"Edwin Dickinson: Selected Landscapes," now at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, pays homage overdue to a truly splendid painter. Yet it does not do him justice. It is too summery, too swift.
Dickinson, a Yankee and a dour Presbyterian, did his best work in the cold, but his best work is not here. His shrouded "winter pictures," those melancholy masterworks, are absent from this show.
These landscapes are so rushed that one suspects at first another artist made them. They are Dickinson's "first strikes," his sketches, his quick hits. Their subjects are vacation things -- screen doors, sandy beaches, sailboats and seashore rocks.A sense of loss and sadness -- of time somehow arrested -- chills his dark interiors and his enigmatic portraits. That mood of haunted quiet seems loosened, almost melted, in these too-quickly fashioned lesser works of art.
Edwin Walter Dickinson (1891-1926) made his finest picture when he hurried least.
His greatest gift was patience. He said of "The Cello Player," a major work on loan now to the National Collection of Fine Arts, "it was commenced on 4 march 1924 and completed on 27 August 1926 . . . It occupied 290 execution-sittings (half-days)."
There is no trace of frenzy in his enigmatic portraits. He made them when the light was weak, when the damp cold winters of Cape Cod or upstate New York confined him to his studio. He could work for months on the shadow of an eyelid or the sheen of moisture on a tooth.
"I'm a general painter, which means I paint one thing as easily as another," Dickinson once said. "I'm a general painter equally at home in all branches of painting." One does not believe him.
The best works at the Hirshhorn -- "Window and Oar" (1955), "Rock, Cape Poge" (1950), "The Skiff" (1942), "The Bench" (1940) -- suggest some of the same timelessness. But in too many of the others we feel a kind of rushing, a sense of wild, driven play -- if that word may be applied to a spirit dark as his.
Joe Shannon of the Hirshhorn, who organized this show writes that Dickinson said he drew "Rock, Cape Poge" in 2 1/2 minutes, and painted in 2 1/2 hours, despite gulls and a stiff breeze. "The easel blew over and a friend had to 'make himself into an easel' to hold the canvas so Dickinson could finish."
Some artists do their best work in the heat of invention. Think of Rembrandt's sketches, or the pastels of Degas, or Franz Kline's bold abstractions. But Dickinson was different. His touch was never light. His "first strikes" have been praised for somehow predicting the heroic restlessness of later Action Painting, but speed made his art slight.
Yet those who wish to learn the uses of the palette knife, or how to bring a rock to life with a touch of pink, or how to fine-tune grays or modulate a surface, will find much to admire in the Hirshhorn's exhibition. It is a painter's show.
Joe Shannon, the realist painter who arranged it with the greatest skill and sympathy, is the man in charge of the Hirshhorn's installations. We discover here that Shannon is a writer and a gifted scholar, too. No one could have done a better job with this limited exhibit. Shannon's eassay is splendid -- not just because his text is wholly free of pedantry, but because he sees the works he speaks of with a painter's eye.
This is how he writes of Dickinson at work:
"Arriving at his painting site, Dickinson would find a rock or some other object he could tie to the apex of his Ranger easel to anchor it against the wind. After . . . setting a large wooden palette on a folding stool in front of the easel, he would squeeze out colors -- bright ones on one side, dark ones on the other, and three blobs of white. The amounts were generous, for once started he did not want to stop until the work was completed; while painting he was 'intensely uninterruptable.' Using two knives he would mix the colors, looking a little like a pastry cook . . . He would draw everything in about five minutes; then, beginning at the centers of the major areas, he worked out toward their contours. . . .
"After a brief but intense period of work -- 'I was highly concentrating and excited' -- when the tones and colors were right, the shapes adjusted, and his notions of mood and atmosphere satisfield -- then and only then would he recognize that all had come together. Taking the pointed shaft of the brush, he would scrawl his bravura signature into the wet paint, usually along a vertical edge, signifying the painting was complete."
If this show has a flaw, it may be that it was arranged with more care and love than its works of art deserved. It closes Dec. 14.