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 Dorothy (Mann) Dehner  (1901 - 1994)

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Lived/Active: New York/Ohio      Known for: abstract sculpture, naive style painting, printmaking, drawing, collage

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Ad Code: 3
Dorothy Dehner
from Auction House Records.
Untitled (Dream Interior)
Artwork images are copyright of the artist or assignee
This biography from the Archives of AskART:
Painter, sculptor, art writer, and poet, Dorothy Dehner explored abstraction*, cubism*, realism* and surrealism* during her artistic journey.  Early in her career she was known for painting and for large-cast metal sculptures, but in the 1950s and 1960s, turned increasingly to wood cut into hard-edge geometric shapes.  From 1950, she lived primarily in New York City. 

Dorothy Dehner was born in 1901 in Cleveland, Ohio, but, as a teenager in 1916, moved to Pasadena, California when her parents died.  Her artistic interests were initially in acting.  She majored in drama at UCLA for the school year of 1922-1923, then moved to New York City to study acting at the American Academy of Dramatic Art.

After travel to Europe in France, Italy and Switzerland in 1925, where she saw Cubist* and Fauve* paintings as well as the great art of the ages, Dehner entered the Art Students League* to study sculpture, but switched to painting because she felt the former was bound in academic formula.

She studied drawing with Kimon Nicolaides and painting with Kenneth Hayes Miller.  In 1929, she studied painting with Jan Matulka.  Meeting artist John Graham in that year, he introduced her to Milton Avery, Stuart Davis, and Arshile Gorky.  She would also take art courses years later at Skidmore College in 1951.

Dehner married sculptor David Smith in 1927.  She was evidently very helpful in his artistic growth, but friction would develop because Smith allegedly saw his wife as artistic competition.  Although she painted and drew Cubist and Surrealist works during their marriage, and realistic ones of life on their Bolton Landing, New York farm during the period 1941 to 1944, Dehner would essentially put her exhibition life on hold until their divorce in 1952.  Meanwhile, they traveled to Europe in 1935.

She later wrote about Smith, as well as painter John Graham and Jan Matulka, her teacher.  Although she had shown in the 1946 Audubon Artists exhibition, winning first prize in drawing, and in the Whitney Annual of 1951, it was the year of her divorce, 1952, that Dehner had her first one-person exhibition at the Rose Fried Gallery in New York City.

She met Louise Nevelson in the same year while making prints at Stanley Hayter's Atelier 17*.  It was at this time that her career began to take off, and she was working with the lost-wax* sculptural process in the making of her bronzes.  The following year, 1953, the Museum of Modern Art added one of her watercolors to its collection, and she was in a group exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. In 1955, she was in a three-artist show at Willard Gallery in New York City, where she would exhibit through 1976, and a one-person exhibition at the Art Institute of Chicago*.

From 1955 on, Dehner returned primarily to sculpture, working in a variety of materials over the years including bronze through the mid-1970s, then wood and Corten* steel, moving from small to large scale.

Her bronze sculpture, Young Pharaoh, 1969, is a geometric, two-dimensional, abstract totemic figure similar in concept to Scaffold fourteen years later in 1983, a two-dimensional totemic structure, three layered-lintels high constructed in Corten steel.

Dehner was a visiting artist at the Tamarind Institute* Lithography Workshop in 1970-1971, awarded an Honorary Doctorate in Humane Letters from Skidmore College in 1982, and received an award from the Women's Caucus for Art in 1983. She had major retrospective exhibitions of her work at the Jewish Museum in New York in 1965, City University of New York, 1991, Katonah Museum of Art, 1993, and Cleveland Museum of Art, 1995.

Dehner's work is in the following public collections:

Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City
Museum of Modern Art, New York City
British Museum, London, England
Philadelphia Museum of Art, Pennsylvania
Cleveland Museum, Ohio
Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C.
Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington, D.C.
Museum of American Art, Washington, D.C.
Columbus Museum, Ohio
Wichita Museum, Kansas
Worcester Museum, Massachusetts
Chase Manhattan Bank, New York City
AT & T Headquarters, New York City
General Electric Headquarters, New York City
New York Financial Center, Olympia and York, New York City
Yale University, New Haven, Connecticut
First National Bank, Chicago, Illinois
Time-Life Building, New York City
Dresden Museum, Germany
Calcutta Museum, India
Whitney Museum of American Art, New York City
Storm King Art Center, New York
Seattle Museum, Washington
Union Camp Corporation, Wayne, New Jersey
Rockefeller Center, New York City

A long-lived artist, Dorothy Dehner was in her nineties when she died in 1994.

Jules and Nancy Heller, North American Women Artists of the 20th Century

* For more in-depth information about these terms and others, see Glossary

Biography from Levis Fine Art:
Although Dehner's artistic recognition came undeservedly late in her career, her early artistic training proved extremely formative in developing her future aesthetic. Beginning at the Art Student's League in 1925 and continuing private studies with Jan Matulka in 1929, Dehner was introduced to some of the great modernists including John Graham, Milton Avery, Stuart Davis and Arshile Gorky.

Trained first as a painter and draftswoman, Dehner's delicate drawings and watercolors are a prelude to her work as a sculptor beginning in 1955. They represent the possibilities available to an artist and suggest an "affinity with the understated aesthetic of Paul Klee with each line, color and form emphasizing both a visual and a symbolic isolation". [Grove]These works draw upon the primitive, calligraphic nature of oriental art.

Unfortunately Dehner's artistic career was overshadowed by the career of her husband, David Smith; it would not be until after she left Smith in 1950 that Dehner would begin to gain recognition for her drawings and sculpture. Major peer recognition from greats like Louise Nevelson came about just as the Abstract Expressionist movement would wane.

Throughout her career, Dehner had over 50 solo exhibitions and her works are included in the permanent collections of numerous major institutions including the Whitney, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, The Art Institute of Chicago, the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden and the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

© 2008 Levis Fine Art, Inc.

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