Superb Exhibition Brings Arthur Dove Back to Life

“Americans are supposed to paint as if they had never seen another picture.” That disheartening observation was made in a moment of exasperation and despair by the American painter Arthur Dove (1880-1946) sometime in the 1930′s-a decade that was not an easy period for an artist of his persuasion.

By the mid-1930′s, Dove had for a quarter of a century been creating pictures that are both remarkably original and yet very much akin to the paintings of certain other modern masters. Yet pictures of the kind he favored, which were either completely abstract or tending toward abstraction even when openly addressed to subjects drawn from nature, were still regarded as an alien presence on the American art scene. There was not yet much of an awareness in the public mind that modernism, while still castigated by academic realists, social realists, regional muralists and sundry other champions of “tradition,” was now itself a vital tradition that an artist like Dove could continue to draw upon for inspiration and support. For many benighted souls, modern art was still thought to be a hoax perpetrated by people who “had never seen another picture.”

With what ardor, invention and lyric grace Dove did indeed continue to work in this modernist tradition in his later years is made wonderfully vivid for us in the superb retrospective of his work that has now been organized at the Phillips Collection in Washington. Arthur Dove: A Retrospective is quite the best exhibition of this artist’s work I have ever seen-and I think I’ve seen all the major Dove shows of the last 40 years. Beginning with a Still Life Against Flowered Wallpaper (1909) and ending with Flat Surfaces (1946), his last major painting, this retrospective does full justice to every phase of Dove’s development. There are things in this exhibition that I, at least, do not remember seeing before, and even the most familiar paintings and assemblages are seen in a new light in a survey that encompasses some 78 objects.

It has become the custom in discussions of Dove’s work, owing to the small oils he called Abstractions in 1910-11, to make much of his status as a pioneer of abstract painting-even, perhaps, the pioneer, superseding the claims made for Vasily Kandinsky, as Debra Bricker Balken puts it in the catalogue of this show, “by maybe a year.” But as Ms. Balken also points out, the question of what Dove knew or did not know about Kandinsky at that early date remains unresolved and is probably unresolvable. It is exacerbated, moreover, by the attempt made by Dove’s dealer and patron, Alfred Stieglitz-who really was familiar with Kandinsky’s ideas-to capitalize on Dove’s early abstractions in order, as Ms. Balken writes, “to buttress his [Stieglitz's] growing claims for America’s artistic parity with Europe.”

In my view, however, “America’s artistic parity with Europe” did not then exist, and to claim otherwise places an esthetic and historical burden on those early abstractions of Dove’s which the work itself cannot support. To my eyes, anyway, those pictures read more as symbolist paintings based on motifs drawn from nature than as abstract paintings that abjure all reference to recognizable objects. It is no insult to Dove, either, to be reminded that in 1910-11, he was not yet an artist in Kandinsky’s league. Alfred Stieglitz had many admirable qualities, as we see illustrated in his early support of Dove, but it is worth remembering that as a dealer he was no stranger to what later came to be called hype. In the New York art world, he was indeed one of its pioneers.

It isn’t, in any case, in the early work in this Dove retrospective that the artist’s finest achievements are to be found. Dove doesn’t really hit his stride as a modernist painter of remarkable originality until the 1920′s when, for the first time, almost every object he produces-collage and assemblage as well as well as paintings-is wholly individual in conception and beautifully realized in the execution. Still largely based on nature, the paintings move in and out of the realm of abstraction so consistently that the distinction often made between abstraction and representation in his work hardly matters.

The most audacious of his pictures in the 1920′s are undoubtedly the assemblages that make use of unconventional materials-which have, alas, become all too conventional in our own day-and the paintings that are similarly executed in mixed media. Rain (1924), for example, is an assemblage composed of twigs and rubber cement on metal and glass. Starry Heavens (also 1924) is a painting executed in oil and metallic paint on the reverse side of a glass plate backed with black paper. The most famous of the assemblages- Goin’ Fishin’ (1925)-uses bamboo and the sleeves and buttons of a blue denim shirt, while the extraordinary painting called Hand Sewing Machine (1927) applies oil pigment, cut and pasted linen, and graphite to a sheet of aluminum.

Oddly enough, it is in this period, too, that Dove produced his most Kandinskyish abstract painting- George Gershwin-”Rhapsody in Blue,” Part II (1927), which has the look of the kind of “Improvisation” that Kandinsky himself had abandoned more than a decade earlier. The connection probably had more to do with the parallels both painters believed united abstract painting and classical music than with any conscious effort on Dove’s part to imitate Kandinsky-but the resemblances are nonetheless striking.

By the 1930′s, the assemblages and the unconventional materials are largely abandoned as Dove, whose health had begun to deteriorate, concentrates exclusively on the art of painting. In this retrospective, “late” Dove emerges as the primary Dove, for it was in his last years that he created his greatest abstract paintings- Naples Yellow Morning (1935), the three Sunrise paintings (1936), Flour Mill II (1938), Rain or Snow (1943), Sand and Sea (1943) Roof Tops (1943), That Red One (1944) and the final Flat Surfaces (1946).

What William Agee says about Flat Surfaces in the catalogue of this retrospective-”It is a singularly personal variant of abstract art of the time, while closely paralleling the work of Robert Motherwell, and within a few years, of David Smith and Ellsworth Kelly”-might also be said of certain other late abstractions in the exhibition. My own favorite is That Red One , which I think is a finer, deeper painting than anything I know of in the oeuvres of either Motherwell or Kelly.

The extent to which Dove was consciously working within the tradition of modernist abstraction during this late period is well documented for us by Mr. Agee in the catalogue. “In April 1936, while visiting New York,” writes Mr. Agee, “Dove had seen and commented favorably on the landmark exhibition Cubism and Abstract Art at the Museum of Modern Art. A week later, on April 23, he visited A.E. Gallatin’s Gallery of Living Art at New York University, where he would have seen a broad group of important abstract and nonobjective paintings, including work by Mondrian.… Two months later, Dove went to the trouble of translating an article by Mondrian, most likely Mondrian’s response to an inquiry into the state of modern art published in a 1935 issue of Cahiers d’art. ” And so on. Dove, who spent time in Paris before the First World War, knew what the standards of achievement were for the kind of art he aspired to create, and in the late work he met those standards more consistently than at any other time in his life. It was a considerable achievement, and it is our good luck that this retrospective does it such justice.

The exhibition remains at the Phillips Collection in Washington through Jan. 4, and will be coming to the Whitney Museum in New York, Jan. 15 to April 12, before traveling on to the Addison Gallery in Andover, Mass., and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.