Arthur Dove, one of America's first modernist painters, spent his life creating a new visual language to express his profound connection with nature. Not content to paint what the eye alone could see, Dove pioneered his own kind of sensuous abstraction to render moment-to-moment mutations of light, weather, and even sound.
"The reality of the sensation alone remains," Dove said. "It is that in its essence which I wish to set down ... but simplified in most cases to color and force lines and substances."
Dove's achievements, distilled images with the freshness, immediacy, and economy of poems, are on view in a major traveling exhibition, "Arthur Dove: A Retrospective." Currently at the Addison Gallery of American Art, Phillips Academy, in Andover, Mass., the chronological presentation of 81 works from 48 public and private collections shows Dove's exuberant experiments at every stage of his life. The Addison Gallery organized the show with the Phillips Collection in Washington, whose founder, Duncan Phillips, assembled Dove's first major retrospective 50 years ago.
Dove's images convey his optimistic joy in nature - from landscapes that echo the forests of his childhood in upstate New York to seascapes inspired by years of farming and sailing along Long Island Sound.
Still, Dove was no recluse. He was alert to the trends of his day, a time when Sigmund Freud, Henri Bergson, and Albert Einstein were opening new realms. And Dove's dealer, annual exhibitor, and lifelong mentor was Alfred Stieglitz, the photographer and evangelist of American modernism. Dove was at the core of the Stieglitz circle that included painters Georgia O'Keeffe and Marsden Hartley.
But Dove's intertwined passions, nature and art, pulled him away from the Stieglitz epicenter, Manhattan, where he also left behind a lucrative career in commercial illustration.
Inventive in life as well as art, Dove chose to scrape by in order to pursue his vocation. For several years, he and his second wife, the artist Helen "Reds" Torr, lived on a 42-foot yawl. Adapting to their close quarters, he ventured into collages. But, unlike the ironic visual puns of his Dadaist contemporaries, Dove's collages transformed flotsam - bamboo, twigs, cork, denim scraps - into lyrical images.
When Dove's mother died in 1933, the couple moved to Geneva, N.Y., to settle the family estate and stayed for five years. Inland, Dove returned to oils and, studying the techniques of Old Masters, he ground his own colors to render the tones and textures of the Geneva woods.
The Doves returned to Long Island Sound in 1938. They moved into a small, stilted structure overlooking a tidal pond.
There, Dove kept painting, despite illnesses that kept him indoors. Dove's unique visual language matured, but even his most pared-down distillations never leave the earth entirely behind. "Rain or Snow" (1943) is a spare and shimmering winter haiku of tissue-like surfaces drifting downward.
In his last major painting, "Flat Surfaces" (1946), Dove renders the tidal marsh outside his window with buoyant geometry and vibrant colors. Right to the end, Dove used his mastery to draw the viewer into his charged, exuberant world.
* 'Arthur Dove: A Retrospective' is in Andover, Mass., until July 12. Web site: www.andover.edu/addison/current.html
The exhibition will be at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art from Aug. 2 to Oct. 5. The Museum of Fine Arts in Boston is showing 'Arthur G. Dove: Mixing Media' through Oct. 25.