A couple of weekends ago I walked around Manhattan’s Lower East Side in silence, holding a postcard with a rectangular hole cut out of it in front of me, seeing the city anew through a cardboard window. I was being led around by two artists on a “silent performative tour” of the area, an event scheduled as part of the Living as Form exhibition, currently open in Essex Street Market. Having only moved to New York a month ago, with hardly any chance to acclimatize to this dynamic metropolis, my vision of the city was immediately redefined through the cardboard viewfinder that I now held. I selected and re-selected compositions of yellow traffic lights, flashing store signs, graffiti-covered walls. My eyes flickered over the urban landscape in front of me and reconfigured the iconic symbols and architectural masses of New York into abstract arrangements of form and color.
A few days later, during a very different tour around MoMA’s recently reinstalled collection galleries, I paused in front of a group of works on paper by Max Ernst (1891–1976) and considered that perhaps this pioneering German artist had been striving to achieve a similar rupture of perception. Eight compositions stood out to me, displayed in a glass vitrine in the center of a fifth-floor gallery devoted to artists working within and around Surrealism.
The pieces are examples of Ernst’s “frottages” (the French term for “rubbing”), from Histoire Naturelle, a series of 34 works published in 1926. In the summer of 1925, Ernst became obsessed with the patterns in the grooves of his floorboards. He began staring at natural materials such as tree bark, giving his imagination and subconscious free reign to conjure up new worlds from the seemingly arbitrary designs. He would then place sheets of paper over these organic surfaces and rub over them with a pencil. This process harked back to the vernacular English tradition of brass rubbing, a similar method that was used to take impressions of the medieval brasses found in churches.
Ernst believed in the alchemy of images, and throughout his oeuvre he exploited the transformative power of the artistic process. In Éve la seule qui nous reste (Eve, the Only One Left to Us) (1926), he reconstitutes the patterning of some tree bark into the back of a woman’s head, casting an ominous shadow on the wall next to her. Her hair falls in shapes that almost resemble leaves, perhaps playfully referencing the origins of the image. Naming the woman “Eve” in the title, he ironically transforms the surface of a tree trunk, a resonant symbol of life in the natural world, into the maternal source of the human race. I was struck by Ernst’s elusive depiction of this female presence, which seems to raise questions concerning issues of human identity and the duty of this iconic woman to civilization.
While the title of the series, Histoire Naturelle (Natural History), initially suggested a sense of order and classification, Ernst undermined this idea with his fantastical creations, engaging the most commonplace objects and materials in a process of metamorphosis.
The Surrealists fervently sought out the marvelous within the everyday world around them. As their self-proclaimed leader, André Breton (1896–1966), declared, “Everything tends to make us believe that there exists a certain point of the mind at which life and death, the real and the imagined, past and future, the communicable and the incommunicable, high and low, cease to be perceived as contradictions” (“Second Manifesto of Surrealism,” 1930). In Ernst’s frottages he did just this, fusing the fabric of the ordinary world with strange and powerful imagery.
Fast-forward more than 80 years to the current Living as Form exhibition, which addresses the socially engaged practices that have emerged in the work of many contemporary artists. In the curator’s statement for the exhibition, it is stressed that these artists do not self-define as a movement, but rather indicate “new ways of life that emphasize participation, challenge power, and span disciplines.” Although Ernst was working decades earlier, and Surrealism did become defined as a movement, he and the artists associated with the group were intent on a similar objective. Their aim was to expose a completely new way of living and perceiving their surroundings, challenging our conceptions of normality and defying categorization. I do not want to reclaim Ernst as a proto-socially engaged artist, but I do want to highlight how Ernst encouraged people to see the world differently through an active, creative intervention into everyday experience. As I wandered around the Lower East Side again the following weekend, the words of Max Morise (1900–1973), another early member of the Surrealist group, rang in my ears: “This universe, on which a window has been opened, from now on may and must belong to us.” My parallel encounters with both Ernst’s work and the Living as Form exhibition reminded me that there are countless ways to view the art of the past, and one such way is through the ever-changing lens of the present.
 Breton, André, “Deuxième Manifeste du surréalisme (Second Manifesto of Surrealism),” 1930, reproduced in Manifestoes of Surrealism, trans. Richard Seaver and Helen R. Lane (Michigan: Ann Arbor Paperback, 1972), p. 123.
 Morise, Max, “Les Yeux enchantés (Enchanted Eyes)”, La Révolution surréaliste, no. 1, December 1, 1924, reproduced in Jean, Marcel (ed.), The Autobiography of Surrealism (New York: Viking Press, 1980), p. 193.