Painting at a Crossroads

TIMES ART CRITIC

In the art of Arthur Dove, nature went from being a reality to an abstraction--which is to say, a reality more deeply resonant and complex than had ever been artistically imagined before. The result was a body of poetically adventurous art that is among the first great Modern work made by an American artist.

With 60 well-selected paintings and a dozen choice drawings and collages, "Arthur Dove: A Retrospective" is perhaps the most beautiful museum exhibition to be seen in Los Angeles so far this year. Organized jointly by the Addison Gallery of American Art, Andover, Mass., and the Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C., the handsomely installed show opened Sunday at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

Dove (1880-1946) is often credited as the first American or European artist to make an abstract painting, since the small abstractions he began in 1910 apparently predate by a few months the great improvisations of Wassily Kandinsky, the celebrated Russian emigre to Germany. Who was first and who was second is a game not really worth playing, though--especially as Dove almost always retained recognizable references to the natural world in his art. What's more important is recognizing the edge or boundary at which he had arrived in the direction his work had taken, and over which he patiently stepped.

Today, at the end of a century rich in abstract painting, it's not easy to imagine the magnitude of the hurdle at which Dove had arrived by 1910. The five "Abstractions" (1910-11) near the entrance to the show are so modest in size--each little oil is only about 8 by 10 inches--as to seemingly belie the power of the event.

Nonetheless, an event it was. While retaining elements of Cubist structure and bits of Art Nouveau design, these small oil paintings on board shift the terms of engagement. Dove has moved away from describing nature and toward recording an exacting sensuousness of subjective experience, which arises from it.

That ambition is announced in the show's first work, the Matissean "Still Life Against Flowered Wall Paper" (1909). Atop a slab of white cloth that seems to float in midair, Dove shows a sumptuous bowl of fruit and a blue-edged coffee service. A lush, chinoiserie-like profusion of flowers, trees and butterflies on the wallpaper behind the table seems to be erupting out of the carefully laid-out still life, creating a conflicted pictorial dialogue between the natural and the man-made.

Within a scant one or two years' time, Dove had left that derivative style of representation behind, in favor of an idiosyncratic evocation of nature's roiling fecundity within an increasingly urban and industrialized world, in the small oils and a series of exquisite pastels. The spiky and bulbous rhythms of "Plant Forms" (circa 1912) or "Team of Horses" (1911-12), together with the almost metallic sheen of their surfaces, which alternately appear to reflect light or glow from within, are full of churning life; but they don't feel joyful or celebratory. Instead, there's something elegiac about Dove's art, something mysterious, lyrical and poignant.

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The young painter was certainly in a position to understand the passing of nature as a pristine icon of American life. As he grew up and matured, industrialization and urbanization were transforming the United States with great speed and finality.

Born in a rural town in upstate New York, Dove was long torn by his ability to make a living as a commercial illustrator in Manhattan and his earnest but failed attempts at farming. In the decade after his "breakthrough" to abstraction, these episodes even interfered with his ability to focus on making his own art.

If Dove's art is elegiac, it is not nostalgic for the passing of some simpler and less troubled (or troubling) world. Rather, like the glowing, rhythmically tumultuous furrows of plowed earth fanning out in big arcs as if seen from the window of a speeding vehicle ("Fields of Grain as Seen From Train," 1931), it records the conflicted pleasure and pain, beauty and awfulness that informs the experience of passage.

Dove also fervently embraced a sense of possibility, which is inherent in passage and change. In addition to his frequent use of the unusual medium of metallic paint, which evokes the Machine Age context while giving his art a literal inner light, he made amazingly ambitious and innovative collages. "Rain" (1924) is composed from small twigs sandwiched between sheets of metal and glass, with droplets of rubber cement cascading across the surface. "Sea II" (1925) is an atmospheric little panel made from barely perceptible chiffon and sand laid over a piece of metal.

Dove came to maturity in an era when America's idea of itself was in tremendous flux, including great anxiety over what sort of cultural expression was fitting for the emergence of an important world power. Teddy Roosevelt had his idea of the form that art should take, mostly based on prototypes from antiquity. But it was a question that circulated in more avant-garde circles as well.

If a conservative public laughed with derision over the "weird" art of the infamous 1913 Armory Show, which introduced Modern painting to the United States in a very big way, the progressive American art world worried more that it was European artists, not Americans, who grabbed the show's limelight.

Dove was among the artists included in the landmark 1916 Forum Exhibition of Modern American Painters, a post-Armory effort mounted expressly for the purpose of redirecting attention away from European artists and toward Americans. Traces of that old-time Americanism even linger in the Dove retrospective today, where wall text makes a point of asserting that "there's no obvious debt to European art" in Dove's work.

Perhaps it isn't stylistically obvious, but Dove's is clearly an American brand of European Symbolist art. His is an aesthetic attitude shared by a lot of the most interesting American painters working before World War II, including Marsden Hartley, Georgia O'Keeffe, Agnes Pelton and many more.

In Europe, the Symbolist goal of replacing objective description with the subjectivity of experience was hemmed in by the dense, centuries-old cultural weight of the symbols available to the task. Without that excess baggage, Dove was able to remake it in an American idiom.

No less an eminence than Marcel Duchamp understood the possibilities. In 1915, the iconoclastic French artist told a U.S. magazine writer: "If only America would realize that the art of Europe is finished--dead--and that America is the country of the art of the future, instead of trying to base everything she does on European traditions."

Born just 15 years after the Civil War, Dove turned out to be one of the great artistic pivots between the 19th century and the 20th. This luscious retrospective, together with its excellent catalog, lays out the mature career of an extraordinary artist.

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* Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 5905 Wilshire Blvd., (213) 857-6000, through Oct. 5. Closed Wednesdays.

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