"My wish is to work
so unassailably that one could let one's worst instincts go unanalyzed,
not to revolutionize nor to reform, but to enjoy life out loud." - Arthur Dove
Catalogue by Debra Bricker
Balken in collaboration with William C. Agee and Elizabeth Hutton
Turner, Addison Gallery of American Art, Phillips Academy, Andover,
Mass., and The MIT Press in association with The Phillips Collection,
Washington, D.C., 197 pp., with 54 duotones and 90 color illustrations.
By Carter B. Horsley
Arthur Dove (1880-1946) was
a seminal abstract painter whose work is an important precursor
to Abstract Expressionism. Indeed, his oeuvre is better than that
much-touted and ballyhooed group of New York painters.
His early works of 1910-11,
in fact, are among the earliest pure abstractions and some writers
have claimed he preceded Wassily Kandinsky, an artist whom some
of Dove's later works recalled.
Dove's palette and compositions
are quite distinct and generally quite marvelous in their originality
and strength, especially as many of his works are small.
Early in his career, Dove became
a member of Alfred Stieglitz's coterie at the legendary 291 [Fifth
Avenue] Gallery of the famous photographer and dealer. Along with
Georgia O'Keefe and John Marin, Dove is in the forefront of early
American modernists and his work is closest to that of O'Keefe,
who was Stieglitz's lover, but whose work hardly ever lost its
Dove's work, on the other hand,
is decidedly organic and lyrical. His boldness stems more from
emotion than O'Keefe's fascination with exploded and often microscopic
"Although Dove has been
credited as the first artist in the twentieth century to produce
an abstract painting, he recoiled from the self-conscious efforts
of European artists to take such a breakthrough into the area
of intellectual speculation. He came to abstraction through emotion,
not by design or expectation. Like his close friend Georgia O'Keefe,
Dove was basically interested in recording a sensation or feeling,
rather than theorizing about art and its ongoing stylistic permutations.
Nature, rather than culture, remained the primary subject matter
of his work," remarked Charles S. Moffett, director of The
Phillips Collection and Jock Reynolds, director of the Addison
Gallery of American Art, in their foreword to the exhibition's
"A number of correspondences
obtain between the formal attributes of Dove's paintings, with
all their lyricism and exuberance," they continued, "and
the thinking, for example, of the contemporary French philosopher
Henri Bergson, whose notions of the élan vital centered
on intuition and unmediated experience in the formation of art
rather than on reason and cerebration. Other links have been made
between the straightforward sensuality of Dove's work and the
popularization of Freud's and Havelock Ellis's theories on sexuality,
which became increasingly known in America in the 1920's. Dove
found support in such ideas for his antipathy to the burgeoning
materialism of an increasingly industrialized America
work was caught up in a complex historical narrative that straddled
the idealism of nineteenth-century America, with its ethical and
spiritual investment in nature, and the heightened emphasis given
to subjectivity in the early twentieth century
uninhibited sensuality, his work possessed a radical content that
came from the description of intangible elements such as movement,
space, and above all, light
.Clement Greenberg, a major critical
proponent of Abstract Expressionism, disliked the works of artists
in the Stieglitz circle with the exception of John Marin. Consequently,
Arthur Dove's remarkable achievement was buried, deemed provincial
In his November 3, 1997 review
in The New York Observer of the exhibition, Hilton Kramer
wrote perceptively of Dove's 1910-1911 works that it was no insult
to the artist that he was not yet then "an artist in Kandinsky's
league" and that it "worth remembering" that Alred
Stieglitz "as a dealer "was no stranger to what later
came to be called hype."
Dove's work recalls the concentrated
focus of Albert Pinkham Ryder, the great 19th Century American
poet of painting whose influence on modern American art was dramatic.
Dove's work also conjures images of Robert Delaunay, Oscar Bluemner,
Charles Burchfield and Paul Klee and his swirling rhythms can
be sensed in such later artists as Arshile Gorky, Clyfford Still,
Ellsworth Kelly and Adolph Gottlieb.
This important and attractive
exhibition is the first major retrospective of Dove's work since
a traveling exhibition originated by the San Francisco Museum
of Art in 1974. Dove's work received considerable recognition
during his lifetime and he showed regularly at Stieglitz's very
influential gallery, but in recent years his work has not been
shown much and major oil paintings by him have not appeared often
in the auction houses where they still only fetch a few hundred
thousand dollars in recent years.
In December, 1997, one of the
paintings in the exhibition, "Long Island," a 20-by-32-inch
oil, was sold for $717,500 at Christie's, where its estimate had
only been $350,000 to $450,000.
In June, 1997, however, Sotheby's
failed to sell two major Dove paintings from the collection of
William C. Janss: "Italy Goes to War" and "Gear,"
the former a superb example of Dove's organic world and the latter
merely a sensational knockout of a painting that is included in
the show at the Whitney Museum. The former was estimated at $250,000
to $350,000, while the latter, very nicely framed in a receding
silver frame, was estimated at $150,000 to $200,000, about a quarter
of what it should gone for if it were as vibrant as the colors
in the auction catalogue misleadingly indicated. Both works,
however, did not sell.
"Gear," in fact is
one of Dove's fine works that run counter to his aversion to the
country's preoccupation with mechanical things. Two other "industrial"
works in the exhibition also defy his own predilections: "The
Mill Wheel, Huntington Harbor," and Silver Tanks and Moon,"
both works that would have done Charles Sheeler, the great precisionist,
Consistency, however, is the
province of critics, not necessarily artists. Indeed, several
of the best works in the show are rather experimental and were
painted in the 1920's on metal panels: "Telegraph Pole"
is a wonderful but somber work with metallic paints that depicts
leaves against the cross bars and conjures a Cimabue crucifixion;
and "Sea II," a muted draping of chiffon over metal
with sand that is immensely evocative and nostalgic and mystifying.
A native of Geneva, N.Y., Dove
attended Hobart College and Cornell University but gave up his
pre-law education to move to New York to become a commercial illustrator
in 1903 and with the encouragement of John Sloan and William Glackens
took up oil painting in 1907. A still life of a lobster in a style
derived from Matisse and Cezanne was included in a 1910 exhibition
at Stieglitz's Gallery of the Photo-Secession (that became 291).
Stieglitz disdained the materialism of America and was seeking
to establish an "authentic" American aesthetic and Dove
would forever revere him for his support, encouragement and taste.
In late 1910 and early 1911,
Dove's work changed dramatically and in his small abstractions
of that period, that became known as the "Ten Commandments."
Deborah Bricker Balken wrote in one of the catalogue's essays
that in these small pastels, "alternately murky and luminous
in tone, he relinquished any obligation he might have felt earlier
to convey nature with some degree of verisimilitude."
At the 291 gallery, Dove confronted
works by such Europeans as Matisse, Cezanne and Rodin and Americans
Max Weber, Alfred Maurer, John Marin, Marsden Hartley and Abraham
Walkowitz and Balken suggests that Dove "must have gleaned,
in addition to the ideas he had assimilated in France, a sense
of the burgeoning avant-garde initiative to purge art of any external
reference. Moreover, in the pages of Camera Work (Stieglitz's
quarterly publication) Dove would have come across, particularly
around this period, essays, quotations, and excepted passages
of theoretical tracts by writers and artists such as Nietsche,
Henri Bergson, Sadakichi Hartman, Marius de Zayas, and Benjamin
de Casseres, all of which were loosely unified around the conviction
that art should be guided less by an overarching narrative than
by formalist or compositional features that issued from the artist's
The pastels were shown at 291
in 1912 and immediately "established Dove as the foremost
practitioner of abstract painting in this country," Balken
continued, and were "a feat upon which Stieglitz capitalized
to buttress his growing claims for America's artistic parity in
Dove's work was seen by some
commentators as "virile" as opposed to "the more
superficial refinements of Impressionism," Balken noted:
"The emphasis on Dove's masculinity became part of a larger
intellectual agenda that gained momentum in New York in the early
1920's and that sought to define the indigenous traits of American
cultural expression," she continued, adding that Sherwood
Anderson and Van Wyck Brooks were friends of Dove, who had moved
to a farm in Westport, Connecticut. "While O'Keefe recoiled
from any public discussion of her sexuality, her allegiance to
Dove, above any other artist of the Stieglitz circle, was unwavering;
she believed him to be 'the only American artist who is of the
earth.' Having 'discovered' him in Eddy's Cubists and Post-Impressionism
of 1914, two years in advance of her association with Stieglitz,
O'Keefe was caught by Dove's simple, direct distillation of nature.
Dove responded with equal fervor to her 'burning' landscapes,"
according to Balken.
The artist, who was not interested
in theorizing his work, was an outdoorsman who would not only
mix his own pigments but also make his own frames and often he
painted while listening to music on the radio. Lewis Mumford,
the critic, once observed of Dove that he "has a light touch,
a sense of humor, and an inventive mind," adding that "He
is most himself when he is most spontaneous, as in the small watercolors."
The only major criticism of this show, in fact, is the absence
of his watercolors which, indeed, are often very spirited and
vibrant, surreal and biomorphic.
In 1939, his health deteriorated,
although he continued to paint increasingly severe works, but
with more emphasis on spheres and cones. In his diary that year
he wrote: "Painting as seen from locale to locale in space
static planes in space not form but formation."
There is a great sense of continuum
in Dove's work, a lurching rhythm pulling through time and space.
This can perhaps be best seen in a work like "Holbrook's
Bridge to Northwest," a homage to Newton Weatherly, a mentor
of his who was a painter and a strawberry farmer in Geneva, N.Y.
The painting shows a tunnel-like bridge at one side of the composition
with "squares echoing in ever smaller perimeters of deep
colors" completing "the painting's tightly woven introspective
form," wrote Elizabeth Hutton Turner in her catalogue essay.
Dove's work remained remarkably
consistent and recognizable up until his death in 1946, when he
painted "Flat Surfaces," a very strong and bold painting
that along with "Thunder Shower" of 1940 is one of the
best late works.
Relatively late in his career,
he began to concentrate on the mechanics of painting technique
and some of his works, such as "Snow Thaw" of 1930 and
"Golden Sun" of 1937, are quite extraordinary in their
texture and treatment.
The most surprising works in
the show, however, are his paintings on metal, such as "Seagull
Motif (Violet and Green)," that employ fine lines and complex,
agitated rhythms, his very energetic homages to music composers,
such as "George Gershwin - "I'll Build a Stairway to
Paradise,'' and his collages, such as "Goin' Fishin',"
that are very dimensional and finely composed.
Perhaps the finest painting
in the exhibition is "Thunderstorm," an oil and metallic
paint on canvas executed in 1921. The clouds look like dark brown
pompom trees and the water looks like the fins of a fish and the
lightning bolts look like flagless flagpoles. The palette is limited
but rich. The image is intense but unified. The mystery and the
awe are profound. Wonderfully, the show has a finished charcoal
study for the painting and it too is mesmerizing and potent.
The show should have been bigger
with many more watercolors, but then it might have been overwhelming.
Dove was a bit uneven, but clearly never rested on his laurels,
constantly anticipating new dawns to search for more inspiration
and frequently found it, on his own and without care for convention
and fads, but only today.