One of the fun bits about an exhibition that tells one curator’s story of the beginning of abstraction isn’t just seeing who’s there, but seeing who was left out. If there’s a better art historical parlor game than musing on who isn’t in MoMA curator Leah Dickerman’s thrilling “Inventing Abstraction, 1910-1925,” I don’t know what it is. So over the next week or three, I’ll share some artists I was surprised weren’t included. Earlier: Matisse.
The most overlooked and underrated American modernist — and maybe the most overlooked modernist, period — is Chicago-based civil engineer and Michigan fruit-grower Manierre Dawson. He was America’s first abstract painter and probably the most experimental too. Dawson’s New York peers, including Marsden Hartley, Alfred Steiglitz and Arthur Dove, are included in “Inventing Abstraction,” but Dawson is not. Along with Matisse, he’s the show’s most disappointing omission.
Dawson’s absence from a major early abstraction exhibition is all the more surprising because The Three Graces and Hollis Taggert Galleries published a catalogue raisonne of Dawson’s work in 2011. The handsome, thorough 334-page book was researched by Randy J. Ploog and Myra Bairstow and edited by Ani Boyajian. Ploog also contributed an important essay on Dawson’s life and work. It’s a must-own for anyone interested in the history of American art. [Image: Dawson, Xdx, 1910. Collection of the Brooklyn Museum.]
Ploog reports that Dawson (1887-1969) started painted abstractions in 1910, just after he’d joined the Chicago architecture firm Holabird and Roche, making him America’s first abstract painter. At the time, Dawson seems not to have had any awareness of the European or the fledgling American avant-garde, excepting possibly a familiarity with Cezanne. That summer he left for a year-long grand tour of Europe and found himself more interested in art than in architecture. He soon left Holabird and Roche to devote most of his time to painting and to running a Michigan fruit farm. After being fairly prolific in the 1910s, Dawson produced relatively little in the 1920s, almost nothing in the 1930s, only to spend the 1940s and 1950s exploring reliefs and sculptures. Dawson’s is far from the typical modernist story.
For the most part, historians and curators have not caught up with it. The first major exhibition of Dawson’s work was at the Grand Rapids Art Museum in 1966; the most recent was in 2006, at the Illinois State Museum. In 1977 the MCA Chicago launched a retrospective and the Whitney examined his work in a 1988 show. It’s not just “Inventing Abstraction” that excludes Dawson: In the years the Whitney show, Dawson has almost never been included in historical shows which examine early American modernism. For example: He would have been an important component of recent Philadelphia and Baltimore exhibitions that have examined Cezanne’s influence, but he was not included. (Many of his New York-based American modernist peers were.)
Despite a somewhat peripatetic exhibition history, Dawson is reasonably well-held by major American museums. The Metropolitan Museum of Art has three. The Hirshhorn has four, the Art Institute of Chicago has two and the Brooklyn Museum, Cleveland, Dayton, VMFA, MoMA, San Diego, the Joslyn, the Whitney, Yale and dozens of smaller museums each have one. [Image: Dawson, Statement, ca. 1913. Collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.]
Dawson’s significance is not limited to mere chronological prominence. His earliest abstract paintings are compositionally intricate. They hold the viewer’s eye within the field, somehow encouraging a viewer to look for a clue to subject, but never quite delivering it. His paintings seem to feed off of an energy derived from interlocking shapes and lines that seem to push in on each other rather than out toward the edges of the canvas.
Like many artists exploring abstract painting in the 1910s, Dawson seems not to have felt it necessary to commit to representation or the lack thereof: In 1910 Dawson made paintings that seem rooted in architecture, then abstractions. (Gertrude Stein was impressed: When Dawson visited Paris in 1910, he was invited to a Stein soiree and she purchased a painting from him, his first sale.)
Dawson returned to the figure in 1911 and 1912 and painted it in a vibrant cubist manner. When he wanted to add more color to his paintings he turned away from cubism and toward a style vaguely, but not exactly futurist. Dawson was never a great colorist — for many years he was most comfortable filling paintings with a dozen shades of flesh tones — but when he added more color to his palette 1913 and 1914, he quickly figured out how to mix his new interest with his understanding of composition. [Image: Dawson, Equation, 1914. Collection of the Joslyn Art Museum.]
Dawson is hiding in plain sight: The museums that have his work quite frequently install it in their collection galleries. (For example: Two of the Met’s Dawsons are up now, and have been for several years.) I hope we see Dawson included in more histories of his period in the coming years.
Related: See many more Dawsons at the catalogue raisonne’s web home.