Dorothy Dehner

Dorothy Dehner (1901–1994) was an American painter and sculptor.

Dorothy Dehner
Born(1901-12-23)23 December 1901
Cleveland, OH
Died22 September 1994(1994-09-22) (aged 92)
New York, NY
EducationSkidmore College, Art Students League, Atelier 17
Known forsculpture, painting, drawing
Notable work
Life on the Farm,Star Cage,Gateway
MovementAbstract Expressionism
AwardsHonorary doctorate from Skidmore College in 1982, Women’s Caucus award for outstanding achievement in the visual arts in 1983, first prize in drawing from Audubon Artists in 1946

Early lifeEdit

Dorothy Dehner was born on December 23, 1901, in Cleveland, Ohio.[1] Her father was a pharmacist and her mother was a passionate suffragette.[2] When Dehner was ten years old, her father died and her two aunts, Flo and Cora, moved in. Cora aroused Dehner's curiosity about foreign culture with extravagant tales of her travels abroad.[3] Cora's tales would later provide the inspiration for Dehner's solo trip to Europe in 1925.

In 1915, as a result of her mother's declining health, the family of four moved to Pasadena, California, where Dehner actively studied theater at the Pasadena Playhouse.[4] Dehner experienced heavy emotional loss over the next two years in which both her sister and mother died. In 1922, she pursued studies in theater at the University of California Los Angeles, but dropped out after one year to explore a stage career in New York. While in New York, she studied at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts and starred in some off-Broadway productions. Despite her moderate success as an actress, Dehner felt her expression was stifled by the theater. She was, to an extent, dictated by director, script, and venue.[4]

Europe 1925Edit

Following her brief stint with theater, Dehner decided to adventure to Paris to seek new inspiration. She traveled alone as not to be hindered by any travel companions.[5] Her first stop was Florence, Italy, where she absorbed much of Italy's historic architecture. Following a quick stop in Switzerland, she flew to Paris where she was heavily influenced by Cubism, Fauvism, and Constructivism.[4] She was particularly taken with works by Picasso and committed herself to drawing throughout her year of travel. The 1925 Art Deco show in Paris particularly overwhelmed her.[6] Upon her return to the United States, Dehner enrolled at the Art Students League and briefly studied sculpture. However, she found the teaching methods overly conventional and ended up setting sculpture aside and focusing on drawing, under the instruction of Jan Matulka.[7][8] It was here she met David Smith.

Life on the farmEdit

Dehner married Smith on Christmas Eve, 1927.[9] Smith and Dehner bought a farm in Bolton Landing in upstate New York in 1929 and spent much of their married life there.[10] To sustain themselves during the Depression, both Smith and Dehner took on commercial jobs. However, as a result of some family land holdings, Dehner received an annual check for $2,000, which helped support them financially and allowed Smith to focus on his art.[11] In 1931, they dropped everything and took a nine-month trip to St. Thomas in the Virgin Islands. Here, without the distractions of modern life, Dehner was able to focus on her painting. She primarily focused on her still life art.[7] Her subject matter consisted of mostly natural forms, such as shells and aquatic life, while her style remained heavily cubist. Indeed, her work during this time was heavily influenced by the abstraction taught by Matulka at the Art Students League.[12]

Europe 1935-36Edit

After a brief sojourn back home in New York, Dehner returned to Europe in 1935 on and extensive tour with Smith. There, John D. Graham took Dehner and Smith all around Paris exposing them to modernist art as well as African sculpture.[13] Following their stay in Paris, in which they were immersed in avant-garde art, particularly in influences of Surrealism and Cubism, Dehner and Smith toured Greece.[14] Dehner entrenched herself in the culture and traditional sculpture of Greece.[15] The sketches she made while in Greece served as the foundational designs for later sculpture based on that trip. The titles of these sculptures, such as Minotaur and Demeter's Harrow reveal clear Greek influence.[16] Despite their avant-garde influences, works of Dehner during this period reflect a focus on naturalism and a desire to depict direct observations.[17] Her work during this trip to Europe highlights the vast range of technique Dehner possessed.

However her second trip to Europe with Smith did more than expose her to the modern and historical art of the continent. While in Europe, Dehner also found reinforcement for her leftist political views.[18] Dehner and Smith both began to link their style of art with their particular political agenda. Many of the Smith's photographs from their travels are of refugee settlements, which were typically epicenters of communist beliefs.[19] The couple acted on this leftward leaning ideology and went on a tour of the Soviet Union in June 1936.[20] In Russia they reunited with Graham and his wife, who focused their attention on the art of Russia and the link between modernist techniques and leftist political messages.[21]

Return to Bolton LandingEdit

On July 9, 1936, the couple returned to New York.[22] In the spring of 1940 the couple made their permanent residence in Bolton Landing.[23] Dehner was constrained in her artwork both by the stress of farm life and by the often aggressive mood swings of Smith.[24][23] As a result of the pressure Dehner was put under, she was unable to pursue her passion for sculpture until after their divorce.[24] One outburst on Smith's part caused Dehner to flee Bolton Landing in 1945. After Smith went after her and brought her back to the farm, their relationship remained particularly fragile. She rejected the increased abstraction Smith advocated, as evidenced in her Life on the Farm series of drawings.[25] Some interpret this series as a simple representation of idyllic American farm life but others see it as a commentary on American social life through a Marxist lens.[26] Although the messages of her Life on the Farm series may not be crystal clear, it was evident that during the late 1940s, Dehner underwent serious mental turmoil. She produced many provocative works that expressed this mental fatigue, such as her "Damnation Series" and "Dances of Death." [27]

In 1948, Dehner held a solo exhibition at Skidmore College which was well received. As a result, her confidence rose. Following this well-received exhibition, she read Ernst Haeckel's Kunst formen der Nature, a book of biological prints, and proceeded to incorporate these organismal forms into her artwork.[28] This return to naturalistic forms is reminiscent of her still life from her time in the Virgin Islands. However, reading Haeckel's work marked a progression to more consistent abstraction in Dehner's work. Smith was heavily influenced by her 1948 watercolor Star Cage and eventually made a sculpture one year later of the same name.[29] Dehner had suggested a collaborative work but Smith refused and later denied his sculpture had any connection to Dehner's watercolor. Dehner also embraced other forms of personal expression and possessed a gift for writing. Because of her lingual acuity, Smith asked her to name many of his works.[25] Her interest in writing culminated in her becoming a published poet later in life. In 1950, Smith had another rage-fueled outburst and Dehner left permanently. The couple divorced in 1951.[30] Despite the dramatic ups and downs of their marriage, the twenty three years Dehner spent with Smith contributed to the formation of her own distinct style.[31]

Later life and sculptureEdit

Jacob's Ladder I, bronze of 1957, in the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden

Following her divorce from Smith, Dehner earned a degree from Skidmore and began teaching at Barnard College, among other schools. Although an extremely busy and stressful time for Dehner, the two years following her divorce proved vital to her career for she finally felt free to pursue her artistic passions.[32] During this time she experimented with a new medium, engraving, with Stanley William Hayter at Atelier 17.[33] She made intaglio prints at Atelier 17 from 1952 until it moved to Paris in 1955, then worked at Pratt Graphics Center until 1960.[34]

While at Atelier, Dehner learned wax sculpting techniques from a fellow student and in 1955 gained enough confidence to pursue casting her wax sculptures in bronze.[35] This shift from drawing and painting to sculpture marked not only a shift in primary medium but also an end to a period of particular psychological distress. Over the next twenty years her reputation as a sculptor would skyrocket and she would hold exhibitions at the prestigious Willard Gallery in 1957, 1959, 1960, 1963, 1970, and 1973.[36]

Dehner's belief in the communicative power of sculpture caused her to highlight contour over mass. She chose to construct her works from varying parts, a distinctly Constructivist quality.[37] Dehner's sculptures emphasized line and plane over volume and exhibited an assembled as opposed to modeled quality.[36] Her work was included in the 1960 Paris exhibition "Aspects of American Culture." Like many of the other works included, hers were primarily distinguished by their improvisation.[38] In 1965, The Jewish Museum in New York City put on a retrospective exhibit of Dehner's sculpture.[39] This achievement is miraculous considering that she only began sculpture a decade earlier. Dehner began experimenting with wood sculpture in 1974, following the death of her second husband.[40] Much of Dehner's sculpture can be identified by its totemic qualities and emphasis on Constructivist principles. Additionally, it differs uniquely from Smith's work in its medium and construction. Much of Smith's sculpture employed welding as a construction technique, which Dehner did not embrace.[41] In 1981 she took her sculpture to the next level, literally, and experimented with massive steel sculptures. By 1991 Dehner had lost nearly all of her vision and stopped sculpting. By 1993, however, she had figured out a way to collaborate with her fabricator to continue her sculpting.[42] After a prominent career in art, Dehner was found dead in a stairwell outside her apartment in Manhattan on September 22, 1994, at the age of ninety-two.[43][44]


  1. ^ Biographical information is taken from Marter, Joan, and McCandless, Judith. Dehner and David Smith: Their Decades of Search and Fulfillment. New Brunswick: The Zimmerli Art Museum, 1983. 4-28. Print.
  2. ^ McCandless, p. 21.
  3. ^ McCandless, p.21.
  4. ^ a b c McCandless, p. 21
  5. ^ McCandless, p.21
  6. ^ Marter, Joan. "Dorothy Dehner: Sixty Years of Art." Dorothy Dehner: Sixty Years of Art.New York: Katonah Museum of Art, 1993. 5-15. Print
  7. ^ a b Dorothy Dehner: Sixty Years of Art., p. 7
  8. ^ McCandless, p.22
  9. ^ Marter p. 5
  10. ^ Marter, p. 5
  11. ^ Marter, p.4-5
  12. ^ Marter, p. 10
  13. ^ McCandless, p.24.
  14. ^ Wisotzki, Paula. "Americans Abroad: The 1930s, Politics, And The Experience Of Europe." Southeastern College Art Conference Review 15.5 (2010): 584-597. Art Full Text (H.W. Wilson). Web. 5 May 2016.
  15. ^ McCandless, p. 24.
  16. ^ Dorothy Dehner: Sixty Years of Art., p. 7.
  17. ^ Wisotzki, p. 587
  18. ^ Wisotzki, p. 586.
  19. ^ Wisotzki, p. 590
  20. ^ Wisotzki, p. 592
  21. ^ Wisotzki, p. 593
  22. ^ Wisotzki, p.593
  23. ^ a b McCandless, p. 25
  24. ^ a b Marter, p. 4
  25. ^ a b Marter, p. 10.
  26. ^ Wisostzki, Paula. Dorothy Dehner and World War II: Not Just Life on the Farm Archives of American Art Journal 55.1 (2016):4-25. Web.
  27. ^ Dorothy Dehner: Sixty Years of Art., p. 8.
  28. ^ Marter, p. 15
  29. ^ Marter, pp. 15-17
  30. ^ McCandless, p. 18.
  31. ^ Marter, p. 4.
  32. ^ Dorothy Dehner: Sixty Years of Art., p. 11.
  33. ^ McCandless, p. 25.
  34. ^ Seaton, Elizabeth, ed. (2006). Paths to the Press: Printmaking and American Women Artists, 1910-1960. Manhattan, Kansas: The Marianna Kistler Beach Museum of Art, Kansas State University. p. 118. ISBN 1-890751-13-8.
  35. ^ McCandless, p. 26
  36. ^ a b McCandless, p. 26.
  37. ^ Joan Marter. "Dehner, Dorothy." Grove Art Online. Oxford Art Online. Oxford University Press. Web. 1 May. 2016.
  38. ^ Dorothy Dehner: Sixty Years of Art., p. 12.
  39. ^ McCandless, p. 27.
  40. ^ Dorothy Dehner: Sixty Years of Art., p. 13.
  41. ^ Karen Wilkin. "Smith, David." Grove Art Online. Oxford Art Online. Oxford University Press. Web. 6 May. 2016.
  42. ^ DeBethune, Elizabeth. "Dorothy Dehner." Art Journal 53.(1994): 35-37. Art Full Text (H.W. Wilson). Web. 5 May 2016.
  43. ^ "Dorothy Dehner, 92, Sculptor With a Lyrically Surreal Style". The New York Times. 1994-09-23. ISSN 0362-4331. Archived from the original on 2016-07-01. Retrieved 2017-03-11.
  44. ^ Joan Marter. "Dehner, Dorothy." Grove Art Online. Oxford Art Online. Oxford University Press. Web. 1 May. 2016

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