In his 1925 poem “A Way to Look At Things,” Arthur Dove wrote, “Works of nature are abstract./They do not lean on other things for meanings./The-sea gull is not like the sea./Nor the sun like the moon./The sun draws water from the sea./The clouds are not like either one—/They do not keep one form forever./That the mountainside looks like a face is accidental.” (as quoted in Arthur Dove: Always Connect, p. 28) As suggested by this statement, throughout his career, Arthur Dove sought to convey the inner spirit he saw in the “things” of nature by reducing each component to its most basic form. Nowhere is this simplification more evident and innovative than in the charcoals and pastels of his early career, including Sun on Water.
Barbara Haskell writes, “Dove believed that…each object had a certain configuration that captured its spirit or inner structure but that did not necessarily conform to its objectively perceived shape…Dove came to describe this identifying form through ‘force lines’ or ‘growth lines.’ Force lines did not refer to the physical outlines of an object but to the forces or tensions alive within it…Dove wrote, ‘…When mariners say ‘the wind has weight,’ a line seems to express that better than bulk.’” (Arthur Dove, exhibition catalogue, San Francisco, California, 1974, p. 7) In the present work, Dove transforms the reflection of sunlight onto water into a kaleidoscopic arrangement of such “force lines.” Rays emerge from the glowing orb of the sun at upper right and reverberate throughout the composition, leading to the reflected sun on the ocean in the lower register. In the negative space between these strong charcoal lines, Dove creates gradients of pigment which exploit the creaminess of his chosen medium to complicate the movement of light within the abstracted view.
Dove frequently explored his fascination with the reflective qualities of water in his artwork, an interest unsurprising in an artist who lived for several years on a sailboat off Long Island, New York. Indeed, Debra Bricker Balken explains of his frequent return to key motifs, “In the interstices of abstraction and figuration, Dove continued to mine and rework many of his pictorial devices and themes, clarifying ideas that related to nature’s fugitive processes either through spare, architectonic statements…or through lavish, ample declarations of the complexity of the structure of light, as in Sun on Water.” (Arthur Dove: A Retrospective, exhibition catalogue, Washington, D.C., 1997, p. 25)
With its focus on the underlying patterns of nature and rhythmic repetitions of form, Sun on Water is a closely related successor of Dove’s seminally important Ten Commandments pastels of 1911-12, which are widely recognized as the first works of abstraction to ever be exhibited by an American artist. Haskell writes, “The black and white charcoal drawings from this period are compositionally and philosophically related to these pastels as well as to certain black and white paintings by the Futurist Giacomo Balla.” (Arthur Dove, p. 29)