JAMES GUY (1909–1983)
Dead End, about 1939
Oil on metal tray, 11 3/4 x 17 3/4 in.
Signed (at lower right): J. Guy
EXHIBITED: Boyer Galleries, New York, May 15–June 3, 1939, Guy, no. 9
EX COLL.: Mary Benjamin Rogers; to her daughter, Millicent Rogers; to her son, Arturo Peralta Ramos II, New York, 1953; and, to his estate, 2015–2017
A quintessential example of Guy’s social surrealist aesthetic, Dead End can be read as a pictorial commentary alluding to the status of women in America during the 1930s. Adhering to the surrealist practice of expressing “various times and various spaces in a single canvas,” Guy presents the viewer with a conglomeration of events, all taking place in an unreal milieu reminiscent of a stage set. On the left, a trio of female workers––displaced from their rural homes, such as the one with the “For Sale” sign in the upper left––toil on a factory assembly line under the watchful eye of a portly capitalist. A wraith-like beggar (perhaps intended as an allusion to the workers’ ultimate fate) towers above them, her form delineated by white contour lines. On the opposite side of the adjacent wall, Guy shifts his attention to the city (presumably New York, as suggested by the suspension bridge in the distance), where women, such as the blonde glamour girl being ogled by a male admirer, could suffer sexual exploitation or, as implied by the gunman pointing his weapon at an unfortunate lady on a gurney, arrive at a “dead end” through a violent act of crime. Guy continues to explore the theme of the objectification of women on the far right, where he depicts a woman being scrutinized by some male onlookers as she has her mug shot taken in a police station.
In viewing this powerful vignette, one gets a sense that during times of economic and political turmoil, options for American women were limited and gender discrimination in a male-dominated society was the norm. Like Dali, Guy often incorporated isolated body parts into his paintings as a means of shocking the viewer and symbolizing the “world’s disjointed state,” a message he intimates here by randomly placing a woman’s dismembered arm in the lower register. The artist’s biting social content, as much as his inventive composition and precise execution, would surely have been among the qualities that attracted the work’s first owner, Mary Benjamin Rogers (1879–1956), a “gifted painter” and mother of the acclaimed fashion icon, collector, and Standard Oil heiress, Millicent Rogers. Mary Benjamin Rogers was also the mistress of the society portraitist, Bernard Boutet de Monvel.