Monday, August 24, 2009

Cambridge Life: Circles of Influence @ The Clark Cambridge Life: Circles of Influence @ The Clark

The Clark: Circles of Influence

Cambridge Buzz friend and art critic Donald Goddard recently visited the Dove/O'Keeffe exhibition at The Clark. The show runs until September 7th. Here are his thoughts on the exhibition.

Dove/O’Keeffe: Circles of Influence

It's good to have Arthur Dove and Georgia O'Keeffe together again for a while, to the extent that it is hard to imagine how the art of either would have evolved without the other. This despite the fact that there was very little continuous contact between them. They were not lovers, not even close friends or associates. O'Keeffe first saw and was moved by a work of Dove's reproduced in a book in 1914, when O'Keeffe was 27 and Dove was 34. They were introduced to one another in 1918 by Alfred Stieglitz, who had recently become romantically involved with O'Keeffe and was a great champion of both artists. There are no photos that I have seen of the two artists together (nor in the catalogue for the exhibition), even by Stieglitz, who did at least one of his close friend Dove, and, of course, many of O'Keeffe. They acquired and owned each other's work, beginning with a pastel of a cow that Dove gave to O'Keeffe and Stieglitz on the occasion of their marriage in 1918. O'Keeffe recognized Dove as the artist who introduced abstraction into American art and as "the only American painter who is of the earth, . . ."

Arthur Dove, Sunrise, 1924--
Oil on panel, 18 1/4 x 20 7/8 in. (46.4 x 53 cm).
Milwaukee Art Museum. Gift of Mrs. Edward R. Wehr
Photo by John R. Glembin; Courtesy of and copyright The Estate of Arthur Dove / Courtesy Terry Dintenfass, Inc.

Dove made watercolors, beginning in 1930, based on the "burning watercolors" O'Keeffe exhibited in 1917. Their work appeared together in at least one group show during the 1920s, curated by Stieglitz, and they were linked by several writers at the time as avatars of the male and female principles, which seemed to rather appall O'Keeffe and bemuse Dove ("The bursting of a phallic symbol into white light may be the thing we all need," he wrote to Stieglitz in 1930). Though widely admired and recognized in the art world, Dove lived apart, modestly and spiritedly, from 1920 until his death in 1946, with the wonderful painter Helen Torr, sometimes on boats, in and around New York City, Connecticut, upstate New York, and Long Island. O'Keeffe moved to Abiquiu, New Mexico, in 1929, though she returned to New York regularly until 1946, the year Stieglitz also died. From 1933 to 1938, Dove and Torr lived in Geneva, New York, Dove's childhood hometown in the Finger Lakes region, and O'Keeffe visited them three times there. There were letters between them, but it seems they were few and far between. Still, it is true, they embraced one another; they parted and leaned together, curve to curve, like sand bending to the wind and water, or trees to the stars. Other than a series of watercolor female nudes O'Keeffe did in 1917, neither artist painted or drew the human figure--other species like the cow, of course, the clam, crow, jack-in-the-pulpit--but no human figures. Rather, they thrust themselves into nature to the point that, in paintings like O'Keeffe's Series I, No. 10 and No. 10A of 1919, and Dove's Penetration of 1924, looming forms suggest the human body and its sexuality.

The artists were themselves the human figures; actors, perpetrators in a world that already had a structure of form, function, color, and light. As Debra Bricker Balken observes in the show's catalogue, "Dove began by declaring his dependence upon nature, which he deemed inseparable from art. . . . he engaged in a . . . rigorous investigation of nature by tracking its myriad holdings of flora and fauna, growth patterns, and interconnected systems.

Georgia O’Keeffe, Jack-in-the-Pulpit No. VI, 1930
Oil on canvas, 36 x 18 in. (91.4 x 45.7 cm)
National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C. Alfred Stieglitz Collection, Bequest of Georgia O’Keeffe
Image courtesy of the Board of Trustees, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.

According to Helen Torr, 'he spent much time in the woods analyzing tree bark, flowers, butterflies etc.' near the family home in Geneva, New York." O'Keeffe's forms were always from nature--flowers, shells, seaweed, lakes, trees, bones, hills, clouds--even in her abstractions of the 1910s and '20s, in their biomorphic and radial motility, and her New York skyscrapers of the 1920s, which are as much subject to night and day, the energies of the cosmos, as anything else. For both, art is revelatory, the revelation of nature, as it had been for Thomas Cole, the Luminists, Thomas Eakins, and other Americans before them, rather than of immediate human existence, which seems to be at the center of European art, of Impressionism, Expressionism, and even Cubism, with their insistence on human perception and levels of conscience and consciousness. As Balken points out, the movement toward pure abstraction in the work and writings of Wassily Kandinsky and others, which seem to me like antidotes to the exigencies of existentialism, was known to Dove and O'Keeffe in their formative years (rather late for both artists). O'Keeffe especially was impressed by Kandinsky's book, Concerning the Spiritual in Art, particularly with the idea of music being the form of abstraction toward which art should strive.

But probably "Dove came to abstraction quite naturally. . . . Kandinsky was very showy about it, but Dove had an earthy, simple quality that led directly to abstraction." Kandinsky's colleague at the Bauhaus, Paul Klee, with his interest in children's art, probably would have been more appropriate for Dove. He painted like a child, in that he understood the boundaries of everything in view--the sun, the moon, and everything else--that the picture already existed and that everything could be rearranged to make new pictures. O'Keeffe was like his little sister who understood and completed the grandness and continuity of Dove's universe.

--Donald Goddard

Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute is located near the grounds of Williams College in Williamstown, MA. For more information about "The Clark," visit their website at

All images provided by the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute-- ALL RIGHTS RESERVED


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