New York

Edwin Dickinson, Frances Foley, 1927, oil on board, 50 x 40".

Edwin Dickinson, Frances Foley, 1927, oil on board, 50 x 40".

Edwin Dickinson

Driscoll Babcock Galleries

Edwin Dickinson, Frances Foley, 1927, oil on board, 50 x 40".

When art historian Lloyd Goodrich observed in 1965 that Edwin Dickinson “does not fit into any neat classification,” he could have been comparing the paintings Frances Foley, 1927, and Frances Blazer, 1937—both of which were on view at the artist’s recent show at Babcock Galleries. The first represents Dickinson’s young wife in a Romantic realist style, her facial features crisply delineated; in the second, her visage is a pure abstraction. On the cusp of the new, yet devoted to the old, Dickinson was a student of academic realist Charles Hawthorne, yet he nonetheless appeared—along with Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, William Baziotes, and Clyfford Still, among others—in the 1952 “15 Americans” exhibition curated by Dorothy Miller at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

Dickinson acknowledged the profound influence of El Greco’s Burial of Count Orgaz, 1586. That painting is rife with contrasts: Portraying a heavenly scene at once connected to and disconnected from the death scene below it, it is populated with elongated, abstracted bodies topped with realistic heads and is marked by juxtapositions of relentless blacks and somber grays with radiant whites and brittle pinks. There’s a similar sense of density and dematerialization in Dickinson’s paintings, the same Mannerist—and Surrealist—sense of absurdity. Perhaps the Abstract Expressionists respected him because they saw the same Surrealist Mannerism in their own bizarre paintings.

Dickinson combined descriptive realism and painterly extravagance, indicating he was as attentive to external reality as he was to his feelings. The dress in Frances Foley and the classical drapery behind and above her are meticulously detailed. Yet the excited energy with which he handles the brush suggests his intense feelings for her, and, given the seductive curve of her leg, his sexual desire; she’s a sleeping beauty. The dramatized, sexualized figure is likewise present in Nude Figure, Marie, 1939, and Dickinson also dramatizes and sexualizes nature. Decades before de Kooning’s so-called landscapes of the body of the mid-1970s, Dickinson painted Locust Woods and Grass, Truro, 1934, a remarkably prescient integration of Cubist fragmentation and Expressionist gesturalism.

Finally, Dickinson dramatized himself. As a young man, he applied to the naval academy twice and was rejected both times, yet in the solemn Self-Portrait in Uniform, 1942, he portrays himself as a member of the military. If he was disappointed by his failure to serve in the armed forces, that feeling was likely intensified by the suicide of his brother Burgess, who had originally encouraged him to apply. In fact, one might speculate that Dickinson’s paintings are attempts to solve emotional problems that were beyond solving, which perhaps explains why they are haunted by the art of the past, reworked until it seems abstract—remote—for the past is always hauntingly abstract even as it continues to shape the present.

Donald Kuspit