Arthur Dove, Chewing Cow (1937), watercolor on paper, 5″ x 7″; courtesy Alexandre Gallery
* * *
One sign that Arthur Dove: Watercolors, on display at Alexandre Gallery, is a museum-quality exhibition is the fact that the curators have included artifacts: In a pair of vitrines containing objects from the artist’s studio are tubes of paint, jars filled with pigment, brushes, oil-stained pages from an old treatise on color and even Crayola crayons. The documentary relics provide a you-are-there immediacy, and fans of the seminal American modernist will inspect them eagerly. Yet what truly makes the show a museum-quality affair is the work itself.
Some of the 59 watercolors on view have been borrowed from major institutions, such as the Phillips Collection; others are from the Dove Estate and have never been seen publicly. Diminutive in size, most measure no larger than five by seven inches.
The images veer from abstract—Dove (1880-1946) is often touted as the first modernist to paint an out-and-out abstraction—to fairly straightforward renderings of boats, a pond and row houses. In between those poles is an only somewhat discernible cow—a “cow at play,” the title informs us—in a lumpish array of shapes and masses. But identifiable motifs don’t matter so much as the experiences that have been encapsulated.
Nature was Dove’s abiding inspiration and touchstone; it left an indelible stamp on everything he put his hand to. Georgia O’Keeffe, a friend and fellow member of Alfred Stieglitz’s coterie of artists, stated that Dove was “the only painter who is part of the earth.” Indeed, Dove eked out a living as a farmer for some years, out of necessity but also, one might guess, out of a constitutional bent. “Works of nature are abstract,” he wrote in a poem. “They do not lean on other things for meaning.”
That the majesty and monumentality of nature could be expressed on a piece of paper no larger than an index card testifies to Dove’s gift for scale and proportion. He certainly responded to the forthrightness of watercolor upon taking it up in 1930. Often defined and augmented with black pen line, the watercolors exemplify the rhythms, shapes and mutability of natural phenomena. The world is pictured as a roving, sentient and largely beneficent force. Tinged with mysticism, Dove’s work is also a nascent form of environmentalism. It calls for humility and insists that humankind should know its place.
What makes Dove such an endearing artist is that he’s a bit of a klutz: There wasn’t an elegant bone in his body. Despite the wiry lilt of his line or the unerring drag of his brush, Dove’s touch is defined by a homely urgency. Forms don’t just evolve in the pictures; they galumph. He grasped the particulars of his subject—whether it be rocks, trees, the sun, animal life or a sleet storm—even as his brush swept brusquely over it.
The atmospheric pressure of an oncoming storm is palpable in Grey Light (1935); so too is the wind zooming through Canandaigua Outlet, Oaks Corner (1937). Dove possessed an uncanny ability to simultaneously distill and encompass awesome forces with the barest mark and the bluntest form. Arthur Dove: The Watercolors illuminates and elaborates upon his singular achievement. It’s a joy to behold.
Frances Barth, Per-Model (2003), acrylic on panel, 14″ x 15″; courtesy The New York Studio School
* * *
The mixture of sophistication and naïveté in Frances Barth’s paintings give the impression that she’s an admirer of Dove, though not an outright disciple. Ms. Barth’s investigations of nature, now on view at the New York Studio School, are characterized by a dispassionate remove. As a painter, Ms. Barth is more inclined to flex her intellect than extend her empathy. Her spare and diagrammatic paintings re-imagine, if not the landscape itself, then landscape as a pictorial genre.
Ms. Barth’s primary concern is finding an overriding logic from a fractured array of signs and symbols. The recognizable imagery in the pictures—mountain ranges, fissures in the earth, jagged, rock-like forms and what appear to be aerial views of the ground—are anything but arbitrary: The artist mentions a desire “to chart with different visual languages an epic story which could only exist in geological time.”
If Dove was a mystic with a deep connection to the land, Ms. Barth can be likened to a clinician intent on probing its permanence. Mixing and matching abstract structures with fragmented representation, the paintings don’t lack a philosophical bent. Ms. Barth posits her art as a “narrative creation … [taking] place over deep time.”
Ponder, for a moment, what “deep time” might be, then take in the pictures themselves. Painted with acrylic in an affectless manner, the pictures are almost shockingly casual. Dry and uninflected passages of tawny pinks, greens and browns co-exist, if just barely, with lopsided topographical details.
Ms. Barth’s line is hesitant, her compositions wobbly. Yet what emerges is an art at peace with its often-troublesome contradictions. The pleasure and puzzlement it offers stem, in no small part, from how self-effacing means can thwart grandiose intentions. If the paintings weren’t somewhat pretentious, they wouldn’t be interesting; if they weren’t somewhat goofy, they wouldn’t be good.
© 2006 Mario Naves
Originally published in the June 11, 2006 edition of The New York Observer.