Civil engineer produced first abstract paintings in U.S. 100 years ago

University Park, Pa. -- One hundred years ago this spring, Manierre Dawson, a 22-year-old civil engineer working in a spare room in his childhood Chicago home, became the first American artist to create abstract paintings. What makes this accomplishment particularly remarkable, according to Randy Ploog, a Penn State art historian who has studied Dawson's life and work, is the fact that the engineer had no art training beyond a high school art class.

Ploog said Dawson (1887-1969), who had never traveled further than Michigan, had no contact with progressive artists in Europe, New York or even his native Chicago. At the time, he was a recent graduate of the Armour Institute of Technology (now the Illinois Institute of Technology) and a first-year employee with the architectural firm of Holabird and Roche. What prompted this young civil engineer to produce these groundbreaking paintings has been one of the great mysteries of modern American art.

"A thorough examination of his paintings and his required engineering curriculum reveals that Dawson's training as a civil engineer contributed directly to his development of abstract art," noted Ploog, who is completing a catalogue raisonné documenting all of Dawson's paintings, watercolors, drawings and sculptures, and has written a number of articles and essays on the artist.

Abandoning the representation of the material world -- people and objects -- in favor of the art elements and design principles -- line, color, texture, balance -- was one of the most important aspects of the development of modern art. A crucial milestone in this development was the complete elimination of physical subject matter, resulting in non-representational abstraction. According to conventional histories, modernism, including non-representational abstraction, originated in Europe and spread to the United States. But Ploog points out that Dawson's paintings of April-June 1910 defy this accepted canon.

"Every attempt to link Dawson's paintings to his European contemporaries has proven unsuccessful," Ploog said. "Consequently, art historians have not known how to explain his early accomplishments. For this reason alone his work has not received the recognition it deserves."

As a civil engineering major, Dawson had to study descriptive geometry as well as analytic geometry. Descriptive geometry was a graphic process -- problems were solved at the drawing board. Analytic geometry, on the other hand, was a mathematical process involving equations with variables and other symbols. This distinction between the graphic process of descriptive geometry and symbolic language of analytical geometry provided Dawson the impetus and justification for abstract art.

"His college courses provided not only the visual motifs found in his painting, but also the concept for abstract art itself," said Ploog. "The significance is that his paintings are completely original and completely American. Dawson's paintings demonstrate that creative inspiration can come from any source, regardless of how unlikely, including a civil engineer's mathematics courses."

"Manierre Dawson: Catalogue Raisonné," the largest work devoted to the artist to date, is scheduled for publication in November.

For additional information about Ploog's research about Dawson and examples of Dawson's artwork, click here.

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Last Updated November 18, 2010