Twenty Years After Her Death, Dorothy Dehner Is Celebrated for Her Voice and Vision

The celebrated sculptor, painter, and draftsperson Dorothy Dehner (1901-1994) came into her own when she was in her 50s. Her bold steps to find personal and artistic freedom paid off, and, more than 20 years after her death, her work continues to be enjoyed—this winter, at Chicago’s Valerie Carberry Gallery.

Though she studied dance and theater, and acted for a time in Off Broadway productions in New York, Dorothy Dehner found her truest passion in making art. “Just making art itself is the great thing. It has always been my biggest thrill. It’s a joy, a high, better than ten martinis!” she once exclaimed. Her early studies in movement and drama informed her energetic, gestural paintings, drawings, and sculptures. She remained largely under-the-radar until the 1950s, when a cascade of events both tumultuous—she divorced her husband, the sculptor David Smith, whose career was given priority in their relationship—and fortuitous (she made her first foray into sculpture) set her on a new course to the highly successful and celebrated career she enjoyed until the end of her life. Admiration for her work continues posthumously. A selection of the artist’s sculptures and drawings from the 1970s are currently on view in “Dorothy Dehner: Compositions and Constructions,” at Valerie Carberry Gallery.

“I was never taught sculpture at all; nobody told me anything. I didn’t need it. The minute I had [the wax] in my hands, I knew what to do,” Dehner once said about her movement into three dimensions, referring to the ancient lost-wax method she used to cast her first sculpture, a small bronze work influenced by surrealism. The works included in the exhibition are wood, a material she began experimenting with in the 1970s. These sculptures, together with her ink-on-paper drawings, evince her playful wit and her indebtedness to such European avant-garde movements as constructivism, cubism, and surrealism. With their clear architectural and urban landscape references, they also reveal her interest in New York, the ever-changing city that she called home.

A number of her sculptures are composed of precariously stacked, variously shaped individual pieces. Like the skyscrapers that surrounded her, they rise vertiginously upwards, with each individual unit dependent on the next to maintain their delicate vertical balance. To remove one piece would be to disrupt this exquisite equilibrium and to risk that the entire structure would come toppling down.

Karen Kedmey

Dorothy Dehner: Compositions and Constructions” is on view at Valerie Carberry Gallery, Chicago, Jan. 16–Mar. 14, 2015.

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