New York

Dorothy Dehner, Burst #5, 1953, watercolor and ink on paper, 15 3⁄4 × 20 1⁄2".

Dorothy Dehner, Burst #5, 1953, watercolor and ink on paper, 15 3⁄4 × 20 1⁄2".

Dorothy Dehner

One of many exquisite pieces in this gorgeous exhibition of abstract drawings and sculptures by Dorothy Dehner (1901–1994) was Garden at Night, 1957, a linear bronze-and-steel tableau that has a playful yet primeval quality to it, as though it were based on imagery from the walls of Lascaux. To my mind, it bears a resemblance to Arshile Gorky’s 1944 painting Garden of Wish Fulfillment. But Dehner’s flourishing patch of flora signals joie de vivre, while Gorky’s canvas is woebegone and deathly—it speaks to misery, to the futility of life. The little black star in Dehner’s piece is a sign of hope and faith, while the “holy tree” at the heart of Gorky’s appears as though it’s dying from spiritual neglect.

All of Dehner’s intimately scaled works in this show were jewellike masterpieces, hermetic objects that alluded to the body, the organic world—albeit stylized, exoticized—as we saw perfectly illustrated in a pair of drawings: People and Buildings #11, 1949, which features a quartet of membranous architectural objects executed in ink and watercolor on a ghostly brown field, and Man & Woman, 1950, a geometric rendering in gouache and ink of two shapes that are on the verge of becoming interlocked, like the limestone lovers of Constantin Brancusi’s The Kiss, 1912. Psychoanalyst Michael Balint famously explained that nonobjective artists tend to unconsciously dehumanize the human figure and denaturalize nature as a way of expressing their alienation from existence in pursuit of the essence of art.

Whatever their psychic import, Dehner’s works, especially her drawings, are ingeniously refined—images that fuse the biomorphic and the geomorphic with a limited but well-chosen palette. Take Untitled #61-A, 1952, a delicate rendering of a complex crystalline structure washed by a sky blue that suggests we are in some kind of Platonic heaven, geometry being the stepping-stone to and embodiment of pure idea. In Burst #5, 1953, we abandon the realm of the Apollonian for something more severe, chaotic. The central form—which looks like a pair of warring figures, almost fused together out of sheer violent force—is all merciless jagged angles adumbrated by small explosions of red and traces of cobalt. With marvelous dexterity and sensitivity, the artist brilliantly integrates the coolly mathematical and the spikily expressive in this piece. The image makes me think of her troubled marriage to sculptor David Smith, which astonishingly lasted for a quarter of a century. Burst #5 was created the year after the pair’s divorce—perhaps the eruptions are fireworks, a celebration of her separation from a monstrous man who competitively tried to stifle her creativity and stop her from exhibiting her art. He also physically abused her (he broke several of her ribs, effectively ending their poisonous relationship).

The stylization of organic forms in the wooden sculptures Big Rooster, ca. 1974; Weathervane, ca. 1975; and Curve and Vertical, ca. 1977, seem like basic lessons in reductive modernism, but they nonetheless show that Dehner remained inspired by external reality, however much she distilled it to its mathematical and natural essences. The wood element indicates that she remained steadfastly in touch with nature, paradoxically depending on it in order to achieve artistic independence from it. Dehner’s work also possesses an expansive cosmic vitality that Smith’s—so grandiose, so pretentious—utterly lacks. It’s clear that Smith’s art owes something to Dehner’s marvelous and introspective output. Art historians, take note.