If you want to understand the history of art in twentieth-century America, you can’t overlook the corner of Fifth Avenue and 56th Street in New York City. No, not Trump Tower, but the building it replaced: Bonwit Teller, the luxury department store that had stood on the site since 1929. Then as now, any shop on Fifth Avenue has to find a way to set itself apart, and by 1939 Bonwit Teller had built a “reputation for having Manhattan’s screwiest window displays.” So says Time magazine, covering a minor debacle that year over one of the installations by “the world’s No. 1 surrealist, Salvador Dalí.”
Dalí had previously dressed Bonwit Teller’s windows without incident in 1936, riding high on the buzz from his first American exhibition that same year. When invited back by the store to create a new display, writes Tim McNeese in Salvador Dalí, “he decided to use the windows to depict the ‘Narcissus complex,’” divided into day and night. “In the Day window, Narcissus is personified,” says The Art Story. “Three wax hands holding mirrors reached out of a bathtub lined with black lambskin and filled with water. A mannequin entered the tub in a scant outfit of green feathers. For the Night window, the feet of a poster bed are replaced by buffalo legs and the canopy is topped by its pigeon-eating head. A wax mannequin sat nearby on a bed of coals.”
As for the public reaction, writes the New York Times‘ Michael Pollak, “words were exchanged, not all of them complimentary, and the store’s staff made quick changes. The skinny-dipper in ‘Day’ was quickly replaced by an attired mannequin. Out went the sleeper in ‘Night’; in went a standing model.” As soon as he caught sight of the unauthorized modifications, Dalí took corrective action. McNeese quotes the artist’s own memory of the proceedings: “I dashed into the window to disarrange it, so that my name, signed in the window, should not be dishonored. I was never so surprised as when the bathtub just shot through the window when I pushed it and I was thereafter most confused.”
Dalí was charged with disorderly conduct but issued a suspended sentence since, as the judge put it, “These are some of the privileges that an artist with temperament seems to enjoy.” Nothing like this happened to Andy Warhol when he later dressed Bonwit Teller’s windows, writes i-D’s Briony Wright, though “a commission for the department store in 1961 brought what could be considered his big break.” Those same windows also became opportunities for a host of other artists including Sari Dienes, James Rosenquist, Jasper Johns, and Robert Rauschenberg, the last two of whom collaborated on a display as Maston Jones. They had their own reasons for the pseudonym, but an artist of Dalí’s particular sensibility knows you don’t turn down a chance to get your name on Fifth Avenue.
Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.