on Arthur Dove by Rachael Z. DeLue (Univ. of Chicago) and Solomon D. Butcher, ed. by John E. Carter (Univ. of Nebraska)
In 1997, Rachael DeLue visited the Phillips Collection in Washington D.C. to look at paintings by George Inness. She recalls, “My visit to the Dove galleries served as a diversion – some pleasant, no-strings-attached looking in the midst of intense scholarly study, or so I thought. Instead, what I saw captivated me canvas after canvas teeming with quasi-abstract, vividly colored, and vibrantly motile forms, some of them downright odd, as well as an array of sculptural assemblages utterly catholic in their collection of material components, including paint, wood, and glass but also animal hide and bones, human hair, metal springs, ladies’ stockings, seashells, a camera lens, chiffon, and sand.”
Two decades later, DeLue is still arrested by Dove’s work, a spirited connection inspiring her richly illustrated Arthur Dove: Always Connect -- a timely reassessment and recounting of Dove’s work, thought, and practice.
For Dove, art provided a medium between the subjective states of maker and viewer. This assertion puts pressure on teachers like DeLue who appreciate his accomplishments. Exactly how vivid an “intersubjectivity” will the art historian permit herself to express in her text? DeLue does not attempt to create a mode of expression unique to her experience. As an art historian lecturing at Princeton, DeLue bows to the conventions and posture of her profession. She instructs mainly through description. However, she is fervently engaged with her subject – and brings to bear everything she knows about what Dove said, read and did.
DeLue writes, “As I began to note and document Dove’s preoccupation with systems of expression, translation, and communication and, also, to realize that I had on my hands not a shrinking, nature-besotted violet but a vigorously social individual, I began to recognize that certain of Dove’s most pithy and intriguing statements hovered around the concepts of connection, continuity, interrelation, and interchange.” Dove remarked that the two people he wished he could have met were Albert Einstein and Gertrude Stein, next-step masters of physics and language who helped him see and speak of dynamic worlds.
[Above: "Silver Sun"] DeLue says that Dove “was preoccupied with the nature, properties, and effects of language … text and speech but also systems of communication that employ symbols, such as those used in mathematics, musical notation, or cartography … I configure language not as a closed system but as a medium, because Dove did so, approaching it as a fundamental linking agent among subjects and objects.” She devises a winning approach by regarding Dove’s life and works through four concepts central to his thinking that form her four chapters: circles, weather, sound, and things.
[Above: "Fog Horns"] Arthur Dove was born in Canandaigua, New York in 1880 and spent his youth in the town of Geneva where he attended Hobart College before transferring to Cornell as a pre-law student. Having taken some art classes there, he went to New York City and worked as an illustrator. In 1906, he began painting. In 1908, he went to Paris and his first painting was exhibited at the Grand Palais. Returning to New York, he befriended gallery owner Alfred Stieglitz. In 1912, he had his first one-man show. In 1922, now separated from his wife of 18 years, he and the artist Helen Torr moved to a 42-foot yawl on the Harlem River. They would live in houseboats in various locations until 1933. Also, for years they kept a detailed log of their life, and Dove meticulously noted the daily weather. He hung shows virtually every year, starting in 1925 under Stieglitz’s auspices, for his entire working career. He died in 1946.
Georgia O’Keefe named Dove as her first major influence, and he is routinely described as the first major American abstract painter. Suggesting that this is an apt but ultimately facile identifier, DeLue peers into Dove’s idiosyncratic obsessions, thereby adding a much needed dimensional perspective to his legacy. Her third chapter, “Sound,” examines Dove’s habit of not only listening to Stravinsky or Gershwin while painting but “integrating” sound into his works, “part of a persistent and prolonged engagement on his part with the sonic and, more particularly, with the possibilities of transforming sound into visual form.” Similarly, in the final chapter, “Things,” she elevates the importance of Dove’s works comprising “found, collected, scavenged, or purchased objects.” [Below: "The Critic"]
Dove also embraced the concept of “mistranslation” – forms rising on their own during acts of translation. No matter, in a state of receptivity to the ocean and the land, his mantra was: everything connects -- so always enable the connection. Among his notes, this: “Have always felt that I could stand knee deep in the sand or water and paint what was going on inside. That is working directly on the painting … without resorting to representing anything but simply to the presenting of the thing felt … That is not using nature as model glancing back and forth. Nature to the eye, through the arm to the hand and to the picture. But doing the thing you are doing, making something you want to function by itself.”
[Left: Dove in 1923, photographed by Stieglitz] Such statements suggest a certain piety for his materials – though there is also something socially comedic in his compositions, as DeLue points out. His speedy emergence as an artist from scant training, and the forthrightness of his integrative philosophy of art suggest a person of unflagging receptivity, well put together and driven to put things together. Confident. Dove also wrote, “The greatest Light is where the greatest contrasts are.” But he does not appear to have been a person of clashing contrasts.
For her part, DeLue has focused on “rethinking Dove’s practice, in part by expanding the field of evidence and recasting the historical and conceptual categories available for interpretive use.” I get the point. But still, I hope for a more lyrical, probing, experiential and speculative account of an encounter with Dove. Asked to describe his artist credo and what it is the artist undertakes do to, he replied, “The impossible.” Dove’s life and work deserve a reach for the extreme in our response.
[Published April 18, 2016. 311 pages, 145 illustrations and photographs, $45.00 large format hardcover]
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Willa Cather wrote her 1913 novel O Pioneers! while living in New York City. Her narrator reflects on the landscape of Nebraska: “Of all the bewildering things about a new country, the absence of human landmarks is one of the most depressing and disheartening … The roads were but faint tracks in the grass, and the fields were scarcely noticeable. The record of the plow was insignificant, like the feeble scratches on stone left by prehistoric races, so indeterminant that they may, after all, be only the markings of glaciers, and not a record of human strivings.”
But Cather wrote with a sense of the historic importance of those strivings – and Solomon Butcher documented Nebraska’s “human landmarks” with the same conviction. But as John E. Carter’s introduction to Solomon D. Butcher: Photographing the American Dream makes clear, it is startling that Butcher made these photographs at all. Born in what is now West Virginia in 1856, young Solomon spent his childhood in Winona, Illinois where his father worked for the Illinois Central Railroad. In 1869, America’s coasts were connected by rail, and the Homestead Act of 1862 (and others follow) enticed thousands to head west after the Civil War ended in 1865.
Butcher migrated with his family in two wagons to Custer County, Nebraska in 1880. In 1881, he entered and then dropped out of the Minnesota Medical College in Minneapolis where he met his wife, a nurse named Lillie Barber Hamilton; the two rejoined Butcher’s family in 1882. Carter’s engrossing narrative of Butcher’s hard-scrabble life not only underscores the harsh conditions and uncertain prospects he faced, but informs what we peer at in the photographs of the land’s inhabitants.
Living in 18’x28’ adobe with his family, Butcher had no interest in (or talent for) working the land. Instead, he opened a post office in his adobe (“receipts for the first three months totaled sixty-eight cents”) and set up a photography studio. And then: “Perhaps driven by despair or the fear of returning to the physical life of farming, Butcher seized on an idea: he would produce a photographic history of Custer County.”
In 1886, he produced his first three images. He also began the practice of collecting stories from those he photographed. Over the next seven years, he amassed over 1500 pictures. He supported the project and his family through donations, subscriptions, and sale of the photographs. But Butcher was broke after the drought and economic depression in the early 1890s. Still, he persisted with the idea of publishing a book. By 1901, he had found a patron in Ephraim Swain Finch, a successful cattle rancher. The first edition of Pioneer History of Cuser County and Short Sketches of Early Days in Nebraska ran to over 400 pages with 80 memoiristic pieces.
The provisional process of settlement on the plains is remarkably detailed in these pictures. For some shots, sod house dwellers carried their possessions outside to be shot beside them. People regarded the camera with respect – and the camera reciprocated. Butcher’s empathic vision is generous to the surrounding land as well as his human subjects. There is solemnity in their faces, but also engagement, energy, and ease. Some of Butcher’s compositions are contrived to portray specific events, such as the tension between farmers and ranchers (e.g., four masked men with wire cutters seen snipping lengths of fence).
In this edition, the photographs are displayed in various sizes, but usually as large as nine-inches wide and seven-inches high. Throughout, Carter includes facing quotations from writers and folk material.
Butcher’s accomplishments first became nationally recognized through “The Exact Instant,” the 1949 exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art. Carter’s Solomon D. Butcher was first published in 1985. This new softcover edition appears as interest in Butcher as an artist continues to grow.
[Published April 1, 2016. 152 pages, 132 photographs, $29.95 large format softcover]