As I set foot in each new museum, I find myself sailing backwards in time without meaning to. A (first) visit to the Metropolitan Museum of Art just unmoored me again. Aside from it being the location of one of my favorite childhood books, From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler by E.L. Konigsburg (and really cool), it contains two collages I had never seen by Arthur Dove (1880-1946). Dove, an early twentieth century artist, is often referred to as the first American abstract painter. I think he disagreed with the wording. In a 1929 catalogue essay he wrote that, "There is no such thing as abstraction. It is extraction, gravitation toward a certain direction…" (1967, 20). His collages are made up of materials extracted from his environment: the sea and land, the natural landscapes he loved. The objects reflect the content and sometimes are seen as intentional jokes. Definite subjects are present and you can feel the pull towards these "certain direction[s]."
From 1924-27 Dove created twenty-five collages in addition to the oil paintings for which he is most known. They were the focus of a Spring 1967 show Arthur Dove: The Years of Collage at the University of Maryland, College Park, and a catalogue essay by Dorothy Rylander Johnson. During the time he created the collages he was living on a small sailboat. Canvas then, for Dove, was both the stuff of his art and of his life. The collages are playful, the textures and objects are used sometimes literally, sometimes symbolically. The catalogue, typical of the 1960s, was printed in black and white, and unfortunately it is nearly impossible to guess at the textures and colors of the collages. Excerpts from Dove's letters and poems are included, the latter are unremarkable overall, but they do contain stand-out lines such as, "My wish is…not to revolutionize nor reform but to enjoy life out loud…" (20, in a statement for a 1916 catalogue). The two collages I saw embody that spirit.
In the 1924 Portrait of Ralph Dusenberry, Dove incorporated a folding ruler, a piece of a hymn, a flag, and pieces of weathered wood, likely from the area where he and Dusenberry lived on their boats. As an explanation of the materials, Dove wrote, "His father was a minister. He and his brother were architects…When tight he always sang 'Shall We Gather At The River" (14). The fragment of the hymn is funny since it refers to a pious father and to an irreverent drunken condition simultaneously. Johnson, the essayist, described the materials wonderfully as a "personality inventory." The materials would have had personal meaning both to the maker and to the subject of the work. I love the image of taking an inventory of someone's personality and creating it in tangible form.
In Hand Sewing Machine (1927), Dove used the materials literally and made the common seem beautiful. The sewing machine was painted on aluminum and scratched in certain areas to show the metal; the cloth being sewn is linen and does contain some stitching; resin and graphite were also used; all were encased in a handmade frame. According to the 1967 catalogue, Dove nailed canvas to homemade stretcher bars when he was nine, and later stretched his own canvasses, and built his own frames. The wall text at the Met says that this machine "would already have been considered old-fashioned by the 1920s. However, Dove and his wife owned one and used it in their daily lives." They used an object from the past to create something seen in the future, an action we all do daily, perhaps without realizing it. In a letter to Alfred Stieglitz, (7) Dove wrote, "The future seems to be gone through by a spiral spring from the past. The tension in the spring is the important thing." I interpret that to mean that he was interested in showing how two things rub up against each other and conflict, or how they show an evolution.
Dove combined and arranged symbols in new and striking compositions, and, to his mind, always representational of something: extracting art from life and trying to show change. Using objects as symbols can be tricky in all art forms, including fiction and in books that use found materials; the symbols can come across as obvious (keys, for example, standing for locking or unlocking of knowledge or emotions), and it seems he avoided clichés. I think that in Dove's case, the work holds up even if we don't always know what the symbols stand for. In a poem called, "A Way to Look at Things," Dove wrote, "Works of nature are abstract./They do not lean on other things for meaning/…That the mountainside looks like a face is accidental." Meaning is not inherent, we are the ones who give our life meaning by making connections and by repeating actions. Making art is a ritual, as is looking at it. I came into the gallery to find new meaning and came away learning something new from the old, surprised to find "life out loud."
As a last thought, I leave you with a line from Dove's same poem. In it you can feel, perhaps, a compass indicating Dove's direction, a moving forward, and the natural world that is larger than us, "We have not yet made shoes that fit like sand."