DEHNER, Untitled small sculpture, 1964


2 x 1 3/4

SKU: SBD2972 Category: Tag:

“Dorothy Dehner (American 1901-1994) was my godmother.  These were given to her dear friend, my mother–who renamed herself “Mildred Constantine”  (Constance Cohen Bettelheim) due to anti-Semitism; my mother was a curator in the Department of Architecture and Design at the Museum of Modern Art, New York.  I acquired them by inheritance in December of 2008″  Judith Bettelheim, PhD 12/12/12

Dorothy Dehner moved to Pasadena, California, in 1916 and attended the University of California, Los Angeles where she studied modern dance and drama. In 1922, after resolving to become an actress, she moved to New York to study at the American Academy of Dramatic Art.  A trip to Europe in 1925 provided opportunities to see work by important modern artists such as Picasso and Matisse, inspiring her to pursue a career as an artist, with a strong interest in sculpture. Returning to New York, she enrolled at the Art Students League, but became disenchanted when exposed to the more traditional and formal styles espoused by her instructors. At this time, she turned to painting in a more modern style, reflecting her interest in the more progressive and abstract style of cubist art. She studied drawing with Kimon Nicolaides and painting with Kenneth Hayes Miller, and with Jan Matulka.  After meeting John Graham in 1929 she was introduced to Arshile Gorky, Stuart Davis, and Milton Avery.

In 1927, Dehner married artist David Smith and moved to Bolton Landing, a farm outside of New York City. During these years, her art became secondary to her duties as a wife, but she was able to continue to paint some works, many in a relatively realist manner. She also painted in cubist and surrealist styles. Early in her career she was known for large-cast metal sculptures, but in the 1950s and 1960s, she turned increasingly to wood cut into hard-edge geometric shapes. In 1950 at Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs, N.Y. she had her first solo exhibition featuring ink drawings.   Although she had shown in the 1946 Audubon Artists exhibition, winning first prize in drawing, and in the Whitney Annual of 1951, it was the year of her divorce, 1952, that Dehner had her first one-person exhibition at the Rose Fried Gallery in New York City.

In 1952 Dehner once again began working with three-dimensional forms, difficult during marriage to David Smith. During the 1950s and 1960s, she made sculpture in bronze as well as direct metal constructions. Eventually she began working with wood, experimenting with forms and incorporating jagged elements, and finally making block-like, towering structures. From 1952 to her death in 1994, Dehner had more than 50 solo exhibitions of work in various media within the United States; she executed numerous public commissions for such organizations as the New York Medical College, Rockefeller Center, and the American Telephone and Telegraph Corporation, and continued making sculpture until her death in 1994.

She met Louise Nevelson in 1952 while making prints at Stanley Hayter’s Atelier 17.  In 1953, the Museum of Modern Art added one of her watercolors to its collection, and she was in a group exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. In 1955, she was in a three-artist show at Willard Gallery in New York City, where she would exhibit through 1976, and a one-person exhibition at the Art Institute of Chicago.   Dehner was a visiting artist at the Tamarind Institute Lithography Workshop in 1970-1971, was awarded an Honorary Doctorate in Humane Letters from Skidmore College in 1982, and received an award from the Women’s Caucus for Art in 1983. She had major retrospective exhibitions of her work at the Jewish Museum in New York in 1965, City University of New York, 1991, Katonah Museum of Art, 1993, and Cleveland Museum of Art, 1995.

Dehner’s work can be found in the public collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City; Museum of Modern Art, New York City; Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C., and the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York City, among others.

Dehner was a close friend of Mildred Constantine [née Cohen] , a curator of graphics and design at the Museum of Modern Art, New York; she gifted these works to her. They descended by inheritance to Mildred Constantine’s daughter, Dehner’s godchild, in 2008.

In 1929, Smith bought the eighteenth century farmhouse at Bolton Landing, in upstate New York, where the couple spent summers before moving there full time in 1940. During their marriage, Dehner ran their household, assisted Smith with his work, and advised him about his sculptures. In 1948, he translated her drawing Star Cage into a sculpture. Although Dehner was passionately pursued art, her career ambitions always took a back seat to those of her husband, who could be demanding and domineering at times. no doubt in great part due to his struggle with alcoholism. Dehner addressed her conflicted feelings about Bolton Landing and their marriage in two series of drawings: “Life on the Farm,” idyllic representations of everyday life, and “Damnation Series,” featuring “demonic figures surrounded by vultures and bats. . . . Only years later did she realize how much these drawings expressed the increasing psychological discomfort she felt in the waning years of their marriage.”

In 1951, Dehner divorced Smith, left Bolton Landing, and moved back to New York City.  In 1955, Dehner made her first sculpture. Her earliest sculptures were small, surrealist-influenced bronzes, which she cast using the lost-wax process. According to her, “I was never taught sculpture at all; nobody told me anything. I didn’t need it. The minute I had [the wax] in my hands, I knew what to do.”‡ Her work rapidly gained recognition; in 1955, she had a solo exhibition at the Art Institute of Chicago, and in 1957, she joined the prestigious Willard Gallery.

Dehner periodically worked in bronze throughout her career, but in the 1960s, she also began to sculpt in other media, and over the decades, her work grew in scale as well. After the death of her second husband in 1974, Dehner began creating wood sculptures as high as ten feet, and employing a fabricator, she also produced large-scale works in Corten steel. Like the painter Alma Thomas, Dehner found her artistic voice at a later stage in life, and also like Thomas, she more than made up for lost time, earning recognition and awards, and remaining prolific until a pharmacist error rendered her blind shortly before her death. She was a visiting artist at the Tamarind Lithography Workshop in 1970-1971.