Exhibit highlights the first American abstract painter -- an engineer

November 03, 2009

The first American artist to paint an abstract painting was civil engineer Manierre Dawson (1887–1969). His profession, far from a deterrent to his creativity, was his primary source of inspiration, especially during the formative years of his career. "Manierre Dawson: Engineer/Artist," an exhibit, traces the evolution of his work and shows how elements of his paintings leading up to and including his first abstractions and his conception of abstract art itself are directly related to his civil engineering training. The exhibit is the result of 10 years of research by Penn State alumnus Randy Ploog, who earned a doctorate in art history, and is on display through Jan. 8, in the Diversity Studies Room at 109 Pattee Library.

The didactic exhibition traces the impact of his civil engineering courses on Dawson’s paintings through a series of photographic panels and a DVD program designed to appeal to artists, engineers and the general public. In 1910, he produced a series of seven abstract compositions, making him the first American artist to paint abstractly.

Why a 22-year-old civil engineer, with little art training, produced abstract paintings in Chicago, a year before Arthur Dove in New York and Vasily Kandinsky in Munich, has been one of the great mysteries in modern art and defies conventional explanations of the spread of modernism from Europe to the United States. Nearly every significant development in Dawson’s early career, especially his first abstract paintings, can be explained by the engineering courses he took at Armour Tech. 

To further compliment the exhibit, a number of antique surveying scopes, optical instruments, drawing tools and historic photographs of the Penn State's Engineering program are also on display. Collected over the past decade by David Faulds, they preserve Penn State engineering history, from its inception in the 1890s through the 1950s, and convey the vast achievements and advancements Penn State has made since its early agrarian roots.

Faulds, an alumnus of Penn State's College of Earth and Mineral Sciences, is an engineering laboratories supervisor in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering.

The exhibit is open during regular hours of library operation, available at 814-865-3063. For more information on the research, e-mail, RandyP@psu.edu or call 814-865-7317.

  • IMAGE: Penn State
Last Updated November 18, 2010