Manierre Dawson (Dec. 1887 – Aug. 15, 1969, 81)
Intriguing pioneering American abstract artist, now mostly forgot because he quit and grew cherries.
- Pioneering young American abstract painter from 1910, clearly one of first in Western art.
- His Prognostic triptych of early 1910 clearly anticipates work of the later great Kandinsky.
- But age 27, despite a remarkable busy and productive start, the retiring outsider curiously hung up his brushes after 4 years to farm cherries. Did not stay in, play the game.
- This seems astonishing given his propitious start, including a visit in 1910 to Paris, of all times and places.
- Striking too is he came from nowhere, from minimal formal training in art, notwithstanding Europe 1910.
- Why did he quit despite the promising start? Basically not the fire in the belly?
- But most oddly, despite his achievement, and being American, he was completely omitted from MOMA’s 2013-14 “comprehensive” Inventing Abstraction, 1910-25 exhibition.
FEATURED IMAGE: 1910, Prognostic (centre panel). Oil on canvas, triptych, 85.7 × 90.8 cm, Milwaukee Art Museum
1910. Coordinate Escape, Oil on Composition Board, 48.3 x 36.8cm, Collection of Lynda and Stewart Resnick, Beverly Hills, California
COMMENT: striking abstract paintings from early 1910, from a young (22) untrained artist, without doubt near the earliest abstract paintings in Western art, and clearly derived from his maths training meeting a keen artistic mind.
1913 Wharf under mountain, 45.72 x 55.88 cm, Norton Museum of Art, Palm Beach, Florida.
COMMENT: striking is how different from his other work is his abstraction approach, both the imagery and bright bold colors. But is it abstract? Some will say there is clearly a ship there. Maybe sea below, a mountain behind, and green fields above that?
Famously it was his surreptitious entry to the Chicago (March/April 1913) version of the seminal 1913 Armory Show.
1913, Figure Party-Colored, Oil on board, 44 x 36 inches.
COMMENT: another quasi-abstract Cubo-Futurist work, but more colourful.
Dawson was a curious pioneering American modernist, an outsider, now largely forgot.
Though in his painting he struck abstraction / non-objective gold early – like from 1910 – he was completely omitted from MOMA’s 2013-14 “comprehensive” Inventing Abstraction, 1910-25 show.
This seems astonishing for a number of reasons.
First, not only was he clearly the first US abstract painter he was one of the first abstractionists in “Western” art, alongside the big names of Kandinsky, Kupka, Picabia et al in Europe.
Second, astonishing is that his Prognostic triptych of early 1910 clearly anticipates later work of the lauded Kandinsky. And some of his geometric abstraction motifs might even look ahead further to some Abstract Expressionists?
Third, he then mined this seam busily for about 4 years, fashioning his own take on Cubo-Futurist quasi-abstract modernist figuration.
So while his post 1911 Cubo-Futurist work is indeed derivative, and while his effective active career was only a brief 5 years or so, overall he left a remarkable and distinctive, if truncated, body of work, abstract and quasi-abstract.
Moreover one of his 1913 abstract works was hung in the Chicago showing of the seminal 1913 Armory exhibition.
Striking too is how, compared with peers, he came from nowhere. In 1910 he was young (23), had just finished an engineering degree and was painting part-time, working as a first year employee with an architects firm, had no formal training in art (but for one class in high school), and no exposure by then to the dynamic modern art scene.
Born and raised in Chicago, he started painting during his engineering degree (1905-09). Early 1910 he painted his first fully abstract works, then visited Europe for about 5 months in the back half of 1910.
But after painting keenly for about 4 years, after showing at the Armory in 1913, and in two significant exhibitions in 1914 (where he also sold some works), despite this achievement and his apparent passion, at 27 he quit full time art for good, disappeared to rural Michigan, his art with him, to become a full-time cherry farmer, and only an occasional artist.
Why did he abruptly abandon ship after such a promising start?
Dawson will remain something of an enigma.
Basically it appears he simply lacked the fire? He was not hungry and determined enough? Thus while he obviously recognised the importance of the 1913 Armory show he was timid in his response. Invited to show by the main organiser he refused, then when pressed by Pach he agreed to show a work in the Chicago viewing (ie his home town) but it went in late (so was omitted from the catalogue) and, at his request, was anonymous.
So he succumbed to short term domestic circumstances. Summer 1914 he met his future wife, from a family near his family’s country farm, the area where he then settled down, marrying July 1915.
Interesting too is that, despite signs in 1912, he never really persevered with his pioneering bolt-from-the-blue 1910 abstraction approach. He was perhaps too distracted by the Cubo-Futurism he met in Europe 1910.
He was not to be “discovered” for about 50 years, until well after WW2, near the end of his life, after the ageing artist contacted a nearby Florida museum.
Startling abstraction in Year 0: 1910
Manierre Dawson leaves quite a story.
There is no doubt this man (first name is his mother’s maiden name) from 1910 became a pioneering “Western” abstract painter, working keenly in Chicago for about 4 years, up there with the relevant big names in Europe, like Delaunay, Kandinsky, Kupka, Malevich, Mondrian, and Picabia.
In 1910 appear six fully abstract paintings.
The most striking is Prognostic (1910), a triptych with a big centre panel 86 x 91cm) and two wings about 2/3 as big (62 x 51cm). The abstraction motifs are clearly prescient of Kandinsky, as also is the smaller Differential complex (1910). (“Differential” referring to calculus), but before Kandinsky by some years, even 10 years? Kandinsky’s abstraction is far denser, more intricate and colourful, but anticipate him Dawson clearly does.
The primary inspirational source of his abstraction – the lines and circles – is commonly associated with his engineering education (1905-09), called “geometric”, and that certainly fits his 1910 work, like Xdx, Co-ordinate escape, and Discal Procession (showing a nest of curves). Prognostic is more complex, seems to use both maths and natural landscape references?
Colour was not a preoccupation with Dawson. Most of his works were subdued, monohromatic. All his abstraction is subdued, in monochromatic browns / oranges.
Why abstract for him?
Interesting is that his motivation for going abstract, after a brief (2-3 year?) figurative phase, was not spiritual (as the Whitney exhibition text of 1988 claimed) or philosophical (like for Kandinsky, Mondrian, Malevich) but simply curiosity stemming from his academic engineering training, especially the mathematical content.
This seems entirely valid for mathematics is certainly abstract, yet also profoundly important, “real”, because maths is the universal language used to express the underlying laws of physics which describe, underlie, the visible world, and which apply across our known universe.
Dawson on where his art comes from?
Dawson wrote in April 1911: “In trying to answer the questions that are repeatedly thrown at me, “What does it mean?” “What does it represent?” I have to start with a statement that sometimes helps. Art is a human invention.
In nature there was no art except that all creations of the Almighty are part of that Almighty.
“Art” as a word for us to use describes the invention of that part of creation that is man.
All nature is bearing down on us day after day. We cannot avoid it. Every form that we could use is there.
But away from nature and in the seclusion of the mind we can invent arrangements to be found nowhere else. One answer to the question, “What is it?” is to point to the picture and say, “It is that. It exists nowhere else.”
This doesn’t seem to say much?
Yet “we can invent arrangements to be found nowhere else” seems the essence?
As an artist he was, like some other pioneers, an outsider. He was largely self-taught, driven by his powerful interest.
Yes he was exposed early to Europe and some of its art, like about 23, and there briefly touched Paris, meeting Gertrude Stein.
And yes back then in the US he engaged with Arthur B Davies et al in New York, which led to his 1913 Armory appearance, but he was never formally trained in art, and after his brief early brush with the industry (including being shown in two exhibitions in 1914) he basically disappeared to fruit farming in Michigan.
He never pursued a full time career in art, cultivating support from dealers and museums.
So he remained little known till well after WW2, only near the end of his life. So “the first real recognition.. [finally came].. 1966 ..a retrospective .. by the Grand Rapids Art Museum [Michigan]..”. Exhibitions followed 1967 in Florida, catching the attention of Robert Schoelkopf who showed his work in New York in April 1969 and March 1981.
Why overlooked so long – despite his obvious contribution?
Easy. After striking gold early, for about 4 years, he just disappeared, to work full-time as a farmer.
So the art scene –which end of the day is a business, is about selling products (art works, museum and galley visits) to make money – passed him by for about 50 years, did not re-engage with him till the mid 1960s.
But omission from MOMA’s 2013-14 “Inventing Abstraction, 1910-25” seems absurd?
There is no doubt Dawson’s omission from MOMA’s 2013-14 Inventing Abstraction, 1910-25 exhibition was an egregious oversight, especially as an American who (after first declining an invitation to the NY show) was famously hung in the Chicago chapter of the important 1913 Armory show which showcased leading modernist European painters. His entry of Wharf under a mountain (1913) – the only abstract painting there by any American – hung alongside Duchamp, Picasso, Matisse and Kandinsky etc.
Also, unlike the German Otto Freundlich (1878-1943), another stunning omission from MOMA’s blockbuster, Dawson’s abstract oeuvre, from 1910, was prolific and substantial, creative and diverse, in the pioneering 4 year period to 1914.
Certainly he made it hard for the art scene to notice him, disappearing after only about 4 years. But that’s no excuse. And certainly by 2013 Dawson had been noticed by many in the field.
Thus his omission is even harder to understand given a 334 page catalogue raisonné (Ploog, Bairstow and Boyajian) of Dawson’s work was published 2011 by The Three Graces and Hollis Taggart Galleries.
The curators of Inventing Abstraction seem either careless or lazy, or perhaps possessed of some obscure political resistance to acknowledging this painter.
Arthur Dove (1880-1946), 7 years older, and who visited Europe and its art 1907-09 (ie before Dawson) is often cited as the first US abstract painter. He painted abstract early, motivated mainly by Nature, natural forms, and he was important, but he was not the first, clearly beaten by Dawson, in time (just) and also in terms of emphatic output, Dawson executing 6 meaningful such works in 1910.
But both Dawson and Dove were among the first abstractionists in Western art.
Dove is far better remembered simply because art remained his full time job, so he stayed painting, and he evolved. Returning from Europe in 1909 he was keen to stay in art and in this was strongly supported in New York by the keen photographer and pivotal modern art promoter Alfred Steiglitz, and his 291 gallery, where Dove showed 1910, again 1912 in a one man show.
Dove was included in MOMA’s Inventing Abstraction, along with Marsden Hartley (1877–1943), another important American modernist who also contributed to abstraction early on, from around 1912.
Another important American modernist painter, briefly mentioned in MOMA’s Inventing Abstraction, and who also showed in- made a splash in – the Armory, was Joseph Stella (1877–1946). Also supported by Steiglitz he contributed Futurist abstract images by 1914, but was energetic and imaginative across a wide range of styles.
The outcome invites speculation, like how might his art have evolved had he made it a full-time career – say in Chicago and maybe beyond, like NY – and how might his evolving output have impacted other artists?
Unfortunately we’ll never know, but we know he was industrious, committed and creative when for a short time he was focussed on art.
His path: the first abstract painter in the US and one of first in Western art.
Dawson started painting c1906, executed a few realist works before 1910, simple figurative outdoor scenes, a vase of flowers, and a modernist Still life (1908).
December 1908 he wrote in his journal, “This winter I am very hard at work . . . on several arbitrarily constructed paintings of arranged figures, blocking things out without rhyme or reason other than to make the picture look right.”.
1910 opened with two distinctive quasi-abstract paintings in monochrome browns, one (Rocky Pool) a landscape .
Then suddenly in 1910 appear six fully abstract paintings.
1911: after Europe, Cubo-Futurism
But still young (23), his 5 month trip to Europe abruptly shifted his art. He discovered Cubism, presumably in Paris and from 1911 he applied his version to interpreting a number of Classical subjects and Old Masters paintings, what Dawson himself referred to as his “museum paintings”.
Some critics have complained Dawson fell so madly for “Cubism” after Europe, “became a follower rather than a leader” (LACMA, Nov.2013), veering away from his distinctive abstraction. “He seems never to have been the same after Paris..” (Roberta Smith, NY Times August 1988). Thus there were no pure abstract works in 1911.
This is perhaps unfair, but is at least unfortunately he did not pursue his pioneering stark geometric abstraction of 1910.
His style did evolve, but mostly never far from variations on Cubo-Futurism?
So he painted a number of quasi-abstract figures, all in a distinctive modernist fractured monochromatic Cubo-Futurist style. And he did return to abstraction, albeit Cubist derived.
His Futurist reminds us of the approaches of some European modernists like Marcel Duchamp (1887-1968) in France / US, also the Englishman David Bomberg (1890-1957), cf Island of Joy (c1912).
Madonna (1911) apparently refers to Leonardo’s Virgin of the Rocks. Other Cubo-Futurist figurative works of Classical subjects are Hercules, The Three Graces, Lucrece, and Birth of Venus (1912).
In 1912 he applied the dynamic Cubist style many times, now including three larger paintings, all around 1.5 x 1.2 metres, like The Three Graces, Desdemona.
1912: more abstraction
Interestingly 1912 Dawson returned to abstraction, in a number of ways.
Two simple works – the subdued simple glyphic Painted wood relief, and the “geometric” Untitled (Study #30) – do recall his “geometric”1910 approach.
Untitled abstraction is more colourful and is again in the vein of Kandinsky
Blue complex moves on, is busier, denser.
And Personal Presentation is abstract after Cubo-Futurist.
Also in 1912 he suddenly paints a more colourful modernist quasi-abstract landscape, Red mur, but the lines of which clearly relate to his abstract works.
And in 1912 we again see a number of figurative Cubo-Futurist paintings, like Figures in Action (Struggle).
1913: more abstraction
1913 is another busy year, sees his style meaningfully evolve, him execute some major works, mostly abstract, now less figuration.
It includes a suddenly different abstract / quasi-abstract work, the colourful Wharf under mountain which was hung in the Armory (Chicago) show, though only after Walter Pach insisted Dawson show it. Dawson wrote 4 April 1913, “Walter said he had no trouble getting the painting hung.” It’s a bolder, darker, more Expressionist painting, lots of royal blue and some green and an intriguing title.
Essay in Brown (1913) clearly advances his abstraction, shows a tumble of jagged “objects” apparently against a rectilinear background.
Afternoon II is again monochromatic but denser, more intricate, seems to blend geometric and Cubist abstraction? And Compages of Classical Figures and Conversation also shift his abstraction.
We see a lot more Cubist abstraction (like Arroyo, Ascension, Figure Party-Colored (more colourful than usual), Meditation, Observation, The gate, and Thirteen).
And we see much less Futurist figuration (eg the larger Hercules I and II, and Trio), still in subdued monochromatic pale orange-brown tones.
Finally, different, we see two small Arthur Dove-like quasi-abstract paintings, Night flower and Beech.
1913: Armory (Chicago, Mar. 24-Apr. 15, 1913)
Dec.1912, Arthur B Davies invited him to participate in the International Exhibition of Modern Art (now known as the Armory Show) in New York (Feb. 15-Mar. 15, 1913) but he declined! He said he had nothing handy (recent) worth hanging, and worried that in winter he could not transport paintings in time, from their location at the family farm, ie his earlier 1910 paintings, which even he knew then were more important.
For the Chicago show Walter Pach persuaded Dawson to change his mind. There too he visited the show a number of times, and bought two paintings: Marcel Duchamp’s’s Nu (esquisse) (Nude [study]) now known as Jeune homme triste dans un train (Sad Young Man on a Train) (1911-12?) and Amadéo de Souza Cardoso’s Return from the Chase. Dawson was impressed by Duchamp’s work, not surprising because it chimes with his own. The painting he bought it now hangs in Guggenheim Venice because he had to sell ir not long after to pay the bills.
Chicago’s offering was a cut down version (634 works) of New York (where approx. 1300 works showed). “Much of the American art was gone, most of the radical European art remained.”. The show was championed by a few, condemned by many. But “Scandal and outrage bred interest” and 189,000 visited in 23 days, averaging about 8,200 per day, a higher outcome than NY.
Around the time of the Armory in Chicago (April 1913) he left his job, and wrote:
Since I left Holabird and Roche I’ve had a glorious time painting. Hanging over the mantel in the library is the Duchamp. I am having a good look at it. These three paintings I am doing now, Hercules I, II, III, may show D’s influence. I am contemplating more colorful things to come.
Did his viewing the Armory show (eg seeing Duchamp) change his art? Not significantly? Thus his Cubo-Futurist style – evident after Armory in Hercules – was well established by then.
But 1913 was a big year for his art and he did evolve.
1914: Dawson bails from full time art, but still evolving.
1914 also sees some variety, and shifts, and a fateful emphatic career move.
Meanwhile his abstraction motifs evolved, like in the more colourful Equation, and like Figure in Pink and Yellow.
Letters and numbers is what it seems, shifts again, has a Stuart Davis feel.
The darker Futurist Night figures again recalls David Bomberg, while geometric derived Untitled (Pictogram II) again recalls Kandinsky, but showing Dawson’s finger prints.
Then there are two similar figurative works, one much larger, both showing Futurist friezes of groups of people, Seven and Configuration.
Then mid 1914 he suddenly quits full time art.
After 1915 Dawson, now farming full time, executes far fewer works, paints little, though is still valid, still moving, especially the colourful quasi-abstract Figure by the window.
His Loft (1918) seems another pioneering work, an abstract image carved from laminated wood then painted, again monochromatically.
Then the more colourful quasi-abstract glyphic Untitled(c1920) is different but still Dawsonian.
Later too he began to sculpt, using materials encountered through his work.
He struggled financially and Rauschenberg-style began to make art from whatever was lying around, “cement, scraps of lumber, pieces of plywood”. Sculptures he made from “sheets of composite wood .. laminated together ..”
Dawson disappeared from the art world for 52 years, 1914 to 1966, when he showed at Grand Rapids Michigan, then 1967 at the John and Mable Ringing Museum in Sarasota, Florida, near his then home. There he was noticed by a NY dealer (Robert Schoelkopf) who showed him there 1969 and 1981.
He was shown in a 1977 retrospective at MCA Chicago, and 1988 at the Whitney.
Exhibition of Paintings and Drawings, Montross Gallery in New York, February 1914; the Detroit Museum of Art, March 1914; Cincinnati Museum of Art, March / April 5, 1914; and the Peabody Institute, Baltimore, April / May 1914.
Exhibition of Painting and Sculpture in ‘The Modern Spirit,’ Milwaukee Art Society, April 16–May 12, 1914.
Manierre Dawson, Milwaukee Art Institute, Jan. 1923.
Retrospective Paintings by Manierre Dawson, Grand Rapids Art Museum, Michigan, April 1966.
Manierre Dawson: Paintings 1909-1913, Ringling Museum of Art, Sarasota, Florida November 1967, Norton Gallery and School of Art, West Palm Beach, Florida, January / February 1968.
Manierre Dawson, Robert Schoelkopf Gallery, New York, April / May 1969
A Retrospective Exhibition of Painting, Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, 1977. Indiana University Art Museum
Manierre Dawson: Paintings 1910-1914, Robert Schoelkopf Gallery, New York, 1981
Manierre Dawson: American Modernist Painter, Tildon-Foley Gallery, New Orleans, May / June 1988.
Manierrre Dawson Early Abstractionist, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, July / September 1988.
Manierre Dawson American Pioneer of Abstract Art, Hollis Taggart Galleries, New York, October 1999.
Manierre Dawson American Pioneer of Abstract Art, Swope Art Museum, Terre Haute, Indiana, December 2000.
Manierre Dawson: New Revelations, Hollis Taggart Galleries, Chicago, May / June 2003.
Manierre Dawson: A Startling Presence, Illinois State Museum, Springfield, March / August 2006.
Manierre Dawson, Hollis Taggart Galleries, New York, April 2011.
Manierre Dawson was the 2nd of 4 sons born to George Dawson and Eva (Manierre) Dawson in Chicago, a middle class family, father a lawyer, who supported the arts but as a hobby but not a career.
Dawson’s only formal art training came from classes with Miss Dorothy Dimock at high school in Chicago. Here he met Arthur W. Dow’s instruction manual Composition (1899). Dow favoured “beauty over representation.”, which can be read as “let your mind go.”
Dawson really discovered art during a 4 year civil engineering degree course at the Armour Institute of Technology [he wrote: “All these days of hard study at Armour Tech, where I am taking a course in civil engineering, are brightened by continuing the making of pictures on week-ends.”] so when he graduated 1909 he quickly switched to painting, commencing his first abstract paintings as early as spring of 1910, in this apparently influenced by some of his engineering training (analytic geometry?), while a first-year employee at the Chicago architectural firm.
But granted 6 months leave he departed in mid-June 1910 for his one and only trip abroad, to Europe. He travelled across England to France (Paris), south through Germany, across Switzerland to Italy (in Siena meeting John Singer Sargent), back north for a second stay in Paris, and around northern Germany, leaving for home late-November. On his 2nd visit to Paris he met Gertrude Stein (who reportedly bought a painting), saw paintings by Cézanne (and others?) in Ambrose Vollard’s gallery.
In NY, on the way home, he met painter Arthur B. Davies who introduced him to Albert Pinkham Ryder, another painter.
Inspired by Europe – and meeting Davies? – he painted keenly 1911 through 1914
Dec.1912, Davies invited him to participate in the Armory Show) in New York (Feb. 15-Mar. 15, 1913). He initially declined but did show one work in Chicago.
April 1913 he left his architectural job.
In 1914, Dawson participated in two group exhibitions. One called “Fourteen”, meaning 14 current American artists, was organized by Arthur B Davies and Walter Pach, sponsored by the Montrose Gallery in NY, highlighting abstract painting, and went to Detroit, Cincinnati and Baltimore (Peabody Institute of Johns Hopkins University).
The other, in Milwaukee, Paintings and Sculptures in “The Modern Spirit”, organized by the forerunner of the Milwaukee Art Museum (by a high school friend there) sold two paintings to collector Arthur Jerome Eddy. “The exhibition was a sort of recap of the Armory Show. It opened in April and included contemporary European and American work from Midwest collections”.
Early he spent summers at the family farm in at Ludington, Mason County, Michigan (about 2/3 the way up the east side of L Michigan), where he also painted a lot.
Mid 1914 he quit full time art.
He wrote April 1914, “I know there is work to be done on a farm in winter, yet I have the hope that if the bridge is crossed I can find painting or carving time in that season..”
Summer 1914 he met Lilian Boucher, the daughter of a local farmer, then by autumn 1914 had decided, and with help from his father, he moved permanently to lakeside Ludington, and July 1915 married Lilian, thereafter raising three children.
In the mid-1950s he and his wife began wintering in Sarasota, Florida. There, after diagnosed with cancer in 1968, he died August 1969 (25 days after Armstrong walked on the moon).
1910, Xdx, Oil on paperboard attached to particleboard, 19 1/8 x 14 7/16 in. (48.6 x 36.7 cm). Brooklyn Museum
1910, Discal Procession, oil on wood 30 1/2 x 24 7/8 in. (77.5 x 63.2 cm.) Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, DC
1910, DIfferential complex, Oil on canvas, 40.6 x 30.cm, Tilden-Foley Gallery, New Orleans
1913, Essay in Brown, oil on cardboard, 45.7 x 66.0cm, Illinois State Museum
COMMENT: Illinois State Museum, “Employing a now-familiar palette, Dawson created a group of paintings in 1913 which were completely abstract ….. With Essay in Brown the artist creates visual tension by contrasting a series of rectilinear shapes in the background with a cascade of overlapping forms that tumble from right to left. …… The interlocking and floating elements of this might be compared with Willem De Kooning’s Excavation (Art Institute of Chicago), created 37 years later.”
1914, Equation , oil on cardboard, 91.44 x 70.17 cm, Joslyn Art Museum
1915, Figure by the Window, oil on canvas, 76.2 x 61.0cm, Illinois State Museum
COMMENT: Illinois State Museum,”… 1915 was momentous for .. Manierre Dawson… decide to commit himself completely to farming…. t married Lillian Boucher, a neighboring farm girl ten years his junior…. We see a female looking out a window. … a classic theme. … Randy Ploog, in his 2003 essay “Metaphor and Autobiography in the Art of Manierre Dawson”, posits that Dawson borrowed major compositional elements of his Figure by the Window from Johannes Vermeer’s Young Woman with a Water Pitcher (1660-67). Certainly Dawson has shifted the ambience of the picture. Vermeer’s young woman is a picture of calm composure. In Dawson’s treatment, an aura seems to emanate from the woman’s central position outward, like waves of energy affecting everything they encounter. The space folds and refolds until it is almost unrecognizable. Perhaps this is a visual metaphor for the newlyweds’ relationship.’
1920. Desert, oil on canvas. 22 by 28 inches, Illinois State Museum
Manierre Dawson, 1950s?
COMMENT: Still gripped by his trademark lightning bolt Cubo-Futurist motifs