1 Sculpture in Collection
(1901-1994) United States
Works in Public Collection
Museum of Modern Art, NY; Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY; National Museum of Women in the Arts, DC; Cleveland Museum of Art, OH; Seattle Art Museum, WA; Skidmore College, NY; DeCordova Museum and Sculpture Park, MA; The Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C; Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden/Smithsonian, Washington, D.C.; Philadelphia Museum of Art, PA.
Degree Zero: Drawing at Midcentury, Nov 1,2020-Jun 5 ,2021, MoMa, NY
Making Space: Women Artists and Postwar Abstraction, Apr 15-Aug 13, 2017, MOMA, NY
Abstract Expressionist New York, Oct 3, 2010-Apr 25, 2011, MOMA, NY
Dorothy Dehner: A Retrospective of Sculpture, Drawings and Paintings, Joan M. Marter and Sandra Kraskin.
Dorthy Dehner, Ten Years of Sculpture by Hans van Weeren-Griek
Dorothy Dehner: Sculpture and Works on Paper, Dorothy Keane-White
Dorothy Dehner and David Smith: Their Decades of Search and Fulfilment, Joan M. Marter and Judith McCandless
Dorothy Dehner: Heroic Sculpture, Twining Fine Art, New York, 1990
Born 1901 Cleveland, OH
Died 1994 New York, NY
Dorothy Dehner is widely recognized for her abstract, open formed sculptures that focus on contour and biomorphic shapes. Dehner made art most of her adult life, but her career as a sculptor did not fully begin until she stepped away from a suffocating marriage in her early fifties. Despite the late start, Dehner’s mark on American sculpture is significant as indicated by the more than fifty solo exhibitions of her work that were mounted between 1948 and her death in 1994.
Dehner grew up in an activist liberal household that encouraged her creativity, but her young life was shaped by significant loss that necessitated resiliency and independence. Her father died when she was eleven and her mother a few years later after moving to California. By the time Dehner was 17 both of her siblings had also died.
Supported by her aunts, Dehner began acting in high school in Pasadena, California and continued to do so at UCLA where she had enrolled to study drama and literature. In 1923, at 22, Dehner moved to New York alone to pursue acting at the American Academy of Dramatic Art but, after being denied a major part in a Broadway production, she abandoned the theatre and traveled to Italy, Switzerland and France where she was inspired to pursue visual arts after experiencing the work of the European modernists. Returning to New York in 1925 she enrolled in the Art Students League (ASL) to study with Kimon Nicolaides, who developed an approach to drawing that is still followed today through his book, The Natural Way to Draw (1941).
In 1926 David Smith moved into Dehner’s New York boardinghouse and they immediately began a relationship. At the time, Smith was writing business letters at Industrial Acceptance Corporation but aspired to become an artist and, with Dehner’s encouragement, he too enrolled in classes at ASL. Less than a year after meeting, the couple married and began a creative partnership that was poisoned by Smith’s verbal and physical abuse and his insistence that there be only one sculptor in the family. During their early relationship, Dehner continued to focus on drawing and painting. Her European exposure to various abstract approaches wetted her appetite for a deeper understanding of Modernism and she actively advocated for ASL to hire less conventional teachers. Eventually, Jan Matulka was brought on and he tutored her in avant-garde painting techniques and introduced her and the other students to German Expressionism and Russian Constructivism.
In New York, at a time when the art world’s focus was shifting from Europe to the United States, Smith and Dehner befriended other abstract artists including Burgoyne Diller, Arshile Gorky, Milton Avery, Mark Rothko and Adolph Gottlieb. Edgar Levy and Lucille Corcos were their close friends. John Graham had become Dehner’s friend and mentor introducing she and Smith to African art and traveling with them to Europe. Like many artists at the time, Dehner and Smith were supporters of the Communist party and very active in liberal causes. In 1935 the couple embark on an extensive trip to Europe and the Soviet Union where they met a number of surrealists including the founder of Atelier 17, a famous printmaking studio where Smith and Dehner both worked. Dehner was less enamored of surrealists approach, attracted instead to the traditional sculpture they saw in Greece. She made sketches that reflected her appreciation for classicism, forms which would eventually make their way into her later work.
In 1939 they move permanently to Bolton’s Landing, a farm in upstate New York that they had purchased shortly after their marriage. While Smith focused his attention on his sculpture, Dehner ran the farm, making paintings and drawings when she could. Her work at that time was primarily representational, taking its inspiration from nature and the organic shapes she found around her. As Smith begins to exhibit more extensively in New York, Dehner participates in a number of regional group exhibitions. Neither artist is selling much work and they are living primarily off of Dehner’s small inheritance and the bounty from the farm. By the mid 1940s revelations about the Nazi death camps and the recognition that her own marriage is failing, Dehner’s drawings become darker and more abstract with series on “Damnation” and “Dances of Death.” In 1948 she was bolstered by winning the Audobon Artists prize for drawing and she begins to exhibit more extensively including participating in the 1950 Whitney Annual where her work receives critical attention.
Toward the close of 1950, Dehner has a particularly dangerous interaction with Smith, who has been teaching at Sarah Lawrence College and returning home on the weekends. Dehner moves out of farmhouse and by 1952 the couple are divorced. Finally free to pursue her own agenda, Dehner enrolled in Skidmore College to complete her undergraduate studies, receiving a degree in Applied Arts in 1952. That same year she was awarded a solo exhibition at Skidmore and included in a group exhibition at Rose Fried Gallery where her work received critical approval.
During this time period Dehner began to include biomorphic shapes in her flat work as well as some improvisational techniques inspired by Constructivism. By 1954 she had solo exhibitions of her flat work at the Morris Gallery in New York, the Albany Institute of History and Art and the University of Virginia Museum and is included in group exhibitions at the Whitney and Howard University. She was encouraged by the art world recognition and began to seriously turn her attention to sculpture as her pen and ink work became more geometric and organic. Working at the Atelier 17 printmaking studio she had an opportunity to learn lost wax casting, a process that proved intuitive for her. At Atelier 17 she met and befriended Louise Nevelson. The two would remain close to for the remainder of Dehner’s life.
In 1955 Dehner marries New York publisher Ferdinand Mann and builds wax models in their apartment, casting them at the Sculpture Center on Long Island City. Dehner found the lost wax method responsive to her hands and began to explore merging organic shapes with more architectural elements.
Dehner’s second solo exhibition at the Willard Gallery in 1955 included a number of small abstract bronze pieces and solidified a relationship with Mirian Willard who would represent her for the next 15 years. Dehner’s bronze sculptures were composed of an iconography that began decades earlier. Her approach combined a constructivist sensibility with an inherent response to nature’s forms. She assembles circles, moons, ellipses, crescents and arcs together sometimes stacking them and other times building them out horizontally. Dehner is less interested in exploring volume and mass; her sculptures instead emphasize contours and lines. Abstract Form (1969) shows Dehner’s approach during this period. The softened geometric shapes and curved forms are enhanced by the warm, organic surface that results from the wax modeling.
At this point in her life Dehner is confident in her art and stable in her personal life. Her work is being shown at regional and national museums throughout the country. Both the Museum of Modern Art and the Whitney Museum purchased works for their permanent collections. Remarkably by 1965 she had created enough sculptural work in one decade that New York’s Jewish Museum offered her a retrospective exhibition.
By the mid 1970s Dehner’s work shifted and she took a more architectural approach, building totemic stacks of cast metal, eventually abandoning metal for wood. The scale of her work continued to grow and by the 1980s she was producing large scale pieces out of Corten steel. She continues to exhibit but less extensively and begins a relationship with Twining Gallery who would represent her for the remainder of her life. In her early eighties her eyesight, which had been damaged by cataracts, worsened but she continued to create, working with fabricators to transform her early drawings into three dimensional objects.
Dehner’s body of work remains difficult to categorize as it never completely settled into a single style. While that may have impacted a broader recognition of talent, her abstract compositions and sculptural works hold a solid position in the history of American art in the 20th century. In 1995 she is posthumously honored with a retrospective at Cleveland Museum of Art.