligmann’s lectures presented at the new school, as culled from Seligmann archive at the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Yale. Facing the pages from the lectures (photos of pages typed by Seligmann with his handwritten notes and corrections) will be a work by a contemporary writer, poet, photographer, painter or collage artist interpreting the contents of the lecture. In addition to the zine, Jonathan Talbot’s (mentioned above for having restored to working order Seligmann’s printing press) will be having a three-part exhibition, “Identity and Anonymity,” accompanied by a special book, which will run throughout the summer. A documentary on the life and work of Seligmann, based on interviews with friends and scholars, is in the works. As part of the Warwick Summer Arts Festival, experimental visual artist, Cody Rounds, will present an interactive installation at the Seligmann Center on July 22. The end of summer will cap off with yet another Surreal Masquerade, and early fall will bring an exhibit by Jesse Bransford, artist and Surrealist scholar, presently teaching at NYU. 

Given current momentum and all that’s been achieved in such a short span of years, it would seem that the road ahead would rise to greet the Seligmann Center, yet funding for this remarkable place is not coming easily. Perhaps if the Seligmann Center was located further north, in art-friendly Ulster County, or across the river in Dia-centric Beacon, funding might come from a bigger, more generous audience for Seligmann, Surrealism, the new and provocative. But, no one is about to set the buildings on hydraulic lifts or carve out the 55 acres and relocate the entire homestead to a more welcoming area. The Seligmann Center is where it is for a reason. It’s not coincidental. The Surrealists didn’t believe in coincidence. They believed in hazard, or chance, things occurring for reasons unbeknownst to conventional reason. It is as if magic brought Kurt Seligmann to Sugar Loaf, and Sugar Loaf is where he shall stay. Just as he persisted with his Surreal visions of figures engaged in a danse macabre while the art world was embracing Abstract Expressionism and Pop, so will Seligmann’s spirit embolden the Center’s determination to preserve its collection, continue its programming and make sure that one of art history’s greats, finally receives his due.

Thanks to the tireless efforts of a handful of artist volunteers with the idea of a one-day commemorative ceremony (among the original group, still active at the homestead are Daniel Mack, Jonathan Talbot, David Horton, William Seaton, and Jerome Spector), hopefully, the Seligmann Center, with the right funding, could be on the verge of becoming a big, red dot on the Hudson Valley art map.

The Seligmann Center is located at 23-26 White Oak Drive, Sugar Loaf, NY 10981.  
Phone contact is 845-469-9459.

Additional information about the Seligmann Center may be found at on the web:  The Seligmann Center’s facebook page –

The Orange County Citizen’s Foundations website Seligmann page – 

The Weinstein Gallery’s website: and on YouTube, where you’ll find a great short film, narrated by Dan Mack, about Seligmann, Surrealism and the homestead –