New Acquisitions: Works by Dorothy Dehner

Nasher Sculpture Center
Jul 24, 2019 4:16PM

Thanks to the generous support of the Kaleta A. Doolin Fund for Women Artists, the Nasher Sculpture Center has been able to purchase a significant sculpture by the American artist Dorothy Dehner (1901–1994), and the Dorothy Dehner Foundation has reciprocated with a gift of seven works on paper. Born into Abstract Expressionism’s first generation of artists, Dehner included among her artistic peers her first husband David Smith as well as Ibram Lassaw, Herbert Ferber, and her close friend Louise Nevelson. After growing up in Ohio and California, she moved to New York to study at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts, but during a 1925 trip to Europe she was exposed to modern art in Paris, which inspired her to pursue art. On her return to New York, she enrolled at the Art Students League, studying drawing but finding sculpture classes too conservative after herexperience with the work of Picasso, Lipchitz, and other artists in Paris.

Dorothy Dehner, Bird Machine #3, 1952. Etching, 15 x 19 in. (38.1 x 48.3 cm), Nasher Sculpture Center, Gift of the Dorothy Dehner Foundation. Copyright Dorothy Dehner Foundation/Artist Rights Society (ARS), New York. Photo: Kevin Todora

Dehner met David Smith at her rooming house in 1926. Newly arrived in New York, he too enrolled at the League after meeting Dehner, and they married the following year. They focused on painting, studying with the Czech-born Modernist Jan Matulka. During the 1930s, Dehner turned from abstraction to representation; although she was interested in pursuing sculpture, Smith discouraged her from its practice. During their time together in Bolton Landing, New York, at a farm they purchased in 1929, Dehner was deeply involved in Smith’s work. She offered advice and often gave titles to his sculptures—the Nasher’s Smith sculpture Perfidious Albion, which formerly belonged to Dehner, owes its title to her.

During the 1940s, drawing became Dehner’s primary creative outlet. In 1949, she produced Star Cage, an abstract watercolor of vividly hued washes and jagged lines evoking constellations in the night sky. According to art historian Joan Marter, president of the Dorothy Dehner Foundation, Dehner recalled that Smith came into her studio, admired the drawing, and said that he would like to make a sculpture. When Dehner proposed a collaboration, Smith declared himself “too jealous” for that. Instead, in 1950 Smith made a painted steel sculpture he titled Star Cage that has close affinities with Dehner’s drawing.

Dorothy Dehner, Untitled, 1953. Watercolor and pen and ink, 18 . x 23 in. (48.4 x 58.4 cm), Nasher Sculpture Center, Gift of the Dorothy Dehner Foundation. Copyright Dorothy Dehner Foundation/Artist Rights Society (ARS), New York. Photo: Kevin Todora

In 1950, Dehner left Smith and divorced him shortly thereafter. Aware of the need to support herself and eager to devote herself to her own work, she obtained a degree from Skidmore College in 1952 and returned to New York City, where she began teaching and making drawings. After her first one-person show there at Rose Fried Gallery in 1952, she showed regularly for many years at Willard Gallery, which also represented Smith.

In 1952, Dehner also began making prints, which reawakened her desire to make sculpture. Shortly thereafter she began to make three-dimensional works from wax using an experimental technique she had started to explore while still at Bolton Landing. In the early 1950s, she developed this into a viable working method derived from the traditional process of lost-wax casting, creating models built up from small pieces of wax that she frequently drew or scratched into, then joined together to create grid-based matrixes of form. Beginning in 1955, she started having her pieces cast in bronze. For the next three decades, she focused largely on sculpture, complemented by drawings and prints.

Dehner’s use of wax and bronze to create solid, singular works was innovative and unusual for its time, giving her work a density that belies the negative spaces permeating her compositions, as well as a sensuous, tactile surface that sets her apart from other sculptors of her generation: What her male peers created through the industrial process of welding, Dehner achieved by adapting one of the oldest sculptural processes in existence to a situation all too common to women artists of her era—a lack of space and resources that made working part-to-part in an intimately sized studio a necessity.

Dorothy Dehner, River Landscape #4, 1953. Engraving. Nasher Sculpture Center, 9 x 22 in. (22.9 x 55.9 cm) Gift of the Dorothy Dehner Foundation. Copyright Dorothy Dehner Foundation/Artist Rights Society (ARS), New York. Photo: Kevin Todora

In 1965, Dehner showed a decade of her work in a retrospective at the Jewish Museum. In the 1970s, her sculptural practice shifted to the creation of assemblages in wood, an easier material for the aging artist to handle. During the 1980s, she had large-scale sculptures based on her earlier, smaller bronzes fabricated in Cor-Ten steel. Although her sculpture was acclaimed in the first decade of her career, extenuating circumstances led it to become marginalized in the years that followed. Dehner has suffered the neglect that often occurs with women artists, especially those who have been partnered with well-known male artists—a situation intensified in Dehner’s case by Smith’s unexpected death in 1965, which led her to become a primary source for legions of researchers on his work. Additionally, she was caught in a generational change that affected many of her contemporaries when critical discourse in the late 1960s shifted to the concerns of younger Minimal artists, who were critical of the sculptural vocabulary and relational compositions characteristic of her generation as well as the sense of touch apparent on the surfaces of her works.

Dehner’s cast bronzes conjure associations with both architecture and landscape, her sculptural vocabulary growing out of the works on paper that had sustained her at Bolton Landing. She experimented with different sculptural formats, including vertical, totemic works; suspended, needlelike forms; landscapes tipped upright to become shallow freestanding sculptures; wall-mounted reliefs; and horizontally oriented works that traverse tabletop surfaces. Her years in nature at Bolton Landing as well as travels earlier in her life fueled the conception, imagery, and titles of her sculptural works, as well as her works on paper.

Dorothy Dehner, Low Landscape No. 3, 1961. Bronze, unique. 7 x 32 x 21 in. (19 x 82.6 x 54.6 cm) Nasher Sculpture Center, acquired through the Kaleta A. Doolin Acquisitions Fund for Women Artists. Copyright Dorothy Dehner Foundation/Artist Rights Society (ARS), New York. Photo: Kevin Todora

The sculpture acquired by the Nasher, Low Landscape No. 3, is one of Dehner’s most substantial works in her signature method of unique, solid bronze sculptures cast from handbuilt wax models. Employing the part-to-part constructivist compositional language common among her generation of artists, Dehner created abstract works with strong allusions to architecture and landscape, nature and travel. Low Landscape No. 3 summons both the enveloping sensation of being fully within a landscape and the impression of looking down from an elevated vantage point.

Low Landscape No. 3 is unique among Dehner’s cast bronzes for its scale in combination with its horizontal disposition. Her other horizontally oriented sculptures are smaller and tend to be constructed as if they are journeys, extending from one node of compositional activity to the next. With other sculptures bearing similar titles, Dehner raised them upright and attached them to a plinth, lending them a pictorial aspect. Low Landscape No. 3 suggests that a certain monumentality was needed to sustain the compositional power of Dehner’s work in a horizontal orientation, and it also suggests the physical limits of her method: A sculpture of this size in joined pieces of wax must have been highly fragile. A virtuosic demonstration of Dehner’s intimate familiarity with the strengths and limitations of her materials, Low Landscape No. 3 was displayed in her 1965 Jewish Museum retrospective and in her 1967 exhibition at the Hyde Collection, but rarely since.

Dorothy Dehner, Grid Lock, 1953. Etching, 12 x 15 in. (31.8 x 38.1 cm) Nasher Sculpture Center, Gift of the Dorothy Dehner Foundation. Copyright Dorothy Dehner Foundation/Artist Rights Society (ARS), New York Photo: Kevin Todora

The Dorothy Dehner Foundation’s gift to the Nasher includes four drawings that span the artist’s work from the late 1940s through the end of the following decade, the very years she developed the signature sculptural style embodied in Low Landscape No. 3. The earliest drawing, from 1947, is an untitled landscape created at Bolton Landing at a time when Dehner was beginning to move back into abstraction after years of painting and drawing in a representational manner. The sense of immersion in nature, conveyed by the rhythms of its all-over composition, would persist in Dehner’s abstract drawings and sculptures. Another drawing, Saratoga Springs, exemplifies her idiosyncratic manner of working in watercolor and ink, a method combining wet-in-wet processes that allowed her materials to flow and bleed into one another and into the paper, with Dehner going back with pen to draw and scratch into the work’s surface.

Dorothy Dehner, Untitled, 1954. Watercolor and ink, 4 . x 5 . in. (12 x 14.6 cm), Nasher Sculpture Center, Gift of the Dorothy Dehner Foundation. Copyright Dorothy Dehner Foundation/Artist Rights Society (ARS), New York. Photo: Kevin Todora

Printmaking was pivotal to Dehner’s work as a sculptor, and the Foundation has included in its gift three prints Dehner made at Atelier 17, the innovative printmaking workshop founded by Stanley William Hayter, where she began working in 1952. At Atelier 17 the emphasis lay more on exploring the possibilities of printmaking—particularly engraving and etching—than on publishing editions of prints. Despite Hayter’s emphasis on the masculine qualities of physical mastery required to control the engraving process, Atelier 17 was a welcoming place for women, who comprised nearly half its artists and included, in addition to Dehner, Louise Nevelson, Louise Bourgeois, Sue Fuller, and Anne Ryan.

Dehner credited the process of engraving, in which the artist scratches directly into a copper plate with a stylus called a burin, with reawakening her interest in creating sculpture. She kept the copper plates from her time at Atelier 17, occasionally displaying them as sculptural objects. At Atelier 17, Dehner worked her plates until she decided they were resolved to her liking, often combining engraving with etching and aquatint. Although she kept a few proofs along with her plates, she did not execute an edition of any of her prints until nearly the end of her life.

Dorothy Dehner, Untitled [landscape], 1947. Pen and ink with gouache. 12 . x 17 in. (31.8 x 43.2 cm). Nasher Sculpture Center, Gift of the Dorothy Dehner Foundation. Copyright Dorothy Dehner Foundation/Artist Rights Society (ARS), New York. Photo: Kevin Todora

Dehner’s work is an important addition to the Nasher Sculpture Center’s collection. In addition to the close creative dialogue she enjoyed for many years with Smith, her sculpture has important resonances with many artists in the collection. She joins the Nasher’s mid-century works by American artists, including Smith, Willem de Kooning, Raoul Hague, Isamu Noguchi, Richard Stankiewicz, and John Chamberlain. Her sense of touch and involvement with wax find common ground with Medardo Rosso’s earlier experiments with lostwax casting, while the importance of drawing and printmaking to her sculpture places her in the company of artists likewise represented in the Nasher’s collection by both sculptures and works on paper, including Tony Smith, James Magee, Jacques Lipchitz, David Bates, and Manuel Neri.

Dorothy Dehner, Saratoga Springs, 1951. Watercolor and pen and ink, 18 . x 23 in. (48.4 x 58.4 cm). Nasher Sculpture Center, Gift of the Dorothy Dehner Foundation. Copyright Dorothy Dehner Foundation/Artist Rights Society (ARS), New YorkPhoto: Kevin Todora

Written by Catherine Craft, Ph.D., Curator, Nasher Sculpture Center

Nasher Sculpture Center