On ViewAlexandre Gallery
April 22–May 25, 2023
It is rare to witness a lifetime of dedication, a slow-burning desire that lasts decades. Arthur Dove’s meticulous study of the natural world lasted his entire life, resulting in less a material perfection than a gestural divine. This month, Alexandre Gallery is featuring Arthur Dove: Sensations of Light, a survey exhibition. It is also a celebration of Debra Bricker Balken’s publication, Arthur Dove: A Catalogue Raisonné of Paintings and Things. Consistent, dark, and sensual was Dove’s resolve, as paintings named for dawns nearly topple with celestial roundness, and dark lines brink horizons like characters from a lost alphabet.
Dove (1880–1946), the son of a bricklayer and building contractor, grew up in Geneva, NY, on the banks of the Finger Lakes. After graduating from Cornell, he spent fifteen months in France and the Mediterranean where he began to work in gold-hewn abstraction. His painting Landscape (1908-09) could be swapped for any Cézanne, but after his time in Europe, the sun-bleached paint would fade, and a much darker nature would arise: a study of soil and cloud, bent toward a wild truth. Soon after Dove’s return to the US, he met Alfred Stieglitz, who recognized Dove’s vision and took part in establishing his credibility as a fine artist and the first abstract painter in America.
To pay the bills, Dove worked as a free-lance illustrator but found freedom beyond the black lines of representation, soon dropping this work entirely in a risky choice to focus on his art. Indeed, Dove evades line, as celestial bodies, landmasses, and rotting wood blend colors until they become one another. In Partly Cloudy (1941), the swirling watercolor transforms from a dark spiral to a staggering white orb, which squeezes out of the canvas. In this merging, Dove establishes a position that comes through in each of his paintings: all things share a beat, a pulsating light.
Dove approached his subjects with a scientific process of observation. Bricker Balken alludes to a quote by his second wife, Helen Torr: “he would tear bark off trees, rip up plants, and find the same three colors… in shades, of all things.” Through these colors, he mixed and manifested life. Yet the shades themselves are not glorious or majestic in tone. They are sensual, blunt, and humble, as if the colors are the skin above a beating heart. Dove paints as if it’s a cloudy day, but he never forgets the sun, luminescent through the cover. Like the piece with the smooth face in Silver Log (1928), mythical portraits appear from these studies of nature. Each work can be interpreted like clouds passing by. Bricker Balken aptly conjures the effect as, “simplified shapes…[which] captured the innate dynamism of nature.” This vagueness of the subject opens it to all of its potential.
Pre-dating Georgia O’Keeffe and Milton Avery, whose abstracted imagery corresponds to observed phenomena, Dove was one of the first to glean from the natural, a peek into the mystical through the use of form. He found inspiration in all natural material, but a consistent theme in his works was the water. For much of his life he lived on shores and spent many days in his yawl, Mona. Metallic streams glide over rocks as in River Bottom, Silver, Ochre, Carmine, Green (ca. 1923), crescendos of arches are as breathtaking here as in the flying mauve clouds of Sun and Moon (1932). Dove, however, was not a natural purist; machinery, silos, and agrarian vehicles lace horizons with an equal striving to the subjects in his land, sea, and skyscapes.
So thin are his paintings that the rough canvas or paper shows through. This attention to texture became prominent for him later in life. Abstraction shifted to mosaicked, organic, and geometric shapes of bright and unburdened colors in what the artist referred to as a “sequence of formations rather than … an arrangement of facts,” thrusting a sensation of pattern onto the canvas, as in Polygons and Textures (1943–44), or sand dusted into the tiny, potent Untitled (Sea and Sand) (1943). If painters like Agnes Pelton and Hilma af Kilnt are the extreme, Dove initiated a desire to understand the chromatics of nature; to become a zealot, searching for the cosmic order of form and texture.
Dove never ceased to struggle financially, and the looming Great Depression was no help. When financial and personal setbacks often led him back to his family home in upstate New York, he wrote to Steiglitz, “there is something terrible about ‘Up State’ to me.… It is like walking on the bottom of the water.” So many of his paintings look as if they are composed through rippling streams. But perhaps, like a drowning man out at sea, he was not the one looking down; perhaps he was looking up, trying to find meaning in the undulations, feeling the line between life and death, wondering what it would mean to reach the shore and feel the true earth.