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Arthur Dove Finally Takes Wing

During the abstract pioneer's lifetime, his work was mostly overlooked. A retrospective opening today at LACMA puts his talent in focus.

August 02, 1998|Hunter Drohojowska-Philp | Hunter Drohojowska-Philp is a frequent contributor to Calendar

The story of Arthur Dove may encourage all artists who feel that they have not been awarded sufficient acclaim.

Widely considered the first American artist to intentionally make an abstract painting, Dove exhibited from 1910 to 1946 at the New York galleries of the great impresario of American Modernism, Alfred Stieglitz. His work was collected by the perspicacious Duncan Phillips. Nonetheless, during his lifetime, Dove's genius was largely unsung. He watched as his friends from the Stieglitz circle--Georgia O'Keeffe, John Marin and Paul Strand--were offered retrospectives at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Dove's only retrospective was in 1937, at Duncan Phillips' then-private museum in Washington, a cultural backwater at the time.

It was only after Stieglitz died in 1946 and Dove joined Edith Halpert's Downtown Gallery in New York that his work began to sell briskly. But when Dove died at 65, just six months after Stieglitz, Dove's reputation languished. As recently as a decade ago, Dove's paintings could be bought for less than $100,000, while ones by O'Keeffe had soared into the millions. One might wonder, as novelist Francine Prose did recently in the Wall Street Journal, "Why hasn't Dove become a household name, an icon of American Modernism, plastered on date books and calendars like his contemporary and friend, Georgia O'Keeffe?"

"Arthur Dove: A Retrospective," opening today at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, offers a correction. Co-organized by Washington's Phillips Collection and the Addision Gallery of American Art in Andover, Mass., the show was coordinated by independent curator and art historian Debra Bricker Balken in collaboration with co-curators William Agee, a Hunter College art history professor, and Elizabeth Hutton Turner of the Phillips Collection. The show contains some 70 paintings, assemblages, pastels and charcoal drawings for its four-city tour.

Having earned largely rave reviews at previous venues, it is clear that Dove's genius is no longer underrated. Coincidentally, the show comes to California on the heels of shows of two other artists from the Stieglitz circle: "Marsden Hartley: American Modern" closes today at the Frederick R. Weisman Museum of Art at Pepperdine University in Malibu and "Paul Strand: 1916" continues at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art through Sept. 15.

Born and raised around upstate New York, Dove studied law at Cornell University at the insistence of his father, who was a prosperous brick manufacturer, but he quickly discovered the art courses that would lead him to his true calling. In 1903, he was working as an illustrator for popular magazines, including Scribner's, where he met painters Robert Henri and John Sloan, who suggested he go to Paris. With no help from his father, Dove saved enough to sail in 1908, and he lived with his wife, Florence, in France for 18 months. Getting firsthand exposure to the work of the Impressionists and the Postimpressionists and meeting both the Parisian avant-garde and expatriate Americans such as Marin and Strand deeply influenced Dove's work. It also provided him with the crucial introduction to Stieglitz.

When Dove returned to New York in 1910, his only son, William, was born, and around the same time Dove began making purely abstract paintings, predating the seminal abstract work of Wassily Kandinsky. Dove's 1911 canvas "Team of Horses" may lead a viewer to look in vain for plodding animals hidden in the arcs and ovals of earth-toned paint, but as the modest Dove explained this new way of painting: "I no longer observed in the old way, and, not only began to think subjectively, but also to remember certain sensations purely through their form and color."

Having invented his own visual language by melding organic shapes, natural hues and radiant light, Dove moved his family to Westport, Conn., where his success as a painter was evenly matched by his failure as a chicken farmer. By 1918, he was forced back to New York to earn a living as a commercial artist. In 1921, he left Florence to live with artist Helen "Reds" Torr, whom he would marry in 1932, maintaining a devoted, if impoverished, relationship until his death. The couple lived on a 42-foot yawl that they docked at various ports on Long Island Sound until, in 1929, they moored at the Ketewomoke Yacht Club in Halesite, where they lived in the custodian's quarters in exchange for upkeep.

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