Dorothy Dehner: Bolton Landing’s Contribution to Abstract Painting
By Bernard Brown
Friday, February 25, 2011
Mention of the New York School or the Abstract Expressionist Movement turns our thoughts immediately to Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, and Willem deKooning. These are the best known painters of that movement. However, many American artists contributed to the Abstract Expressionist generation including Dorothy Dehner, the first wife of the famous sculptor David Smith.
Born in Cleveland, Ohio, in 1901 to a family of progressive thinkers, Dorothy Dehner was encouraged by her Aunt Cora to visit Europe in 1925. Traveling alone, she visited Italy, Switzerland, and France. It was on this trip that she was exposed to Cubism and visited the Paris Exposition. Upon her return to New York, Dehner enrolled at the Art Students League where she studied drawing with Kimon Nicolaides.
Dehner met David Smith in 1926 and both studied with Jan Matulka whose avant-garde thinking based on the works of Kandinsky, Mondrian, and Picasso greatly appealed to them. It was Matulka who introduced them to the theories of Cubism, Surrealism, and Constructivism. Dehner created her first Cubist-related compositions in this class. Soon after, in 1927, Dorothy Dehner and David Smith married.
In 1929, Dehner met the Russian painter John Graham who sparked an interest in African sculpture. In the 1940s and 1950s, reference to African sculpture can be found in her totemic forms. These totemic forms are later utilized in creating her sculpture. In her pen and ink and watercolor painting, Bolton Landing Man & Woman 1950, the influence of African sculpture can be readily seen as the man and woman are each enclosed in a rectangular form reminiscent of wooden African sculpture.
Bolton Landing artists Weber Furlong and her husband Thomas invited the Smiths to visit their home. The Smiths fell in love with the Adirondacks and, in the summer of 1929, they purchased an old farm which they later named “Terminal Ironworks.” In 1940, Dorothy and David made Bolton Landing their permanent home.
A trip to Europe in 1935 was to have lasting and profound impact on Dorothy Dehner’s art. She and Smith traveled to Paris and Brussels and spent several months in Greece. They would later visit the Soviet Union and Great Britain. Dehner and Smith were closely involved in each other’s artistic endeavors during the 1940s. Dorothy gave titles to many of Smith’s sculptures and also posed for some of his works.
According to John B. Woodward III in his exhibition catalog, Dorothy Dehner: Poetry of Line, she had the unusual ability to mirror write preferring to write left-handed, in reverse, from right to left. Dehner was equally adept at writing with her right hand from left to right. This ability to manipulate space in mirror form provided Dehner with a mastery of dimensional space that was readily apparent in her drawings and sculpture.
Dorothy Dehner’s ink and watercolor washes from 1947 are acknowledged by many to represent her mature style. During the 1950s, she created etchings at Atelier 17 and participated in group exhibitions at the Stable Gallery where many New York School artists were shown.
In 1950, Dorothy Dehner left Bolton Landing and divorced David Smith two years later. They would remain friends until Smith’s death. 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. At age fifty-one, Dorothy Dehner had her first solo exhibition in New York at the Rose Fried Gallery, notable because this gallery had shown no women or American artists.
By 1955, Dehner turned to sculpture and this medium would dominate her interest for the next thirty-eight years. In 1965, the Jewish Museum in New York City mounted a major retrospective of her work. Dorothy Dehner has been the subject of some fifty solo exhibitions and resides in the permanent collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Museum of Modern Art, Seattle Museum of Art, the Hyde Collection, and Minnesota Museum of Art to mention only a few.
While Dehner’s creative production was eclipsed during the twenty-three years she lived with David Smith, she is now widely associated with the New York School because of her working methods, concern for individual expression, and her totemic and mythic imagery. Later in life, Dorothy Dehner was quoted as saying, “I had no idea until recently that I have created a sort of autobiography of my life in my work.” Those of us who live in Bolton Landing can certainly be proud of this incredible artist’s lifetime of achievements.
Acknowledgements: I am deeply indebted to Joan M. Marter, Dorothy Keane-White, Sandra Kraskin, Richard Eagan, John B. Woodward III and many other scholars whose prior works have enabled me to gain this insight into Dorothy Dehner’s artistic creativity.