ADOLF DEHN 1895-1968
Big Mountain, 1956
Casein on panel, 36 x 48" (91.44 x 121.92 cm.)
Signed, lower left
Museum purchase, 957-0-108
Adolf Dehn was a life-long enthusiast of the mountains. During the 1920s, he went on numerous climbing and sketching trips in the Alps and began painting watercolors of the Rocky Mountains in 1939. Big Mountain is a composite image based on fifteen-year-old sketches of the rugged peaks and mining areas near Colorado Springs.
Born and raised in rural Minnesota, Dehn spent three years at the Minneapolis Institute of Art and eight months at the Art Students League before he was drafted by the Army during the final months of World War I. He spent nearly all of the 1920s in Europe, working almost exclusively as a lithographer. In his prints he alternated between poetic landscapes and satires of Jazz Age follies: Vienna cafes, Berlin opera houses, and Paris brothels. Settling in New York in late 1929, Dehn spent the next decade making spoofs of Manhattan nightclubs, as well as lyrical studies of Central Park, rural New York, and Minnesota. A Guggenheim fellowship enabled him to work with Boardman Robinson and Lawrence Barrett at the Colorado Springs Fine Art Center School during the early years of World War II. The mountains dazzled Dehn and even the gasoline and rubber shortages could not keep him from driving into the high ground of the eastern ridge of the Rockies, making sketchbooks that he would consult for inspiration over the next twenty years of his career.
In Big Mountain, painted in casein instead of his preferred medium, watercolor, Dehn hoped to get
more robust color and a fuller sense of the mountain's looming mass. He polished the painting with pieces of absorbent cotton to achieve a deep resonance. Even so, the aesthetics are essentially those of his drawings and watercolors: a muted palette of greens and grays, carefully modulated tones, and a variety of subtle textures, including the scratching and gouging of the surface that made his lithographs of the 1920s and 1930s so distinctive. Dehn, alert to the mercurial weather changes of the Colorado mountains, knew storms could arise without warning. At these moments, the mountains turn into gray, intimidating fortresses, closed in and inaccessible. The generalized, remembered shapes and patterns suggest the influence of Oriental art, and his passion for the Southwestern landscape, freely interpreted, leads to a semi-abstract style that links him indirectly to the art of Milton Avery and Georgia O'Keeffe in the 1950s.
Dehn's late paintings, such as Big Mountain, are more somber and contemplative than the pre-World War II works. Nature images came to outnumber the satires. The landscape forms became more elusive and mysterious. Carl Zigrosser, Dehn's long-time dealer, once said: "[Dehn's] aim never was to produce a mirror-image of nature but to make a picture grow organically... He feels his way into it. He lets the picture, as elusive as life, grow before his eyes ... but he knows when it comes to life, when it clicks or is in tune."