PRINT February 1976

On Arthur Dove

IF IN JOHN MARIN’S MIND it’s always one o’clock in the afternoon on a glitteringly bright day, a world without shadows, and Marsden Hartley is most himself when he conveys the threat and lordly grandeur of the world at night, Arthur Dove (1880–1946) is the painter of the softly radiant, half-buried, in-between times. In the ample though not exhaustive Dove retrospective, which Barbara Haskell organized for the San Francisco Museum of Art, and which came to the Whitney as the last stop on its tour, many of the images are of overlapping patterns of light and dark. Dove is chiefly after the light, not darkness, but, though there are exceptions, like Snow and Water (1928), which is dazzlingly bright, he doesn’t depict the presence of light shining forth on its own. His light most often seeps out from behind dark forms; it’s a partially hidden, immanent light. Even in Golden Sunlight (1937), where bright light should be the subject, it isn’t the intensity of pure light that you take away from the picture, it’s the dull, absorbent glint of light—sunny warmth being soaked up by space, shrub and earth.

Whether his images recall sails, clouds, waves, animals in a pasture, or they’re more abstract, and seem to embody the forces and urges of the natural world, the spirit of Dove’s art is like his hidden light: it’s shy and tentative, even wistful. And yet, except for the last ten years of his life, when his painting gradually became more thin and washy, there’s nothing muffled or fuzzy about Dove. His world seems as if it’s under water; the forms are waiting to come up to the surface air, but Dove himself doesn’t flounder underneath feelings he can’t fully bring to the surface. Nothing gets between what he wants and what he is able to do. In the photographs Alfred Stieglitz took of him, there’s a sweet, feathery look about his eyes, but his closed mouth—a precise, even line—ends the face firmly. The gentle, withdrawn atmosphere of Dove’s paintings comes out of a modest and supple assurance.

Dove’s art easily holds your attention for a full floor of the Whitney, but it isn’t as intense or complex as Marin’s or Hartley’s—members, like Dove, of the Stieglitz circle, and, along with Stieglitz, probably his most significant contemporaries. There’s a vein of rash, unruly exhibitionism in Marin, and a large, passionate brusqueness in Hartley that take these artists to levels of feeling that Dove doesn’t get to. He doesn’t have their many-layered, unrelenting drive, and though he’s a warmer, more likeable personality than either of them, and his pictures have more physical presence than Marin’s, he’s never quite as invigorating or as majestic as either Marin or Hartley can be. There isn’t much drama in Dove’s mind; he doesn’t think about stretching feelings to extremes, he thinks about resolving opposites. He understands the connections and balances between things—the overtones, echoes, shadings, reverberations and glimmerings—more than the things themselves.

In some of the strongest pictures at the Whitney, Alfie’s Delight (1929), the small Waterfall (1925) in the Phillips Collection, Fields of Grain as Seen from a Train (1931), Life Goes On (1934), Sea Gull Motif (1926), and in the wonderful series of pastels from 1911 to 1914, Dove makes light and dark fold back on each other, just the way, with his looping, spongy shapes and arching, circling-back-on-themselves patterns, he makes small forms peer out of large containers. Dove doesn’t believe in pure, absolute qualities. He delivers his color already mixed and blended. His pale colors have a gritty, weathered bite to them, and he conceives dark colors as containers—they’re there to nestle light ones within them. Unlike Hartley, who saturates forms with black, and makes dark colors dense, permanent-feeling, even chilly, Dove’s darkness is more like necessary outer protection— it’s warm and it covers the forms like a translucent glove. In many color reproductions, or when the pictures are seen from a distance, his tones congeal; they hover over each other like murky, dank growths. Though some Doves, like the majestic Fields of Grain, stand out from any distance, with the majority of them, in order to see the flickering life, you have to get up close.

When Dove’s work is at its best, which is from the early teens through the mid-’30s, his shapes are large and have believable contours (later on the shapes become flat, like playing cards). But even when he draws sculpturally rounded shapes, he’s not satisfied until he creates the sensation that the weight is set free. Dove floats weight. His forms rise or sink or glide in and out of each other; they never take root. In Alfie’s Delight (which got its name because the painter Alfred Maurer, a close friend of Dove’s, loved the painting), the concentric rings, one of which looks like the underside of a mushroom, billow out, and yet they don’t seem to be going anywhere, nor is it clear how heavy they are. There’s such a weathered lushness to the woody colors in Alfie’s Delight, and the light in it has such an embered sparkle, that it hardly matters that the weight and movement of the shapes are indistinct. But it matters elsewhere, when Dove doesn’t paint as vibrantly.

It’s always hard to tell whether Dove’s forms are empty or dense, and usually you wind up thinking that they occupy a neutralized in-between zone. Real heaviness or real lightness, like roughness or smoothness, or light and dark on their own, aren’t qualities that mean much to him. Marin, for all his crinkly, shallow space, has the gravity of a lightweight. When he sprays his forms out, you feel the airy suspension, and when the markings sag in the lower center, you feel the pile-up. Marin balances the elements of nature against each other, and the balance is precarious, taut and witty—he gets every part up on its toes. Dove’s world is so drowsily graceful, the object and its atmosphere are so puréed together, that there is no balance or weight to feel.

It’s not that Dove disembodies or theorizes solid forms out of existence, it’s that he catches the balances in nature even before they’ve fully come into being. His instincts are so sharp that he has an answer for you even before you have fully enunciated the question. What would be a blink for most of us is an eyeful for him. He doesn’t give the contradictions in every experience a chance to develop, and it’s this temperamental quickness that enables him, in his best pictures, to make something real out of a floating, insubstantial aura. It’s also what reduces many of his pictures to a baby-food softness. He doesn’t rub out the distinctions, he’s oblivious of them to begin with.

If Dove is a nature visionary—and that might explain his weightless lift and hallucinatory mood—he is a unique one. Was there ever a visionary of the budding moment of vision—that still-cold split-second before things get warmed up? Dove expresses the adolescent, waking-up strength of things; Paul Rosenfeld, in his essay on Dove in Port of New York (1924), which is still the most perceptive piece on the painter, called him a “cub.” Dove’s rounded, pointy, undulant shapes have an about-to-be peppy, though still vaguely sluggish, inner tempo. They always appear to be in the process of becoming more complete, mature versions of themselves. Their tugging movements remind you of foggy, barely awake actions like yawning, blinking, stretching, throwing off the sheets and blankets. Artists such as Klee and Dubuffet have taken a child’s view of drawing—and experience—and worked back from it; they’ve used children’s perceptions to make ironic, double-sided art. Dove doesn’t get behind the moment of adolescent awakening and play with it: he’s too much inside it to be able to reflect on it. His art embodies it. Like the other figures in the Stieglitz circle, he is too fervent a believer in nature’s beauty and sexual beauty to have the extra energy for irony. Dove saves the irony for his life, not his art. There’s no edge between what he knows and what he depicts (whereas with Dubuffet the edge is the whole point). Dove isn’t conscious of what he’s leaving out.

One of the most poetically significant events in Dove’s biography is how, at the age of 12, which would have been in 1892, he resigned from the Presbyterian church he and his parents belonged to. Barbara Haskell says this was “due apparently to the clergy’s refusal to allow an atheist the right to his opinions.” That quiet, intent spirit of independence and self-knowledge, and the ability to act on it, never left Dove. He had a realistic, calm sense of his own stature, and out of it he produced a painting style as serenely deliberative and as independent as he was.

No one has ever painted quite like Dove. His manner might not be able to record a great range of feeling. It isn’t built for glamour or emotional intensity—it has no sheen (it doesn’t reflect light, it absorbs it), and it can’t sustain its mood in a roughened-out state. But there is a tart, fibrous individuality to it. Reminiscent of damp fur or the peach-fuzz beard on teenagers in the period just before they begin shaving, the brushy style personifies all the moisture and stickiness in oil painting. His surface is so alive-looking, and so raw, it seems as if it’s capable of growing another coat on its own. Dove separates his brushstrokes with a childlike concentration, lines them up in neat bands, and sends them off side by side. The conception answers his need with a classic simplicity and directness. How better, and how more literally, could he have painted the effect of foghorns or spreading sunlight?

Dove makes his art, which depicts the ephemeral, as physically present and objectlike as possible, and the strongest paintings have a woven, carpentered and constructed appearance. It was inevitable that he would make collages and assemblages. They’re the natural extension of what he was doing in paint, and his are delightful. They’re as precious and delicate as Cornell, and they don’t have any of Cornell’s fussy, knick-knack side. Dove’s feeling is broader. The collages show Dove’s instinctive ability to animate objects—among those he uses are steel wool, clock springs, twigs, hair and shells. But the uniting of different odd materials doesn’t add up to any special tension. It’s impossible to get around their toylike, happy mood. When Dove paints, something more happens. His desire to get that up-front, tangible realness intersects with a more neutral material and the pressure brings out more of his feeling. And in the collages he rarely gets his filtered light, his most personal quality.

Dove’s life story, sketched in somewhat dryly by Barbara Haskell (it’s told with a little more flavor by Frederick S. Wight in his book-length essay “Arthur G. Dove,” which accompanied the 1958 Berkeley retrospective), is of unrelenting physical and mental trials and misfortunes, almost nothing of which comes out in his work. Though his family sent him through Hobart College, in Geneva, New York, where they had come to live, and, later, to Cornell, his father begrudged his son’s desire to be a painter (he wanted him to be a lawyer), and Dove fought uphill all the rest of the way. Like Hartley, he lived almost entirely off his art, and while he was lucky in having the support and encouragement of Stieglitz, O’Keeffe, Duncan Phillips and Paul Rosenfeld, for most of his career his sales were terrible and his prices were low. (It’s hard to imagine him even having the full-fledged career he had without Stieglitz’s persistence in showing him.) Money only began to come in at the very end, when the checks, nice as they were, didn’t really matter.

After college, Dove drifted into commercial illustrating and cartooning but, though this work paid for his only trip to Europe, in 1907–9, he realized that it would kill all the energy he needed for his own painting, and he was right, as he never became prolific. He dropped it, and, always made restless by city life, he was, by 1910, muddling through as a chicken farmer, with a wife and child, in Westport, Connecticut. In 1920, he split off from his wife (who died in 1929 without having given him the divorce he wanted), and spent the next 13 years either living on a boat on Long Island Sound or, if he and the painter Helen Torr, who had been living with him since 1920, were able to, they’d caretake, for the winters, in yacht clubs or big houses on the Sound.

In 1933, he and Torr, now his wife, moved back to Geneva, where he attempted to manage the almost bankrupt family properties. At first, he began farming again, but that went nowhere, and he wasn’t too successful in selling much of the family land. He expected to have to be in Geneva for a year, but he was there until 1938, when he finally decided that if he stayed any longer he would be crushed by the life of rural, small-town upstate New York. Dove and Torr moved back to Long Island for the last eight years of his life, living in a one-room abandoned post office in Centerport. Shortly after moving in, they were hit by a hurricane, not the first physical catastrophe he and his wife had lived through. “The trees all missed us but one that went through the roof. Water to our waists,” Haskell quotes Dove, writing to Stieglitz.

Like one of Thornton Wilder’s small-town omniscient doctors or the character John Ashley in The Eighth Day, Dove is a mild-mannered fatalist, an ordinary man with the friendly confidence of a seer. Every setback, frustration and annoyance is recounted with a shoulder-shrugging irony; he turns his lack of good fortune into a mild, lightly important joke. To preserve his vision, Dove let a great deal of reality slip off him. Always living in some ramshackle, uncomfortable, often cold, wet and temporary situation, he could only imagine images of cozy, organically meshed relationships. His language, in his letters and as a painter, isn’t geared to expressing the loose, dangling ends of his life, and none of his forms dangle, either—they’re always safely tucked in.

The white areas representing snow in Cars in Sleet Storm (1925) and floating foam in Waterfall appear to be icy cold, and there’s a suggestion that they could melt right out of Dove’s world. But with Dove, the fragility and preciousness, even the slipperiness, of forms in nature never amounts to more than a whiff of feeling. Nothing breaks out of his healthy, even-tempered glow, and this makes you restless with his art, for all its sleepy, fragrant beauty.

Dove’s early and middle paintings are saturated with a mellowed luminosity, but his late work doesn’t have the texture of mellowness—it’s only mild. He was ill for many of his last years, and perhaps this has something to do with the slackening off of his work. There aren’t many strong pictures after 1935. Based on the pictures at the Whitney, the turning point with Dove is Flour Mill II (1938), one of his best-known works. It has a unified pale yellow ground which, as in Oriental painting, is ambiguously either deep space or a neutral flat backboard; placed on it are black, green, yellow and earth markings. Flour Mill is a lovely, elegant painting(it looks like a chunky version of the languorous stain paintings of the ’50s and ’60s), but there is no elegance in Dove’s soul, or at least there isn’t enough of it to make this more than a one-shot deal, a beautiful stranger in his work. Dove’s touch isn’t made for decorating a surface. Marin can glance off ground and make space even as he glances, but Dove isn’t convincing when his forms are as unanchored as they are in Flour Mill. He needs his fur-lined crevices. That’s where his burrowed-in life is.

In the late paintings, Dove returns to his embracing, dark webbings but, from the time of Flour Mill on, he rarely goes back to his furry gradations. He doesn’t describe the elements in shadowed low relief; there’s no light-to-dark modeling in the late work. All the shifts take place in a thin, sloshy zone just behind the surface.

Flour Mill, though it’s in the exhibition, isn’t illustrated in the catalogue, though practically every other work is, and in color, too. The catalogue is peculiar in other respects: the paintings aren’t illustrated chronologically, but, after the late ’20s, they’re placed randomly, as if Dove’s work were all of a piece, which it isn’t (Frederick Wight made the same mistake). There is no index in Haskell’s book, and no catalogue listing of the exhibition, though there is an elaborate year-by-year chart that aligns Dove’s “Personal Events” with “Historical Events,” so that you can check out, along with the details of Dove’s life, such facts as, picking at random, when the NAACP was founded (1909), Lenin died (1924), the Dionne quintuplets were born (1934), Hahn and Strassman split the uranium atom (1938) and Mondrian arrived in New York (same year). It’s interesting to get all this, but it’s a little wacky, since Dove’s art takes place outside of world history and art history.

Dove succeeded on his own terms but he could never have won by the world’s standards. He didn’t make art for the museums, and it’s a sign of the strength of his character that his painting is still fresh, and still looks homemade and out of place in the company of, say, Hartley, Davis, Rothko or the Europeans. Dove’s scruffy awkwardness is his special bloom.

Ambition made Marin and Hartley go further in their work, but ambition didn’t faze Dove. The life of art (and its own rewards) wasn’t in his blood. After a certain point in his early thirties, his experience didn’t deepen as he made his paintings. Dove’s temperament was poetic and philosophic. It’s the kind of temperament that makes you feel he might have been able to feel complete and fulfilled as a person even if he hadn’t made art. With his typically understated, comradely affection, he once wrote to Stieglitz and O’Keeffe, “Hope you are both working hard. That seems to be one of the few roads to gladness.”1 Always clear about his own goals, Dove chose exactly the right word for himself. Gladness is what his pictures give. When he is most forceful—when he is at his deepest level—he’s in the middle register of feeling, and he invented a style to express that middleness of feeling. His art might give only a small cup of emotion, but he fills it to the brim. Though you can’t be in awe of him, it’s hard not to be fond of him.

Sanford Shwartz, a student of 20th century American Art, has written on Myron Stout for Artforum.



1. Quotation used by permission of William Dove and Georgia O’Keeffe for the Alfred Stieglitz Archive, Collection of American Literature, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University.