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Art Review

Painting at a Crossroads

Retrospective of Modernist Arthur Dove reveals a country and its culture moving--with conflicted feelings--into a new century.

August 05, 1998|CHRISTOPHER KNIGHT | TIMES ART CRITIC

In the art of Arthur Dove, nature went from being a reality to an abstraction--which is to say, a reality more deeply resonant and complex than had ever been artistically imagined before. The result was a body of poetically adventurous art that is among the first great Modern work made by an American artist.

With 60 well-selected paintings and a dozen choice drawings and collages, "Arthur Dove: A Retrospective" is perhaps the most beautiful museum exhibition to be seen in Los Angeles so far this year. Organized jointly by the Addison Gallery of American Art, Andover, Mass., and the Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C., the handsomely installed show opened Sunday at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

Dove (1880-1946) is often credited as the first American or European artist to make an abstract painting, since the small abstractions he began in 1910 apparently predate by a few months the great improvisations of Wassily Kandinsky, the celebrated Russian emigre to Germany. Who was first and who was second is a game not really worth playing, though--especially as Dove almost always retained recognizable references to the natural world in his art. What's more important is recognizing the edge or boundary at which he had arrived in the direction his work had taken, and over which he patiently stepped.

Today, at the end of a century rich in abstract painting, it's not easy to imagine the magnitude of the hurdle at which Dove had arrived by 1910. The five "Abstractions" (1910-11) near the entrance to the show are so modest in size--each little oil is only about 8 by 10 inches--as to seemingly belie the power of the event.

Nonetheless, an event it was. While retaining elements of Cubist structure and bits of Art Nouveau design, these small oil paintings on board shift the terms of engagement. Dove has moved away from describing nature and toward recording an exacting sensuousness of subjective experience, which arises from it.

That ambition is announced in the show's first work, the Matissean "Still Life Against Flowered Wall Paper" (1909). Atop a slab of white cloth that seems to float in midair, Dove shows a sumptuous bowl of fruit and a blue-edged coffee service. A lush, chinoiserie-like profusion of flowers, trees and butterflies on the wallpaper behind the table seems to be erupting out of the carefully laid-out still life, creating a conflicted pictorial dialogue between the natural and the man-made.

Within a scant one or two years' time, Dove had left that derivative style of representation behind, in favor of an idiosyncratic evocation of nature's roiling fecundity within an increasingly urban and industrialized world, in the small oils and a series of exquisite pastels. The spiky and bulbous rhythms of "Plant Forms" (circa 1912) or "Team of Horses" (1911-12), together with the almost metallic sheen of their surfaces, which alternately appear to reflect light or glow from within, are full of churning life; but they don't feel joyful or celebratory. Instead, there's something elegiac about Dove's art, something mysterious, lyrical and poignant.

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The young painter was certainly in a position to understand the passing of nature as a pristine icon of American life. As he grew up and matured, industrialization and urbanization were transforming the United States with great speed and finality.

Born in a rural town in upstate New York, Dove was long torn by his ability to make a living as a commercial illustrator in Manhattan and his earnest but failed attempts at farming. In the decade after his "breakthrough" to abstraction, these episodes even interfered with his ability to focus on making his own art.

If Dove's art is elegiac, it is not nostalgic for the passing of some simpler and less troubled (or troubling) world. Rather, like the glowing, rhythmically tumultuous furrows of plowed earth fanning out in big arcs as if seen from the window of a speeding vehicle ("Fields of Grain as Seen From Train," 1931), it records the conflicted pleasure and pain, beauty and awfulness that informs the experience of passage.

Dove also fervently embraced a sense of possibility, which is inherent in passage and change. In addition to his frequent use of the unusual medium of metallic paint, which evokes the Machine Age context while giving his art a literal inner light, he made amazingly ambitious and innovative collages. "Rain" (1924) is composed from small twigs sandwiched between sheets of metal and glass, with droplets of rubber cement cascading across the surface. "Sea II" (1925) is an atmospheric little panel made from barely perceptible chiffon and sand laid over a piece of metal.

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