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Dehner, Dorothyfree

American, 20th century, female.

Born 23 December 1901, in Cleveland (Ohio); died 22 September 1994, in New York City.

Painter, sculptor. Abstraction.

Modernism, New York School, Abstract Expressionism.

Dorothy Dehner’s immediate family (her mother, father, and sister) had all passed away by the time she was 18 and her aunt Flo became her primary caregiver. Her aunts, Flo and Cora, were artistically inclined and aroused her interests in the arts. In 1915, Dorothy, her mother, Lulu, older sister Louise, and aunt Flo moved to California. In 1916, Dehner enrolled at Pasadena High School and began to study theatre at the Pasadena Playhouse under director Gilmore Brown. In 1922, she studied drama at the University of California Los Angeles; however, she didn’t graduate with a degree. After only one year at the University of California Los Angeles, she decided to pursue a full-time career as an actor. Dehner moved to New York in the mid-1920s and was cast in several Off-Broadway productions including Walter Hartwig’s Little Theater Productions.

Dehner transitioned from the performing arts to fine art around 1925 and travelled to Italy, Switzerland, France, and London. She was inspired by the avant-garde art she saw throughout her nine-month stint in Europe. She returned to New York City in October of 1925 and joined the Art Students League where she studied drawing. She was living in a boarding house at 417 West 118th Street, where she met the sculptor David Smith. Dehner encouraged Smith, who at the time was a struggling sculptor, to enrol at the Art Students League. The two artists were married on Christmas Eve in 1927 and, in 1929, they moved to a farm in Bolton Landing, a small hamlet located in the Adirondack Mountains in New York State. Their marriage was often tumultuous. While Dehner and Smith provided each other with great creative inspiration, their personal relationship was emotionally and physically draining. The couple eventually divorced in 1951 and Dehner left Bolton Landing and headed back to New York City.

Dehner’s drawings and prints were influenced by Surrealism and European modernists like Arshile Gorky and Alexander Calder. Drawings such as her Damnation Series (1946) and Landscape for Cynics (1945) feature fantastical and dystopian vantage points. Although she had a longstanding passion for sculpture, Dehner didn’t start to sculpt until after she and Smith had divorced. After the couple’s breakup, she began to study with Stanley William Hayter at Atelier 17, who introduced her to the technique of engraving. It was at Atelier 17 that Dehner began to experiment with wax sculpting and bronze casting. She also met and befriended sculptors Louise Nevelson and David Slivka. Sculpture became her main medium and she had a very successful and prolific career as one of the premier American Modernist sculptors.

Dehner started out using the lost-wax sculpting technique and cast small Surrealist-inspired works in bronze. Works like Jacob’s Ladder I (1957) show Dehner’s compelling exploration of organic form, contour, line, and assemblage. She also worked with wood and steel, and played with variations of scale. She typically constructed her sculptures by adding multiple pieces together in a manner that was similar to the concepts of Russian Constructivism. Her process was largely improvisational and informed by the material she was working with. Her unique expressive use of material and automatic, dreamlike imagery established her as a seminal Abstract Expressionist sculptor. When she was in her late eighties, Dehner lost her vision, but continued to sculpt, working with a fabricator to realise her creations.

Group Exhibitions

1953, Painting and Sculpture Acquisitions, Museum of Modern Art, New York

1955, International Watercolour Exhibition, Brooklyn Museum, Brooklyn

1956, Fifth Annual Exhibition of Painting and Sculpture, Stable Gallery, New York

1957, Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Moderna, Rome

1957, Directions in Sculpture, Riverside Museum, New York

1959, New Sculpture Group, Stable Gallery, New York

1960, Aspects de la Sculpture Americaine, Galerie Claude Bernard, Paris

1961, New Sculpture Group, Sixth Exhibition, Stable Gallery, New York

1962, Small Sculpture: Robert Adams, Dorothy Dehner, Elizabeth Frink, Barbara Hepworth, The Waddington Galleries, London

1962, Twelve New York Sculptors, Riverside Museum, New York

1963, Sculptors Guild Exhibition, New York

1964, Triennale de Milano, Palazzo dell’Arte Parco Sempione Milano, Milan

1970, Annual Exhibition, National Association of Women Artists, New York

1982, Modern Masters: Women of the First Generation, Women Artists Series at Douglass College, Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey, New Brunswick

1987, Standing Ground: Sculpture by American Women, Contemporary Arts Center, Cincinnati

1988, Enduring Creativity, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York

1997, Women and Abstract Expressionism (curated by Joan Marter), Guild Hall, East Hampton

1998, Giacometti to Judd: Prints by Sculptors, Museum of Modern Art, New York

2010–2011, Abstract Expressionist New York, Museum of Modern Art, New York

2011, Abstract Expressionism: Reloading the Canon, Michael Rosenfeld Gallery, New York

2012, American Vanguards: Graham, Davis, Gorky, de Kooning and Their Circle, 1927–1942, Neuberger Museum, Purchase, NY

2016, METAL: American Sculpture: 1945–1970, Michael Rosenfeld Gallery, New York

2016, You Go Girl! Celebrating Women Artists, Heckscher Museum of Art, Huntington, NY

2017, Making Space: Women Artists and Postwar Abstraction, Museum of Modern Art, New York

Solo Exhibitions

1948, Skidmore College, Saratoga Springs

1952, Rose Fried Gallery, New York

1955, Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago

1961, A Selection of Bronzes, Columbia University (Avery Hall), New York

1965, Ten Years of Sculpture (retrospective), The Jewish Museum, New York

1967, The Hyde Collection, Glens Falls

1979, Sculpture and Drawings, Parsons/Dreyfus Gallery, New York

1988, Sculpture and Works on Paper, Muhlenberg College, Allentown, PA

1990, The Phillips Collection, Washington, DC

1991, Baruch College Art Gallery, New York

1992, Perimeter Gallery, Chicago

1994, Dorothy Dehner: Sixty Years of Art (retrospective), Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, DC

1995, Dorothy Dehner: Drawings, Prints, Sculpture (retrospective), Cleveland Museum of Art, Cleveland

1998, Dorothy Dehner: Landscapes of Memory, Kraushaar Galleries, New York

2011, Dorothy Dehner: The Intimate Gesture, Kraushaar Galleries, New York

2015, Dorothy Dehner: The Creative Process, 1930–1950, Kraushaar Galleries, New York

Museum and Gallery Holdings

Blue Mountain Lake (Adirondack Experience): Bolton Landscape (1976, bronze); Finger of Winter (1948, gouache and ink on paper); In the Old Days, Your Home and Mine (1948, pencil on paper); The Barn in Bolton (1952, etching and aquatint on paper)

Cambridge (Harvard AM): Untitled (Nickel Drawing) (1954, black ink, watercolour, and gouache on white wove paper); Damnation Series: Aspect of the Episode (1946, black ink on wove paper); Landscape for Cynics (1945, black ink, graphite, and gouache on off-white wove paper); Untitled (1955, black ink, black wash, and red watercolour on white modern laid paper); Percussion (1952, black ink and blue and yellow watercolour on white modern laid paper); Charade (1953, engraving and aquatint); Untitled (1951, black ink and blue and green watercolor on white modern laid paper); The Maiden Aunts (1953, engraving and aquatint)

Cleveland (MA): Queen (1960, bronze); Untitled (1952, black ink and watercolour); Untitled (1948, black ink and watercolour); Life on the Farm: Cooling Off in Schenectady (1943, tempera); Man (1954–1955, etching); Heads #3 (1970, lithograph); Heads #2 (1970, lithograph); Untitled (1955, black ink and watercolour); Lunar Series #6 (1970–1971, lithograph); Town and Country (1970, lithograph); Lunar Series #5 (1970–1971, lithograph); Lunar Series #3 (1970, lithograph); Embryi (1952, etching); Bird Machine #3 (1952, engraving and roulette); Jane’s Poem (1954, engraving); Quake (1954, etching and roulette); House Building #47 (1954, pen and black ink, black wash, and watercolour); Fire Island—Nets (1952, watercolour, black wash, pen and black ink); Untitled (1959, pen and black ink); Untitled (1959, watercolour with pen and black ink); River Landscape #1 (1958, engraving); New York Harbor (n.d., engraving); Untitled #6 (1952, black wash, pen and black ink, and watercolour); Beach Story Fire Island (1951, watercolour, pen and black ink); Untitled #57 (1950, watercolour, pen and black ink); Untitled #1 (1950, watercolour, pen and black ink); Untitled #8 (1949, watercolour, black wash, pen and black ink); Mountebanks with Charms (1955, engraving and roulette with colour added using a stencil)

Houston (MFA): Untitled (c. 1970, bronze); Untitled (1953, watercolour and ink on laid paper)

Huntington (Heckscher MA): Landscape (1976, bronze)

Ithaca (Johnson MA): Untitled #4 (1980, bronze)

Lincoln (DeCordova Mus. and Sculpture Park): Fortissimo (1993, fabricated aluminium painted black)

New York (Brooklyn Mus.): Collier Brothers: Incident of the Early Spring (recto) and [Sketch] (verso) (1946, ink and graphite on paper); Landscape (1967, bronze, unique); Untitled (Brooklyn Waterfront) (1935, charcoal and graphite on heavy wove paper); Mosquito (1954, engraving); Untitled (1982, Indian ink and watercolour on paper); Taos (1992, woodcut on paper); Things on Strings (1953, engraving); Ancestors (1954, relief print in red ink); Wing Sharp (1954, roulette, etching and drypoint); Sails (1955, engraving and roulette); Heads #2 (1970, lithograph); Man (n.d., relief print); The Letter (1953, etching and roulette); Mountebanks with Charms (1956, roulette and etching); Untitled (Prehistoric Creature) (1945, tempera on board); The Houses Across the Street from Congress Street (1948, charcoal on paper); Heads #3 (1970, lithograph); Town and Country (1971, lithograph); River Landscape #3 (1958, etching); Man (1955, relief print); First Print (1952, etching and aquatint); Letter to Minos (1986, relief print); Bird Machine (1954, etching); Gridlock (1957, etching); River Landscape #4 (1958, etching); Wing Sharp (1954, roulette, etching and drypoint); Ancestors (1954, relief print in black ink)

New York (Metropolitan MA): Bird Machine #2 (1953, etching and aquatint); Rocket, Interior (1956, engraving); Ancestors (1954, etching and aquatint, red and black variant); Copper Plate for Ancestors (1954, etched copper plate); Nocturne (1954, engraving and roulette, yellow variant); Desert (gouache, watercolour, and ink on paper); Buckingham Palace/Doom Overhead (1946, ink and graphite on paper); The Barn in Bolton (1952, etching and aquatint); Untitled (1954, aquatint and etching); Still Life with Shells (1931, oil on wood); Embryi (c. 1952–1953, etching and aquatint); Figures in Landscape (1958, engraving); Nocturne (1954, engraving and roulette); Gateway (1979, various woods); River Landscape No. 1 (1958, engraving); First Print (c. 1952–1953, etching); Ancestors (1954, etching and aquatint, red variant); Sculptural Forms (c. 1958, recto: ink and ink marker on paper; verso: etching with graphite, with red ink from recto); Target (1950, ink and watercolour on paper); Ancestors (1954, etching and aquatint, red variant on pink paper); Copper Plate for Embryi (1952, etched plate); What Happens to Squares (c. 1952–1953, engraving and roulette); Nocturne (1954, engraving and roulette, blue variant)

New York (MoMA): From Japan (1951, watercolour, ink, and charcoal on paper); First Print (1952, engraving and aquatint with roulette); Bird Machine I (1953, printed c. 1980s, engraving with roulette); New City (1953, watercolour and ink on paper); Embryi (1953, etching and aquatint with roulette); Mountebanks with Charms (1953, engraving with roulette); The Barn in Bolton (1953, etching and aquatint); River Landscape #3 (1953, engraving with roulette); Nocturne (1954, engraving with roulette); The Bridge (1954, engraving with roulette); What Happens to Squares (1954, engraving with roulette); River Landscape #2 (1954–1956, engraving with roulette); Decision at Knossos (1957, bronze); River Landscape #1 (1958, engraving with roulette); River Landscape #4 (1958, engraving with roulette); River Landscape (1958, engraving with roulette); Untitled (1959, bronze); Encounter (1969, bronze, six parts); Skating (1953, printed c. 1991, engraving)

New York (Whitney Mus. of American Art): Artists’ Portraits (1974, etching); Charade (1953, engraving and aquatint); Quake (1954, engraving); Nocturne (1954, engraving); Mountebanks with Charms (1955, etching); The View from Palomar (1958, engraving); Doors (1965, cast bronze); Heads #1 (1970, lithograph)

Philadelphia (MA): Figures in Landscape (1958, etching with roulette and drypoint)

Purchase (Neuberger Mus.)

St Petersburg (MFA): Untitled (1969, bronze on wood base)

University Park (Palmer MA): Aspects of the City (1986, corten steel); Delaware Water Gap (1972, ink and watercolour on paper); Virgin Island Series (1948, ink and watercolour on paper)

Washington, DC (Hirshhorn Mus. and Sculpture Garden): Jacob’s Ladder I (1957, bronze)

Washington, DC (National Mus. of Women in the Arts): Looking North F (1964, bronze)

Washington, DC (The Phillips Collection): Dark Passage (1953, oil on canvas)

Washington, DC (Smithsonian American AM): The Maiden Aunts (1952, etching and aquatint on paper); Figures in a Landscape (1958, engraving on paper); Monolith (1965, pen and ink on paper); The People in the Story; Bolton Landing (1964, pen and ink and watercolour wash on paper); Evil (1948, gouache on paper); Folk Song (1948, gouache on paper); Heads #3 (1970, lithograph on paper); River Landscape #1 (1958, etching and aquatint on paper); Untitled (1948, gouache and ink on paper); Untitled (c. 1953, printed 1991, etching with Chine-collé); Bird Machine #1 (1952, etching and engraving on paper); Charade (1952, etching and aquatint on paper); Untitled (1976, brush and ink on paper)

Auction Records

New York, 15 March 2006: Untitled (Dream Interior) (1958, bronze, brown patina, 10½ × 16 × 12½ ins/26.6 × 40.8 × 31.6 cm) USD 26,400

New York, 22 Sept 2011: Rites at Sal Safaeni No. 2 (1958, bronze, with brownish green patina, 24¼ × 11 × 3¼ ins/61.6 × 27.9 × 8.3 cm) USD 16,250

New York, 29 Sept 2016: Ridgefield (1967, bronze, 6½ × 14 × 5¼ ins/16.5 × 35.6 × 13.3 cm) USD 8,125

New York, 27 Sept 2017: Untitled (1948, watercolour and ink on paper, 13 × 17¼ ins/33 × 43.8 cm) USD 10,000; Untitled (1953, watercolour and ink on paper, 18¼ × 22¾ ins/46.4 × 57.8 cm) USD 5,000; Reliquary Kingdom No. 2 (1958, bronze with brown patina, 10¾ × 17 × 13 ins/27.3 × 43.2 × 33 cm) USD 30,000

New York, 14 Dec 2017: Manderine & Companion (two works) (Manderine, 1961, bronze with gold patina, 9 × 2 × 2 ins/22.9 × 5.1 × 5.1 cm; Companion, 1961, bronze with gold patina, 7⅜ × 2⅜ × 1⅞ ins/18.7 × 6 × 4.8 cm) USD 15,000

Bibliography

  • Marter, Joan M./Kraskin, Sandra: Dorothy Dehner: A Retrospective of Sculpture, Drawings and Paintings, exhibition catalogue, Baruch College Gallery, New York, 1991.
  • Marter, Joan M.: Dorothy Dehner: Sixty Years of Art, exhibition catalogue, Katonah Museum of Art, Katonah (NY), 1993.
  • Witzling, Mara R. (ed.): ‘Essay for “Dorothy Dehner: Of Death and Life’, in Voicing Today's Visions: Writings by Contemporary Women Artists, Universe Publishing, New York, 1994.
  • Glaubinger, Jane: Dorothy Dehner: Drawings, Prints, Sculpture, exhibition catalogue, Cleveland Museum of Art, Cleveland (OH), 1995.
  • Thyssen, Esther T.: Dorothy Dehner: Landscapes of Memory, exhibition pamphlet, Kraushaar Galleries, New York, 1998.