New York

Edwin Dickinson

It’s a pity Edwin Dickinson (1891–1978) isn’t more widely recognized as a master of painting and drawing. The reputation is deserved not only because his canvases exhibit relentless, focused experimental drive and a command of expressive techniques belonging to more familiar European predecessors and contemporaries; or because the artist anticipated by decades the dynamism of Abstract Expressionism; or because his landscapes capture the aura of oceans and beaches with a fidelity that seems to defy account. More directly, all these aspects contribute to a breadth of feeling and a capacious perception that are all the vaster for these works’ seeming reticence.

Perhaps sensing that their effect was on the whole more staged than naturalistic, that his experimentalism was “showing,” Dickinson was unsatisfied with his interior still lifes and portraits; yet by themselves these would have secured him a respectable reputation. Ansley, 1928, for example, is a latently cubist portrait of a handsome middle-aged man in a shadowy brown study. His eyes express a friendly mixture of authority and attention, while his mouth is slightly drawn, as if to indicate the poignancy of the experience of his years; his carefully composed face contrasts subtly with his spotted tie, which is whimsically rendered. The portrait balances the contradictions inherent in any alluring character. In the bright Pat Brushing Her Hair, 1929, a woman seen from the side sits before a window at a bedroom table. The artist leaves her face blank, her features suggested only faintly by the underpainting: Setting, posture, and gesture denote the figure’s humanity and beauty. The elemental shape formed by the window curtains contributes to the scene’s plainness, framing an intimate moment that conveys a sense of a person more tender than apprehensive. In A Natural Bouquet, 1939, Dickinson breaks almost fully into abstraction. Only a gold scumble of paint at the right comes anywhere close to connoting a flower. Dizzying and vital in color and composition, the work expresses something like a mystical union with the sensory world, a submersion in perception.

One understands the artist’s disappointment with his studio works only when considering his landscapes. It’s not too much to say that mist and haze are to Dickinson what light and lace are to Vermeer. The former’s eye for climate and shorelines (specifically of Wellfleet, Cape Cod, where so many of these works were made, but also of southern France, where he spent nearly a year in the late ’30s) is exact. Judged purely by the apparent swiftness and ease of his brushwork, one might mistake these works for studies. There’s nothing overly artful about their surfaces, yet the fealty with which a few motions of Dickinson’s hand suggest ocean, shore, or sky is precisely the sort of mystery separating great painting from good. In the humbling, deft Frazier’s Path to the Beach, 1940, dune flora, sky, sand, and soil appear in a variety of patterns that pay homage to the act of seeing. The painter simply registers an instance from among the infinite variety of depths and textures our atmosphere conjures. Such works show how Dickinson inhabited what Elizabeth Bishop called “the always-more-successful surrealism of everyday life.” His broad array of techniques and effects are never ends in themselves, but serve the renewing fascination the artist seems to have had with life and, particularly, with nature.

Tom Breidenbach