The summer exhibition at Modern Bundy in Waitsfield combines the work of two very different deceased artists: Adolf Dehn (1895-1968) and Virginia Dehn (1922-2005). The two were married but very distant from each other and their careers span different eras; The first painting of Virginie exhibited here was made in the year of Adolf’s death.
Each artist has developed alongside the great movements of his time without being at the center of them. Adolf’s career has taken him from the making of lithographs in the 1920s in the avant-garde of Vienna and Paris to the development of watercolor landscapes just as American art turned to abstract expressionism. Virginia painted alongside Adolf in New York in the 1950s, influenced by Mark Rothko and Arshile Gorky. But unlike Joan Mitchell, Helen Frankenthaler, and a handful of other contemporary women, she only forged her own career through widowhood.
The Bundy’s foyer contains rural (and some industrial) scenes of Adolf in watercolor, stacked in salon style, dating from the late 1930s to the 1960s. Around the corner, nine of his lithographs and drawings in the ink is laid on the floor of the spacious main gallery. The first of these, an ink drawing from 1926, is a humorous depiction of a wealthy couple sitting on a bench.
Most of the main gallery is occupied by Virginia’s large abstract acrylic paintings – some as large as 62 square inches – which date from 1968 to 2003. The latter incorporate substances such as glue and dirt that give the painting a tactile aspect, three-dimensional quality.
While the title “Paysages & Inscapes” vaguely brings the show closer together, the viewer will be struck by the divergence of the two artists’ approaches and the variation within each other’s work.
Virginia has two pointillist works, in which tiny brushstrokes cover every millimeter of the canvas. We are far from his abstract geometric canvases or flowery shapes with a flat perspective on a plain brown background in his 1992 painting “Chords”.
The range of Adolf’s experiments is clear from the contrast between two works: a surrealist-influenced pen and ink drawing from 1961, “Haitian Composition” and the casein on masonite from around 1960 “Central Park Snow “. The latter is a traditional scene of New York’s skyscrapers silhouetted against a snow-covered park.
“I would never show [Adolf and Virginia] together except they were married, ”commented Wendell Anderson, who owns and manages the Bundy with his wife, June Anderson. The couple also reside there, having converted the rear sections of the mid-century gallery into a living space. The building was designed by Harlow Carpenter, whose major influence was Le Corbusier.
Visitors to the Bundy often recommend artists to the Andersons for future exhibitions, Wendell said, but the couple rarely follow them. With the Dehns it was different. Virginia’s nephew, Andrew Lowe, is friends with the residents of the neighboring house in which Carpenter lived when designing the gallery. Visiting their neighbors one night, the Andersons overheard Lowe talking about his exotic aunt, who was 26 years younger than Adolf when they married in 1947. The two artists’ production is now stored in the family warehouse. Lowe in Connecticut, where the Andersons went to select the Show.
The Andersons found the history of the Dehns as interesting as their art, scouring the Internet for historical sources. Among their finds are a 1941 LIFE magazine which features Adolf in its center page and a copy of the artist’s out-of-print book on watercolor technique. The Lowes provided other sources, including Virginia’s handwritten memoirs and a catalog raisonné of Adolf’s prints. All of these are available for reading in the foyer, along with copies of a scientific article on Adolf by Case Western Reserve University professor of art history Henry Adams and a review of an exhibition of Virginia’s work. by Teri Thomson Randall.
According to June’s research, Adolf grew up the child of a “very poor and gloomy” German immigrant couple in Waterville, Minnesota. His father was a hunter and trapper, but with his mother’s support, Adolf managed to attend school in Minneapolis. of art and design from 1914 to 1917, then won a scholarship to the Art Students League in New York. After a year at the latter, he was drafted. Adolf’s choice to become a conscientious objector led to his semi-imprisonment until the end of the war, according to Adams.
From 1922 to 1929, Adolf lived in Europe – mainly in Vienna and Paris, with stays in Berlin and London. In Vienna, he began to make lithographs influenced by his friend George Grosz which depicted humorous and risky scenes of street life. He worked as a personal assistant to Scofield Thayer, the wealthy Massachusetts poet who co-owned and edited the Dial from 1920 to ’29. This American literary magazine published key early modernist works by WB Yeats, TS Eliot, and others.
Thayer had also started buying modern art by artists like Gustav Klimt, Egon Schiele and Pablo Picasso for his collection, which would one day be renowned. One of Adolf’s jobs for Thayer was to oversee a portfolio of modern art reproductions.
“He was surrounded by the avant-garde of modernist thought,” June commented in a telephone interview. Thayer ceded his precious art collection to Adolf, she added, but the wealthy esthete outlived his former assistant. (Adolf died of a heart attack at 73, Thayer 14 years later.) The Scofield Thayer Collection is now owned by the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
The lithographic techniques that Adolf developed during his stay in Europe had “a wide influence,” according to Adams. No less influential was the artist’s approach to watercolors, which he adopted in 1936. Three years later he won a Guggenheim Fellowship to travel across the United States creating watercolors , which appeared in a five-page series in 1941. LIFE publish. The exhibition brought Adolf national fame.
In 1941, he painted what would become his best-known watercolor, “Spring in Central Park”. Owned by the Met, the popular image has been reproduced on everything from tote bags to mugs.
In 1945, art critic Lloyd Goodrich classed Adolf with Winslow Homer and Edward Hopper. His 1937 watercolor “Sunday Morning (Colorado)”, shown on The Bundy Show, indeed has a Hopper-esque feel with its empty windows and stark telephone poles.
Other influences are evident in Adolf’s watercolors, notably those of regionalists Thomas Hart Benton and Grant Wood. All three were represented by the Associated American Artists Gallery in New York, of which Adolf joined the list in 1938.
In 1943, Adolf met gallery assistant Virginia Engelman, whom he married four years later. Born in Wisconsin, Virginia grew up in Connecticut after her father took up a teaching position at Yale University. Like Adolf, she had attended the Art Students League; during their courtship display, the two frequented the league’s summer home, the Woodstock Art Colony. While married, they attended the Yaddo Artists’ Retreat in Saratoga Springs, NY, with their friend Milton Avery, a pioneer of abstract painting.
The Dehn’s marriage seems to have been defined by their trips abroad for Adolf’s work – to Cuba on a second Guggenheim, to Haiti, Yucatán, Italy, Greece, Turkey, Iran, Afghanistan and in India. Standard Oil of New Jersey hired Adolf to make art in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and Venezuela.
“She never wanted to be a middle-class housewife,” June said of Virginia, adding that the Dehns did not have children. “She admitted that she was not an artistic brand, [either]. But they shared a Midwestern past. ”
While Adolf successfully produced scenic watercolors of the couple’s travels, another American artist influenced by Benton rose to prominence on a whole different path. It was Jackson Pollock, who, along with Rothko, Willem de Kooning and others, forged a new path for art, in his case with spontaneous, abstract and gestural applications of painting. The art world has taken notice.
“[Abstract expressionism] was so masculine, so manly, so postwar America, ”June said. “It became what was important for the next three decades. So whoever made barns and charming rural scenes has gone out of fashion, this is what happened to [Adolf] Dehn. ”
Virginia began to paint daily after the death of her husband; she settled in Santa Fe, NM, in 1986. Her least abstract landscape painting in the Bundy, “Sentinels” (1992), appears to depict the spectacular vertical rock formations of the southwest. But she never gained her own fame, according to June.
“She had quite a few exhibits, but in small museums. I don’t think she was really recognized,” June said. “She never stopped working, never remarried – even though she had a lot of lovers. She looks like a… firecracker, someone who knew what she wanted.”