Throughout his career, Arthur Dove's chief inspiration was nature, not only in its outward forms, but also in its more elusive aspects. Painted in 1931, while Dove was living in the Ketewomoke Yacht Club in Halesite, Long Island, Cinder Barge and Derrick is characteristic of the artist's tendency to observe his immediate surroundings and integrate their abstracted forms into his art. This profound and elusive painting evokes the sense, rather than the particulars of the scene through the layering of undulating forms, a reduced palette and sensuous, brushy surface.
First shown by Alfred Stieglitz in a 1910 group show at his gallery, 291, Dove's long interaction with the legendary dealer introduced him to a variety of artists and styles from both sides of the Atlantic including Pablo Picasso, Paul Cézanne, Georgia O'Keeffe and Marsden Hartley. This relationship quickly transformed Dove's work from its early Impressionist influence and lead to the development of his mature style. As early as 1910, his work incorporated the organic, abstracted forms and refined space that would come to characterize his oeuvre (fig. 1, Abstraction No. 2, 1910-11, private collection).
Stieglitz immediately recognized that Dove's works, "were over the heads of the people... They were beautiful, they were not reminiscent of anyone else." (as quoted in F.S. Wright, Arthur G. Dove, Berkeley, California, 1958, p. 21) With the support of Stieglitz and Duncan Phillips--an admirer and, beginning in 1930, an active patron of the artist--Dove continued to create works that differentiated him from his contemporaries. He was able to give up the illustrative work that had long supported him in 1929, further liberating himself as an artist and allowing him to focus exclusively on his abstract explorations of nature and his surroundings. In the abstract paintings and works on paper that would define much of the artist's career, Dove continually sought to go beyond the mere rendition of nature to discover his subjects' true essence.
Cinder Barge and Derrick is characteristic of Dove's best work and a triumphant example of early Modernism that presages the Abstract Expressionist movement of the 1940s. The painting depicts a view that Dove most likely witnessed close to his home in Halesite, as boats and sea scenes are a recurring motif in Dove's work during the time he was living there. In addition to Cinder Barge and Derrick, he also painted Ferry Boat Wreck (fig. 2, 1931, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York), The Derrick (1931, private collection) and Red Barge, Reflections (1931, Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C.) during this period. The present work depicts a derrick extending from the lower right edge of the composition with its end receptacle submerged in the barge's cargo holdings. A thin band of green-gray along the lower edge of the work denotes the water, gently lapping at the barge's edges, which are indicated by two semi-rectangular blocks of modulated tans and beiges. Dove employs various earth-toned, undulating forms for the cargo and landscape beyond, their forms composed of softly modulated tones. A building on the shore punctuates the vision with its white structure and black roof, which are partially submerged in the middleground. This is most likely the same structure that appears in The Derrick.
Rather than capturing the expanse of the sea and coastline, Dove chooses to compress the space of Cinder Barge and Derrick through the layering of organic forms. This instills the work with a unity that is evocative of intimacy between painter and subject.
Melodious horizontal forms dominate the lower portion of the work, while undulating mounds inhabit the upper--the motion inherent in their lines alluding to the mild movement of the water as does the slight wave of derrick's line. Forms are echoed throughout: the arc of the crane repeating those of the amorphous hills and cargo, and its triangular metalwork reiterating the angle of the roof. The surface is characteristically brushy and tactile as portions are demonstrative of Dove's feathering technique. As early as 1916, Dove sought to underscore the primary role of the sensory in his art. "Theories have been outgrown," he wrote, "the means is disappearing, the reality of the sensation alone remains. It is that in its essence which I wish to set down. It should be a delightful adventure not to revolutionize nor to reform, but to enjoy life out loud" (D. B. Balken, et al, Arthur Dove: A Retrospective, Andover, Massachusetts, 1998, p. 24).
Sound is an important aspect in Dove's oeuvre and quite a few of his early works develop the theme of music, suggesting a thematic connection between music and abstract art, which was actively championed by the European Expressionist Wassily Kandinsky. Dove's abstract early oils, such as Music and Sentimental Music, "demonstrate that he, like Kandinsky, was aware of the philosophical and aesthetic linkage between music and the formal components of visual art. This connection made possible the justification for abstract painting on the grounds that it followed the precedent of music, which relies entirely on abstract means but nevertheless touches the soul" (A.L. Morgan, Arthur Dove: Life and Work with a Catalogue Raisonné, Newark, Delaware, 1984, p. 47).
Dove also chose to paint many compositions with non-musical sounds as his primary subject. Such sounds are perhaps most famously represented in his Fog Horns (fig. 3, Colorado Springs Fine Art Center, Colorado Springs, Colorado) of 1929, depicting three rose-hued, hazy discs in an expanse of gray, and "illustrating as it does the deep-throated blasts of a foghorn successively approaching through a heavy atmosphere over
the water" (Arthur Dove: Life and Work with a Catalogue Raisonné, p. 70) The presence of sound is a much subtler, yet equally important presence in Cinder Barge and Derrick, as the reverberation produced by the lapping of the water against the barge and shore is indicated by the quietly swelling mounds. This work is, as the majority of Dove's art, devoted to the theme of developing, in pictorial terms, the visual and the aural in nature.
In 1958 Duncan Phillips wrote of the artist's career, "Arthur G. Dove deserves to be ranked with the dissimilar Kandinsky among the earliest abstract expressionists. Certainly in the realm of uncompromising and impetuous exploration, Dove was the boldest American pioneer. He was and is unique... Profound was his conversion in his years of decision to the concept of the intimately symbolical image, to be abstracted from nature and from the most familiar objects, as a new language for painting" (as quoted in F.S. Wright, Arthur G. Dove, Berkeley, California, 1958, p. 13). Cinder Barge and Derrick is a seminal and visionary work that is representative of Dove's greatest achievements and presages the development of Modern art in America.
Fig. 1, Arthur G. Dove, Abstraction No. 2, 1910/11, oil on paper on board.
Image Courtesy and copyright The Estate of Arthur G. Dove.
Fig. 2, Arthur G. Dove, Ferry Boat Wreck, 1931
oil on canvas, 18 x 30 in. (45.7 x76.2 cm.)
Whitney Museum of American Art, New York.
Purchase, with funds from Mr. and Mrs. Roy R. Neuberger
Image courtesy and copyright The Estate of Arthur G. Dove.
Fig. 3, Arthur G. Dove, Fog Horns, 1929, oil on canvas.
Colorado Springs Fine Art Center, Colorado Springs, Colorado.
Image Courtesy and copyright The Estate of Arthur G. Dove.