Poet, critic, curator, and art historian, Nicolas Calas (Lausanne, 1907- New York, 1988) had an active presence in interwar Greek modernism and was hailed by André Breton as a leading theoretician of Surrealism in the wake of the publication of his Foyers d’Incendie in Paris in 1938.
Instrumental in the dissemination of Surrealism in the New York avant-garde in the 1940s, Calas wrote poetry, polemics, erudite criticism and treatises on diverse subjects ranging from Surrealist art, primitive culture, the baroque, Pop Art and the heretic idiom of Hieronymus Bosch.
Alongside his extensive work over the years, Calas also formed strong friendships and collaborations with important figures of his time, such as Breton, Max Ernst and Peggy Guggenheim, William Carlos Williams, Barnett Newman, Margaret Mead, and later the Beat poets and the West Coast poetry scene. He taught for a number of years at Fairleigh Dickinson University in New Jersey.
From his formative years in Athens to his New York days, Calas’s life and work spans the troubled alliance between the artistic avant-gardes and marxist politics in the 1930s, Surrealism’s esoteric turn in the 1940s, and the emergence of New York as an important cultural centre in the postwar period.
Leading a nomadic life, Nicolas Calas had a distinct curiosity and passion for current art and politics, inflected through his diverse interests that spanned theology, psychoanalysis, anthropology, medieval philosophy and contemporary culture.
Birth of Nikolaos Kalamaris, the only child of Ioannis and Roza Kalamari (née Karatza), in Lausanne, Switzerland. Calas grew up in Athens. His father descended from Syros and was a heir of a considerable fortune made by trade of serials and shipping companies in Rumania. He was also a politician and a poet. His mother was a great-grandchild of Markos Botsaris.
Calas as a child was educated at home. From a very early age he learned foreign languages, since his parents wanted him to become a diplomat.
He became politically active after the influx of Asia Minor refugees in Greece (a result of the Greco-Turkish War of 1919-22). Calas had a conflict with his father who objected to refugees camping at their home’s garden in Athens.
Calas studied law at the University of Athens. His use of modern vernacular Greek (Demotike) in his writings caused him trouble with his tutors. He was also called to defend himself at the University’s Steering Committee due to his communist action.
Calas published his first article on Karyotakis in Φοιτητική Συντροφιά (Foititiki Syntrofia) journal. He signed his essays as Manolis Spieros up until 1934. He became interested in psychoanalysis. He befriended Giorgos Theotokas, K.T. Dimaras and Ilias Tsirimokos.
He published his first poem «Ο Σταυρωμένος» (The Crusified) at Νεα Εστία (Nea Estia). He signed his poems as Nikitas Rantos (until 1936).
In October 1932 he published his first collection of poems entitled Ποιήματα (Poiemata) at Pyrsos publishers, dated as 1933. There are scarce reviews, most of them negative if not vitriolic. He translated Edgar Lee Masters, T.S. Eliot and Louis Aragon. He printed (for private circulation) his collections of poems Τετράδιο (Tetradio) Α’, Β’ (1933) and Γ’ (1934).
He started writing again under his family name Kalamaris.
He printed (for private circulation) Τετράδιο (Tetradio) Δ’ that includes his «Συμβόλαιο με δαίμονες» (Symvolaio me demones) – his first surrealist poem.
Calas is included, along with Andreas Embirikos, Orestis Kanellis, Odysseas Elytis, Thalis Ritoridis and Nikos Engonopoulos, at the edited volume of Υπερρεαλισμός Α’ (Yperrealismos A) with three of his translated essays of Benjamin Peret. His last publication in Greece before the Second World War was his translations of T.S. Eliot on Baudelaire for the Κύκλος (Kyklos) journal in August 1938. He adopted the name Nicolas Calas. He settled in Paris and in December 1938 published his first book Foyers d’incendie (Paris: Denoël, 1938).
In Paris, Calas participated at F.I.A.R.I. which was initiated by André Breton after his return from Mexico and the publication of the ‘Manifesto for an Independent Revolutionary Art’ (Pour un art révolutionnaire indépendant), co-authored with Leo Trotsky in 1938. He travelled for a month in Algeria and Morocco. With Peter Watson’s assistance he received a passport and fled to New York.
In 1939 he stayed for a while in Portugal and studied the Portuguese Baroque. Through Spain and Lisbon, he reached New York in 1940, where he met William Carlos Williams and plenty of other American critics, artists and poets. He published his second book Confound the Wise (New York: Arrow Editions, 1942), which received negative reviews. His articles were published at View magazine, which was edited by Charles Henri Ford and Parker Tyler in New York. He wrote essays and articles for exhibitions, amongst them Roberto Matta’s show at Julien Levy’s Gallery in 1940. His essay entitled ‘Towards a Third Surrealist Manifesto’ was published in New Directions in Prose and Poetry, edited by James Laughlin (New York: W.W Norton & Company, 1940), and persuaded Breton to write his third surrealist manifesto. Calas worked at the War Information Office where he became acquainted with Ruth Benedict and Margaret Mead. He met Elena Dimitrieva von Hoershelman, Russian émigré, psychoanalyst and his future wife. He published a few articles at Εθνικός Κήρυκας (Ethnikos Kirikas) newspaper. In December 1944 he participated at The Imagery of Chess exhibition which was co-organised by Marcel Duchamp, Max Ernst and Julien Levy at the latter’s apartment-gallery in New York. In this exhibition he presented, in collaboration with Breton, their mirror and wine chess set and board. They also co-authored ‘Profanation: A Chess Game’ (aphorisms on the game of chess).
Most of the intellectuals-refugees returned back to Europe. Calas remained in New York and became an American citizen. He began a long academic collaboration with Margaret Mead at Columbia University in New York.
Calas organized his first group exhibition Bloodflames, in collaboration with Frederick Kiesler, at Hugo Gallery in New York. Hugo Gallery’s art director at the time was Alexander Iolas.
In 1952, despite Williams’s positive reference, the Bollingen Foundation suspended the three-year scholarship which Calas had received to study Hieronymus Bosch’s The Garden of Earthly Delights. He co-edited a volume of essays on anthropology entitled Primitive Heritage (New York: Random House, 1953). First trip back to Greece, after the War, in order to visit his father who was hospitalised.
With his writings Calas assisted in the critical reception and dissemination of Pop Art. He began his lifelong collaboration with the most prominent art journals such as Artforum, Arts International, ARTnews, Arts Magazine et al.
First publication of poems after the War. «Συλλογή Α’» (Syllogi Α’) was presented in two separate issues of the progressive Greek magazine Πάλι (1963-1967) edited by Nanos Valaoritis. He started lecturing at many universities and museums as well as teaching art history at Fairleigh Dickinson University in New Jersey. He curated the group exhibitions According to the Letter and Hard Center at Fischbach Gallery and Thibaut Gallery respectively in New York.
He organised the group show For Eyes and Ears at Gordier & Ekstrom Gallery in New York.
With his wife Elena co-authored the catalogue of Peggy Guggenheim’s collection in Venice: The Peggy Guggenheim Collection of Modern Art (New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1966). He curated the Games Without Rules exhibition at Fischbach Gallery in New York.
He collaborated with the anti-coup newspaper Αντίσταση (Antistassi) which was published in London by Michalis Raptis (aka Pablo). Calas participated at the Art Workers Coalition (AWC) in 1969 along with Takis, Les Levine, Hans Haacke and Gregory Battcock amongst others. He published his first collection of essays: Art in the Age of Risk (New York: E. P. Dutton & Co., 1968). He co-authored a second collection of essays with his wife Elena: Icons and Images of the Sixties (New York: E. P. Dutton & Co, 1971).
Calas curated, in collaboration with Marian Goodman, the portfolio Reality and Paradoxes (New York: Multiples).
Calas published new poems: «Συλλογή Β’» (Syllogi B) in Χρονικό (Chroniko) and «Συλλογή Γ’» (Syllogi Γ) in Χνάρι (Chnari). He participated at the Greek Month, organised by Christos M. Joachimides at the Institute of Contemporary Arts and other cultural institutions in London, with the participation of many Greek artists and academics. He curated the portfolio and exhibition Mirrors of the Mind (New York: Multiples & Castelli Graphics, 1975) in collaboration with Marian Goodman at the eponymous gallery in New York.
The exhibition Mirrors of the Mind was also held at Zouboulakis Gallery in Athens. Publication of Οδός Νικήτα Ράντου (Odos Nikita Rantou) (‘Ικαρος, ; 2nd edition Ίκαρος, 1997) which included the collection of poems «Τετράδιο Α’», «Β’», «Γ’» and «Δ’» along with «Συλλογή Α’», «Β’», και «Γ’» with an introduction by Odysseas Elytis. Calas curated the exhibition Objects! at Marian Goodman Gallery in New York.
Calas organised the exhibition Further Furniture at Marian Goodman Gallery in New York.
An anthology of Calas’s inter-war greek articles is published with the title Κείμενα Ποιητικής και Αισθητικής (Keimena Poietikes kai Aisthetikes), edited by Alexandros Argyriou (Αθήνα: Πλέθρον, 1982).
Publication of his last collection of poems Γραφή και Φως (Graphe kai Phos) (Athens: Ίκαρος, 1983; 2nd Edition- Athens: Ίκαρος, 1998) that includes his collection of poems Ποιήματα of 1933 and various essays written in 1977.
Publication of Calas’s collection of art critical essays, Transfigurations: Art Critical Essays on the Modern Period, ed. Donald Kuspit (Ann Arbor, Michigan: UMI Reasearch Press, 1985).
1988 (31st December)
Nicolas Calas passed away in New York. Towards the end of his life he suffered from dementia.