ARTHUR G. DOVE 1880-1946
Ice and Clouds, 1931
Oil on board, 19 1/2 X 26 3/4" (49.53 X 67.95 cm.)
Signed, lower right
Museum purchase, 961-0-134
New York critics reviewing Arthur Dove's 1931 exhibition at An American Place,
which included Ice and Clouds, noted a new assurance in the artist's work: "It
is a happy business to record that these latest abstractions are way ahead of any-thing
that this painter has showed us before"; "Arthur Dove ... comes forth with
canvases more expansive, more commodious, than any from his brush that the writer has
seen." I Apparently Dove had entered the decade with heightened resolve and
Raised in upstate New York, Dove studied law at Cornell University before deciding, in 1903, to pursue a career in art. He moved to New York City, securing work as a freelance magazine illustrator. A trip to Europe in 1908 introduced Dove to the vivid color and decorative patterning of Henri Matisse and the Fauves, as well as to the ordered pictorial structures of Paul C6zanne. Upon his return to New York, he joined the circle of progressive artists supported by Alfred Stieglitz, and began a series of small, daring non-objective paintings. These abstractions, first exhibited in 1912, presented observations and sensations distilled from the external world, rendered as bold, overlapping forms that denied illusionistic space while exuding a dynamic energy. Dove acknowledged nature as the basis of this art: "Then there was the search for a means of expression which did not depend upon representation. It should have order, size, intensity, spirit, nearer to the music of the eye.... One day I made a drawing of a hillside. The wind was blowing. I chose three forms from the planes of the sides of the trees, and three colors, and black and white. From these was made a rhythmic painting which expressed the spirit of the whole thing."
Dove found support for his art from Stieglitz and Georgia O'Keeffe, but few others understood his abstractions, and even fewer purchased them. In 1921 Dove left his family and moved onto a houseboat with the artist Helen Torr; the next year, Dove and Torr moved onto a sailboat, which they kept in Huntington Bay on the Long Island Sound. After six years on the water, Dove and Torr found quarters in the Ketewomoke Yacht Club in Halesite, satisfying Dove's wish to enlarge his storage and work space without sacrificing the freedom of his unmoored life. As he wrote to Stieglitz in May 1929, "If we have no boat, I shall miss something of the storms and weather that seem to give me more." The greater "commodiousness" noted by critics of the artist's work in 1931 may have been related to this improvement in living and studio quarters. Yet secure housing was only one of the critical factors propelling Dove into the new decade. In September 1929, Dove's wife Florence died, leaving him free to marry Torr as well as to reunite with his nineteen-year-old son. Late in 1929, Stieglitz opened a new gallery, An American Place, which focused especially on the work of three artists: John Marin, O'Keeffe, and Dove. And through the efforts of Stieglitz, in 1930 Dove found an enlightened patron in Duncan Phillips, whose interest in the artist later bore fruit in a monthly stipend. Several factors, then, combined to ease the tensions Dove must have felt in the previous decade, as well as to consolidate the artistic experiments he had made under highly inauspicious circumstances.
Ice and Clouds was painted in this climate of relative resolution. It was finished in February, only weeks before the artist delivered it to Stieglitz for inclusion in the 1931 show. The work was recognized as one of the most accessible works in the exhibition. Murdock Pemberton of The New Yorker, while expressing doubt that Dove would "ever be as much appreciated by the layman as he is by the painter,"
acknowledged that recently Dove had been "kindly turning out an occasional canvas so representative that even the casual visitor can admire it. This year it is his 'Ice and Clouds,' a soft study in blue."
Indeed, Ice and Clouds seems to depict a more definite location, or at least a more representational vision of nature, than the more abstracted compositions that Dove exhibited in 1931 under such titles as Dancing Tree or Two Forms. Even so, Dove did not merely record facts about this landscape, but rather extracted the essential qualities of the scene he observed and remembered, simplifying his colors, shapes, and composition. Dove restricted his palette to tones of brown, blue, and white, brushing in the color with short parallel strokes that radiate a soft energy, especially in the sky and hills. Two white
clouds hover above this glowing atmosphere, just as two jagged ice floes straddle the surface of the water below. Low hills at the horizon form a closed, seemingly safe harbor, separating not only sky from water but also the soft brushstrokes and lighter colors of the upper composition from the flatter forms and denser pigments of the lower canvas. The rounded forms of these hills, like those of the clouds, contrast strongly with the sharply angular shapes of the ice in the foreground. More than "a soft study in blue," Ice and Clouds suggests the elemental contrasts of nature, and perhaps even the actual conflicts that Dove was facing and resolving around 1930.