Two dozen 10-year-olds recently sat cross-legged before a giant abstract sculpture by Dorothy Dehner in the Corcoran Gallery atrium, wide-eyed at its embracing scale and bold geometric forms. Small hands flapped eagerly in the air as a docent posed questions. "What is this?" she asked the students. Answered one bright-eyed girl, "It's a sculpture made from circles and triangles." "And why do you think the artist made it? What do you think he had in mind?" the museum guide asked. "He wanted to make art!" piped another fifth-grader.
Though the kids seemed to know what they were talking about, the same could not be said of the docent, who was apparently oblivious to the fact that the sculpture before her was by a woman -- and a 92-year-old one, at that.
It wasn't the first time sexist assumptions and stereotypes about big, "masculine" abstract sculptural forms had kept Dehner from the recognition she deserves. For the 23 bruising years she was married to the then-struggling -- and now legendary -- American sculptor David Smith, such assumptions ruled her life, as they did the lives of other abstract expressionist-era wives like Lee Krasner Pollock and Elaine de Kooning and, later, of female sculptors like Dehner's longtime friend Louise Nevelson.
"No woman married to David Smith could be a sculptor," says Dehner. So she kept her sculptural impulses under wraps.
Or at least she tried: Many of the drawings and watercolors in Dehner's captivating Corcoran retrospective -- made in the '30s and '40s when she and Smith were still together -- are filled with abstract sculptural impulses that seem ready to burst into three dimensions.
Born in Cleveland in 1901, Dehner was raised in Pasadena, Calif., where her cultured, well-traveled family steeped her in all the arts and supported the theatrical ambitions that took her to New York City at age 21. After giving up theater to pursue art, Dehner met Smith in an Upper West Side boardinghouse in 1926. They married the next year.
But it wasn't until Thanksgiving 1950 -- after Smith had hit her once too often -- that Dehner, by then 49, loaded her pickup truck and set out to make a career for herself in New York, leaving Smith forever at their Upstate farm in Bolton Landing. Emboldened by a first prize for a watercolor that she'd recently won in a competition she'd secretly entered (and of which Smith had said, "They gave you a prize for that?"), she stopped just once: at Skidmore College to finish off, in one year, the three years of credits she'd failed to complete at UCLA, where she was studying drama before moving to New York for a part in an off-Broadway play. Now, art degree in hand, she swiftly landed three part-time art teaching jobs in Manhattan, including one at the Barnard School for Girls, and began taking classes in printmaking at Stanley William Hayter's famous Atelier 17 -- something Smith had previously forbidden her to do because, he said, she would be "embarrassed." Prowling her neighborhood, she also discovered the New York Sculpture Center, where she could buy large chunks of wax and begin her long-dreamed-of sculptural experiments in bronze that materialized into her best, most fulfilling works.
Within seven years -- with a new (but still penniless) husband, two stepchildren, a first-rate art dealer to market her work, and a studio of her own on Union Square -- Dehner's career took off like a bird let out of its cage. She was now showing regularly in Whitney Annuals, and in 1953, as a result of a group show at the Metropolitan Museum, sold a drawing to the Museum of Modern Art. In 1957 she had her first solo sculpture show at the respected Willard Gallery: It featured the small abstract bronzes with which her Corcoran retrospective begins, and upon which many of her later, larger fabricated works in steel and aluminum have been based.
The handsome, sprawling installation of the Corcoran show -- Dehner's most complete retrospective to date -- actually reverses the artist's chronology, starting in the atrium with the largest, most recent works from 1990-1992. It then moves backward, via the grand staircase, to two large areas upstairs, the first of which greets visitors with a phalanx of four- to 12-foot-high, sentinel-like forms.
But it is in the final, innermost gallery that we find that trove of Dehner's first bronzes -- works that seem to emerge, full blown, from Dehner's pent-up sculptural imagination. Most remarkable is the rich variety of forms and expressive range: "Torgate" (1957), for example, is an altogether serious, openwork grid that, though only 16 inches tall, has the monumental grandeur of an ancient Chinese gate; in contrast, "Jacob's Ladder," from the same year, is a jaunty biomorphic invention built from an unruly stack of unidentifiable plantlike forms that seem to sprout, like Jack's beanstalk, from a central "trunk." From the start, a unique mix of monumentality and whimsy defined the parameters of her art.
Experiments in stacking and balancing forms continued into the '60s, when Dehner created the Giacometti-thin "Hanging Sculpture" (1960), which is suspended by a delicate chain from the ceiling -- a nice conceit for the way a dancer is taught to carry herself. (In fact, Dehner had studied dance in Pasadena since her teens, after a neighbor who taught at the pioneering Denishawn school saw her prancing about in the lawn sprinklers and offered lessons.)
Other balletic teeterings and stackings -- many of them rather flat and frontal -- characterize some of the works from the late '50s on. Two striking examples -- which can be seen in both the original small-scale and later enlargements -- reflect the strong influences from abroad that were wafting around in postwar New York: The witty "Signpost" (1956), for instance -- the earliest sculpture on view -- is an almost Paul Klee-like anthropomorphic presence that points every which way. Similarly, the totemlike "Encounter" (1987), with its crescent moon "head" and arched "legs," makes clear reference to the surrealist forms of Joan Miro.
Running through all this work is evidence of Dehner's early and persistent interest in -- and grasp of -- the emerging language of European abstraction, including many of its dialects. This is particularly clear in the works that hang on the walls, starting with a still life painting dating from 1932, when Dehner and Smith had already met, married and were studying together at the Art Students League in New York. But as her fluency grows, and her own vocabulary of abstract forms evolves over the decades that follow, it comes as a shock to see Dehner's personal anguish revealed in a trio of bleak, figurative drawings made after the couple moved to Bolton Landing in 1940. One shows an emaciated nude woman wandering in a wasteland.
These drawings seem to bear no relationship to the rest of Dehner's works on paper, any more than the constructions in wood that she did in the mid-'70s, after the death of her second husband, seem connected to the rest of her work. One wood sculpture does, however, reveal the source for "Scaffold" (1986), the curious piece in Cor-Ten steel that stands on the Corcoran stairway and makes ambiguous reference both to a support structure and to a machine that can -- and seemingly has -- cut off heads. Unique in her oeuvre, it may well have its source in Nevelson's assemblages, which Dehner had photographed for the artist. The fact that Dehner never settled down to one signature style -- something art commerce favors -- has surely helped keep her work from being widely or easily recognized.
"Some critics have complained that my work was too different, that it took too many forms," says Dehner from her New York apartment, still bemused. "I guess I should have started with the nude and just stayed there."
In the '80s, as her eyesight began to fail and new work became less possible, Dehner and her dealer undertook to enlarge several of her earlier works with the dual hope that they might raise some much-needed cash and revive interest in the artist, whose reputation had waned in the trend-worshiping art world of the 1970s and '80s. To an extent, the plan has worked, and gallery and small museum shows -- including a modest homage two years ago at the Phillips Collection -- have increased.
But it took this show to re-reveal, at last, not just the consistently high quality of Dehner's work, but -- perhaps more remarkably -- the fact that none of it can be called either derivative or in any way dated. And while she stuck to traditional sculpture-making methods -- unlike Smith, who explored the newer technique of welding -- the results are thoroughly fresh, and of the moment.
To be sure, there are resonances with the work of Smith and other American modernists, including Ibram Lassaw and Seymour Lipton (who today do look somewhat dated), but that is unsurprising given that they were all mesmerized by the same avant-garde European sources in the '30s, and hung out with the same friends at the Cedar Tavern in the '40s, among them John Graham, Arshile Gorky, Adolph Gottlieb and Mark Rothko. Like her fellow abstract expressionists, Dehner saw in abstraction the possibility of communicating feelings -- albeit with humor (which was in short supply in that crowd). No matter how nonobjective her works became, they were never without warmth, or reduced to stark geometries.
As for the late enlargements (a standard, if somewhat disturbing practice in contemporary sculpture) shown here, it can only be said that the fact that her small-scale maquettes hold up so well when enlarged -- and even hold their own when challenged by the Corcoran's grandiloquent spaces -- must be taken as high tribute to the strength of Dehner's innate sculptural imagination and intelligence.
It took Corcoran Director David Levy, who is Dehner and Smith's godson (Levy was named after Smith), to bring this show to Washington. "At 92, it's hard to make up for all the things she didn't get at 50," Levy says. But Dehner, ever upbeat, doesn't see it that way. "I never wanted fame," she says. "There's nothing that fills you with joy like finishing a piece that you love.
"No longer: I can't see well enough, and that is a sadness. But on the other hand, I feel I've had a helluva long life, and have been at it more than most people have a chance to. So I'm lucky."
She also feels she's seen more than her share -- of the world, of life, of everything. "I think I've been influenced by everything I ever saw, and by every artist's work," says Dehner, who credits one particular art history teacher in Pasadena with broadening her sensibilities. "I'll never forget Miss George -- I loved her," says Dehner. "I remember sitting at my desk, right in front of her, with my mouth open, so I could get more of what she said than just what came in through my ears."
Which brings to mind, once again, those wide-eyed, spellbound kids at the Corcoran. There were rare and important lessons to be learned that day -- not just about art, but about life and the triumph of positive energy over adversity, of persistence over advancing age. All that might usefully have been passed on to that visiting fifth-grade class, but unfortunately wasn't.
There's no such excuse for the rest of us.
Dorothy Dehner: Sixty Years of Art continues at the Corcoran through March 7. Concurrently, there's a fine show of Dehner's work -- including sculpture as well as works on paper (all for sale) -- at the Susan Conway Gallery at Glackens House, 1214 30th St. NW, through Jan. 29. The Corcoran show was organized by the Katonah Museum of Art in New York, and is accompanied by a handsomely illustrated catalogue.