Pioneer

Arthur Dove: A Retrospective 1998-April 12, 1998.

byan exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art, January 15, Catalog of the exhibition by Debra Bricker Balken, with William C. Agee, by Elizabeth Hutton Turner
Addison Gallery of American Art/ MIT Press, 196 pp., $35.00 (paper)

Arthur Dove broods over New York this winter. In addition to the admirable retrospective show, extensive but not exhausting, at the Whitney, there are: from February to June, a smaller, mezzanine exhibit at the Metropolitan, entitled “Arthur Dove/Helen Torr: Land and Water” and displaying twenty-one works by Dove with four by his second wife, Helen Torr; shows of his small works on paper at the Terry Dintenfass and Tibor de Nagy galleries; and an array of Helen Torr’s works at the Graham Gallery.

Dove in his lifetime (1880- 1946) enjoyed some renown and patronage but never enough for comfort’s sake; his existence was an edgy, financially distressed one, lived in such marginal accommodations as an old farmhouse in Geneva, New York, without electricity or running water, a small former store and post office on stilts in Centerport Harbor on Long Island, and, for seven years, a forty-two-foot yawl that he shuffled about Long Island Sound. His privations took a toll on his health and, with his intermittent career as an illustrator and farmer, on his practice of art. His father was a rich brick manufacturer and contractor in Geneva, New York, who disinherited Arthur after the young man not only declined to become a lawyer but gave up commercial illustration for pure painting. In his photographs the artist, even when he is clowning with a frame around his head, looks serious and a bit harried—a well-combed, white-shirted, scarcely smiling refugee from the upper middle class.

To him belongs the honor of being (after Navajo blanket-weavers and Amish quilt-makers and the like) the first American abstract artist; he suddenly lit out, in 1910, for the nonfigurative territory implicit in the painting of Cézanne and Picasso and in the relativistic readjustments of space and time proposed by Bergson and Einstein. To the end of Dove’s life he thought about the issues of abstraction, and in his last, ailing years, embraced its larger, more colorful possibilities, having begun in the brown aura of Cubism. A lover and student of outdoor nature from his upstate boyhood, he held back from the unbridled egotism and anthropocentricity of action painting, and kept almost always in his work a kernel of representation, however well hidden—the sun, clouds, the blue horizontal of sea or pond, phallic bioforms and vaginal archways.

Georgia O’Keeffe, whose fame has for long eclipsed his, was as early as 1914 an admirer of Dove, calling him “the only American painter who is of the earth.” Both found in Alfred Stieglitz something more than artistic sponsorship; O’Keeffe found a lover and, after 1918, an open consort, and Dove a surrogate father, to replace the brickmaker who had disowned him. Dove early became a key member of the Stieglitz circle. Stieglitz provided him exhibition space at his three successive Manhattan galleries—291 on Fifth Avenue, the Intimate Gallery on Park, An American Place on Madison—and gave Dove, in his bucolic rootlessness, a continuous connection with New York …

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