MANIERRE DAWSON, AN AMERICAN KANDINSKY
Updated: Dec 12, 2018
THE name of Manierre Dawson, though no longer so obscure as it was 12 years ago, when the first New York exhibition of his work was mounted at the Robert Schoelkopf Gallery, even today remains better known to specialists in early American modernism than to the art public at large. Even among the casualties of his artistic generation -the first generation of American modernists - Dawson's was a strange and poignant case. For a period of four crucial years, 1910-14, he produced some of the most remarkable avant-garde paintings being created in the United States. Then - nothing. He changed his life and for all practical purposes gave up on his artistic vocation. When he died in 1969, at the age of 82, he was found to have produced nothing of interest since 1914.
What he produced in those early years is still coming to light and is proving to be of growing interest at a time when the whole history of early American modernism is coming under fresh critical scrutiny. In the new exhibition of Dawson's work that is on view at the Schoelkopf Gallery, 825 Madison Avenue, at 69th Street (through April 22), there is, for example, a picture called ''Differential,'' which was painted in 1910 and is certain to startle anyone who sees it today.
For this painting bears a very close and quite uncanny resemblance to the early abstractions of Vasily Kandinsky, whose work Dawson is unlikely to have known at this date. Dawson was living in Chicago at the time, and he made his first trip to Europe - in the summer of 1910 - after this picture had been painted. The paintings he produced as the result of his European travels - paintings that make up the bulk of the present exhibition - are quite different from ''Differential.'' It is by no means clear, in any case, that even Kandinsky was producing fully developed abstractions of this sort at this date - the matter remains an issue of scholarly dispute. Dawson's must therefore be counted as one of the very earliest abstract paintings to be produced anywhere.
The man who painted this very radical picture in 1910 wasn't even a full-time artist when he produced it. Dawson was born into a cultivated and well-to-do family in Chicago in 1887. According to Mary Mathews Gedo, who wrote the catalogue for the 1976 Dawson show at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago, ''It was a family tradition to take an interest in the arts.'' But it was not, apparently, family tradition to allow its members to become professional artists. (Dawson's younger brother, Mitchell, was a lawyer who contributed poetry to The Little Review.) Thus, even though Dawson's artistic interests were said to have developed at an early age, he conformed to family tradition by becoming an engineer, studying at what is now the Illinois Institute of Technology.
When Dawson was graduated from engineering school, he went to work as a designer for the architectural firm of Holabird & Roche, and he remained in that profession until 1914. Except for the time he spent in Europe in 1910, Dawson painted all of his important pictures, presumably on weekends, while working full time as a designer. He wasn't exactly isolated from the art life of the time, however. In Paris he had the good fortune to meet Gertrude Stein, who promptly bought one of his paintings for 200 francs - the first painting he had ever sold. On his return to the United States, he met Arthur B. Davies, Albert Pinkham Ryder and other artists in New York. All the same, he returned to his regular job in Chicago.
Davies, when he got involved in helping to organize the Armory Show of 1913 - the first large-scale exhibition to introduce the modernist movement to the American public - invited Dawson to submit some work, but Dawson was too busy to comply. Yet even in this respect he was lucky. When the Armory Show traveled to the Art Institute of Chicago, the critic Walter Pach - another organizer of the show - saw Dawson's paintings and insisted on including one in the Chicago installation. So he made it into the Armory Show after all.
A year later, however, Dawson left Chicago - and his job - to take up fruit farming in Michigan, and that effectively ended his artistic career. He married a beautiful country girl, brought up a family and is said to have made a lot of money. When he attempted to take up painting again late in life, nothing much came of it.
Most of the paintings in the current show belong to the Cubist vein that Dawson developed out of his keen interest in Cezanne - whose work he probably saw at Vollard's - and his encounter with Picasso's work at Gertrude Stein's. While not so revolutionary in form as his 1910 abstraction, these paintings are also remarkably original and accomplished. Few American painters of Dawson's generation were as quick to grasp the implications of Cubist syntax and to employ it with such obvious ease. He was clearly undaunted by its very radical and unfamiliar idiom, probably because he had already developed something even more radical on his own, and he brought to his Cubist paintings some personal twists of his own.
Perhaps the most notable of these twists was Dawson's interest in deliberately incorporating certain echoes of the old masters in his Cubist paintings. In an essay for the catalogue of this show, Mrs. Gedo identifies the sources of certain pictures in such works as Correggio's ''Danae'' and Vermeer's ''The Love Letter.'' There is thus a sense, I suppose, in which it can be said that Dawson became a somewhat more conservative modernist in Europe -once he saw what was going on and tried to square it with what he saw in the museums - than he had been when painting in isolation in Chicago. All in all, a strange story about which we shall probably be hearing more in the future.
Other exhibitions this week include: Nancy Graves (Knoedler, 19 East 70th Street): It is probably a mistake for Nancy Graves to show her paintings alongside her sculpture as she is doing in this exhibition of new work. While the paintings are pleasant enough in their decorative niceties, it is in the sculpture that we find her strongest artistic statements. This is particularly the case with the three smaller works in the show - ''Locomorph,'' ''Urbscalem'' and ''Archaeolem'' - in which, curiously, the artist's pictorial sensibility seems to be freer and more incisive in its inventive energy than in the paintings. In these open-form bronze constructions the ghost of David Smith seems to be engaged in a very lively dialogue with some of the farther-out ideas of the 1970's, and the result is full of engaging surprises. (Through April 23.)
Helen Hoie (Babcock, 20 East 67th Street): To the tradition of the small abstract collage, in which every nuance of color, texture and shape assumes a special importance, Helen Hoie brings considerable gifts. Her feeling for the delicate paper materials she employs has the requisite sensitivity for this medium, and her sensibility for color - especially for close-valued dark and muted colors - is especially fine. Even if some of the titles did not tell us that Miss Hoie's subjects are often drawn from landscape and seascape motifs, we would readily sense the landscape paradigm that underlies each of these abstractions. There is a very touching poetic intelligence at work in these small pictures. (Through April 30.)
A version of this review appears in print on April 10, 1981, on Page C00019 of the National edition with the headline: ART: MANIERRE DAWSON, AN AMERICAN KANDINSKY. Order Reprints| Today's Paper|Subscribe