Although Arthur Dove was not afforded a great deal of critical or commercial attention during his career, recent reappraisals of his work have acknowledged his importance as a seminal figure in twentieth century American art. Not only was Dove’s work an important conduit for the modernist spirit of the Fauvist and Cubist works he encountered in his early travels in Europe, but he also furthered the scope and ambition of these early modernists in an uniquely American idiom of his own creation. Dove explored the terra incognita of subjective abstraction in a body of work that is virtually unequalled today for its striking diversity and historical significance.
This discussion will present a discussion of the key elements of Dove’s style as he progressed from a top commercial artist in the then-highly lucrative market of magazine illustration, to his emergence as one of the most important innovators of non-objective abstract painting. Particular focus will be placed on outlining the unique characteristics of Dove’s style. Finally, in conclusion, an overarching assessment of Dove’s historical significance in the context of twentieth century art will be made.
Taken in an individual context, Dove’s paintings and collages are not exceedingly dramatic or instantly attention grabbing. This lack of immediate engagement probably accounts for the disparity of critical and commercial success that Dove experienced during his lifetime as compared to some of the artists with whom he was associated, such as Alfred Stieglitz and Georgia O’Keefe. Even the bold paintings from the end of Dove’s life, which are heavily geometrical and painted in a palette of primary colors, are not overly bombastic or ostentatious.
Instead of immediately demanding the attention of the viewer, the power of Dove’s work is cumulative and slow-moving. This unique resonance is best appreciated in viewing a large number of Dove’s works sequentially, or in spending a substantial amount of time in meditation on a single painting. In this manner, it is possible to fully appreciate the thematic and stylistic density that, at first glance, is often concealed by the figural simplicity and absence of narrative that characterizes many of Dove’s works.
While these tenets apply equally to the works produced throughout most of Dove’s working life, they are most clearly exemplified in his paintings that sought to transmit a particular sound or feeling into visual form. For example, Dove’s 1929 painting Fog Horns translates the blare of foghorns into an abstraction that is immediately recognizable, on some subconscious, intuitive level, to anyone who has ever encountered their colossal cacophony.