Dorothy Dehner at The Hyde: Life on the Farm and Beyond
By Anthony F. Hall
“Dorothy Dehner at The Hyde,” a new exhibition of works owned by the Glens Falls museum, affirms the many connections between the artist and the Lake George region.
No other institution has done as much to build and sustain her reputation as The Hyde, and no institution meant as much to her, despite the fact that her career as an artist truly began only after 1950, when she left Bolton Landing for New York.
The museum hosted a reception to celebrate the opening of the exhibition, as well as the larger 50th anniversary “Five Decades of Collecting” show, on January 26.
“I’m so pleased for Dorothy; she would have been very pleased to know that this work will stay here,” said Bolton resident Theta Curri.
While The Hyde has helped call the art world’s attention to Dehner, it is Curri who, almost single-handedly, has reminded residents of Bolton Landing that an abstract artist of national significance once lived in town.
Growing up in Bolton in the 1940s, Curri knew both Dehner and her more famous husband, the sculptor David Smith.
“Everyone knows all about David Smith; they knew his second wife and have come to know his two beautiful daughters; but very few know anything about Dorothy Dehner and what became of her. That became my mission: to educate Bolton about Dorothy Dehner,” said Curri.
Born in Cleveland, Ohio, in 1901, Dehner enrolled at New York’s Art Students League, where she met David Smith in 1926. They bought their Bolton farm in 1929 and became year-round residents in 1940.
“In Bolton Landing, it was like living in a giant salad bowl, all shades of green, all textures. So we both threw our hearts into country life; gardening, later on raising pigs and a few chickens, smoking hams, making sausage and preserving uncounted jars in our larder,” Dehner recalled in essay written for the catalogue for The Hyde’s 1973 show, ‘David Smith of Bolton Landing.’
The couple’s “country life” provided the material for a remarkable series of miniatures painted by Dehner in 1943, called ‘Life on the Farm.’ (One of them is included in the current exhibition.)
Those images of life in Bolton in the 1940s became the catalyst for the friendship that developed between Curri and Dehner during the last decades of the artist’s life.
“When I retired from teaching in 1986, I became the director of our local history museum,” Curri explained. “Dorothy had remained friends with Hugh Allen Wilson, the harpsichordist, and she had entrusted him with a gift for our museum. It was a collection of prints made from her series, ‘Life on the Farm,” which is all about life in Bolton and on the farm she shared with David Smith.”
Curri continued, “I was responsible for the museum when the prints arrived. I was sitting at my desk, writing a thank you note to Dorothy, when the phone rang. It was Dorothy. That was the beginning of our friendship.”
“We began telephoning one another,” Curri said. “I could call her up at 10:30 pm and I knew she’d be awake, but I learned never to call her before noon. She always asked about Bolton folks, about the people she knew.”
Through Curri, Dehner was able to re-establish a relationship, however indirectly, with the place that meant so much to her.
“She called me her Bolton connection,” said Curri.
Curri, in turn, re-connected Bolton with Dehner.
She mounted a display of the ‘Life on the Farm’ prints at the bank in the off-season, when the museum was closed, and encouraged visitors to the museum to spend time viewing the prints.
One of those visitors was Martha Nodine, who attended the reception for “Dorothy Dehner at The Hyde” with Curri.
Curri recalled, “Marty had helped to organize an exhibition of David Smith’s work in Texas, and when she and her husband came east, they made an excursion to Bolton Landing. She looked at our museum’s David Smith exhibit, and I directed her to the wall where ‘Life on the Farm’ hung. ‘Those are by Dorothy Dehner,’ I said. ‘Who’s Dorothy Dehner?’ Marty asked.”
Curri felt the two should meet, which they did, and developed a friendship of their own. Before her death in 1994, Dehner selected Nodine to be her authorized biographer.
The biography, which is nearing completion, is called “No Day Without a Line: the Life and Times of Artist and Activist Dorothy Dehner.”
“People will discover that there’s a range and depth to Dehner’s work and extraordinary experiences that might surprise them,” said Nodine. “Her life did not end with ‘Life on the Farm.’”
In fact, according to art collector Bernard Brown, a Hyde trustee, Dehner’s mature work is by far her most interesting.
“At age fifty-one, Dorothy Dehner had her first solo exhibition in New York at the Rose Fried Gallery, which is notable in part because the gallery had never shown the work of a woman artist before that date,” said Brown.
“In the early 1950s, Dehner developed new techniques in her work by combining the expression of geometric forms in pen and ink with watercolor washes and splattered paint. She applied wet sponges to the paper and painted wet-on-wet resulting in blurred images, which contrast sharply with the precisely drawn elements of the painting. After 1955, she turned to sculpture and this medium would dominate her interest for the next thirty-eight years,” Brown said.
But rather than leaving Bolton Landing behind, Dehner incorporated it even as she found her voice or vision as a mature artist.
‘Low Landscape, Sideways (1962),’ for instance, which is included in this exhibition, “suggests a panoramic view of nature,” writes Joan M. Marter, the art historian who serves as president of the Dorothy Dehner Foundation for the Visual Arts.
“One is reminded that David Smith often made sculptural landscapes,” Marter writes, while noting that Dehner had found a sculptural vocabulary of her own.
Even works that appear to have no relationship to Bolton, such as “Interior Studio” bear traces of its influence. Tellingly, an almost identical version of the work, which Dehner gave to Theta Curri, has a different, more Bolton-inflected title, “Barns.”
Of course, Dehner herself acknowledged Bolton’s lasting influence on her life and art.
“Bolton Landing remains forever vivid in my mind – because of the great beauty of the place and the joy I had in the sense that I was part of it,” she wrote in 1973.
So it comes as no surprise to learn that among her last requests was this: that her ashes be scattered above Lake George.
“Dorothy Dehner at The Hyde” will remain on view in the Hoopes Gallery through April 14. The Hyde, which is located at 161 Warren Street in downtown Glens Falls, is open Wednesday through Saturday from 10 am to 5 pm and on Sunday from noon to 5 pm. For more information, call 518-792-1761.