By Michael Hodges / The Detroit News
Could the world’s first abstract painter have been a Michigan fruit farmer and not, as art history has it, Russian artist Wassily Kandinsky? A recent gift of a Manierre Dawson abstract painting to West Shore Community College in Scottville, near Ludington, close to where artist-farmer Dawson had his house and orchards, raises that question.
“When we look for the symbolic date for the birth of abstraction, the one most art historians cite is 1911 with Kandinsky,” says Kenneth J. Myers, chief curator at the Detroit Institute of Arts. In that year, the Russian painted “Impression III (Concert),” generally thought to be the first time recognizable forms — people, houses, trees, etc. — completely disappear from the canvas. While Myers notes the art world had been moving in this direction for decades, the leap from figurative to pure abstraction was an intellectual and artistic landmark, long cited as proof of Kandinsky’s genius.
Yet in 1910, Dawson painted a series of nonfigurative works under the umbrella title “Prognistic.”
Dawson’s work was good enough to impress Gertrude Stein, the Paris-based collector who promoted a range of avant-garde artists. She paid 200 francs for a piece of his, also in 1910, that has since vanished. A few years later Dawson was invited to contribute a painting to the 1913 Armory Show in New York, a seismic event that introduced Picasso, Matisse and other modernists to a shocked America. But Dawson demurred, saying he had nothing worthy.
Later, however, one of the organizers, Walter Pach, prevailed on him to submit “Wharf under Mountain” when the Armory Show moved from New York to the Art Institute of Chicago.
It’s hard to imagine a more auspicious start to an art career. Yet after this hopeful beginning, Dawson, who trained as a civil engineer but moved to Ludington to take up fruit farming in 1914, promptly disappears from history. He made art the rest of his life, but almost never exhibited or sold anything.
“Manierre’s art was his No. 1 thing,” says Sharon K. Bluhm, professor emeritus at West Shore college and author of “Manierre Dawson: Inventions of the Mind.” Bluhm, an English professor, became interested in Dawson in 1976 after discovering she’d bought his farmhouse.
“Manierre didn’t sell a lot,” Bluhm says. “He did art for art’s sake.”
Dawson died in 1969.
Dawson’s grandson, Peter Lockwood of Arlington, Texas, donated a 1912 piece, “Untitled Abstraction,” to the Manierre Dawson Gallery at the community college, bringing their Dawson collection to three works. Lockwood thinks his grandfather was just the rare artist uninterested in fame.
“The main reason he didn’t get recognized is that he didn’t move to New York back when modern art was becoming acceptable,” Lockwood says. “Instead, he decided to become a fruit farmer and raise a family. He enjoyed that.” Lockwood recalls a jovial man who told Paul Bunyan stories and gave out silver dollars to his grandchildren. Once he learned more about early 20th century art, he says, “I realized my grandfather was definitely an art-world pioneer, especially with nonrepresentational abstract art.”
So does it matter that a Michigan artist might have been the first to do pure abstraction?
The DIA’s Myers isn’t so sure.
“Looking at Dawson’s stuff now, I think a lot of it is interesting,” he says. “He’s important in being really early. But my sense is that because he rarely showed, he had little impact on other artists. If I were given one of his pieces, I’d take it in a minute,” Myers says. “But I’m skeptical whether I would buy.”
Museums that have collected Dawson’s work include the Metropolitan in New York, the Museum of Modern Art, the Art Institute of Chicago, the Kalamazoo Institute of Arts, the Grand Rapids Art Museum and the Muskegon Museum of Art.
Myers says his interest would be keener if we knew Dawson’s painting hung in Stein’s apartment, crowded with art of the brave new century and visited by some of the greatest names of the day. But that doesn’t appear to have been the case.
According to Dawson’s meticulous journals from his 1910 trip to Europe, when he handed Stein the canvas, she reportedly said to a bearded Frenchman next to her, “Wouldn’t this make a great gift for so-and-so?”
(Bluhm notes that some have speculated the bearded Frenchman could have been Matisse, though there’s no proof of that.)
Penn State art historian Randy J. Ploog, who lectured on Dawson at the Met and co-authored “Manierre Dawson (1887–1969): A Catalogue Raisonné,” traces the artist’s interest in abstract forms to his education in civil engineering and mechanical drawing.
“When the Milwaukee Art Museum bought a ‘Prognostic’ in the late 1960s,” he says, “Dawson wrote to the director to explain how these abstract 1910 paintings came out of his engineering courses.”
Ploog acknowledges he’s heard some dismiss Dawson with the old argument about the tree falling in a forest that nobody hears. “But if that tree is on the ground,” Ploog asks, “isn’t there an argument for figuring out how it got there?”
At Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, American-art professor Henry Adams is surprised there hasn’t been more of an academic rush to study Dawson.
“It’s funny art historians have shown such little interest in this,” he says. “Abstract painting gets a lot of attention, but no one’s very clear about how it started.”
For his part, Lockwood says he’s happy at the recognition his grandfather has garnered in recent years and notes that some essays about him — including Ploog’s “Catalog Raisonne” — are now floating around Europe.
“So hopefully, it’s just a matter of time before awareness about him spreads there,” Lockwood says.
“But I think they’ll fight it big time — ‘Just who was this American artist doing abstraction before Kadinsky?’”