Arthur Dove: A Retrospective

"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

The Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C.

September 20, 1997 - January 4, 1998

The Whitney Museum of American Art, New York

January 15 - April 12, 1998

Addison Gallery of American Art, Andover, Massachusetts

April 25 - July 12, 1998

Los Angeles County Museum of Art

August 2 - October 4, 1998


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. $35.

"Gear," oil on board, 27 by 18 inches, circa 1922, illustrated in black and white in catalogue but illustrated in color in Sotheby's American Paintings, Drawings and Sculpture catalogue for its June 6, 1997 auction where it did not sell.

 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 representational roots.

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 perspectives.

"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 catalogue.

"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….Dove's 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….Beyond its 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 and minor."

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.

River Bottom by Dove

"River Bottom, Silver, Ochre, Carmine, Green," 1920 (collection of Michael Scharf)

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, proud.

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 intuition."

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 Europe."

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.

"I would paint the wind…"

Rain or Snow by Dove

"Rain or Snow," 1943, collection, The Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C.

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…not 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.

"Ideas are the only property worth having…"

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.

The Christian Science Monitor ran an article June 12, 1998 on "The Exuberant Poetry of Painter Arthur Dove"

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