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Artist: Dorothy Dehner (American, 1901 - 1994)

Date: 1957
Medium: Black ink with transparent watercolor on wove paper.
Overall: 24 7/8 x 18 7/8in. (63.2 x 47.9cm)
Signed: recto, lower right (black ink): Dorothy Dehner '57
Credit Line: Museum Purchase
Object number: 57.49
Label Text
By the mid-1950s Dorothy Dehner had taken her place among the artists associated with Abstract Expressionism. The chance effects and spontaneity of her works on paper were similar to the works of others of that group. Like Adolph Gottlieb, Lee Krasner, and Mark Rothko, who preferred working with water-soluble inks on paper, Dehner was a remarkable innovator among watercolorists of the 1950s. (1)

In 1950 Dehner left Bolton Landing, New York, where she had lived with David Smith since the late 1920s. During their decades spent together and in subsequent years apart, they developed themes, explored abstract imagery, and used improvisational methods that are identified with Abstract Expressionism. (2)

Divorced in 1952, Dehner moved to New York City. She began working at the Sculpture Center in 1955 and created a number of small sculptures in wax that were subsequently cast in bronze. Watercolor, pen and ink, and oilstick works on paper from the mid-1950s attest to Dehner's return to a bold abstract format in that decade and anticipate her later sculpture of counterpoised volumetric forms.

Dance is an abstract, improvisational work. Here Dehner applied brilliant color to a wet surface, thus encouraging the creation of amorphous shapes that were accentuated by an ink drawing in overlay. As in many of Dehner's drawings of this period, black ink applied with a pen helped to anchor the composition. Dehner produced a number of these spontaneous drawings in a wet-on-wet format. Some have figurative references, but many are simply splashes of brilliant color on a variable surface with pen and ink accents. (3)

The subject of dance had a long history for Dehner. Born in Cleveland to an affluent family, she was given art and ballet lessons from an early age; she saw the famous ballerina Pavlova perform, and she was sent to Europe in her early twenties. The dance theme continues in her art, particularly in drawings of the 1940s when Dehner produced a series of gavottes, fandangos, and pas de deux. Each featured female subjects dancing with skeletons as a modern rendition of the traditional "Dances of Death" theme. (4) By 1957 the subject of the dance assumes the exuberance of her spirit at that time and her confident mastery of the medium. Dehner's drawings found their way into museum collections and private collections in these years, and she was beginning to receive recognition for her sculpture as well.

Sculpture dominated Dehner's interest after 1955 and was complemented by drawings and prints. Some works from the late 1950s and 1960s share Smith's interest in totemic forms, but landscape and still life subjects are also present. Dehner's approach and imagery had by this time taken more personal directions. The surface of the bronze becomes all important—Dehner at times even incising hidden messages into her sculpture by working the surface both before and after the casting. By the late 1950s, however, her work had increased in scale, and her personal imagery had developed. Dehner's sculpture combines issues of monumentality with intimacy and spatial complexity from the outset. In the 1960s her work was scaled to human proportions; her later heroic sculptures in fabricated steel are twenty feet high. As in her works on paper, Dehner balanced formal issues with self-referential, metaphorical imagery.

Joan Marter

1 For an assessment of Dehner's links to other Abstract Expressionist in her innovative use of watercolor and ink, see Esther T. Thyssen, "Bone Music #1 : A Dehner Ideograph," Yale University Art Gallery Bulletin (1997-98): 69-75.

2 Joan Marter, Dorothy Dehner and David Smith: Their Decades of Search and Fulfillment (NewBrunswick, N.J.: Zimmerli Art Museum, 1984).

3 See, for example, Douglas Dreishpoon, Between Transcendence and Brutality: American Sculpture Drawings from the 1940s and 1950s (Tampa, Fla.: Tampa Museum of Art, 1994), 26-33; plate II.

4 These drawings are unpublished and remain in the collection of the Dorothy Dehner Foundation for the Visual Arts, New York.

Presumed copyright: the artist or the artist's representative/heir(s).