Summary of Dorothy Dehner
For an artist who came into her own in early middle-age, Dehner left an indelible mark on twentieth century American sculpture. Though critics are apt to attach her to the rise of the New York School, her work remains rather difficult to pigeonhole. It does reveal, however, a consistently in its commitment to the legacies of the early century European avant-garde. Her standing is that of a highly accomplished sculptor - and, to a slightly lesser degree, her drawings/watercolors - whose most famous pieces are totem-like structures that incorporate abstract symbols and place stress on contour over mass. Having escaped a suffocating and cruel marriage to the sculptor David Smith, Dehner saw the potential for abstraction to convey personal and universal emotions, sometimes even with a feel for humor that was conspicuously absent in the work of so many of her contemporaries.
- The strength of Dehner's style is that it remains rather allusive and difficult to situate within a single style or movement. However, her "signature" sculptures, often realized through wax planar slabs (to which she might introduce other textures such as small metal pieces) tended to marry natural and architectural elements. Dehner's liking for totem-like structures remained constant throughout her career and typically incorporated motifs in the shape of arcs, hemispherical (crescent) moons, ellipses, wedges, circles and arches.
- Inspired by her tours of Europe, Dehner's sculpture reflected most the influences of Constructivism and classical Greek sculpture. These pieces saw her combine the mythological (Classical) and the monumental (Constructivist) as a means of self-examination. Touching on themes such as the passing of time and memory, Dehner stated, "[I wanted] to express my feelings and thoughts [and to] distil them so they will be pristine and clear and come back to me".
- Dehner's vertical compositions were complemented by a selection of smaller horizontal - "open scaffold" - sculptures that represented the landscape, and iconography drawn from nature. The emphasis on layering and line allowed these fragile sculptures to catch light in a way that recreated the natural world. The spectator was able to experience the shifting light patterns as they moved around Dehner's abstract structures.
- Dehner produced a series of pen/ink/watercolor images that stand as a reminder of her life at Bolton Landing. Though these pieces provided the blueprints for her more famous sculptures, the drawings/watercolors possess a unique quality all of their own. Taking her inspiration from nature and the organic forms she found in her immediate surroundings, these pieces possess, in the words of art critic Jo Ann Lewis, "sculptural impulses that seem ready to burst into three dimensions".
Biography of Dorothy Dehner
Dorothy Dehner was the eldest of three children born to liberal parents. Her father was the proprietor of a Cleveland pharmacy and a would-be author who penned several unpublished short stories. Speaking of his leftist leanings in an Oral History interview for the Smithsonian Institution's Archives of American Art, Dehner claimed that her father inherited his political views from his émigré grandfather who brought with him his "interest in Socialism [from] Germany". She added that although he "stopped being a Socialist [...] because he thought America was a paradise anyhow and didn't need any such thing", his political ideals "hung on to my father" who became a Democrat and "very active in Cleveland politics [by way] of the populist movement in the Middle West".