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ART

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

Dove's response to the cramped quarters and constant movement of boating life was to change materials. Throughout the 1920s, he produced inventive, small collages and assemblages made of such unconventional items as mirrors, sandpaper, cork, sticks, springs, flowers and denim. For example, the 1924 work "Ten Cent Store" superimposes wildflowers over a Woolworth label. Dove composed landscapes with gauze on metal and gold brushed on plastic. The changing light and fog, the movement of waves, lent a fluid aspect to his painting. Duncan Phillips, who bought work by many of Stieglitz's artists, became Dove's patron in 1930, giving him an annual stipend in exchange for first choice of the 40 works he eventually acquired.

Following the death of his mother in 1933, the Doves moved back to Geneva, N.Y., to settle the estate. The memories of Dove's childhood and the easy rhythm of life in the country inspired biomorphic shapes with sunshine and haystacks. For example, "Flour Mill II" (1938) is radiant with the golden and green shades of the countryside.

The sale of the family properties in 1938, along with the end of the Depression, left the Doves with barely enough money to buy their final home and studio, an abandoned post office near a tidal pool in Centerport, Long Island. The following year, at age 59, he suffered his first heart attack and was diag nosed with Bright's disease, a kidney condition exacerbated by years of heavy drinking. Despite his illnesses, he continued to paint, often inspired by the seasons' effect on the willows and water outside. The simplified, geometric shapes of his last paintings reflect his desire "to clarify" as he said, 'the point where abstraction and reality meet."

One of the most enthusiastic reviews for the current show came from Hilton Kramer, editor of the Neo-conservative art journal the New Criterion, who is also art critic for the New York Observer. In a recent telephone interview, Kramer explained, "I think that what's important for us today is that so many of his paintings have stood up so well over what is now almost a century. In the retrospective, there [are] more first-rate works than have ever been shown in any Dove exhibition in the past.

"For people like myself, looking seriously at Dove for 40 years, and for the younger artists looking at his work, he can be a revelation. This is because of his special attitude toward abstraction during the decade that abstraction was being created. It tends to be the case that the kind of abstract paintings that Americans produced were more closely based on nature than on abstract ideas, while the Europeans based their abstract painting on more theory. I think that Dove's complicated attitude toward nature and his unprecedented use of new Industrial Age materials in painting as a way of dealing with nature--that whole aspect of the work is sensational. He gives the art public today, which tends to be short of memory about the past, a sense that many of the problems that painters face today in dealing with subject matter and form have a Modernist tradition in this country, going back to the first and second decades."

The Phillips' Turner calls the exhibition timely, because "Dove really does represent this artistic freedom and authenticity. He really had a true understanding of abstraction. He was a pioneer in thinking about the independent importance of color and form and allowing that to become the vehicle by which one reconnects oneself to nature. It's not that he is representing nature, or imitating nature, but through his magnificent use of color, art becomes a vehicle, the conduit. You come to this deep-seated feeling about color and to understand the resonance and value of it for Dove. He was so uncompromising in his desire to hold fast to the understanding that he wasn't going to imitate anything. He was going to use art to reconnect us to nature."

Asked about his impact on the artists of today, Turner adds, "Frank Stella said that he wanted to be like Dove. What does he want that Dove had? He seems to admire his authenticity, his ability to speak clearly through his art."

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Hunter Drohojowska-Philp is a frequent contributor to Calendar. Her biography of Georgia O'Keeffe will be published next year by Alfred A. Knopf.

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"ARTHUR DOVE: A RETROSPECTIVE," Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 5905 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles. Dates: Opens today. Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, noon-8 p.m.; Friday, noon-9 p.m.; Saturday and Sunday, 11 a.m.-8 p.m. Ends Oct. 5. Prices: $6, adults; $4, students and seniors; $1, children. Phone: (213) 857-6000.

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