Edwin Dickinson at Tibor de Nagy

Edwin Dickinson, Evangeline (1942), oil on canvas, 20″ x 23″; courtesy The Provincetown Art Association and Museum

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A friend and I have been engaging in an e-mail correspondence about who deserves the status of Greatest American Painter of the 20th Century. His vote goes to Arshile Gorky; mine to Stuart Davis. Additional names have been thrown into the hat. All are given their props and summarily dismissed, except one: Edwin Dickinson (1891-1978). His name lingers in the debate with a nagging persistence, though Dickinson isn’t anyone’s idea of a major artist.

His oeuvre–consisting of landscapes, portraits and impenetrable, ghostly allegories–is uneven in quality, dour in temper, reclusive in character and expressly, if not absolutely, puritanical. There’s no explaining Dickinson; fitting him into the grand tradition of American iconoclasts like Eakins, Marin, Hopper and Porter is do-able, though not wholly satisfactory. Looking at the small show of Dickinson’s paintings and drawings in the back room at the Tibor de Nagy Gallery, you come to the conclusion that there’s no tradition capable of holding him.

Take Self-Portrait (1914), a roiling, darkly introspective canvas painted when Dickinson was all of 23 years old. Its consciousness of Modernism, particularly the emphasis on oil paint’s physicality, is clear. Still, you can’t call it a Modernist picture–it doesn’t demonstrate a radical rethinking of pictorial form. In fact, a harsh strain of 19th–century propriety pervades the painting, an abiding, even moral fidelity to observed fact. Self-Portrait is, in many ways, an old-fashioned picture, yet have we truly seen anything like it before?

Of Dickinson’s contemporaries, only Max Beckmann and Pierre Bonnard delved more deeply into the daunting interior life of the self. Otherwise, he makes Soutine look like a Sunday painter, Kokoschka a narcissistic poser and Francis Bacon a colossal waste of time. Bear in mind that it isn’t even the strongest painting at de Nagy–a distinction that belongs to Evangeline (1942), a canvas whose fragile beauty is inseparable from the violent manner in which Dickinson has scarred and scraped its surface.

Where does Dickinson fit in the hierarchy of American painters? Up around the top, and nowhere at all.

© 2004 Mario Naves

Originally published in the October 11, 2004 edition of The New York Observer.

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