Art

The Little-Known Engineer Who Made the First Abstract Paintings in the US

Installation view, 'Manierre Dawson: Engineering Abstraction' at the Muskegon Museum of Art (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)
Installation view, ‘Manierre Dawson: Engineering Abstraction’ at the Muskegon Museum of Art (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

MUSKEGON, Mich. — Like its better-known sisters, Detroit and Flint, Muskegon is a Michigan city clawing its way back from the brink. And, like those other survivors of the postindustrial age, Muskegon claims an art museum that owns works of international note. When it opened in 1912, the Muskegon Museum of Art (MMA) was called the Hackley Art Gallery, named for a lumber baron who remained in town after the trees were cut down. Charles Hackley died before a museum could be established, but not before giving the Board of Education of Muskegon Public Schools an endowment for buying and displaying art. The first major painting purchased by the board was Henry Ossawa Tanner’s “The Holy Family” (1909–10); along with a handful of other pictures, it initially was displayed in the Hackley Public Library. When the board decided to build a museum, it hired as its first director an English critic and lecturer named Raymond Wyer.

Wyer and his successor, Lulu Miller — only the second woman to direct an American art museum — made canny acquisitions accessible to the public by relentlessly generating programs and publications. Wyer’s most notable purchase was James A.M. Whistler’s “Study in Rose and Brown” (c. 1884), which had been exhibited in the 1913 Armory Show in New York. Miller acquired Winslow Homer’s monumental figure painting “Answering the Horn” (1876) and launched the Muskegon’s annual Regional Exhibition, now in its 87th year.

As the regional show suggests, both Wyer and Miller — and all of the MMA’s directors since — consistently acquired and exhibited work by local artists within the broader context of American art. A current exhibition at the museum, of works by Chicago-born Manierre Dawson, is a prime case in point. Dawson, although not a household name, is increasingly recognized as the first American artist to work in a completely abstract mode. What’s especially significant about him, though, is that he made his breakthrough to non-objective imagery prior to any exposure to modernist art. Instead, his innovation stemmed from his training and employment as a structural engineer.

Manierre Dawson, "Afternoon II" (1913) (image courtesy Muskegon Museum of Art)
Manierre Dawson, “Afternoon II” (1913), oil on canvas, 17.5 x 24.25 in, collection of Muskegon Museum of Art (image courtesy Muskegon Museum of Art)

The 26 pieces in Manierre Dawson: Engineering Abstraction come from Great Lakes–area collections, and the show is organized with the Kalamazoo Institute of Arts. It’s a quiet exhibition of cabinet-sized images — most of them thinly painted in warm monochrome — that benefits from considered looking and careful reading.

The two earliest pictures are crisp, sensitive graphite drawings of the Michigan farmhouse Dawson moved to in 1914, after leaving his engineering career behind. These sketchbook-size renderings (from 1903) are followed by a group of small, expressively colored and brushed paintings of idyllic landscapes (c. 1907). In them, we see his attention to blocks of color and their correspondence to geometric shapes, but the shift into pure abstraction — which occurred early in 1910 — seems like a bolt out of the blue.

Unfortunately, Dawson’s epiphany is represented here only in the form of a large text panel with color reproductions of key works. According to MMA Senior Curator Jane Connell, loans from the Brooklyn Museum, the Cleveland Museum of Art, and other public collections would have been too costly to obtain. And the loan of a privately held picture from that year, initially promised, was retracted at the last minute.

Kandinsky, too, made his first non-objective paintings in 1910. But Kandinsky, unlike Dawson, worked within progressive artistic circles that would have encouraged his experimentation. Still, there are limited but clear — and purely coincidental — formal similarities between Dawson’s 1910 pictures and some of Kandinsky’s early Improvisations. Both artists used pale, atmospheric color as a surround or background for jostling mixes of dots, circles, and crisscrossing and veering straight lines, as well as tautly curved lines that create pockets for more intense color.

Kandinsky went on to ever more exuberant mixes of hues and seemingly unrestrained composition, whereas Dawson (ever the engineer?) soon began reining himself in again. A pivotal work is “Afternoon II” (1913), from the MMA’s collection as a gift from the artist. Although it retains some sense of scattered, floating elements, it also features interlocking planes of monochrome of the sort seen in analytical cubism. The formal shift was sparked by Dawson’s encounter with two works by Duchamp, both featured in the Armory Show that opened in New York, then travelled to Chicago. The carefully managed pictorial mayhem of “Nude Descending a Staircase (No. 2)” (1912) and “Sad Young Man on a Train” (1911) had an immediate and profound impact on Dawson’s practice.

Manierre Dawson, “Hercules I” and “Hercules II” (both 1913) (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)
Manierre Dawson, “Hercules I” and “Hercules II” (both 1913) (photo by the author for Hyperallergic) (click to enlarge)

That influence is seen most clearly in a pair of paintings at the MMA: “Hercules I” and “Hercules II” (both 1913). If Duchamp’s “Nude” appears as a sort of mash-up of static analytic Cubism and ceaselessly dynamic Futurism, then Dawson’s pictures quietly pay homage to that synthesis, even as they embody his own understanding of it. In each of the Hercules pictures, the heroic figure comprises monochromatic planes that appear to be emerging out of an actively fracturing pictorial space. Something of an aside: Dawson actually bought “Sad Young Man on a Train” but later, in critical need of cash, sold it to Walter Pach, who eventually donated the work to the Guggenheim Collection in Venice.

Although Dawson planned on a career as a studio artist — leaving his job in Chicago and moving to a fruit farm in Michigan — he was unable to sustain a high level of productivity. Instead of taking care of itself and paying for his art-making, farming sapped both his time and money, and his enterprise never again saw the peak he enjoyed in the mid-teens. Yet the quality of his work remained high. “Loft” (1918), for example, subtly blurs distinctions between image and object. It’s a painted relief surrounded by a frame and hanging on the wall. But its signal forms are cut from pieces of wood that literalize the spatial effects that Dawson had earlier achieved strictly in paint. At the same time, the recession and advancement of interlocking planes are reinforced by Dawson’s use of softly hued stain.

Manierre Dawson, "Loft" (1918), oil-painted wood relief (click to enlarge)
Manierre Dawson, “Loft” (1918), oil on carved wood relief, 30 x 22.5 in, private collection, Chicago, courtesy Valerie Carberry Gallery (image courtesy Muskegon Museum of Art) (click to enlarge)

In the end, the exhibition inspires mixed feelings. On one hand, it provokes a poignant, retrospective sense of what might have been. Dawson’s career brushed up against the modernist juggernaut but never quite jumped on board. How might Dawson have developed if he’d moved to New York, or at least stayed in Chicago rather than decamping to Ludington, Michigan? And how, if at all, could his participation in the mainstream have impacted the trajectory of modern art?

On the other hand, I’m inclined to leave the what-ifs behind, even though they underpin the attention this review accords Dawson’s oeuvre. Instead, I’d like to leave him at the periphery and let his outsider status remind me of the need to keep looking for and at work that falls outside of the market-driven, celebrity-fueled mainstream. After all, that’s where most artists are working today. And access to many of them has never been easier.

Manierre Dawson: Engineering Abstraction continues at the Muskegon Museum of Art (296 W Webster Avenue, Muskegon, Michigan) through August 9.

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