Dow at Spanierman Gallery: Major Show for Minor Guy

There are certain figures in late 19th- and early 20th-century American art whose names are better-known than their work, and Arthur Wesley Dow (1857-1922)-currently the subject of a large exhibition at the Spanierman Gallery-is one of them. To the extent that his name is remembered today, it is probably owing to the fact that Georgia O’Keeffe made a point of acknowledging Dow’s influence as a teacher on her own early artistic development. But we needn’t hold that endorsement against him. Max Weber was another early American modernist who acknowledged a debt to Dow’s ideas, and in the exhibition at the Spanierman Gallery some other celebrated names are associated with Dow-Frank Lloyd Wright, among the architects and designers, and Alvin Langdon Colburn, among the photographers. The exhibition is called Arthur Wesley Dow: His Art and His Influence .

It needs to be said, however, that “influence” can sometimes turn out to be a slippery concept in discussions of artistic development, and it may be that Dow’s influence as an artist and as a teacher and theorist is now, in this exhibition, given a good deal more weight than either his art or his ideas can support. Like O’Keeffe, Max Weber made much of Dow’s influence on his work, but it is nonetheless worth asking: To what extent does Weber’s painting illustrate this influence? The lovely little still life by Weber in the current show, The Set Table (circa 1917), is a pure distillation of the Cézannean pictorial aesthetic, which was entirely alien to Dow’s narrower, more academic sensibility. The fact is, Dow remained indifferent to precisely those innovations of the School of Paris that played a decisive role in shaping Weber’s early pictorial accomplishments. So, for the most part, did O’Keeffe, upon whose early work Dow did indeed exert an emphatic influence but not, I think, an especially salutary one. She seems to have remained all too faithful for far too long a time to some of Dow’s more provincial mystifications.

It would be a mistake, in any case, for newcomers to Dow’s work to expect to find in this exhibition a major, heretofore undiscovered master of the modern movement. Gifted as he certainly was, especially as a painter of landscape, Dow remains a minor 19th-century American artist of the post-Whistler, pre-Armory Show period. Chronologically, he belongs to the generation of John Singer Sargent and Childe Hassam, all born in the 1850′s, though he was never their equal in accomplishment. His closest esthetic affinities-as a painter, anyway-are with an American painter of an earlier generation, John La Farge, born 1835. To an even greater extent than La Farge, Dow made a specialty of aligning the conventions of 19th-century landscape painting, both American and European, with ideas borrowed from the traditions of Japanese estheticism. This was his principal claim to fame, as an artist and as a teacher and theorist.

Yet in the annals of American painting it was Whistler, born in 1834, who was primarily responsible for presiding over the integration of Japonism into the painting of landscape. This was something that Dow steadfastly refused to acknowledge, dismissing Whistler’s achievement as a mere imitation of Japanese art. He was similarly dismissive of Gauguin, whom he had actually met in Pont-Aven, and of Van Gogh, going so far as to claim that their work contained nothing that the Japanese hadn’t already done better. He seems never to have understood that his own adaptations of Japonist form were far more conservative and academic than theirs.

The paradox about all this is that Dow had really devoted a great deal of study to Japanese art, largely under the influence of the great scholar and connoisseur of Asian art, Ernest Fenollosa. Dow even served as a curator of Japanese art at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston in the 1890′s. What he carried over into his own art, however-and what he seems to have transmitted to his students, several of whom besides O’Keeffe and Weber are also represented in the current exhibition-was more the decorative than the dramatic or expressive elements in Japanese art. Thus, what he took to be the essence of the Japanese esthetic often turned out to be little more than a facile pastiche of Japanese design. Which is why even Max Weber, in a fond reminiscence of his days as Dow’s student, later observed of Dow: “He wasn’t a teacher on the pictorial side of art, of space art, flat space art, but a great teacher of design, the pattern, the two dimensional, as manifested in the greatest examples of the Far Eastern art.”

This distinction between “the pictorial side of art,” on the one hand, and “pattern” or “design,” on the other, is clearly discernible in Dow’s own work as a painter and printmaker. By and large, he shows considerable command of the pictorial side of art in his landscape paintings, while much of his production as a printmaker, where his reductive mode of Japonism is a liability, rarely rises above the level of period design. Among the landscape paintings, moreover, the stronger pictures are the earlier ones from the 1880′s, painted under the influence of conservative 19th-century French conventions. When, in the 1880′s and the first years of the 20th century, Dow’s landscape paintings finally make a bow to Impressionist color and Post-Impressionist facture, their pictorial structure remains academic. It is pre-Impressionist landscape painting with an overlay of modern effects. Some of these paintings are indeed very charming, but they are hardly ground-breaking pictures in either their conception or their execution.

In the current exhibition at Spanierman’s, these very pleasant pictures are surrounded by a great many other objects-heaps of photographs, prints, watercolors, ceramics and textile designs, as well as furniture in the Arts and Crafts Movement style of the time. The somewhat jumbled installation resembles that of an auction-room exhibition before a big sale, and this makes it difficult to determine exactly what is supposed to reflect Dow’s direct influence and what is merely reflective of the ideas that influenced Dow himself and a great many other talents of the period. For this reason, perhaps, the exhibition might more accurately have been called Arthur Wesley Dow: His Art and His Period .

Dow’s own contribution to photography, for example, appears to have been insignificant. His cyanotype (blueprint) pictures are more of a historical curiosity than a major contribution to the photography of the period. There are some marvelous photographs in the show, but none is by Dow. And there are other curiosities as well-some watercolors by Alvin Langdon Coburn, who was indeed a great photographer but who clearly made the right decision when he abandoned painting for the camera. I don’t doubt that Coburn found Dow to be an inspiring teacher, but Coburn was by far the greater artist. Arthur Wesley Dow: His Art and His Influence does leave one with a vivid sense of an interesting career and an interesting period. Yet both the exhibition and the large, scholarly book-length hardcover catalogue that accompanies it make too many outsize claims for Dow’s artistic importance. So long as it is understood that this is a major exhibition of a minor artist, it is certainly worth some attention. It remains on view at the Spanierman Gallery, 45 East 58th Street, through Jan. 15.