New York

Arthur Dove

Arthur Dove is not—thank God—the kind of artist whose retrospective provokes in a critic the desire either to (a) rehearse a long, drawn-out chronology of the various ebbs and flows in his stylistic development or to (b) mount an argumentative, academic brief for his being an underrated or overrated early American Modernist. The eighty or so modest-size paintings, collages, and drawings at the Whitney Museum are simply—and I mean “simply” in perhaps the most favorable sense I’ve ever used the word—there, on the wall, to be looked at, absorbed, appreciated, enjoyed, and remembered.

In a strange way, Dove’s paintings look a lot like his life: much less exotic than, say, Ernest Hemingway’s saga of war, romance, celebrity, booze, and suicide, but much more interesting than, say, the dreary millions of ranch-house-and-mall biographies played out in the Long Island ’burbs that Dove lived too soon to suffer. In other words, the canvases are exotic enough, but not too exotic—in the same way that they exhibit the right amount of emphatic shapes, inventive paint application, distillation from natural forms, and above all, tender care and fine-tuning, but not too much.

For the barely necessary record: Dove, born in 1880, came to New York City shortly after college to be an artist, and initially supported himself as an illustrator. Five years later, he and his first wife took off to live a year and a half in France, where he earnestly attempted to become an impressionist. Back in New York, he fell under the Modernist spell of Alfred Stieglitz and in 1911 and 1912 produced some amazing little abstractions that lose to Sassily Kandinsky by less than a neck in the who-did-it-first derby. Still, Dove had to persevere as an illustrator to make a living, which may have contributed to his leaving Florence Dorsey (the name for a scorned wife if there ever were one) for the extravagantly moniker Helen “Reds” Torr (the name for a female welterweight champ if there ever were one). Dove and Torr set up housekeeping on a forty-two-foot yawl called Mona (the name for an artist’s boat if there ever were one) and lived off-land for seven years. After that, Mr. and Mrs. Dove (as of 1932) lived on Long Island, in upstate New York, and back on Long Island again until Dove died after a long illness in 1946.

In a typical Dove painting (in a way, they’re all typical without being repetitive, but take Fields of Grain as Seen from Train, 1931, if you want a concrete example), you get a nice sense of the objects depicted, a sensitive and inventive synopsis of what the human eye and brain produce in trying to perceive the object, and a fine abstract work of art that can stand on its own without much reference to those first two features. Some Dove paintings, such as the drab, close-up view of The Mill Wheel, Huntington Harbor, 1930, are better when it comes to the objects. Others, such as Sunrise III, 1936, are amazing accounts of perception. (The dark, wavy line wrapping two-thirds of the way around the bright yellow yolk of the sun is pure genius.) And still others, like Partly Cloudy, 1942—with their bold shapes and limited color schemes—function best as plain abstractions.

Dove—who was as original as sin as soon as he got back from France in 1909, without ever being showy or faux-intellectual—manages in his art to be both tonally dramatic and chromatically lovely, both geometrically girded and organically open, and both absolutely straightforward and hauntingly poetic. He wasn’t afraid of visual clarity in his pictures—which ought to chasten the younger, murk-equals-profundity abstract painters who happen to see the show. He could pack more pictorial oomph into a small over-the-couch format than a lot of canvas-rich but talent-poor billboarders can into an entire gallery. And he could start every piece more or less ex nihilo—unlike the hordes of today’s pre-tenders who work in matched sets of paintings pretentiously entitled “The [something-or-other] Series.”

Dove accomplished all this, more-over, in a time when, as the Abstract Expressionist collagist/painter Conrad Maca-Relli once remarked, the words “American” and “artist” were still considered almost an oxymoron. Today, we’re getting used to the idea that, in speaking of the best contemporary artists, the word “American” no longer goes without saying. But we can see Arthur Dove’s many children all around us: Bill Jensen, Elizabeth Murray, Gregory Amenoff, Tom Nozkowski, for examples, and good painters all. Goddamn, this was a great show!

“Arthur Dove: A Retrospective” is on view at the Addison Gallery of American Art, Andover, MA, April 25–July 12, and the LA County Museum of Art, Aug. 2–Oct. 4.

Peter Plagens is a painter and art critic for Newsweek. His novel Time for Robo will be published later this year.