Arthur Dove: Sensations of Light
April 22 through May 25, 2023
By JONATHAN GOODMAN, June 2023
Quietly, Arthur Dove (1880-1946) is one of America’s very best early abstractionists. He finished a degree at Cornell in 1903, and a few years later, in 1907-08, he went to Paris to study. It is said that his best work was done in the 1940s, even though Dove had become ill by that time and would die in the middle of the decade. This wonderful show, of museum quality, presented a broad array of mid-size and smaller paintings, which straddle the line between a strong interest in nature and an equally forceful command of the start of organic abstraction. Dove, born late in the 19th century, searched early on within the burgeoning language of non-objective art for a language that also would be true to his ties to nature. It does look as if his forms often stem from nature, anchoring his nearly prescient understanding of abstraction.
Dove’s early efforts clearly take nature as their theme–the small 1910-11 oil on panel, called Abstraction No. 6, may have a modernist title, but clearly the painting portrays a gray rock with several faces, supported by another gray rock on the left. Above the central mass, and to its right, a thick stripe of brown follows the outline of the rock. It is hard not to see this as a natural study, but, given the lack of orientation in the picture, we feel we are seeing a weight suspended in the middle of the composition, making it possible for us to see the work as a non-objecctive study. In 1929, Dove completed the larger painting named Sun on the Water. This work reduces the sun to an off-white half circle filling the upper half of the image, surrounded by a dark brown sky. Its form is reflected in the work’s lower half the sea, painted a variegated dark blue with small tan patches with jagged outlines.. Standing in the middle of the paintings is a kind of totem–a brown column that narrows to two points in the work’s upper half, in front of the sun. This piece, done some twenty years after the first, drives the image into near abstraction; the column remains unfathomable–a pure form, although probably originating in nature.
Willow Tree (1938), a watercolor, looks like a maze or spiral set horizontally, seen from above. Curved lines of gray, muted green, and dark brown, curl in rotation; in the inside of the coil, thin lines of black spin in a clockwise direction. This tree, very difficult to read as one, rises from a thin layer of brown soil. Following the image’s rounded outline is a bright halo, while the sky above is painted a mottled gray. Sunrise II (Set of Three) (c.1941), a very small work, displays an orange disk resting on top of a black zig-zag sitting on a thick layer of brown. The sky filling most of the background is rendered in gray and brown. This show clearly highlights the connection between Dove’s simplification of natural phenomena into forms that stand on their own, without representing something we might recognize. At the same time, the scenery, either intensely local or nearly cosmic, still reads as something we know.
Sunrise III (Set of Three) (c. 1941), part of the same series, presents a vague, slightly oval sun in pale yellow, cradled by thick black lines, all four slightly curved, seemingly supported by a wide horizontal stroke. It is a composition whose realism is made unavailable by these black lines, which structure things but make small sense. Maybe this is where Dove bridges the gap between things meant to be known and effects that retain their otherness, pushing the two together. In this way, the artists shows how realism and abstraction might be bound together. Dove imagined the gray area–often literally gray–where these two approaches to painting might meet. Because he started working when the abstract movement began, his work possesses a directness we easily admire. At the same time, both his imagery and his titles in this wonderful show argue for a representation of things that can be read as actual, rather than distant from the greater landscape he took pains to portray. Likely his intelligence stemmed from the time when a very great way of painting was beginning. Dove was supported by his wish to clarify the accessible continuity of nature–in a language that emphasized its abstract potential. WM
Jonathan Goodman is a writer in New York who has written for Artcritical, Artery and the Brooklyn Rail among other publications.
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