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About the Author
Read an Excerpt
By Rachael Z. DeLue
The University of Chicago PressCopyright © 2016 The University of Chicago
All rights reserved.
Arthur Dove painted Sun Drawing Water in January of 1933 (fig. 2). At the time, Dove lived with his wife, the artist Helen Torr, on their boat, the Mona, moored at Halesite, on the North Shore of Long Island. Like many of his paintings from this period, Sun Drawing Water takes the landscape of the shore as its subject. Yet the work retains only a glimmer of the particulars of locale and place, as if recalling something seen in a dream — the curve of the beach here, the surge of the water there — or perhaps registering an afterimage, the lingering residue of the world once perceived. This is typical of Dove's art. Throughout his career, Dove drew inspiration from the stuff of the observable, material world. And then he distorted, even disfigured this stuff, pushing the majority of his pictures to the cusp of nonobjectivity, distorting and inventing without altogether abandoning reference to the real. In this he was not in the least unique or special, for he shared his tendency toward abstraction with numerous artists among the American and European avant-garde.
In Sun Drawing Water, Dove represents the heave and surge of ocean meeting land. Waves at the bottom edge of the canvas, rendered in gray, light blue, and blue-green, gently press against what we take to be the shore, that bulge of yellow-green that extends across the lower half of the canvas. The transparent softness of the paint that designates the waves, diluted so that it approaches the feel of watercolor, evokes the fluid and constant lapping of water onto sand, the back-and-forth pull and swish of liquid across a semisolid expanse. Clouds pass over the scene, and at left, just above the point where one of these clouds arcs elegantly into its own wavelike form, the sun presses through the haze of fog and damp, its rays disappearing behind patches of blue and reappearing as wide yellow bands that bend and flow across the sky.
Put another way: In Sun Drawing Water, the viewer sees what he or she might see on a visit to the Long Island shore. But that viewer perceives far more than just this, gaining visual access to things that one should not be able to make out at all, phenomena that are not visible or apprehensible by way of the naked eye: wind, evaporation, light, tidal force. To be sure, one can see the effects of these phenomena: objects blown by the wind; water drying up; the sun's glow and the things that it brings to light; the tide moving in and out over the course of a day. But one cannot see cause; that is, one cannot discern the actual forces behind these end effects, the phenomena of which these things are the ultimate result: changes in barometric pressure and the consequent movement of air mass (wind), the transition of molecules from a liquid to a gaseous state (evaporation), electromagnetic radiation moving in wave- or particle-form through air (light), the gravitational effect of one body on another (the moon acting on the earth so as to create the tides).
In Dove's world, however, viewers are made privy to what the unaided eye cannot see. In Sun Drawing Water, the transmutation of molecules from liquid to gas — the mechanism of evaporation — manifests visually in the thrusting blue-gray cylinders at the center of the canvas, chutes of water sucked into the sky. The fading of darker blue into light yellow-gray toward the top of the cylinders, where they round off and dissolve into cloud, reiterates this idea — the transformation of a substance from one state into another — as does the transition from black to yellow that occurs just as the V-shaped ribbon at center traverses the boundary between land and air. This and the other ribbons swirling in the sky do not seem to denote anything that one might see at the shore, save for maybe the tails of kites, but that is not what they are. These twisting forms that undulate across and plunge up and down appear to be Dove's attempt to give to light a material, pictorial form, standing for the wave patterns of light as it travels through air. The downward plunge of the "V" visualizes the action of light and heat on the earth's surface, its upward surge the aftereffect of this action: water transformed into the stuff of atmosphere. The swirling ribbons also register wind, the bulk flow of air in time and through space. Early in his career, on the occasion of the Chicago exhibition of "The Ten Commandments," Dove explained his efforts to depict wind, making clear his intentions to render first and foremost the force itself. To paint a cyclone, he said, "I would paint the mighty folds of the wind. ... I would show repetitions and convolutions of the rage of the tempest. I would paint the wind, not a landscape chastised by the wind." The repeating swerves and jigs of the ribbons in Sun Drawing Water impart the motion of wind as it folds and bends in space, an unseen force making its way through equally unseen terrain. The stacked bands of tonally varied yellow-green that designate the rise of land toward the front of the scene also diagram wind. Each band signals a mass of air touching a spot along the curve of the hill as it moves, the tonal striations from light at the base to darker at the top evoking traversal across the space as a whole as well as the variations of color we see in a field of beach grass buffeted by billowing gusts, as the waxy undersides of blades are exposed, creating a shifting sea of darker and lighter greens.
These ribbons may have served another, additional purpose: that of visualizing the flight of birds. Prominent in two watercolor studies Dove made for Sun Drawing Water, similar lines appear in other of Dove's paintings, including his Seagull Motif (Violet and Green) (1928) (fig. 3). In both canvases these lines appear to represent, in visual, abstract form, what the unassisted eye cannot see: the drafts of air produced by the flapping of wings as well as the drafts produced by the wind on which seagulls float and soar, those forces of lift and drag that constitute the aerodynamics of flight. The lines might also represent the idea of movement itself, the effect of displacement in time and space. During the short period he was at work on Sun Drawing Water, Dove wrote a long letter to Stieglitz. He wrote this letter while on a train headed home from Geneva, New York, where he had traveled after the death of his mother. In the letter, Dove told Stieglitz that he had made two watercolors while aboard the train, and he also described what he saw as he rode: "A light fall of snow. And a green stream following the train." Sun Drawing Water does not depict a view from a train window as does another of Dove's works, Fields of Grain Seen from Train (1931), which registers through telescoping perspective the combined effect of a fast-passing foreground and a static distance, but the ribbons that twist through the cloudy sky of Dove's seaside scene do call to mind the meander of a stream through a snowy landscape. Their ripples and swells also evoke the idea of a moving stream, one that flows as all streams do but that also appears to "follow" a moving object, such as a train. By rendering through these ribbons the perceived effect of a stream relocating and advancing on terrain, keeping time with the train, it may be that Dove wished to insert into Sun Drawing Water an emblem of the journey that interrupted his work on the painting. He started to paint Sun Drawing Water on January 17 and completed the picture in just under two weeks, wrapping up on January 31, but the train trip to Geneva, which occurred during this interval, forced Dove to leave off painting for several days. The ribbon forms thus instill within the picture the temporality of its creation, for these forms act as a pictorial souvenir of Dove's trip and his train-bound encounter with the tag-along stream. The memory of a stream that seemed to accompany him in time and space furnished Dove with an emblem of the temporal and geographic interlude that constituted the painting's coming into being, the serial displacement of the stream transmuting in Sun Drawing Water into the shimmer and swirl of wind, water vapor, and birds moving in air.
The impulse to render in visual form the nonvisible or phenomena not perceivable by the unassisted human eye marks many of Dove's pictures. As other scholars have previously suggested, if not explored at length, Dove wished for these supersighted paintings to show his viewers the world anew, to grant access to a kind of superhuman vision. In Fog Horns (1929) (fig. 4), for instance, Dove transforms sonic sensation into visible matter, with spiraling bands of gray, purple, and plum diagramming the travel of sound waves through air as well as the perceived transmutation of sound — here, that of a foghorn signal — as relative to a stationary listener. In Moon (1935) (fig. 5), a tree stands silhouetted against the glow of the lunar sky. Dove shows what the moon does, not what it looks like, and he gives visual form to its actions on the earth, marshaling paint to make seen what is normally unavailable to the eye. The trunk establishes a literal connection between moon and earth, as if to evoke the gravitational force exerted by the one on the other, the brown limb pressing toward the ground as if bending under the weight and pull of the radiant orb. The shift in the outmost circle from black, in the bottom half, to blue, in the upper, gives visual form to the idea of a lunar phase, the waxing and waning of the illuminated portion of the moon as visible from earth that the eye can only see as a series of fixed states, unable as it is to detect the infinitesimal and constant transformations in size and shape of this illuminated patch that occur during the lunar cycle. I am struck by how much Dove's concentric circles here conjure something like a giant, staring eye, suggesting that Dove indeed depicts a view of things as if seen by a superhuman orb, so that all of a sudden the unseeable, physical forces that govern the earth appear in plain sight.
Dove frequently employed such a concentric circle motif to render the motion and mechanics of light or celestial bodies, both in his paintings, as in Me and the Moon (1937), Silver Sun (1929), and Sunrise III (1936–1937), and throughout his small-scale sketches and studies, where the motif proliferates in myriad forms (figs. 52, 6, 7). In Sunrise III the sun and its rays take on a concentric cast, while curving lines and biomorphic forms amplify the rotational force of the composition, an effect reproduced in Sunrise I and Sunrise II, both 1936, which together with Sunrise III form a series. In Silver Sun, careening circles originate in inky black and spiral out through shades of blue to a whitish-gray, visualizing radiating light as well as the movement of the earth around the sun, what one sees only as a series of static spatial displacements as the earth's position relative to the sun shifts over the course of a day. A smaller concentric circle motif appears just beneath these forms, hovering at the earth's crust, its tonalities reversing that of its larger counterpart: dark on the outside, light at center. This point-counterpoint maps the operation of reflection, light cast onto and bounced off a surface, a phenomenon that Dove registers materially here by way of a metal-based silver paint, so that the canvas becomes, quite literally, a medium of reflection, reflecting and refracting waves of light across and through its silvery metal sheen. A similar big-circle, little-circle pairing occurs in Dove's Sunrise, Northport Harbor (1929) (fig. 8), where the sun at the horizon confronts its reversed reflection in the waves beneath it, dark orange migrating from perimeter to center in the shift from sun to not-quite-mirror image. In Golden Sun (1937) (fig. 9), Dove doubly figures the travel of light waves from sun to earth's surface: by concentric bands of yellow and white and by a collection of lines that slice through space, originating at or near the sun's yellow center, traveling through layers of paint, and touching down amid encircling bands of green and stacked strips of black and gray.
In Naples Yellow Morning (1935) (fig. 10), Dove establishes a similar yellow-sun, green-earth connection by way of a whimsical collection of concentric circle motifs. Just as the bands of yellow diagram the transmission of light from sky to earth, the bands of green that make up two tree-forms evoke vegetal growth, the budding and spreading of leaves and branches over a period of time, a process made possible by the sun and that one cannot literally see. The blue and blue-gray cloud-amoebas continue this lesson in natural science. Situated between the sun and the trees against a backdrop of pale-yellow atmosphere, their moisture-laden heft and drag evokes the interrelationships among light, plant, oxygen, and water that make up the stuff of vegetal life, constituting the chemical process vital to the growth of plants — photosynthesis, fully described within science by the nineteenth century — and essential to all life on earth. The title of this work refers, of course, to the time of day depicted in the scene and to the yellow light of the morning sun, but it also refers to the paint that Dove used to create it, Naples yellow, a synthetic, lead-based pigment, with roots in the Renaissance, that lands somewhere between the soft yellow of banana flesh and the brighter yellow of a daffodil. Naples yellow is remarkable as a yellow for its paradoxically cool warmth, something that probably appealed to Dove, for this quality allowed him to capture the morning's admixture of sun and chill — the anticipation of warmth, rather than heat itself. Dove cited his media in other titles, such as Pozzuoli Red (1941) (fig. 11), which refers to a pigment of clay tinted warm red-brown by iron oxide and obtained from iron ore deposits near Pozzuoli, Italy. In such cases, the title indicates both the painting's subject matter and its medium, thus alluding to both the what and the how, a doubled reference most fitting for Naples Morning Yellow, which describes a process, photosynthesis, as well as the product of this process.
Dove's efforts to render unseeable aspects of the physical universe somehow available to the visual sense coincided with similar exertions on the part of other artists of the period as well as with comparable undertakings in other disciplines, including the sciences. Diagrams, charts, graphs, and mathematical equations and symbols had begun to supersede illustrations of objective appearance so as to make possible the picturing of a whole range of newly theorized but not necessarily observed phenomena and effects. Exemplary is a diagram of the structure of the radium atom that appeared in The Atom and the Bohr Theory of Its Structure (1923) by H. A. Kramers and Helge Holst, which only abstractly approximates rather than illustrates the atom's form (fig. 12). Dove would have been acquainted with this range of imagery and with the spheres of inquiry that had given rise to it. He took a course in physics while enrolled at Cornell. He noted in his ship's log that he had borrowed a telescope and consulted astronomy texts obtained at the library in Huntington, on Long Island, while at work on an assemblage, Starry Heavens (1924), that depicts the moon, stars, and the Big and Little Dippers, star groupings within the constellations Ursa Major and Ursa Minor (fig. 133). In a 1934 letter to Stieglitz, he named Albert Einstein as one of four in a list of "the few great ones" (the other three were his childhood mentor Newton Weatherly, Alfred Stieglitz, and Jesus Christ), and Dove's son, William Dove, reported that there were two people his father wished he had been able to meet during his lifetime: Gertrude Stein was one, and Einstein was the other. Dove made numerous specific references to Einstein in his correspondence and writing. In letters to Steiglitz, he noted an Einstein essay as well as an interview that he had read and enjoyed, and he also referred to popular studies of the physicist's work, including Bertrand Russell's The ABC of Relativity (1925), which Dove purchased at a bookshop in New York in 1929. In 1930, he wrote to Stieglitz that "Einstein ... is more of a painter than most literature and a great deal of art." An undated typewritten essay of Dove's indicates that Einstein's ideas had affected him so much that he found it almost impossible "to sit and make paintings with what I know any more." In 1920, a critic referred to Dove as a member of "the Einstein school." Dove also made allusions in his writing, including in the undated essay, to both Euclidean and non-Euclidean geometry and to the concept of the fourth dimension, which was theorized in the late nineteenth century and the early twentieth as a yet undetected physical characteristic of space and a realm of higher consciousness, and he cited or alluded to numerous other sources from the realms of science and philosophy that took up consideration of the laws or fundamental forces of nature and the matter of rendering these laws and forces in pictorial or graphic form.
Excerpted from Arthur Dove by Rachael Z. DeLue. Copyright © 2016 The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
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