Levelheaded Mysticism: Arthur Dove at the Whitney

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The painter Arthur Dove (1880-1946) is an artist whose work has not been much on view in New York in recent years. The lone watercolor or painting included in survey exhibitions has been intriguing, but also puzzling: seen piecemeal, Dove's work can seem remote. His painting The Inn (1942) was on view last year in a show at the Met honoring the collectors Edith and Milton Lowenthal. Yet viewed in the context of American modernism, the picture may as well have come from Mars. This is due not only to the singularity--one might say the solitariness--of Dove's art, but also to the fact that it isn't well known to a lot of us. To be sure, the name of Arthur Dove is likely to prompt vaguely recalled historical tidbits: that he was part of Stieglitz's circle; that he created collages which were, at the time, aesthetically radical; and that he may have been the first artist to paint a nonobjective painting. Dove has, in other words, entered the canon of art history. But when has that ever guaranteed a true understanding of an artist's accomplishment?

It is unexpected, then, that there are no fewer than four separate museum and gallery, exhibitions devoted to Dove currently on view in Manhattan. (One of them pairs Dove's work with that of his wife, the painter Helen Tort.) Multiple and simultaneous shows are usually devoted to art-world hotshots, "major" artists whose work rarely deserves (or sustains) such attention. In contrast, the paintings of Arthur Dove seem the least likely candidates for such treatment. Their quietude is out of sync with the free-for-all of late twentieth-century culture. If the current focus can't be called "Dovemania" (these arc, after all, paintings impervious to hype), the shows are nonetheless a welcome surprise. Indeed, they are more than that. The most important of these exhibitions, "Arthur Dove: A Retrospective" at the Whitney Museum of American Art, is the first comprehensive overview of Dove's oeuvre in twenty-two years.(1) It's about time, for the show is a revelation.

"Arthur Dove" traces the artist's career from the Fauvist-inspired Still Life Against Flowered Wall Paper (1909) to the monumental Flat Surfaces (1946), painted in the year of the artist's death. In between are almost forty years of unwavering commitment to a peculiar--and peculiarly American-vision. To understand Dove's work, one must look to his relationship with the European avant-garde and, more importantly, with the natural world. While it is possible to divine in his work traces of Futurism, Expressionism, Orphism, Klee, and Kandinsky, his art is beholden to none of them. Dove inherited modernist impulses less by direct influence, one feels, than by a process not dissimilar to osmosis. Dove was, to be certain, a cultured artist, but also an idiosyncratic one. Like many American artists, Dove made the ritual journey to France, but he spent most of his time there painting outside of Paris. Such an eccentric move suits a modern artist whose work can resemble the relics of some bygone age: Dove's evocations of natural forces--particularly his omnipotent, pulsating suns--are primordial and unhewn. He can, at times, seem like an inspired primitive. Dove puts me in mind of Clyfford Still, another homespun oddball whose paintings elude pigeonholing.

If there is one artist whose work Dove's can be likened to it is his friend Georgia O'Keeffe. Like O'Keeffe, he was what could be termed a Yankee mystic: a painter prone to big metaphors that were nonetheless modestly scaled and levelheaded. For Dove, nature was innately concrete. Clouds acquire the consistency of matzoh balls; sunlight has an almost sculptural presence. His depictions of nature can be ominous or inviting, but they are always deeply felt. Stating once that he would paint "the wind and a landscape chastised by the cyclone!" Dove had an uncanny empathy with natural phenomena, as well as a predilection for the mythic. If he did not find God in the rustle of leaves or in the mass of a geological formation, he did intuit a preternatural vitality informing them. …