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Report from the Front

Art criticism, sometimes with context, occasional politics. New shows: "events;" how to support the online edition: "works."



Manierre Dawson (1887-1969), Array in Brown, 1913-14.  Signed and dated at lower left, M. Dawson '13. Oil on canvas, 44 x 36 inches, 111.8 x 91.4 cm (5832). Image credit (c) Estate of Manierre Dawson, Courtesy Schoelkopf Gallery

I've long thought of Manierre Dawson (1887-1969) as "the pink cubist."  I'd only seen individual paintings by him in exhibitions of early American moderns and pink seemed a conspicuous part of his color schemes, while the dates of his paintings and their angular, convoluted shapes reminded me of Picasso & Braque during their heroic period of Analytic Cubism. I am a great fan of Analytic Cubism, so I welcomed the chance to see Dawson's work in greater depth.  On view at Schoelkopf on Manhattan's Upper East Side is "Manierre Dawson: Early Abstraction" (through August 26).  On view are 17 oil paintings done by this elusive master between 1906 and ca.1921 -- and with twelve done between 1910 and 1915, roughly the heyday of Analytic Cubism.

Turns out that Dawson's closest tie with Parisian cubism was not with Picasso or Braque but with Marcel Duchamp, during that brief period surrounding Duchamp's most famous cubist painting, "Nude Descending a Staircase No. 2" (1912).   But I'm getting ahead of my tale.


Born to a comfortably-situated Chicago family, Manierre Dawson "demonstrated an interest in drawing and painting at an early age," writes Randy J. Ploog, the Penn State University professor who co-authored the Manierre Dawson catalogue raisonné, in the very helpful essay that accompanies this exhibition. However much the Dawson parents cultivated the arts, though, their sons were expected to go into the professions, so young Manierre enrolled in the civil engineering program at the Armour Institute of Technology (now the Illinois Institute of Technology), and graduated in May 1909.


Prof. Ploog sees Dawson's civil engineering training, and in particular his coursework in mechanical drawing, as accounting for many aspects of his mature painting style. In an era before the widespread use of reinforced concrete, he explains, "engineers had to be able to determine the exact shape of each stone in a masonry arch, vault or dome and were required to provide stone cutters a template [or drawing] for each side of each stone. This is analogous to…presenting multiple views simultaneously, not unlike textbook explanations of cubism."


Well, not all textbooks, actually, only those following the formula laid down by Albert Gleizes and Jean Metzinger, two lesser cubists in a book called "Du Cubisme" published in 1912.   And those textbooks analyzing "Nude Descending" are more apt to explain that its multiple overlapping images refer to different moments in time as the subject –-- not the artist --- moves downward. 


However, Duchamp also took his cues not only from Italian Futurism but more importantly from science – the multiple photography of moving images as practiced by Étienne Marey, a French physiologist. Science – if only as a means to explain the baffling new images -- was never far apart from art in those days, and Duchamp's usage of Marey must have made him seem like a spiritual partner to Dawson, when the younger man encountered "Nude Descending" in the 1913 Armory Show.  But again, I'm getting ahead of my tale.


After taking his degree, Dawson went to work for Holabird & Roche, one of the distinguished Chicago architectural firms that had already pioneered in building the world's first skyscrapers.  And in June 1910 he took a 6-month leave of absence from his job to visit Europe, all the way from London to Sienna and with two stops in Paris.  Just about here is where I have a few problems with Prof. Ploog's essay.  It's not that I disagree with the claim he makes, just that a) I'm less impressed by it than he is, and b) this particular show doesn't have quite all the works necessary to support all his claims.


He leads off boldly, saying that the artist was "arguably the most innovative American artist of his generation. Dawson was exploring methods and styles like cubism and abstraction at the same time, or even before, his European contemporaries. At the end of 1908, the Chicago native painted in a geometric style similar to the cubism of Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque only months after they had developed that style in Paris."  That may be, but unfortunately the only painting in this show dated prior to 1910 is a totally representational still life, "Flowers in a Yellow Vase" (1906). It is lovely, but the only style I can associate it with is turn-of-the-century Art Nouveau.


Since the rest of the essay refers to paintings in the show, I'd hazard a guess that the show was originally scheduled to include one or more of these early geometric paintings by Dawson, and that the essay was written before such paintings were withdrawn from the show.   Be that as it may, however, not being able to see any of these "proto-cubist" paintings leaves me with an additional dilemma: wondering not only about their innovativeness but also about their quality. I am certainly impressed to hear about the pioneering nature of these paintings, but in my jaded old age, being "first" is less important than being "best."


This becomes a particular problem with the next claim that Prof. Ploog makes, when he writes that "A group of abstract paintings created by Dawson in the spring of 1910 predated the first abstractions painted by Wassily Kandinsky in Munich by over a year."  But all kinds of European artists have been credited with beating Kandinsky to the finish line in the "first abstraction" sweepstakes, from the highly decorative Czech Frantisek Kupka to the minimalist Russian Kasimir Malevich to the diagrammatic Swedish Hilma af Klint. 


None of what these artists produced are (in my opinion) nearly as good as the best paintings Kandinsky was making in the early years of the century—though his first true abstractions weren't made until around 1913.  He seems to have backdated one of them to 1910, but a scholar named Rose Carol Washton-Long has done a fine job of showing that great Kandinsky paintings like "Composition IV," done in 1911, are really chockablock with veiled Theosophical imagery of mountains and churches and people and so forth.


The reason I mention "Composition IV" in particular is that a large humped, mountain-like blue shape with a pointy top dominates its foreground.  This shape is surprisingly similar in its outline to the handful of outlined shapes that dominate the next earliest picture in the show at Schoelkopf. This is "Prognostic (Right Panel of Triptych)," it is signed and dated "MD '10" and it too is semi-abstract in composition, with figurative and decorative elements combined. Although the triptych may have been publicly exhibited, I can't see Kandinsky traveling to Chicago to view it, nor do I know of any contemporaneous published accounts reproducing it, so we are left with a very surprising coincidence --- of two artists coming up with very similar imagery despite living and working half a world away from each other.


According to Prof. Ploog, the segmented arch in the top left center of "Prognosis" and the construction lines in the lower center "closely imitate" lines in one of Dawson's college textbooks on mechanical drawing. And according to Dawson himself, the black dots and bars scattered throughout the painting are "suggested by the pencils, pens and erasers generally strewn over a student's drawing board." We might suspect a common source if Kandinsky had ever studied mechanical drawing, but before he decided to become an artist, he studied law and economics at university -- not engineering.


As far as Paris was concerned, though, there is a very substantial article that appeared on the eve of Dawson's trip to Europe. Called "The Wild Men of Paris," it had been written by an American critic (and wit) named Gelett Burgess. Based on interviews with Picasso, Braque and other avant-garde artists, it was illustrated with pictures of a handful of cubist pictures and appeared in the May 1910 issue of Architectural Record. The fact that Dawson was working for an architectural firm at the time makes me yet more inclined to believe that Dawson saw it – besides the fact that he was already into far-out art. 


Additionally, when he got to Paris, he was invited to a Saturday evening soirée at the home of Gertrude Stein and visited the gallery of Ambroise Vollard. (The visit to Stein's house had been facilitated by one of his colleagues at Holabird & Roche, reinforcing my notion that it was a happening kind of place.) My sources disagree as to where and when in Paris he first saw the work of Cézanne, and whether or not he saw the work of Picasso at all.


Hilton Kramer, reviewing a 1981 show of Dawson's in the New York Times at what was then the Robert Schoelkopf gallery, says flatly that most of the paintings in that show belonged "to the Cubist vein that Dawson developed out of his keen interest in Cézanne – whose work he probably saw at Vollard's – and his encounter with Picasso's work at Gertrude Stein's…..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."


Prof. Ploog makes no reference to Dawson's having seen Picasso work in Paris. He says that Dawson saw work by Cézanne at Stein's house and was prompted by it to begin painting cubist-like pictures upon his return to Chicago (also that Stein had bought one of Dawson's pictures from him – his first sale).


In any event, there's a vast change from the light, airy "Prognostic" to the paintings dated after Dawson's trip to Europe.  The later paintings are often if not always much more abstract, with vaguely geometric shapes (curved ones as well as those bounded by straight lines.). They tend to have darker and/or cloudier colors.  Brown becomes a favorite hue with touches of light red, pink and other highlights.  But beyond that it's difficult to generalize.


To judge from this show, consistency wasn't Dawson's strong suit. Rather, the selection on view suggests that his fascination with experiment and trying out new ideas led to pictures whose style varies all over the lot.


While in Europe he had spent much time in museums, studying the Old Masters. Back in Chicago, he tried blending his geometric, post-Cézanne style with imitations of these Old Masters. "Blue Boy" (1912) is the largest example of this, with the young man of Gainsborough posed coyly in the center of the picture, and geometric, curved but three-dimensional abstract forms curling up around him. The effect is subtly comical.


At the other end of the artistic gamut is a total  abstraction called "Passed Correlations (1913). This is a completely flat composition, with a pattern of angular small shapes of pale brown floating on a dark brown field.


Then there were moments when Dawson put advanced painting in his rearview mirror.  "Pot and Green Leaves" (1915) is a very nice rendition of a flower pot with green leaves curling out of it – and an abstract background.


Finally, I am happy to say, there are moments when everything really comes off. The back wall of the gallery space at Schoelkopf is one of these moments, with three of the best pictures in the entire show lined up on it.


To the left is "Madonna" (1911).  This is another one of Dawson's adaptations of an Old Master, in this case "The Virgin of the Rocks," by Leonardo da Vinci – but it is much more successful than "Blue Boy."  Done in mauve, mint and brown, it is the palest of the three on this wall, with slightly choppy swooping, swirling forms holding it together.


To the right is "Night Figures" (1914), which is the darkest of the three, with purples of various shades surrounded by blacks. It conveys a rushing movement, from left to right, of several shapes that reminded me of tall and muscular, striding and possibly female  figures. Very impressive


Still, the crown goes to the painting very correctly hung as the centerpiece in this lineup, and deserving of this placement not just because it's the biggest (44" x 36").   This is "Array in Brown" (1913-14), and there's a whole story behind it, relating to yet more contact with similar artistic souls, both European and American.


On Dawson's way home from Europe, he had stopped in New York and there (thanks to a mutual friend in Chicago) met Arthur B. Davies, whose delicate paintings of woodland nymphs had constituted the most conservative wing of "The Eight," when their show shocked the New York art world in 1908.


When Davies met Dawson, his taste (if not his art) seems to have been moving in a more radical direction, for in the next few years, he would become an organizer of the celebrated Armory Show of 1913 – and invite Dawson to participate.  Alas, the Chicago artist had just stored all his best paintings at the family summer house in rural Michigan, and it was the dead of winter – no way of retrieving them.


After the Armory Show moved from New York to Chicago, though, a fellow organizer of Davies' managed to get a Dawson painting included in the Chicago venue.  And that Chicago venue seems to have been meaningful for the young artist in other ways.


From a financial point of view, it was a bit of a downer:  he spent so much time at the Armory Show that he and Holabird & Roche were obliged to part ways (whether he was fired or just quit, nobody knows).


More importantly, and despite the very negative response to the show on the part of hoi polloi, Dawson rejoiced in the discovery of so many kindred spirits. Prof. Ploog quotes from the artist's journal this touching passage: "These are without question the most exciting days of my life.….I am feeling elated.  I had thought of myself as an anomaly and had to defend myself, many times, as not crazy; and here now in the Art Institute many artists are presented showing these very inventive departures from the academies."


Dawson was so impressed by the show that he even bought a painting out of it: a Duchamp very similar to "Nude Descending a Staircase" that would eventually become known as "Sad Young Man on a Train" (1911-12).  The painting hung in the younger artist's home for nine years (before being sold to Arthur Jerome Eddy, a prominent lawyer, writer and art collector). And I would quite agree with Prof. Ploog when he says it undoubtedly influenced "Array in Brown" and other pictures.


However, it was "influence" with a difference – not the standard meaning of a painting that looks like another artist's painting. "Array in Brown" is done in browns and creams and yes, pinks, but much darker and richer in its color scheme than either Duchamp.


Moreover, it totally lacks the vestiges of figuration that dominate both Duchamps: it is purely abstract –dominated by a giant, rotating pinwheel, centered in the lower left, with jagged but harmonious shapes surrounding it. "Array in Brown" has tremendous authority, enormous punch.  To use a painter's term, it works.


Yes, but how about the influence, you ask.    By this I simply mean the confidence that comes from knowing that one is not alone – that instead one is surrounded by a congeries of comrades – all different from each other but together adding up to a single glorious mob. This gives the painting a kind of strength that earlier Dawsons (in this show, anyway) lack.


And you know what? Personally, I prefer "Array in Brown" to either Duchamp

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