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Dorothy Dehner Photo

Dorothy Dehner

American Painter and Sculptor

Born: December 23, 1901 - Cleveland, Ohio
Died: September 22, 1994 - New York, New York
"I want to express my feelings and thoughts, and I want to distill them so they will be pristine and clear and come back at me...with a new life they never had when inside me."
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Dorothy Dehner
"The minute I started doing sculpture I felt that it was something I had done all my life. I had no problems with energy."
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Dorothy Dehner
"I knew my work was good. I didn't doubt it. That was the curious part. I doubted me, but I had faith in my work."
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Dorothy Dehner
"I don't care about the art world...That isn't it. I live in my own art world now. But just making the art itself is the great thing. It has always been my biggest thrill. It's a joy, a high; better than 10 martinis!"
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Dorothy Dehner
"I never wanted fame. There's nothing that fills you with joy like finishing a piece that you love."
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Dorothy Dehner
"I think I've been influenced by everything I ever saw, and by every artist's work."
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Dorothy Dehner

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 Photo

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".

Important Art by Dorothy Dehner

Progression of Art
The People in the Story; Bolton Landing (1949)

The People in the Story; Bolton Landing

This pen/ink/watercolor amounts to a record of Dehner's life at Bolton Landing in upstate New York during which time she endured an arduous marriage to the sculptor David Smith. Forbidden by Smith from pursuing her own love of sculpture, Dehner made the best of her circumstances by channelling her creative impulses into drawing and painting. This image does not literally represent people in a story set in Bolton Landing. Rather, the abstract shapes and symbols, which Dehner took directly from her natural habitat, are formed into six vertical totem-like shapes that, with the benefit of the work's title, helps the viewer to relate to them as human figures. Using ink, Dehner draws abstract geometric shapes that appear to gesticulate and are thus possessed of a certain human quality. The watercolor wash adds to the figures' connectivity and brings to the composition its sense of "a story".

The People in the Story; Bolton Landing represents the linear and geometric figures that became the predominant feature of Dehner's works during the 1940s and 1950s. Though not studies for specific sculptures, these works nevertheless anticipate her fascination with the organic forms and totemic structures that would became a recurrent theme in her mature art. Dehner offered the title of this work as a direct reference to her time at Bolton Landing (during the 1930s and 1940s) and it is testament to the fact that, although her life with Smith was oppressive, one could still find a sense of escape in their connection with their natural surrounding and through creative activity. As President of the Dorothy Dehner Foundation, Joan M. Marter, notes, this work "acknowledges that abstract symbols can communicate content that is private, but with universal implications".

Pen and ink and watercolor wash on paper - Smithsonian American Art Museum


New City

This watercolor and ink hybrid is an example of Dehner's linear architectural style. The lines intersect to create larger geometric shapes that create an abstracted topography, not too dissimilar to a city subway map. As Samantha Friedman, associate curator of drawings and prints at MoMA put it, "this wonderful ink and watercolor drawing features an intricate web, a kind of crackling of plates, extending from a soft and translucent colored core". Indeed, the watercolor washes, in a light blue and a red that appears among her other mixed media works, blends into a purplish hue in places. This blurring, along with the seemingly spontaneous use of line - in defiance of a strictly ordered urban grid - suggests an underlying organic quality. Moreover, the work illustrates Dehner's idiosyncratic "wet-on-wet" approach that saw the two mediums (ink and watercolor) bleed into one another and, indeed, soak into the paper.

Thematically, the work carves out a location for the individual, while emphasizing a sense of universal connection. While the lines deviate from a regular urban grid system, the overarching sense of a city's connection as a constellation of beings remains a vivid visual description. The work was produced following Dehner's separation from Smith and her relocation from Bolton Landing to New York City. This new sense of liberation coincided with her time at the printmaking studio, Atelier 17. As Catherine Craft, Curator at the Nasher Sculpture Center observed, in spite of its "emphasis on the masculine qualities of physical mastery required to control the engraving process, Atelier 17 was a welcoming place for women, who comprised nearly half its artists and included, in addition to Dehner, Louise Nevelson, Louise Bourgeois, Sue Fuller, and Anne Ryan". Indeed, the studio provided a haven for Dehner as she prepared to transition from two- to three-dimensional art.

Watercolor and ink on paper - MoMA, New York



Torgate, one of Dehner's first forays into the lost wax method (solid bronze sculptures cast from hand built wax models) is a fine example of how the artist sought to combine the influences of the natural world with architectural lines. Recalling the Constructivist influences on her earlier ink drawings, Dehner's open scaffolding of linear elements resembles, according to Marter, "many similarities to the predominant abstractions of the 1950s, including openwork direct metal constructions by Ibram Lassaw, and the cage constructions of Herbert Ferber and Seymour Lipton". Additionally, this work seems to evoke the sculptures of both Alberto Giacometti and, indeed, ex-husband David Smith.

The synthesis of nature and architecture are alluded to in the work's title which borrows its name from the torii gates found throughout Asia. Tori gates are associated particularly with the Shinto religion in Japan and their linear structure act as a gateway that demarcates a point of transition into a sacred space. In Japan, moreover, the Shinto religion is closely elided with the natural world; torii serving as a visual reminder of the kami, the supernatural beings that inhabit the surrounding world. In Torgate, Dehner thus emphasizes a greater universal connection between humanity, nature, and a higher mystical order.

Bronze - The Dorothy Dehner Foundation


Low Landscape No. 3

Low Landscape No. 3 combines Dehner's piecemeal Constructivist aesthetic with naturalism, landscape and the idea of travel. A horizontal work, the maze-like components draw the viewer in from above and invites her or him to become lost in the landscape. The labyrinthine arrangement of mountainous ridges gives the viewer an omnipotent vantage point and invites them to peruse the landscape. Whereas landscapes rendered in sculpture tended to be presented in rounder biomorphic figurations, Dehner breaks from that convention through her use of linear components; her use of line reinforcing her preference for symbolic over literal communication. It also allows the sculpture to catch light, recreating the effect of shifts in natural light as one moves around and lingers within the landscape.

Pouring molten bronze directly into the mold dissolved the wax and resulted in the look of a work wrought in metal (while her male contemporaries achieved this through welding, Dehner, constricted by supplies and space was forced to be creative with available materials). The process was cost prohibitive, however, and most of her sculptures created with this technique are of a smaller scale (though Low Landscape No. 3 was the largest of these). Craft notes that this sculpture "suggests that a certain monumentality was needed to sustain the compositional power of Dehner's work in a horizontal orientation, and it also suggests the physical limits of her method: A sculpture of this size in joined pieces of wax must have been highly fragile". Craft adds that the work amounts to a "virtuosic demonstration of Dehner's intimate familiarity with the strengths and limitations of her materials [and it] was displayed in her 1965 Jewish Museum retrospective and in her 1967 exhibition at the Hyde Collection, but rarely since".

Bronze - Nasher Sculpture Center



Dehner's use of the totemic motif continues in Encounter (1969). Focusing on line and contour, rather than the sheer mass of a bronze sculpture, the six parts of various sizes and proportions are grouped together as if in conversation. Though abstract, one can detect certain "Dehnerian" motifs in the individual totems such as moons, arcs, wedges and circles. Writers Marter and Paula Wizotski argue that "each of Dehner's sculptures can be interpreted as pages in a diary, with each block relating to a memory that narrates significant moments in her life", in this case, her tours of Europe and especially her stays in Greece and Russia.

The geometric lines provide an interesting juxtaposition of positive and negative space and relate to Dehner's exploration of the experiences of temporality. Gestural elements emphasize the unspoken communication of abstraction: the fleeting nature of time and memory, elicitations of nature and of the mythological. There is a structural and elemental dialogue to the structure that mirrors the ever-changing natures of time, the natural world, and our relationship within it. When comparing Encounter with Dehner's works on paper, these shared themes are palpable. And, the additional interspersed elements of crescent-moon and rounded figures remind us of the Surrealist works of Joan Miró.

Bronze in six parts - MoMA, New York



Produced very late into her career, Dehner's sculpture showed her interest in Constructivism and classical Greek sculpture. Fortissimo combined the elements of the mythological and the monumental as a means of self-examination. As she said, I wanted "to express my feelings and thoughts [and to] distil them so they will be pristine and clear and come back to me [...] with a new life they never had when inside me". Marter and Wizotski wrote: "often consisting of jagged elements reminiscent of ancient warriors and the severe silhouettes created by their armor [with] this vertical form [Dehner] also experimented with negative space, the area between and around parts of the structures, and how it could be manipulated to create additional forms". They noted, for instance, that Dehner had removed a semi-circular section from one of the upper blocks, which, "like a window into a private realm, both reveals and frames a fragment of the surrounding landscape".

deCordova Sculpture Park and Museum, Lincoln, Massachusetts

Influences and Connections

Influences on Artist
Dorothy Dehner
Influenced by Artist
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Content compiled and written by Jen Haller

Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Tony Todd

"Dorothy Dehner Artist Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. . TheArtStory.org
Content compiled and written by Jen Haller
Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Tony Todd
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First published on 14 Jun 2021. Updated and modified regularly
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