American Modern

In 1908 Manierre Dawson, a 21-year-old Chicagoan, an artist in his spare time, began to paint in a style that differed dramatically from what he had done before. It differed dramatically from what anybody in America had done before. Dawson painted not seascapes or horsemen or ladies with parasols; not even streetwalkers or soot-blackened skylines. His new "subjects" were shapes and colors, complex forms and even numerals floating in space.

Even today, Dawson's paintings from this period are striking: abstract and sophisticated, strangely compelling assemblies of geometry and color. They look a lot like the work of Wassily Kandinsky.

Indeed, says Randy Ploog, Penn State doctoral student in art history, "there is a similarity to Kandinsky so startling that some people doubt the dates."

Kandinsky, the great Russian modernist, is widely hailed as a progenitor of the abstract style in painting. But "Prognostic," by the American provincial Dawson, actually predates Kandinsky's first non-objective work by a year or two. There it sits in the crib of modern art, with all those pampered European babies, quietly demanding to be seen.

Where on earth did it come from?

Dawson, the son of a Chicago attorney, had studied civil engineering at the Armour Institute of Technology. He worked as a draftsman with a leading architectural firm in the Windy City. He spent his summers across Lake Michigan on the family farm in Michigan, and had not traveled to Europe, or even to New York.

"When people asked him, later, what inspired him to non-representational painting," says Ploog, "he said it was all those equations he'd had to learn at Armour Tech."

Ploog got interested in Dawson in 1992, while in Richmond, Virginia, visiting Fred Brandt, a Penn State alumnus who is a curator at the Museum of Fine Arts there. Brandt showed him some recent acquisitions, one of which was a Dawson.

"I was hooked immediately," Ploog remembers. "I just loved the work, first of all. Also, I'm from the midwest. Chicago is one of my favorite cities."

Mostly, though, the unanswered questions about Dawson's development intrigued him. What was the course that had led this young American to the vanguard of modern art?

Ploog set out to investigate. Early on, he visited Chicago art historian Mary Gedo, who had written most of the handful of articles that have been published on Dawson. Gedo provided encouragement and an invaluable resource: a set of 350 color slides, a complete record of the artist's ouevre, now scattered and widely inaccessible.

Ploog was off and running. He accessed Dawson's journal at the Archive of American Art in Washington, D.C., and interviewed Dawson's 95-year-old widow, and other surviving members of the artist's family. He spent days and weeks digging through various Chicago archives, including those at the Art Institute and the Chicago Historical Society. He immersed himself in readings on the American avant-garde of the pre-World-War-I era.

Finally, Ploog says, "preparation and luck" led him to a long-forgotten book that he believes is the key to the Dawson mystery.

A Theory of Pure Design, published in 1907 by Denman W. Ross, a painter, collector, and lecturer at Harvard, outlines a method for the study and creation of design without concern for content. Ross, Ploog explains, was a follower of Arthur Wesley Dow, whose turn-of-the-century lesson-books on design composition were very popular, especially in Chicago. Ross, he says, pushed Dow's ideas into the abstract.

"As soon as I looked at the Ross book," Ploog says, "I saw the connection to Dawson."

"The purpose of Pure Design," Ross writes, "is to achieve Order in line and spots of paint: this with no other, no further, no higher motive." His sentiments, Ploog thought, closely echoed the thoughts expressed in Dawson's journal from 1908, which describe his approach to art as "an attempt to fix forms," a matter of "shapes and colors presented on a canvas."

After closer inspection, Ploog writes, he found that "the influence of Ross's general intent, as well as his specific instructions, and even some of his book's illustrations are reflected in Dawson's paintings." A check of acquisition records revealed that the Library of the Art Institute, which Dawson frequented, had indeed purchased a copy of Ross's book. "I can't prove he read it," Ploog says, "but I can show he had opportunities to do so."

He does not suggest that Ross was Dawson's only influence. Recently, for instance, Ploog found a book on James A. McNeil Whistler, written by Chicago art collector Arthur Eddy in 1903, "which presents many of the ideas later introduced by Kandinsky. Dawson could have read Eddy, too. But I still think the 1908 revelation was from Ross's book."

Nor does Ploog make any claims for Dawson's primacy over the Europeans — or theirs over him — in the birthing of abstract art. Dawson's influence on other painters, in fact, was nil. Very few of his paintings were exhibited or sold, and after a brief fertile period, his truly innovative work tailed off.

That a new way of seeing should suddenly emerge on both sides of the Atlantic, Ploog concludes, "is finally a question of the zeitgeist, the general cultural climate of the age.

"There was definitely something in the air."

Randy J. Ploog is a Ph.D. student in art history, and is writing his dissertation on the life and work of Manierre Dawson. Ploog's address is 229 Arts Building, University Park, PA 16802. His advisers are Craig Zabel, Ph.D., associate professor of art history, and George L. Mauner, Ph.D., distinguished professor of art history.

Last Updated December 01, 2004