Arthur Dove, Ferry Boat Wreck (1931), oil on canvas, 18″ x 30″; courtesy The Whitney Museum of American Art
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The painter Arthur Dove (1880–1946) is an artist whose work has not been much on view in New York in recent years. The lone watercolor or painting included in survey exhibitions has been intriguing, but also puzzling: seen piecemeal, Dove’s work can seem remote. His painting The Inn (1942) was on view last year in a show at the Met honoring the collectors Edith and Milton Lowenthal. Yet viewed in the context of American modernism, the picture may as well have come from Mars. This is due not only to the singularity—one might say the solitariness—of Dove’s art, but also to the fact that it isn’t well known to a lot of us. To be sure, the name of Arthur Dove is likely to prompt vaguely recalled historical tidbits: that he was part of Stieglitz’s circle; that he created collages which were, at the time, aesthetically radical; and that he may have been the first artist to paint a nonobjective painting. Dove has, in other words, entered the canon of art history. But when has that ever guaranteed a true understanding of an artist’s accomplishment?
It is unexpected, then, that there are no fewer than four separate museum and gallery exhibitions devoted to Dove currently on view in Manhattan. (One of them pairs Dove’s work with that of his wife, the painter Helen Torr.) Multiple and simultaneous shows are usually devoted to art-world hotshots, “major” artists whose work rarely deserves (or sustains) such attention. In contrast, the paintings of Arthur Dove seem the least likely candidates for such treatment. Their quietude is out of sync with the free-for-all of late twentieth-century culture. If the current focus can’t be called “Dovemania” (these are, after all, paintings impervious to hype), the shows are nonetheless a welcome surprise. Indeed, they are more than that. The most important of these exhibitions, Arthur Dove: A Retrospective at the Whitney Museum of American Art, is the first comprehensive overview of Dove’s oeuvre in twenty-two years. It’s about time, for the show is a revelation.
Arthur Dove traces the artist’s career from the Fauvist-inspired Still Life Against Flowered Wall Paper (1909) to the monumental Flat Surfaces (1946), painted in the year of the artist’s death. In between are almost forty years of unwavering commitment to a peculiar—and peculiarly American—vision. To understand Dove’s work, one must look to his relationship with the European avant-garde and, more importantly, with the natural world. While it is possible to divine in his work traces of Futurism, Expressionism, Orphism, Klee, and Kandinsky, his art is beholden to none of them. Dove inherited modernist impulses less by direct influence, one feels, than by a process not dissimilar to osmosis. Dove was, to be certain, a cultured artist, but also an idiosyncratic one. Like many American artists, Dove made the ritual journey to France, but he spent most of his time there painting outside of Paris. Such an eccentric move suits a modern artist whose work can resemble the relics of some bygone age: Dove’s evocations of natural forces—particularly his omnipotent, pulsating suns—are primordial and unhewn. He can, at times, seem like an inspired primitive. Dove puts me in mind of Clyfford Still, another homespun oddball whose paintings elude pigeonholing.
If there is one artist whose work Dove’s can be likened to it is his friend Georgia O’Keeffe. Like O’Keeffe, he was what could be termed a Yankee mystic: a painter prone to big metaphors that were nonetheless modestly scaled and levelheaded. For Dove, nature was innately concrete. Clouds acquire the consistency of matzoh balls; sunlight has an almost sculptural presence. His depictions of nature can be ominous or inviting, but they are always deeply felt. Stating once that he would paint “the wind and a landscape chastised by the cyclone!” Dove had an uncanny empathy with natural phenomena, as well as a predilection for the mythic. If he did not find God in the rustle of leaves or in the mass of a geological formation, he did intuit a preternatural vitality informing them. Yet there is nothing brittle about his symbolism. Having supported himself for a time as a farmer, Dove’s metaphysical tendencies were tempered by pragmatism. In both life and art, Dove was not afraid of getting his hands dirty.
Unlike O’Keeffe, Dove was able to make his images connect as painting. Before committing an image to canvas, Dove would make watercolor sketches of a particular site which would later be transferred to a larger format with the aid of a pantograph. This may seem a contrived strategy, especially for an artist as “natural” as Dove. But it is interesting to note the differences between the sketches and finished paintings. The watercolors are filled with the offhand joy taken in the quick impression. Dove clearly loved the way a wet brush took to the tooth of the paper; these painterly “drags” give the sketches their crispness. Yet as lovely as they are, the watercolors don’t have the authority of the oil paintings. With oils, Dove’s pace became measured and his energies concentrated. Consequently, the images acquired a density, both thematically and aesthetically. The gathering of brushstrokes that makes up Penetration (1924), for instance, is as loving as it is meditative. The physicality of oils gives Dove’s art a gravity that the sketches lack.
If Dove did not have an innate gift for oil paints as he did with watercolor, his unadorned style of paint-handling was a perfect match for his imagery. Has there ever been an artist whose formal vocabulary was as inelegant? The knotty vegetablelike shapes that parade across October (1935) bump up against each other with a clumsy élan. The craggy monoliths that dominate Long Island (1940) appear almost cartoonish, yet maintain a certain dignity. In Dove’s paintings, nature is simplified, not stylized. His shapes are often recognizable, but rarely predictable, and the relationships between them are characterized by a nudging tension. They are paintings about the awkwardness of an object or event coming into being. I can’t make heads or tails of the forms in Summer (1935), for example, but the manner in which they interact has a blunt drama to it. Admittedly, Dove’s compositions aren’t always as tight as they could be. Often they feel lumped together or are oddly cropped within the painting’s format. Yet, even when a particular composition falls flat, it has a specificity that rings true. There isn’t an arbitrary moment to be found in his paintings. They are the generalizations of an artist keenly attuned to the particulars of the world around him.
Which is not to say that his work altogether avoids the cornball. Sometimes Dove’s symbolic shorthand seems rote. The squiggles cascading through Seagull Motif (Violet and Green) (1928), for instance, are cloying. I remain unimpressed with the collages, which seem more the souvenirs of nature walks than full-bodied works of art. Likewise, the argument around whether or not Dove was the first artist to create an abstract picture is beside the point. While the question of who got there first may have import for those who like to nitpick over the innovations of twentieth-century art, the fact remains that, even at his most visionary, Dove never became a wholly abstract artist. Even the fine series of works titled Abstraction painted circa 1910 are fairly blatant representations of landscape. (The one exception is Abstraction No. 2, a shockingly lucid work that almost ninety years later still packs a wallop.) Dove’s recognition as an artist should be predicated on the quality of his work, not on his role as innovator.
Dove’s masterly color sense is irrefutable. Although his oeuvre is not without its moments of brash color, on the whole it is subdued. The word “muted” goes some way toward describing his palette, but gives little indication of its overall impact. For Dove did not simply put colors together well—he created chromatic experiences. Dove’s colors and the queer, filtered light that emanates from them have a warmth that adds to the work’s otherworldly stoicism. The way in which the dusky pinks and reds frame the luminous central form of Formation I (1943) is nothing short of magical. Similarly, the acidic yellow light of Golden Sun (1937) has an immensity that belies the painting’s size, a mere 9 3/4 by 13 3/4 inches. Throughout his career Dove experimented with a variety of painting media, and the technical knowledge garnered from such experiments afforded him the best means to achieve the color sensation he wanted. Again, this may seem like calculation, but no amount of conscious manipulation could account for the spooky vigor of Dove’s paintings.
What, then, are we to make of this humble eccentric? To state that he was an original is true enough and a banality. Fairfield Porter wrote that the “original” artist’s “denial of tradition and of the [artistic] capital are equivalent to … a declaration of an amateur status.” Perhaps. Dove’s vision certainly had something of the amateur’s wide-eyed wonder, but that doesn’t make him a crank or make his art marginal. In fact, Dove’s paintings are a salutary reminder that the history of early American modernism is, contrary to myth, not wanting for major artists. Is it possible that paintings as hushed as these will make a dent in our hyperkinetic era of virtual realities and virtual art? That such a splendid—and, ultimately, moving—exhibition is now on view should give pause to those who have all but given in to such manifestations of cultural cynicism. For, in the end, Arthur Dove: A Retrospective is nothing less than a gift.
© 1998 Mario Naves
Originally published in the March 1998 edition of The New Criterion.