When Katherine Kuh asked Edwin Dickinson about his painting, “Self-Portrait in Uniform” (1942), where the artist depicts himself in a mirror dressed as a Union soldier, he answered, “I’ve had a number of hobbies; one was the Civil War. For about nine years I was particularly interested in that subject and the portrait comes from that time.”
Dickinson offers no other explanation for why he did the painting. He doesn’t even try to elucidate why he was interested in the Civil War, only that he was for nearly a decade. And to Kuh’s credit, she doesn’t try to make him rationalize why he made the painting or why he was curious about the Civil War.
Kuh doesn’t try to prove something, show-off, or trap Dickinson in her narrative — all of which are gestures of disrespect, and I suspect reveal an underlying envy of artists. Dickinson’s rather opaque answer doesn’t cause her to drop a boatload of names, completely obfuscating this amazing exchange. Instead, Kuh moves on to another subject. It is a moment of mutual respect. Both Kuh and Dickinson know that you can’t always give a good reason for your passion, even to yourself.
Can you really rationalize why you did a painting of yourself in a Civil War uniform in 1942, while war is raging in Europe and the Pacific? The painting remains to this day unassimilated and inadmissible, which is one reason why you should go see it and other works in Edwin Dickinson in Retrospect (Babcock Gallery, 724 Fifth Avenue, November 28, 2011- January 27, 2012). The other, bigger reason is that Dickinson is the great American painter who refused to repeat himself. He reworked some paintings for years, others he did in a few hours. Examples of both kinds are in the show, along with other types of paintings. Dickinson was interested in the unexpected, in being surprised; he was always curious, which is hard to be if you are always justifying what you are doing and why.
Kuh recognizes that Dickinson doesn’t have to make the painting seem reasonable because that would denigrate its existence, put it in a box marked “Done With.” That box is where most things end up. The justifications, or what elsewhere has been called the “sober theoretical underpinning[s],” are what seems to matter most these days. You have to be sober, theoretical, and come bearing the proper underpinnings. You have to stand in the doorway of the institutional world and prove the worthiness of your lineage and upbringing to those who hold your future in their angry little hands. You have to say and do the right things before you can climb into the white box stamped with a seal of approval.
It is one thing to be passionate and believe in something. It is another thing to be sober and theoretical, and be capable of rationalizing each and every move you made. Within this context, form and content are justifiable, but meaning remains elusive and excluded. I am interested in what is simmering in the zone of the prohibited and unacceptable. This is why I have started this online magazine with Claudia La Rocca, Thomas Micchelli and Albert Mobilio. This is the company I want to keep.
I want to thank Hrag Vartanian and Veken Gueyikian for offering us this space, and ensuring us that we can write what we want, go out on whatever limb we wish. In my experience, that hasn’t always been the case. I welcome this opportunity to start fresh.
As arts communities around the world experience a time of challenge and change, accessible, independent reporting on these developments is more important than ever.
Please consider supporting our journalism, and help keep our independent reporting free and accessible to all.