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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

Dove came to maturity in an era when America's idea of itself was in tremendous flux, including great anxiety over what sort of cultural expression was fitting for the emergence of an important world power. Teddy Roosevelt had his idea of the form that art should take, mostly based on prototypes from antiquity. But it was a question that circulated in more avant-garde circles as well.

If a conservative public laughed with derision over the "weird" art of the infamous 1913 Armory Show, which introduced Modern painting to the United States in a very big way, the progressive American art world worried more that it was European artists, not Americans, who grabbed the show's limelight.

Dove was among the artists included in the landmark 1916 Forum Exhibition of Modern American Painters, a post-Armory effort mounted expressly for the purpose of redirecting attention away from European artists and toward Americans. Traces of that old-time Americanism even linger in the Dove retrospective today, where wall text makes a point of asserting that "there's no obvious debt to European art" in Dove's work.

Perhaps it isn't stylistically obvious, but Dove's is clearly an American brand of European Symbolist art. His is an aesthetic attitude shared by a lot of the most interesting American painters working before World War II, including Marsden Hartley, Georgia O'Keeffe, Agnes Pelton and many more.

In Europe, the Symbolist goal of replacing objective description with the subjectivity of experience was hemmed in by the dense, centuries-old cultural weight of the symbols available to the task. Without that excess baggage, Dove was able to remake it in an American idiom.

No less an eminence than Marcel Duchamp understood the possibilities. In 1915, the iconoclastic French artist told a U.S. magazine writer: "If only America would realize that the art of Europe is finished--dead--and that America is the country of the art of the future, instead of trying to base everything she does on European traditions."

Born just 15 years after the Civil War, Dove turned out to be one of the great artistic pivots between the 19th century and the 20th. This luscious retrospective, together with its excellent catalog, lays out the mature career of an extraordinary artist.

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* Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 5905 Wilshire Blvd., (213) 857-6000, through Oct. 5. Closed Wednesdays.

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