New York

Edwin Dickinson

At least two major currents of American art unite in the work of Edwin Dickinson. On one hand a Whistlerian Impressionism emboldened by Chase, Henri and Hawthorne, and on the other, the intractable factualism epitomized by Eakins. One provides an immediate sensuous outpouring (which in Dickinson resulted in a large body of painting “au premier coup”) and the other a consuming humility before the thing in itself, for portraiture and for parascientific procedure. Like Eakins before him, Dickinson has a passion for perspective.

Two figure pieces dominate the early selection, Interior (1916) and An Anniversary (1921). In the teens of this century Dickinson successfully combined a painterly blond form (learned from Chase and Hawthorne but stemming ultimately from Manet) with a meticulous empiricism. “An Anniversary,” one of the few great American figure pieces since Copley left Boston, already divulges clues to the vapory disintegration of Dickinson’s later pictures: the beautiful Spanish-looking girl along the left-hand edge is missing a nose. The hard edginess of each figure has that characteristic tanginess to be felt even more resolutely in Dickinson’s masterpiece, the bowlers “Cello Player” (1924–26). The primacy of drawing is heightened by a full, warm-cool palette of greys. The remarkable sequence of shells and still-life material running parallel to the left hand edge is particularly beautiful. In the reclining nude, “Helen Souza,” (1925), Dickinson carries off an equally startling “grisaille tour de force” employing a kind of solarized revision of the female figure which plays simplified broad mounds against sudden flat patches.

Throughout the 1920s Dickinson continues to produce masterworks but his passion for disjunctive fragments gradually supplants what hitherto had been his primary saving grace (his complete submission to the problems encountered during the resolution of the painting) to a notion of “finish.” From the Fossil Hunters (1926–28) on, and still more emphatically in the Woodland Scene (1929–35), the pictures begin to fall apart and dissolve. They are still majestically enlivened by brilliant stretches of drawing—a head here, some drapery there, a figure and crockery—but spatially coherent structures are slowly abandoned. In a recent interview Dickinson admitted that he had never carried a painting beyond three fifths of the way, “bar none.” Doubtless, the compositional gaps in much of his painting has made Dickinson palatable to Abstract Expressionists. Indeed, many of the brushy, camouflaged passages bear superficial resemblance to certain features of action painting.

But Dickinson had a perfect consciousness of his “defeat” if it can be termed that. The major paintings of recent years were left incomplete only because they set up problems so multitudinous and enormous that they could never really be fully solved. A key work such as the Ruin at Daphne (1943–53) is known in earlier (and to my mind better) unfinished states. (In this work particularly, Dickinson’s perspectival virtuosity is reminiscent of Eakins; for example, the latter’s many studies for the intimately scaled Chess Players of 1876.) In refusing to admit that spatial cohesion alone could make for artistic cohesion (“I never design in advance,” he declared) Dickinson became in part the victim of his own lese majesty. Yet many of his most impulsive and improvisational passages could grow naturally out of the experience of the painting without having to be justified in a wholly empirical way. This flight from objectivity permitted the soaring scribble over the gothic column in the Ruin at Daphne, the futuristic careening into the middle foreground of South Wellfleet Inn (1939), which logarithmically diminishes into images of itself and, a playing off of Euclidian New England architecture against uncontrolled blotchy space.

While any sensible estimation of Dickinson must dwell on his rigidly controlled naturalist drawing (of which there are many stunning examples in the exhibition and which form the basic stratum of his art) many odd, psychologically oblique themes keep cropping up. Lloyd Goodrich’s catalog makes clear the central theme of the sea in Dickinson’s imagination. One suspects that the recurrent motif of the blue rose is also associated with water. Notice, for example, the proximity of the rose to the reflection of the transfer ware in the Composition with Still Life (1933–37) or even more explicitly in The Finger Lakes (1939) in which the rose floats within the lake. And what of the balloon in the same painting? That it is a metaphor for the element of air is also suggested by the earlier Andre’s Balloon (1928). Perhaps, after all, the Surrealists were right also to claim him as one of their own.

Above all Dickinson’s work offers parallels to Precisionist painting of the twenties and thirties. Certainly he is a peer of Demuth and O’Keeffe. But in the final analysis Dickinson fits into no neat category. He is, unfailingly, an ever-regenerating artist. He is, in a word, his own genre.

––Robert Pincus-Witten