Jimmy Ernst was born Hans-Ulrich Ernst on June 24, 1920, in Cologne. His dramatic and fascinating life story—which he recalled in his memoir, A Not So Still Life (1984)—nearly overshadows his art. He was the son of Surrealist painter Max Ernst and Jewish art historian and journalist Louise Straus. After his parents divorced in 1922 and his father moved to Paris, Ernst remained in Cologne with his mother. During trips to visit his father, however, Ernst met other celebrated Surrealists, including Luis Buñuel, Salvador Dalí, Man Ray, André Masson, Joan Miró, and Yves Tanguy. Five years after Adolf Hitler came to power in Germany in 1933, Ernst immigrated to the United States, where he found work in the film library at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), New York, and in 1942, became director of Peggy Guggenheim’s gallery-museum Art of This Century.
In New York, Ernst cultivated the painting career he had begun in Europe (he had decided to pursue painting after seeing Pablo Picasso’s Guernica at the 1937 Paris World’s Fair). His first solo exhibition was in 1943 at the Norlyst Gallery. While living in the United States, Ernst petitioned the Emergency Rescue Committee to help his parents escape France (Straus had moved to Paris in 1933). It successfully secured Max Ernst’s immigration in 1941, but Straus remained in France and was held in a detention camp near Paris before being sent to the Nazi concentration camp Auschwitz in 1944, unbeknownst to her son. She did not survive the war.
Ernst’s early work was explicitly surreal, resembling his father’s, and he often built on a foundation produced by Surrealist automatism. Many of these paintings bear distinctly biomorphic and occasionally figurative forms. However, Ernst soon turned to Abstract Expressionism, working in a linear and geometric style. In 1950 he joined the artists who were later dubbed the Irascibles in protest of the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s resistance to showing abstraction in a juried exhibition. Yet in the 1960s and 1970s Ernst returned to figuration, producing paintings that often incorporate Native American symbols, perhaps inspired by the art that he saw while living in Sedona, Arizona. Toward the end of his life he painted landscapes that echo the linear precision of his early abstract work.
Ernst was awarded a John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation Fellowship in 1961, and his work has been the subject of solo exhibitions at the Walker Art Center, Minneapolis (1954); Museum of Fine Arts, Houston (1956); Kölnischer Kunstverein, Cologne (1963); Tampa Museum of Art (1994); Museum of Fine Arts, Saint Petersburg, Florida (1998); and Sprengel Museum, Hannover, Germany (1999). His paintings have also been featured in several group exhibitions at institutions including the San Francisco Museum of Art (now San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, 1944); MoMA (1951); Metropolitan Museum of Art (1954); Art Institute of Chicago (1960); and Guggenheim Museum (1954, 1961); and his work was also included in the Biennial Exhibition of Contemporary American Painting, Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C. (1963, 1965); and the Whitney Annual (later the Whitney Biennial), New York (1969, 1970, 1973). Ernst died on February 6, 1984, in New York.