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“Arthur Dove:

A Retrospective Exhibition”

At the Phillips Collection to January 4

Although Duncan Phillips started collecting the work of Arthur Dove in 1926, provided him with a stipend for over 15 years, and arranged his first major retrospective in 1937, he met the artist only once in his life. In a letter, he described Dove as one whose “humorous caprice seems strange to those accustomed to more a urbane, cosmopolitan, and worldly point of view.” One can easily imagine that Phillips, the heir to a large industrial fortune and a graduate of Yale, found the painter-cum-chicken-farmer from Westport, Conn., to be a bit socially problematic and did not go out of his way to encounter the artist he so assiduously collected.

I, too, find Dove to be an embarrassment, although not for reasons of social status. I feel personally implicated in his distinctly American flat-footedness, his naive beliefs, his absolute and shameless sincerity. Consequently, when I pass through the galleries of the Dove retrospective now at the Phillips, I find myself wanting to explain how, when he paints a sewing machine, it hooks up to the surrealist imagery of Isidore Ducasse, how his Silver Tanks and Moon (1930) allies him with the then-vanguard precisionist movement, and how his abstraction resembles that of the Russian émigré Kandinsky. But I can’t. Dove’s tanks are Dove’s tanks (nonprecisionist), Dove’s sewing machine (the chance encounter of a Singer Model 40 with a burlap bag) is not very surreal, and his abstraction simply isn’t as playful as Kandinsky’s.

Sui generis—but also sui loci—is for better or worse the condition of most pre-World War II American artists. It’s often a stumbling block for art historians. The artists worked in isolation. Hence, if art history is the story of one artist influencing another and one style following another, then there is no history, properly speaking, of the first three centuries of colonial American art, or at best it’s a history constructed on some principle of disjunction. The American artist is fundamentally a subject (in isolation) facing an object (the world) with an instrument (the brush). His prototype is the boy Benjamin Franklin waiting in a field for inspiration to be transmitted along his kite string. His apotheosis is Wallace Stevens’ man with the blue guitar.

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All of which is not to say that Dove is a parochial artist (limited by his condition), but he is a regional artist (grounded in it). Which is part of the embarrassment. Only what we know and want to dismiss can embarrass us. When New York took over the international art scene and proclaimed Abstract Expressionism the universal style, the idea of a regional style particular to the eastern seaboard became subject to repression. A still-current ideology equating New York art with world art dictates such a style as an impossibility. As if to prove the point, we accept Georgia O’Keeffe, really indigenous to New York, only because she is associated in the popular imagination with the Southwest. But a painter who works directly in the native idiom of the Northeast and whose palette references local color schemes is an object of horror to the New Yorker. He’s treated like an unwashed country relation.

Yet the themes of the Northeast are the stuff of Dove’s imagination and of his painting. Although the catalog essay by Elizabeth Hutton Turner refers to him as “America’s first abstract artist,” Dove never (or only briefly) freed himself from the figurative. One of the advantages of this kind of broad, chronologically arranged show is that it allows us to see how brief was Dove’s foray into pure abstraction, spanning roughly 1911-1917. Elsewhere, before and after, are the cows, sails, suns, moons, and land forms that constitute an iconographic residue of the natural world. The stuff of anecdote is most evident in his assemblages, such as the portrait of Ralph Dusenberry (1924, in catalog but not in show), which celebrates a neighbor’s physical prowess, but a vaguer sort of narrative, one trading on the fecundity of animal nature and the authenticity of the pastoral experience, underpins even Dove’s most “abstract” paintings.

We tend to think that inside every artist is a small Willem de Kooning waiting to get out. But even accepting this gross teleology, one of the fascinating things about the early-20th-century modernists is how cautiously, how hesitatingly they limped toward the paradise of pure expression. Their various crutches—a belief that by abstraction one depicted natural essences, a reliance on a Futurist theory of force lines—will be found either charming or vulgar. I think we enjoy watching their tacking progress toward the present condition.

But I am not so sure that Dove was racing to join the bandwagon of the present. What makes Dove a great painter is his ability to work in comparative isolation, to acknowledge his cultural poverty and make the most of it. In this cultural vacuum, Dove works as a bricoleur. He treats anything as a material and all materials as historically neutral. The result is a truly innovative and remarkably nonrepetitive body of work. My favorite paintings, well represented in this exhibition, are his late works. In them, one imagines that the lessons he learned working in assemblage he applies more generally to a series of canvases in which the paint itself is treated as an object. One senses in a work like That Red One (1944) that the stuff of paint is juxtaposed and layered, handled to create dexterous and autonomous forms. The work is a flat painting, yes, but it is approached and approachable from all sides.

I said that Dove embarrasses me. Other American artists working in a regional idiom, such as Chicago imagists Roger Brown and H.C. Westermann, provoke a different personal response. When I see a Brown I like, I want to stand beside the work and offer myself to foreign-looking visitors as a cultural informant and proud collaborator in its myths. (It’s an American thing—I understand it.) But Dove’s effect is different. He sends me guiltily padding around the edges of the gallery, reflective and never sure whether I deserve or want to own the connection.CP