Looking at contemporary American sculpture without thinking of David Smith is difficult. Looking at Dorothy Dehner's sculpture without his coming to mind is almost impossible. She was married to the iron-working wizard, this country's greatest 20th-century sculptor, for 25 years, and certain stylistic elements run through their art like the threads that once held together the troubled, ultimately untenable union of two highly creative human beings.
Both artists gave form primacy over surface texture and color. Both viewed sculpture as a way of painting in three dimensions with metal as the medium. Their compositions are lean, strong and totemic, but delicate and sonorous. The stylistic convergence is understandable, given that Dehner and Smith were exposed to the same influences, such as John Graham and the other artists of the Art Students League in New York, where they studied in the 1920s. The couple married in 1927 and divorced in 1952.
But judging from the exhibition of Dehner's drawings and sculptures from 1950 to 1991, currently on display at Susan Conway Gallery, one can't help but think that the origin of the stylistic similarities wasn't entirely benign. Smith appears to have found considerable inspiration in his wife's drawings, turning at least one of them, "Star Cage," from 1948, into a sculpture. Beyond that, a case can be made that he borrowed quite heavily from his wife's artwork without giving her full credit.
Was Smith a macho pig, a typical product of his times and the country's male-dominated art establishment, or an insecure artist threatened by his wife's abilities, experience and intellect? Probably all of the above. Whatever the reason, Dehner, who died in 1994, seems to have given him more than she ever got in return. While she was a gifted and original artist in her own right, her achievements fall well short of those of her former husband. Yet her abilities and intellect contributed significantly to his success.
Most of the 39 works in the exhibition were made after the couple divorced. Dehner continued to paint, draw and show her works while she was married to Smith, but she made no sculpture until after their split.
Her drawings and sculptures fall firmly in the mainstream of abstract expressionism and feature spare, elegant forms and an effortless fluidity, as if the art just flowed gracefully from her pen, pencil or carving tools. Dehner's works on paper in the show are mostly symmetrical abstractions, incorporating a smattering of recognizable shapes--a head or a roof line, for example--executed in thin, strong, tensile lines, like strands of spider web.
Form was what mattered most to Dehner and Smith, and the texture and color of the materials they used served mainly to emphasize the shapes they created. In "Toreador," a five-foot-tall steel sculpture from 1989, Dehner uses a simple curve of black metal to conjure an image of the bullfighter's hat and a few sharp, straight edges to evoke the swords, danger and brutality of the sport. Her prints and drawings also concentrate on the essence of the subject. "The Barn in Bolton," an etching and aquatint from 1952, includes bits and pieces that could be part of a barn, including broad, beamlike shapes and lines that mirror the pitch of a barn's roof. But it's an abstraction, conveying the sheltering solidity and hay-rustling warmth of the barn, not its appearance. Bolton refers to Bolton Landing, the rural retreat in Upstate New York where Dehner and Smith lived after they married.
Dehner's works represent a quieter, more intimate, more surreal side of abstract expressionism than those of her former husband. Smith, who died in a truck wreck in 1965, was descended from an Indiana blacksmith and had worked as a welder in the Studebaker auto plant. His sculpture has a brawny, industrial force to it, derived from the metal's inherent qualities, Smith's careful construction and his use of clean, forceful lines.
But there is also a delicacy to Smith's work that sets it apart from that of other, lesser sculptors. Pieces of solid iron or steel in sculptures such as his "Voltri" series from the early 1960s form powerful but precariously balanced compositions, as if the slightest oxidizing breath might cause them to collapse back into scrap metal. It's the same tense, delicate balancing of forms and lines that animates Dehner's work, and it seems more than likely that he learned it from her rather than the other way around.
Dehner was the more worldly and sophisticated of the pair. Born in Cleveland to a middle-class family, she grew up in Cincinnati and Pasadena, Calif., studying painting and dance, and traveled to Europe, where she was exposed to avant-garde music, literature, theater and art. She moved to New York in 1924 to work as an actress. Once there, she got involved with the Art Students League.
When she met Smith, he was an enormous young talent with a lot of rough edges. And although she was only five years older, she had the knowledge and experience needed to soften them. For 25 years, Dehner sublimated her career to his, keeping house and pursuing her art on a drawing table in the corner of the living room, while Smith worked in the basement. Perhaps at night, after his wife had gone to sleep, he would come upstairs and take a close look at what she'd made, then go back down and pick up his tools.
Dorothy Dehner, at Susan Conway Gallery, 1214 30th St. NW, Tuesday-Saturday, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m., 202-333-6343, through Sept. 15.
CAPTION: Dorothy Dehner in 1982, above; and her 1952 "The Barn in Bolton," from the Conway Gallery show.
CAPTION: A work by Dorothy Dehner, who was married to fellow sculptor David Smith.