A sense of menace pervades this work, in which a wooden structure that resembles the foundation of a house is set in a barren landscape, flanked by flames and billowing smoke. A shadow looms across the ground, cast by an unknown source, while, in the distance, a hovering sunflower—considered “the most aggressive of flowers” by the artist—creates its own black shadow.
Tanning painted On Time Off Time in the desert environment of Sedona, Arizona, having relocated there two years earlier with her husband, the artist Max Ernst. It was through Ernst that Tanning had previously met a cohort of Surrealist artists who had fled war-torn Europe and were living in New York. She gained their admiration for her singularly enigmatic images rendered in meticulous detail. Possible biographical clues in On Time Off Time include the depicted structure, which may bear echoes of the three-room cabin that Tanning and Ernst had built in the desert. Yet more than merely a setting, Sedona’s dramatic landscape proved to be generative, forcing Tanning to tune out the surrounding “decibels of nature,” which she found to be “crushing,” and to instead turn to fantasy. “Isn’t that the artist’s best joy,” she remarked, “to rival the sun and moon, to turn their logic upside down?”
Publication excerpt from From MoMA Highlights: 375 Works from The Museum of Modern Art, New York (New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 2019)