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Edwin Dickinson in Provincetown, 1912 – 1937

Provincetown Art Association and Museum, Provincetown, Massachusetts July 20 – September 23, 2007

Edwin Dickinson, Elizabeth Finney, 1915. Oil on canvas, 26×24”, Private Collection

“Style,” the poet Robert Kelly wrote, “is death.” And the Transcendentalist philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote: “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.” Guided by such forces as the marketplace and a herd mentality, the art world valorizes stylistic consistency over the maverick. Take Edward Hopper (1882 – 1967) and Edwin Dickinson (1891 – 1978), peers who happened to spend much of their life on the far end of Cape Cod. Hopper, who was interested in high contrast light and shadow, has mistakenly been deified as the paragon of reliability and astute social observation, while Dickinson, who was interested in the way atmospheric light and tonal modulations inform a surface, has often been branded the quintessential oddball consumed solely by the personal.  Hopper focused on structure and volume, which can be pinned down, while Dickinson was keenly sensitive to sensations of light, which are elusive and changing. The figures in Hopper’s paintings are in a solitude imposed by architecture, while Dickinson’s forlorn landscapes are haunted by light, the evanescent, and the infinite. As the eye travels over the landscape, encountering no person or thing, the loneliness becomes visceral. Hopper looked at the world with a seemingly cold, objective eye, while Dickinson succumbed to his affections, flights of imagination and memories, which were not particularly pleasant (his mother died of tuberculosis when he was eleven and his young brother committed suicide when he was twenty-one). Hopper seems modern because he was interested in the event that repeats itself, while Dickinson seems otherworldly because he was interested in the unique. But reality, it is worth remembering, is both, rather than one or the other. Retreating to the comfort of the familiar and so-called objective, the art world pronounces those whose work can’t be summed up in a few sentences as eccentric, which is an encoded pejorative. One would think the art world is in the epitaph-writing business.

In the summer of 1912, Edwin Dickinson went to Provincetown to study with Charles W. Hawthorne, an underrated realist painter. In 1913, he decided to live there year round. He had been studying in New York with William Merritt Chase, but left shortly after discovering the body of his younger brother, Burgess (1894-1913), who had jumped from the window of the apartment they shared. After a stay with his family in Buffalo, he elected to resume studying with Hawthorne. (The impasto views that Dickinson completed in 1914, the first full year he was in Provincetown, share something with the most abstract seascapes of J.M.W. Turner). Except for brief periods, he stayed until 1937, when he and his wife and two young children sailed to France. In addition to his impastos, Dickinson did etchings, drawings, premier coup paintings, symbolical paintings, and imagined scenes of polar expeditions. His better known self-portraits and visionary paintings such as “Ruin at Daphne” (1943-1953) came later. In focusing on Dickinson’s years in Provincetown, which constitute the first half of his career, the exhibition reveals that the artist is even more complex, varied, and impossible to characterize than previously thought. Had he pursued the linearity of his etchings in his paintings, he could have become an altogether different and, one thinks, equally accomplished painter more in tune with the prevailing tastes. By resisting style long before it was fashionable, he chose a more difficult path that typified everything he did in his art.

Throughout his life, Dickinson credited Hawthorne with teaching him “That plane relationships (i.e., subtly shifting tonalities) are more representable through comparative value than through implications of contour.” In both his masterful drawings and paintings, Dickinson took this idea further than his teacher ever dreamed of, and in the process, became a great American artist; breathtakingly innovative and wildly ambitious in his work.  Dickinson was the first of his generation to make paintings in which the light has been almost completely extinguished, confronting the viewer with a darkness that forces the eye to adjust before being able to see what is there. (Albert Pinkham Ryder preceded him, and Ad Reinhardt would be the next.)

In his poignantly realized drawings, Dickinson’s primary concern is with registering sensations of atmospheric light, while in his premier coup paintings, which were done in a matter of hours, he faces up to the impossibility of capturing the moment. One senses that Dickinson, who was philosophically and viscerally an observational artist, understood this challenge in spiritual terms and believed that art was an instrument for praise of the ordinary and transitory. By relying on subtly shifting tonalities rather than contours, Dickinson’s pencil and paintbrush literally felt their way across paper and canvas. There was no structuring image or underlying grid to guide him. Dickinson drew in a way that not only distinguishes him from other observational artists (like Hopper), but he made drawings that stand on their own, completely distinct from his paintings.

Dickinson’s individualistic approach to form is mirrored in the technique and subject matter of his paintings, which can be divided rather simplistically into four groups: observational paintings completed in short bursts of activity; historical images based on personal interests,  (such as Polar explorations and the Civil War); imaginary scenes that he often labored on for years; and self-portraits, most of which he did after moving from Provincetown. I would add that the impasto paintings, dating from 1914-1915, form a fifth group, suggesting there might still be others we don’t yet know about.

In his hands, the pencil is equal to the brush, and he is able to achieve something unique with each medium. (My fantasy is that someone will curate an exhibition of drawings by Dickinson and Catherine Murphy, neither of whom use contour, and ask me to contribute an essay on their affinities and differences.) In order to realize what Dickinson could do in a pencil drawing, one has only to look at “Long Point Light, Provincetown” (1933), and “Turnbull House, East End, Provincetown” (1935), where, with a few small smudges, some barely perceptible marks, and an exquisite sensitivity to space and light, the artist chronicles the small shifts and declivities made in the sand by wind and tide.  His inventive use of alternating light and dark areas flattens the space. It is one thing to draw a perfect likeness of someone and quite another to draw sand (Murphy, by the way, once made a drawing of dust). Every mark, each representing shifting sand or a speck of dust, seems both inevitable and necessary. For them, the feel of a surface is as important as the sight of it.

Within the four groups of paintings included in the exhibition–the early impastos, the quickly finished, the ones arising out of his personal interests, and the slowly developed or symbolical ones–one sees major differences from one work to another, which many have understandably found disconcerting. For one thing, from his earliest impastos on, we are compelled to see each painting fresh, outside the context of others done by the same artist. The fact that Dickinson’s paintings can’t be reproduced (the color is always so off as to be travesty) doesn’t help. Take the portrait of his wife, “Frances Foley” (1927). The young woman has fallen asleep in a fetal position, formally dressed with her high heels on. Positioned diagonally, with her shoes near the right hand corner and her head pointing toward the upper left, Dickinson works in a palette largely consisting of different tonalities of muted lavenders and greens, with hushed reds on her lips, cheeks, and one of her shoes. The attention the artist pays to the cascade of fabric draping her legs, the turn of her legs against her upper torso and head, and the interplay of light and dark between folds and shadows, is erotically charged. The distinctive, non-fleshly palette adds a disturbing emotional tenor to the scene, making this rather tender moment into something quietly but elusively disquieting.  One can’t quite name what’s going on, which makes the painting all the more powerful.

The inability to characterize what Dickinson is after runs through many of the paintings. When Katherine Kuh asked the artist about “Self-Portrait in Uniform” (1942), (the artist is dressed as a Union soldier), he answered: “I’ve had a number of hobbies; one was the Civil War. For about nine years I was particularly interested in that subject and the portrait comes from that time.” The artist finds no explanation necessary, and we should take him at his word. While “Self-Portrait in Uniform” isn’t in the exhibition, the early “Self-Portrait in Fur Cap” (1914) is. Thickly painted in a palette of cool whites, pale and dark blues and dark browns, Dickinson’s behatted face is caught in the paint’s roiling snare, while his thinly painted, shadowy body seems to be sinking into the surrounding slabs of heavy white paint. The dislocation one feels in front of this painting isn’t attributable solely to the abstract brushwork and palette knife; it is also because one senses, more concretely than in self-portraits by other painters, that the subject is not the artist’s likeness but his reflection in a mirror.  This sense of dislocation was something Dickinson returned to again and again. His perspectives are vertiginous, and often we feel as if we are floating in the air, like a bird or an angel.

In the “The Fossil Hunters” (1926-1928), one of the artist’s largest, most mysterious paintings, two supine figures framed by drapery—an inverted young woman and an old man—touch only where their heads meet. While most observers take it as an aerial view, I would suggest that the woman is falling while the man is ascending, the torque of their bodies compressing two opposing perspectives into a single, S-like form. In the lower right hand corner, we spot another woman, but she is self-absorbed and unaffected by the dynamic interaction above her. Dickinson’s mastery of perspective is unrivaled by his contemporaries. The dark blue-greens, blacks, and lavender-grays pull us in and keep us out. The optical and primeval become inextricable. Cadaverous and eerie, this is a night painting unlike any other. In an essay for the artist’s 2003 retrospective (his first in two decades), which originated at the Albright Knox, Francis V. O’Connor pointed out that Dickinson inscribed the initials of Burgess and his bride-to-be in “The Fossil Hunters.” The initials provide a clue, but are not the key. You cannot open Dickinson’s paintings and expect the contents to come tumbling out, neat and ready for consumption. His paintings exceed the autobiographical and should not be reduced to it.

Dickinson’s singularity, his refusal to repeat himself, goes against the grain of much of postwar art as well. His explorations of figure/ground relationships, shifts in scale, and the collapsing of near and far—I am thinking of his painting “Girl on Tennis Court-” (1926)—bespeaks an ambition that surpasses his contemporaries, including Hopper, and ranks him among the significant mid-century Modernists. His premier coup paintings were influential for Fairfield Porter, Alex Katz, Robert Berlind, and Merrill Wagner, his rejection of contour and entangling of near and far paved the way for Catherine Murphy and Helen Miranda Wilson, and his wet-into-wet brushwork and labor intensive, heavily reworked paintings set an example for Willem de Kooning, whom he met through his lifelong friend, Jack Tworkov. In their subtle tonalities and stillness one sees a precedent for Vija Celmins, while his multiple perspectives were most likely important for Robert Birmelin. For all of the so-called inconsistencies running through his project, Dickinson was beloved by, as well as important to, many younger and very different artists. Fecundity of this sort is hardly true of an eccentric.  
In the diversity of his subject matter (nudes, Provincetown landscapes, homely still-lifes, portraits and self-portraits, Arctic explorations, the Civil War, fossils, sleeping figures, imaginary scenes) and the very different ways in which Dickinson applied paint from one work to the next, one senses the restlessness of an artist who was seldom satisfied and who was always ready to task himself with impracticable goals. By refusing to codify sensations of light, Dickinson tried to remain open to the world, both the palpable and intangible. It is as if the impossible is the only thing worth doing. And in relegating him to the category of unconventional, the art world reveals how much it values proscribed aesthetic salvation over vulnerability and openness to life’s vicissitudes.


John Yau


The Brooklyn Rail

SEPT 2007

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