April 2010

Dorothy Dehner

The Met and the Whitney featured her work, but first the 20th-century artist had to leave her beloved Bolton Landing and the shadow of her famous husband.

Thanksgiving 1950 was when the Great Blowdown, with winds exceeding 105 miles per hour, tore up the Adirondacks. It was also when Dorothy Dehner finally left her husband, David Smith, for good, reckoning the tempest outside less fearsome than the ones that frequently and unpredictably blew through their home.

To the townsfolk of Bolton Landing in the 1930s and ’40s, Smith and Dehner were “those artists on the hill,” says former Bolton Historical Museum director Theta Curri, a freshman in college the year Dehner left town. Few Boltonians really understood what Smith was doing with the abstract assemblages of welded metal that populated the fields of the couple’s 86-acre farm, or that Smith would soon be considered one of the foremost American sculptors of his generation (see “Sculptor David Smith,” in June 2006). Fewer still knew that Dehner would go on to have a notable career as a sculptor herself.

It was only after she left Bolton Landing, where she and Smith had lived full-time for the better part of 10 years (and part-time for 20), that Dehner was able to fully realize her suppressed artistic longings and earn a measure of success and critical recognition. Yet, in her remaining four decades—she lived to be 92—she continued to look back fondly on her years in the Adirondacks as a time of “great elation and great sorrow,” and she and Smith re­mained friends until his death in a car accident in 1965.

But Dehner’s career would always be overshadowed by her ex-husband’s, even after he died. “I think she certainly deserves more attention than she’s received,” says Joan Marter, an art historian, Rutgers University professor and editor of Woman’s Art Journal. Marter has written about Dehner and Smith and is executor of Dehner’s estate. “I believe that, even now, with as many strides as we have made, women still have a harder time being taken seriously [as artists]. It’s even harder for a woman in an artist couple—she’s just seen as his disciple. That era, in particular, was difficult.”

In New York City Dehner and Smith were part of the Abstract Expressionist crowd that hung out at the Cedar Bar: Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko (who also spent a few summers in the Adirondacks), Arshile Gorky. Though several of the wives—most famously, Lee Krasner, who was married to Pollock—were serious artists, in the macho culture of the clique the women were treated as accessories. As Melanie Thernstrom, Dehner’s step-granddaughter, wrote in a 2002 New York Times Magazine essay about a sculpture Smith made of his wife bath­ing in a wheelbarrow, “The work seems to summarize the narrative of their stormy 23-year marriage: she wanted to be an artist, and he wanted her to be art.”

Dehner was born in 1901 in Cleveland, Ohio, and moved to Southern California in her teens. Her intellectually and politically aware parents exposed her to art, music, poetry, theater and dance. But by the time she was 15 her entire immediate family had died, and she went to live with her aunt Flo.

When Dehner was in her early 20s another aunt, free-spirited and unconventional Cora, encouraged her niece to travel alone in Europe; there she was introduced to the avant-garde art of the period, including Picasso and the Cubists.

Dehner had acted with the Pasadena Playhouse, studied dance and theater at UCLA for a year, and performed Off Broadway. After Europe, though, she turned her focus to visual art. With income from a small inheritance, she moved to a rooming house on New York’s Upper West Side and studied drawing and painting at the Art Students League. Originally she wanted to sculpt, but was unimpressed with the style of work produced by the sculpture students there.

In 1926 Dehner’s landlady introduced her to a new tenant who had inquired about art classes. David Smith was 20, four years younger than Dehner, but the pair clicked immediately. Dehner was petite and elegant, with a dancer’s grace; Smith was tall, sturdy and full of enthusiasm. The new friends walked around the city, talking most of the night about art, Dehner’s travels in Europe, and their lives. They were married in 1927.

At the Art Students League the couple studied with the modernist Jan Matulka, and Dehner produced her first abstract drawings in his classes. Weber Furlong, who was director of the school, and her husband, Thomás, had a farm in Bolton Landing where students would stay in the summer to sketch. Dehner and Smith spent a month there, fell in love with the location and bought a former fox farm on Edgecomb Pond Road for $3,000, in 1929.

The old farmhouse had no electricity or running water and was in bad shape. For the first decade, the couple spent only short periods in the summer or fall at the house, living the rest of the year in Brooklyn, where Smith set up a studio in a machine shop called the Terminal Iron Works. He eventually adopted the same name for his upstate studio. It wasn’t until they made the farm their permanent home, in 1940, that they realized how sorry a condition the house was in. When Aunt Flo came to visit, Dehner wrote, she remarked, “Oh, Dorothy, you have all of the luxuries and none of the necessities.”

Still, Dehner loved their new life in the country. “To smell the pines, the earth, and feel it, to breathe the winey air, all of that was something that I had yearned for, my whole life; like the coming of love,” she wrote in the catalog for a Smith exhibition at the Hyde Collection, in Glens Falls, in 1973. Unlike the arid brown Southern California mountains of her youth, she continued, in Bolton “it was like living in a giant salad bowl, all shades of green, all textures. So we both threw our hearts into country life; gardening, later on raising pigs and a few chickens, smoking hams, making sausage, and preserving uncounted jars of food for our larder.”

Martha Nodine, who befriended Dehner in the ’90s and is near completion of an extensive authorized biography, says the young artist had a “very romantic, very idealized” vision of how things would be in the Adirondacks—“You know, ‘We’re going to make our own way.’ She had no idea the drudgery [farm life entails]. I don’t think she knew what they were getting into.”

It was this romantic vision that Dehner depicted in a series of small paintings called Life on the Farm. These charming vignettes, inspired by a copy of the medieval manuscript Les Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry that Smith had given her, showed scenes from their rural existence: slaughtering pigs, square dancing and chatting with the locals at Bolton’s Alex’s Restaurant.

Although they were on friendly terms with their neighbors, the couple frequently went to Glens Falls, where they had a circle of friends that included the owners of a local bookstore. They also socialized with wealthy summer residents of Bolton Landing, like boat racer George Reis, who knew Dehner from her days at the Pasadena Playhouse and who owned a mansion on Lake George.

The Life on the Farm paintings, now owned by the Storm King Art Center, in Mountainville, New York, used to be part of an exhibition of Smith’s work there, but have since been taken down. Marter says Dehner was distraught that the paintings were no longer displayed. “She wanted to buy them back,” Marter recalls. “She was very attached to them.”

During the Bolton years Dehner also painted the Damnation Series, nightmarish scenes with ghoulish figures that, subconsciously, revealed the flip side of life on the farm—Smith’s violent outbursts and his lack of support for her artistic ambitions. One painting, Desert, from 1947, is a self-portrait depicting an emaciated nude woman in a barren landscape. “Contrast this with the self-image of a woman knitting as portrayed seven years earlier in David Reading About Himself. The growing tensions in her life are evident,” Marter writes in “Arcadian Nightmares: The Evolution of David Smith and Dorothy Dehner’s Work at Bolton Landing” in Reading Abstract Expressionism.

Although Smith appeared to respect and seek out his wife’s opinions about his work, and frequently called on her to title his sculptures, he was stingy with praise for her own endeavors. As Dehner told a Washington Post reporter in 1990, “Occasionally, when he saw a drawing he liked, he would say, ‘That’s kinda good—I’ll give you a nickel for that.’” These abstract works came to be known as Nickel Drawings.

Smith had his own studio, while Dehner painted at a small table in a corner of the house. And though, she wrote, she itched to try her hand at sculpture, she didn’t dare as long as she was married to Smith. Once, Smith admired an abstract drawing of hers and said it would make a good sculpture. When she suggested they collaborate on one, he told her he was “too jealous.” He went ahead with the sculpture himself, never crediting her for his inspiration.

The intense highs and lows of their relationship, present from the beginning, grew more ex­treme when they moved to the farm year-round. “In the city, if things got hot and heavy there was always someplace to go,” Curri, of the Bolton Historical Museum, says. “Then they moved up here, and they were very isolated. She was in the line of fire.”

In 1945 Dehner left Bolton and Smith for five months. Though she returned at Smith’s urging, the separation showed Dehner that she could survive without him. “This was no small accomplishment for a woman who had lost both of her parents at a young age, and who felt at the time that Smith was her closest living relative,” Marter writes. When Skidmore College, in Saratoga Springs, gave Dehner a solo exhibition in 1948, “her confidence soared.” She transitioned away from representational works to abstraction, and some of her compositions from this time, several critics have noted, look like they were meant to be translated into three-dimensional sculptures. Meanwhile, Smith’s career was starting to take off, with solo exhibitions in New York City and, in 1950 and ’51, Guggenheim fellowships.

The couple finished construction of a new house in 1949, complete with modern amenities and a studio for Dehner as well as Smith. But there was no rebuilding the relationship, it appeared. In 1950 Dehner wrote Smith a letter, urging him to go with her to counseling. “The upsets we have are bad for us,” she wrote. “I feel damaged, really damaged. I know you do too.… If you had not shown me the beauties of work and if I had not learned to be a good artist maybe this would not matter to me so desperately, but I know now that I have to have serenity around me to produce and to fulfill myself.”

Smith refused to go to therapy, and a few months later, after another blowup, Dehner split for good. “She felt that if she stayed he would kill her,” Nodine says.

Though Curri knew Dehner only in passing when she lived in Bolton Landing—“They were in a different social circle from my parents,” she says—their friendship began many years later, when Curri became director of the Bolton museum. Dehner spoke candidly to her about her troubled first marriage, and gave Cur­ri’s daughter advice on getting out of a bad relationship. To Dehner, Curri was a connection to the place she still loved.

“I admired her,” Curri says. “She was 50 and she’s starting out on her own. This is a woman with a hell of a lot of chutzpah. A lot of women would have just given up.”

But Dehner’s most productive and con­tented years were still ahead. She attended Skidmore College, where she was given credit for her earlier work and completed a degree in one year (the institution later awarded her an honorary PhD). She then moved to New York City and took several teaching positions. In 1952, the year her divorce became final, Dehner had her first solo exhibition in New York City, at the Rose Fried Gallery. The Whitney Museum of American Art included her in its annual exhibitions for the next decade.

In 1954 she finally rekindled her long-suppressed desire to create sculpture. She adopted the traditional lost-wax method to produce abstract cast-bronze sculptures, in contrast to Smith’s direct welded technique. Though some critics persisted in comparing Dehner’s art to Smith’s—by the 1960s he had become one of the best-known sculptors in the country—Marter says both her methods and style were distinct: her early pieces were smaller (under four feet) and concerned not only with contours and shapes, but with surface textures. Reviews were positive, with one critic admiring her work’s “sturdy visual elegance.”

Dehner wed Ferdinand Mann, a publisher who was supportive of her as an artist, in 1955. Smith also remarried and had two daughters with his second wife, Jane Freas, who left him in 1958.

Once Dehner was no longer Smith’s wife, he became a belated booster of her art, praising her to critics and giving en­couragement and advice in the letters they continued to exchange until his death.

Dehner switched from cast bronze to wood constructions in the 1970s, and to monumental fabricated steel in the early ’90s, after a pharmacist’s mistake left her legally blind. She consistently received good reviews, if not fame.

Retrospectives of Dehner’s art were staged at the Jewish Museum in New York in 1965 and in a touring exhibition that included the Katonah Museum of Art, the Corcoran Gallery and the Hyde Collection, starting in 1993, the year before she died. The New York Times described her work as having “a Surrealist lyricism.”

Marter says that one reason Dehner never received the recognition she de­served was that she wasn’t aggressive about promoting and marketing herself the way her famous sculptor friend Louise Nevelson (or Smith, for that matter) did. However, she would assert herself when she felt slighted. In the 1970s she wrote in a letter to the Cleveland Plain Dealer that she was “dismayed to find so much of David Smith in the review.… I wish to have my work stand on its own feet, without reference to the prestige now awarded to Smith’s own production.”

Yet she never begrudged Smith his ac­claim, pointing out that she was the first to recognize his talent. After his death, she obliged numerous requests to be interviewed about her ex-husband’s early career and their life together, ac­knowledging his personal shortcomings but emphasizing the positive. “I think she loved Smith to her dying day,” Nodine says. “They connected on so many levels.”

In “Two Lives,” a poem Dehner wrote long after she left Bolton Landing, the artist reflected on her long and, in her words, “interesting” life:

I was the Lady of the Lake,…
…I was the one who felt the chill
Of cold lake water on my thighs.
And trembled at the icy touch,
But felt however much it conquered me I loved it still.…
…Now I am a River Queen
… I occupy my bower and look down,
And throw my sceptre in the wake
Of ships that pass, and think
How once I was the Lady of the Lake.