Arthur Dove: A Retrospective 1998-April 12, 1998.
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 and its art world. The two men died the same year, 1946, by which time the bolder and more triumphal movement of Abstract Expressionism had put the Stieglitz set—which included Dove, O’Keeffe, John Marin, and Marsden Hartley among its painters—into the shade. Dove’s earnest nature mysticism and effort to—as he noted in 1942—“work at point where abstraction and reality meet” had become quaint and tame. Who needed reality?
Visitors to the second floor of the Whitney Museum tread cautiously in their padded tourist sneakers, as if not wishing to startle any meanings from the underbrush of Dove’s muddy-colored, semi-representational early works. For visitors from France, Japan, and Des Moines, there can be none of that brisk swish-through with which the vast color-field canvases stacked on MOMA’s third floor can be absorbed, or that nodding clockwork survey, punctuated by smiles of recognition, which, say, the Whitney’s recent retrospectives of Edward Hopper and Edward Kienholz warranted. American realism, with or without social commentary, wins respect. But with Dove what you see is not quite what you get. The painter is pondering, looking for underlying principles. In 1909 Dove returned from a year and a half in France and, according to Helen Torr, “when he returned he spent much time in the woods analyzing tree bark, flowers, butterflies etc.” Torr, too, studied and painted nature, but, as we can see at the Graham Gallery, when she looked at a leaf or a dandelion head it became spiky, detailed, specific. The longer Dove looked at nature, the more generic it became.
In 1910 Dove moved to Westport, Connecticut, to try farming, and in the same year leaped into abstraction. From Moscow to Paris, subject matter was becoming the merest of excuses, a point de départ at most. In a 1910 issue of Stieglitz’s quarterly Camera Work, the sculptor Elie Nadelman had written in an essay, “It is form in itself, not resemblance to nature, which gives us pleasure in a work of art.” Dove’s five epochal ur-abstractions follow, on the first wall of the Whitney show, one bright but bumpily overpainted still life from 1909. They are surprisingly small—around 8 1/2 by 10 1/2 inches. Two of them look like houses rendered by a distracted child with a thick brush in his fist, and two more like monochromatic (green, maroon) snippets of a Delaunay, whose Orphist variation of Cubism was the talk of artistic Paris at the time. The crisp parallel brushstrokes pay a debt to Cézanne and the flat color patches pay another to the Fauves. It is not clear that these two are pure abstractions; they could be rough views of a forest’s tangle. The green one, Abstraction No. 3 (1910-1911), appears to have a blue waterfall in it, and patches of sky. Only Abstraction No. 2 (1910-1911), the scrubbiest and most garish of the lot, cuts all ties with the realm of representation. Even so, its central form, the shape of an axhead, strongly suggests an unhappy face—a hydrocephalic version of Munch’s Scream. This hint of a visage returns in the last painting of the exhibit, Flat Surfaces (1946). Surely one of abstraction’s main concerns, though one little discussed, is to keep things from looking like faces, which our eyes are prone to see everywhere.
His leap liberated Dove to seek out the underlying forms and impulses of nature—the flow, the bubbling tumble, the thrust and concentric swelling of growth. In the next ten years he produced a series of works in pastel, charcoal, and (rarely) oils that, though cautious in color, are bold in their removal from the figurative. Plant Forms (circa 1912) and Sun on Water (1917- 1920) are especially pleasing, and typical in their oblique allusions to natural phenomena. Plant Forms applies a smoothing microscope to the minute strands and barbed thrusts and eggy ovals in the botanical seethe; Sun on Water perpetrates in charcoal’s gray a stained-glass fragmentation of solar reflection and refraction. The sun would become his prime image and symbol, an ever-fructifying source of splendor. However, the viewer, and the artist, walk a fine line; Team of Horses (1911-1912) sets us to looking for the horses as in some comic-book teaser; and in Sails (1911-1912) and Nature Symbolized No. 3: Steeple and Trees (1911-1912) the symbolization feels blatant. We might like these paintings better if they had no titles; the black-on-manila Drawing (Sunrise II) (1913) and the blue-and-black Pagan Philosophy (1913), with their vaguer referents and purer, jazzier cubism, court our interest on pictorial terms that benefit from keeping an enigmatic reserve.
In these early attempts to represent what Dove, in an “Explanatory Note” issued with a 1916 exhibition, termed “the reality of the sensation,” he is in danger of falling off the fine line into a cartoony glibness, into art-deco mannerism. The sunburst rays of Abstraction, Number 2 (circa 1911, or 1917-1920, depending on the expert) and the arcs of graduated ribbons of color which appear in Sunrise (1924) remind us of Rockefeller Center bas-reliefs. Debra Bricker Balken, in her sensitive catalog essay on Dove’s work up to 1933, aptly describes the painter’s “direct distillations of nature.” But a distillation, without some other ingredient added, may become a diagram or caricature.
The forms of the charcoal drawing #4 Creek (circa 1919) are not easy to read; a humped mass of concentric parabolas seems to be pushing against or toward a vaulted cavity. Dove sketched it, according to one report, “while knee-deep in flowing water, looking downstream into the woods; but…his friends called it Penetration—which came nearer to his intention.” The friends may have included Sherwood Anderson, who had gotten to know Dove during the years they both lived in Westport. Anderson had a lot of ideas about painting, and in 1921 wrote Dove, “There is some faint promise of rebirth in American art but the movement may well be just a stupid reaction from Romanticism into realism—the machine. To be a real birth the flesh must come in.” The 1924 painting called Penetration follows the outlines of the creek charcoal and adds strident color: a copulative sunrise is suggested, but the overall suggestion is as of a cowled alien looming, a comic space-priest, whose broad chest bears a white vagina. Symbolization and distillation can become brittle. What we value in Dove, what is valuably American, is less his willingness to pursue a Freudian metaphor than his willingness to stand up to his knees in flowing water.
How to invest abstraction with seriousness—the problem tugs at these early works, and Dove in the decades left to him rarely settled on an easy, repeatable solution. He resorted to portraiture of the dread machine—Mowing Machine (1921), whose toothed edge reappears as a lighting bolt in his Thunderstorm of the same year, and the drab Mill Wheel, Huntington Harbor (1930). “I’m tired of putting brush strokes on canvas,” he told Torr in 1924, and set about assembling collages in which twigs, sand, bits of wood, and pieces of cloth serve to bring nature’s materiality into the picture frame. Ten Cent Store (1924), mixing real grasses and artificial cloth flowers, is the most beautiful specimen of these; nevertheless, its charms feel tainted. The painter has vacated his role of middleman and let nature, and the manufacturer of cloth flowers, do his work of creating interest.
In his same mood of impatience with traditional materials, Dove resorted in these years to metallic paint and metal as a surface, with some striking effects: Sea II (1925) used streaks of chiffon over metal with sand in a ghostly conjuration of marine feeling, and Something in Brown, Carmine, and Blue (1927), an oil painting on a sheet of metal, has a shudder to it no canvas could have supported. But these, and the Klee-like filled-in continuous lines of The Park (1927) and Seagull Motif (1928), and the stabbing, colorful, Pollock-like pure abstractions he did while listening to music (George Gershwin—“Rhapsody in Blue,” Part II  and Orange Grove in California by Irving Berlin ) all give a sensation of spirited groping, rather than of a secure arrival. They come from the period when Dove and Helen Torr lived mostly on their boat Mona. The Whitney retrospective is oddly shy of boats, but several can be seen in the Metropolitan show: Dove’s chunky landlocked Fishboat (1930), as both a watercolor sketch and an enlarged oil, and Torr’s droll Houses on a Barge (1928), an ark crammed with tenement buildings, expressing perhaps her feelings about nautical housekeeping.
We come ashore, so to speak, in Alfie’s Delight (1929), the first oil painting that has the unique Dove look. The color is still subdued and tawny but also joyous; the dominant yellow-brown is applied so thinly and dashingly that dribbles mark the canvas. The shallow space is yet deep enough to keep the abstract elements apart; Dove’s cherished theme of concentric emergence is stated with a breadth and unforced glow that are dramatically fresh. The same year brought forth the majestic Silver Sun, with its cat’s pupil of black inside a huge sun lowering upon a tiny earthly reflection of itself, and the well-known Fog Horns, with its overlapping lavender blossoms of sound—worrisomely Disneyesque in its animated synesthesia, but in the end winning. Dove’s strange blooms, or targets, lopsided like clamshells, crop up as trees as well as celestial objects, and one floats in Ferry Boat Wreck (1931) like a subaqueous curiosity seeker, a chamber without a nau-tilus. The yellow floral shapes in Pine Tree (1931) are a botanical puzzle and a somewhat violent pictorial interjection. Perhaps we should keep in mind Lewis Mumford’s observation, in a 1934 New Yorker, that “Dove has a light touch, a sense of humor…. [He is] a witty mind whose art is play, and whose play is often art.” Klee and Miró empower Dove’s playfulness throughout his career—see Sun on the Water (1929), Golden Sun (1937), and Flagpole, Apple Tree and Garden (1943-1944).
His five years spent in Geneva, New York, settling up, with his brother, what appears to have been a troublesome and unprofitable estate, produced work of a generous scale and a vegetative geniality. Inland weather and space did him good. Naples Yellow Morning (1935) buoyantly reduces the natural world to its basic blobs, and Sun Drawing Water (1933) is one of the most telling of Dove’s many attempts to evoke weather on the painted canvas. In a Redonesque eye on a stalk of Moon (1935), and the embracing Arp-shapes of Summer (1935), he produced images that could be called surreal—raids on the subconscious. He thinned his paint on the brush so that every strand shows in the stroke; he experimented with tempera and wax emulsion to achieve a more translucent effect.
He made many suns, some, like Sunrise I and Sunrise II of 1936, rather lumpily thickened in portent with phallic and spermatozoid shapes. Sunrise III (1936) is all concentric circles, mostly dark, resting on the swaled horizon with a sag toward the oval, as if of excess weight. This sun, strikingly shaded with a three-quarters outline, seems subdued to a lunar glow, and Me and the Moon (1937) buries the golden orb in mountains of black. Some of his best work in this Geneva period employs a dark palette, like Holbrook’s Bridge to Northwest (1938). Flour Mill II (1938), though distinctly based upon a majestic concrete structure recently arisen in Geneva, approaches action painting, and floats its patches of color on a blank background of near-white. It is as “a leader among the so-called abstract painters” that Dove was touted by William Einstein in the catalog of his 1937 show at An American Place, and his own reflections, in his journals and his letters to Stieglitz, turn toward “pure painting” and a quality of abstraction that he called “self-creative in its own space.”
Though some of these exercises in self-creativity come off as messy and clangorous—for example, Swing Music (Louis Armstrong) of 1938—pure abstraction was the preoccupation of his last years, after he moved to Centerport in 1938. He sought to pass beyond the “point where abstraction and reality meet” to a place where he would be “free from all motifs etc just put down one color after another” and could “make something that is real in itself, that does not remind anyone of any other thing, and that does not have to be explained.” Yet things were not so easily transcended; suns appear in Long Island (1940) and Indian Summer (1941) and That Red One (1944), and, as with Richard Diebenkorn’s Ocean Park series, the local landscape underlies a thoroughly geometricized surface; William Agee’s enthusiastic essay on the late work finds aspects of Centerport in the severest color patches. Dove’s rendering became more monumental and flat, but meteorological phenomena continued to fascinate him: e.g., Thunder Shower (1940), Rain or Snow (1943), and Partly Cloudy (1942). He once wrote to Stieglitz, “Weather shouldn’t be so important to a modern painter—maybe we’re still ‘too human.”’ Despite the urgings of theory, he kept being human.
It is the earthiness and weather in Dove to which we respond. Paintings like Silver Sun and Rain or Snow catch at the silvery essence of air, and a homage to seed shapes and tree rings and the elusive materiality of clouds and flowing water and the sunburst of creation that opens each day animates even his most abstract designs; nature was his way into art. The tiny watercolors with which he jotted impressions—on view in several Manhattan galleries, and on sale for $20,000 and up—have a life, a spark of connection, sometimes missing from the large paintings based on them, which he took to transferring to canvas by the mechanical means of a pantograph.
Dove is a pioneer of abstract painting but not one of its heroes; his canvases remained sub-heroic in size, and his point de départ remained received sensation rather than vatic promulgation. Now, Dove seems all the more worth cherishing in his edgy, earthbound failure to enter the happy but faraway land where, in the words of Clyfford Still, the most vatic of the Abstract Expressionists, “Imagination, no longer fettered by the laws of fear, became as one with Vision. And the Act, intrinsic and absolute, was its meaning, and the bearer of its passion.”