Artschwager’s Interest in Arthur Wesley Dow and ‘Arts and Crafts’ c.1900: A Documentation

Richard Artschwager (1923 – 2013) was an important sculptor whose work bridges the sheer impassiveness of Minimalist form; down through a point of witty doltishness; to effacements of Minimalism by Postminimal (as well as post-Pop) ironies. This includes a deliberately downscale resort to Formica for grossly, but wittily grossly, “artificial” surface effect. He also sometimes painted.

I have long admired Richard’s furniture sculptures as way smarter than they look. That is only possible if a work of art carries some implicit intellectual baggage; and it turns out that a vital basis of many of the furniture works concerns Artschwager’s interest in the early modernism of the American Arts and Crafts movement. That Artschwager came to art from the craft of carpentry might now raise the specter of American populism, though along the way between Pop Art and Trump, even that once had a certain innocence.

It is possible to say that this artist also became interested, at least later on, in a highly significant American pedagogical text that seemed to corroborate at least some of what he had been up to in his furniture pieces. Important early in the twentieth century, and long cited as historically crucial for the fairly common sense of design in painting in histories of American art (for instance, Barbara Rose’s American Art Since 1900: A Critical History, 1967), the book in question, which eventually faded from view, was Arthur Wesley Dow’s Composition: A Series of Exercises in Art Structure for the Use of Students and Teachers (1899; rev. 1913). I know that Artschwager was interested in this book because for a long time I, too, was concerned with it, while working on a text that eventually became an introductory essay to the handsome University of California’s facsimile re-publication of this classic American art book in 1998.1 Toward the end of that project, I happened to mention it to him, and he was so interested that he asked me for a print-out even before I had finished the final draft.

Richard and I never got to discuss his response in person, and I proceeded to forget about the matter until after he died in 2013. Then his widow, Ann Sebring Artschwager, sorting his papers, kindly sent back a perhaps penultimate draft of my “Dow’s ‘Way’ to Modernism for Everybody” essay (whose “Modernism” was subsequently altered to “Modernity” in 1998), which Richard had borrowed from me. In receiving it, however, I was excited to see that he had not only read it but also noted many passages, usually by marginal lines, together with some underlining and a few verbal comments. How rare for a historian and critic to be able to track his own thinking on a subject of common artistic interest, as filtered on paper through a major artist’s mind.

The case is important because it connects a vital contemporary artist’s concerns with a pedagogical textbook through which, for a very long time, art teachers in the elementary and secondary schools of the United States learned about, then propounded, the values of design over and against what the unreformed still call “pictures.” That is how the influence of the painter, printmaker, and art pedagogue Arthur Wesley Dow (1857 – 1922) was long fundamental in America, though of course serious artists read it too. This book, largely inspired by Japanese decorative or “applied” art, gave Americans—versus Europeans—an advantage with abstract painting: owing to it, countless Americans to this day, even if they still expect paintings to be representational, can at least concede, “Oh, I see, it’s a design.” Dow himself was essentially a Postimpressionist painter and printmaker, but even as late as World War II and beyond his aesthetic influence, far outlasting the Arts and Crafts movement, was ingrained in American painting, especially wherever abstract composition proceeds, not by concatenation of discrete motifs, but by dividing up the area of the field. Dow seemed to become relevant, reflectively, to Artschwager in the latter part of his career, as a line of thought to which he felt akin.

While Dow’s Composition illustrates some architectural ornament, the closest it comes to actual furniture is half of a plain “Old Flemish” door. It would be a mistake to read Dow expecting him, in effect, to lead up to how to do 3-D print-outs of Arts and Crafts furniture. No; it was the surrounding cultural style for such Arts and Crafts work that Artschwager—who was such a careful reader as to correct misspellings and typos—seemed hungry to get at. And because he took such an active artistic interest in Dow’s book, his readerly responses to it are important.

Yes, Artschwager had not only designed and built literal furniture early on as a craftsman; but with the special furniture works he spiraled back to furniture qua sculpture in a perhaps more challenging way than Scott Burton or even Donald Judd did. Burton’s marble chairs are perfectly happy to be sat upon (when I knew him in college his populist aim was actually to write the great American musical); while Judd’s furniture’s often tour-de-force craftsmanly joinery looks like it has engineering problems—which would make it as crypto-formalistic as Rietveld’s armchair. Artschwager’s furniture really does look much more totally deadpan than Judd’s pure stuff, while to sit on a chair by him, or put a drink on one of his tables, would be much more a confession of philistinism. The clunky forms of these important Artschwager sculptures (as if only on second thought being Postminimalist pieces) not only resemble furniture, even sarcastically so, but they resemble it just enough not to be mistaken for it.

Insofar as they do resemble it, however, they have an unexpected stylistic resemblance, in particular, to the blocky, bulky, wide-slatted rectilinear smoked oak Mission furniture of the American Arts and Crafts movement—that movement which included Dow as theoretician. We wouldn’t expect Artschwager’s would-be quasi-abstract Formica tables with would-be cattycornered tablecloths, made from time to time in the 1960s until the early 21st century, to look like actual historical furniture, because we first think of them as dummy furniture – like stage props. But as soon as the question of history is raised, they quite resemble the stolid rectilinear Mission furniture of Dow’s time, notably the work of Gustav Stickley (1858 – 1942), in Upstate New York, in the Arts and Crafts borderland between William Morris and Frank Lloyd Wright. Some of Artschwager’s boxy tables, such as Description of Table (1964) in the Whitney, even call up the image of a certain type of Stickley table with its top inlaid with tiling.  

The more I think about this in light of Artschwager’s feedback, the more I think his furniture sculptures do have a specific period relation to the times of Dow as well as, say, Judd. Maybe they even play on the American way in which Stickley furniture has “manly” good taste. Doesn’t that account for the amusing oafishness of what can’t possibly be considered a Minimal table if it may even have a—what?!—pink metaphoric tablecloth lying cattycornered on top. I would be the last person to reduce art history to social studies; yet that doesn’t mean that valid inferences can’t be made about the cultural implications of artistic forms once they are, so to speak, on the table. And if my last inference is valid, possibly the same American gender aspect links up, in the next generation, with the sculpture of Robert Gober. In any case, Artschwager seems to have recognized a soul brother in the Dow of the turn of the twentieth century.

When would I have brought up my own interest in Dow with Richard? Probably at the time of his 1988 Whitney Museum retrospective, when we had a good talk, and about when he and I did a written dialogue not concerned with Dow.2 I don’t think Dow was a strange name to him; but I do think my own interest was provoking fresh interest on his part, to judge by a comment he made on the Xerox of the draft he asked me to send him. Dow, then, was not so much a source (unless by what I have sometimes called retroactive influence) as a confirmation of how Artschwager liked to think about himself, including the way the practicalities of the Arts and Crafts movement also had a theoretical side in Dow. Later on, around the time of his second Whitney retrospective in 2012 – 2013, Phong Bui tells me that he recalls discussing Dow with Artschwager at dinner—twice, at that: the second time with Richard Serra present.

I am grateful to Ann Artschwager for returning this manuscript with Richard’s comments to me, like a letter that he never quite mailed. And despite a veritable list of editors who have rejected such a curious piece of American art history as basically “interesting but too scholarly” (blah, blah, blah), after months and months in every case, I want to salute two people—besides, of course, Charles Schultz for publishing it here and now—for encouraging my persistence on behalf of Artschwager’s “writing by indirection,” which deserves to be brought out into the public light: namely, Richard Armstrong and David Nolan.

Selected transcriptions from the manuscript, indicating particular passages to which Artschwager responded, including a few scanned photocopies, appear as an appendix to this short notice, from this point on, in its on-line version.


  1. Arthur Wesley Dow, Composition: A Series of Exercises in Art Structure for the Use of Students and Teachers, . . . with a new introduction by Joseph Masheck (repr. from the 13th ed., 1920; Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997). Note: having only received proofs of my introductory essay, I was uninformed that Dow’s pages would be renumbered; hence, the few references that I make to Dow’s pages actually appear 60 pages (plus or minus one) after the given reference.
  2. Joseph Masheck, ‘The Altars for Ships by Richard Artschwager,’ New Observations, no. 73 (January 1 – February 14, 1990), 4.
  3. Idem, The Carpet Paradigm: Integral Flatness from Decorative to Fine Art (New York: Edgewise, 2010).


* * *


Selected Notations of Artschwager


We cannot deal here with the entire ninety page manuscript, including endnotes, to which Richard Artschwager responded, but we can consider some of the more conspicuous cases of intervention, and some of the more dialogic paragraphs. (Passages singled out by Artschwager appear here in bold italics.)

[P. 1v] As soon as he read the first page, Richard flipped it over and wrote: “Dow’s bk. was news to me. When it came into my hands a few months which is pretty bizarre for someone who has been making “cutting edge” art for the last thirty-plus years. Where have I been?” After this one comment on the verso of the first page, no reactions from the artist-reader appear in the first three sections (“Background: In-Forming an Image,“ “Dow in His (Western) Time,” “Oriental Synthesis”). But once we get to “The Text in Its Versions,” notations of some sort (usually lines of emphasis) appear on three-quarters of the text pages. Skipping the cultural history is interesting as it shows an anxiousness to get to the book itself as an operative device.  

Without pretending to survey my entire introductory essay on Dow and his Composition, as finally edited and published—i.e. “Dow’s ‘Way’ to Modernity for Everybody,” in Composition: A Series of Exercises in Art Structure for the Use of Students and Teachers (first edition, 1899), pp. 1 – 61 in the facsimile of the thirteenth edition (1920) published by the University of California Press in 1998—let us look at many of the passages in the manuscript to which Artschwager responded, in the order of their sections and their respective pages.

[P.1 verso] On the reverse of the first page is the longest of Artschwager’s first-person comments, in pencil, like the rest: “Dow’s bk. was news to me, when it came into my hands a few months ago which is pretty bizarre for someone who has been making ‘cutting edge’ art for the past 30+ years. Where have I been?” It is not a contradiction to maintain that this artist, primarily a sculptor, had not known about Dow’s Composition, even though he—who had effectively converted from craft (cabinetmaking) to fine art—was generally interested in the Arts and Crafts milieu in turn-of-the century America. All that was required was to fit Dow, a painter and printmaker as well as a theoretician, in. The comment is also, however, a sign of Richard’s intellectual humility and interest. When the manuscript came back to me, I didn’t notice this versonotation; so that, in looking over the first three of my sections, which received no other notation—“Background: In-Forming an Image,” “Dow in His (Western) Time” and “Oriental Synthesis”—I almost threw the manuscript away as just an old print-out.

The Text in Its Versions

Until, that is, I came to the section “The Text in Its Versions” (pp. 25 – 36), which shows the artist fully engaged as a responsive reader.

[P. 26] Here the first marginal scoring seems telling in its pragmatism, as Dow is heard speaking before the Boston Art Students’ Association in 1894. As in each case here, we see (in the scans) what Artschwager marked as important. Obviously Richard likes my saying that Composition is not so much a theory book as a workbook, because its very practicality would make it sort of Richard’s kind of theory. The last phrase, in particular, “learn[ing] to enjoy the spill back and forth of thought and hands-on experimentation in one or another artistic medium,” evokes his own craftsman-become-artist approach.

[P. 27] Artschwager was curious about the genealogy of Dow’s ideas: “after studying in France in the late 1880s . . . he ‘entered upon a comparative study of the art of all nations and epochs, in the hope of finding more light on composition in painting, and, incidentally, a better method of teaching than the prevailing nature-copying’; and that it was Ernest Fenollosa’s aesthetic program, with its sense of a ‘visual music’ of ‘pure beauty,’ its ‘leading thought . . . the expression of Beauty, not Representation,’ which stimulated him to teach a course, with Fenollosa’s cooperation, in his Boston studio, and then, from 1895, at Pratt, in Brooklyn.”

Here, too, Dow’s sense of divided surface design—which is even today of importance to a whole stream of American abstract painting—was akin to what the turn-of-the-century Boston Orientalist Fenollosa called “spacing.” As he would speak (in Epochs of Chinese and Japanese Art, 1907, just before the revised edition of Dow), of “‘spacing,’ which as ‘a universal scheme or logic of art’ extends alike to children’s, primitive and accepted European art; thus, ‘We find that all art is harmonious spacing.’” Double marginal lines here. Obviously this most concerns the surface of painting in a Postimpressionst manner, which might have seemed irrelevant to Artschwager, except that (a) sculpturally, Formica is a materially decorative surface as such, even as plastic-instead-of marble, and (b) when Artschwager made paintings, he liked to peak the ground, like stucco or meringue, which is yet another way, however droll, of heightening the surface; likewise his drawings on stubbornly grainy Celotex.

Considering Dow as challenging the supremacy of drawing in education, and wishing to go straight into a more comprehensive sense of design, even in the elementary schools, Artschwager marked my observing a “tendency, evident in this very claim (which is not without interest as Gestalt-style [sic] ‘compositional’) to go so directly for the telling properties of a whole as to welcome without question a certain kind of peacefully, passively static wholeness as an absolute.” I was toying with Minimalism here; and possibly Richard was too, to judge by his likely amusingly sarcastic comment just below this on the bottom of the page: “beauty and harmony.”  

[P. 28] Quite a few points struck our artist in this section. Where I talk about the responsibility of the teacher, saying that he or she is not to use Composition as a fundamentalist text, Artschwager picks up on another pragmatist note: the teacher, “having been moved by its insights to a kind of conversion, seeing the light in the examples of Dow himself and his own students, is himself or herself supposed to devise ‘ways of carrying out the principle.’ If so, the Dowian lesson is irreducibly executional, or in John Dewey’s term ‘executive,’ and with consequent expressive potentialities.” This statement is approved by Artschwager with emphatic double lines in the margin.

[P. 29] A question of the populism of the Arts and Crafts movement arises here: “He was taking pains to embrace the widest possible pedagogic audience, in populistic American style, preferring to set ordinary teachers of ordinary students doing artwork of an encouragingly accessible, modern sort of beauty, with the happy results sustaining ordinary human interest and delight.” Richard, with his own populist side, had to like that.

[P. 30] Not so obvious, but interesting: that Artschwager was curious about the philology of Dow’s key term “notan,” which was meant to give “light-and-dark” a special kind of yin-and-yang, “synthetist” twist. The following remark gets no less than three strokes in the margin: “The actual term, unknown in standard Japanese, seems likely to have arisen in the circle of Ernest Fenollosa in the 1880s.”

[P. 31] Likewise, where Dow associates notan with dark-and-light, “there being “no one word in English comprehensive enough to express what is here meant by this hyphenated phrase” (no doubt the loan-word from Italian, chiaroscuro, literally “clear-obscure,” was inappropriately spatial, too associated with a sculpturesque conception of the body in space, and tonally graduated as such) . . .” In the same paragraph Artschwager noted part of one sentence—“Dow’s simple but worthwhile point (remember that this all started before 1900) is that the conventional talk of “light and shade” is too bound to a ‘Realistic standard’”—and the important notion, underlined by Artschwager, of Dow’s essentially Postimpressionist doctrine of “synthesis,” an application of symboliste aesthetics to painting, c. 1890: “To attain an appreciation of Notan, and power to create with it, the following fundamental fact must be understood, namely, that a placing together of masses of dark and light, synthetically related, conveys to the eye an impression of beauty entirely independent of meaning.” Here an Artschwager who had (Minimalistically) no concern with relational composition, seems nevertheless curious about just what Dow meant by synthetic relations.  

[Pp. 34 – 35] Artschwager was also interested in a change that took place between Dow’s first and second editions in regard to carpet design; and without rehearsing my notion of the “Carpet Paradigm”— that that modernist flatness in painting springs, pace Clement Greenberg, from craft practices and design reform in the nineteenth century3—we note this as marked (twice for the last phrase): “It is, after all, as pointing toward abstract painting that Composition is most fascinating.” Artschwager’s final notation in this part concerns my discussion of the classical Chinese canons of pictorial composition, using some traditional terminology, and marked twice: “In these terms, the all-American Dow would want to encompass something like ‘spirit-resonance,’ versus ‘formal resemblance (or verisimilitude),’ though only equipped to defer to a generalized ‘harmony’ of oriental art as (soul-?) comforting.”

Confirmation and Marginalization

[P. 37] At the start of this section I invoke Okakura Kakuzō’s later Beatnik-period classic Book of Tea (1906) and another work of his, The Ideals of the East (1904). [P. 39] Here, I shall quote more than Artschwager scored in the margin (indicated by brackets) because a larger idea was at stake, though Richard may not have approved the last couple of thoughts: [One has to be careful not to think that one is rediscovering the familiar; for as uncompromised as Okakura’s cultural analysis seems, Ideals of the East is knowingly “pitched” westward. Early on, it may occur to an American reading this account of Japan as repository of pan-Asian culture] that this Japan might just be the America of Asia – even the New England of Asia, as in the mention of ‘that innate love of cleanness which, though sometimes detrimental to grandeur, gives exquisite finish to our industrial and decorative art’ (the Shakers of the Orient?).”

[P. 43] The last paragraph of this section, a salute to Dow, Artschwager marks in both right- and left-hand margins (“true enough” here means that Dow helped Americans to get away from the pull of naturalism, even if even if he could not advance them much further than Postimpressionist design.) “True enough, but too easy to say a generation after a book that helped make this possible to say at all. ‘To Cézanne’ . . . is an interestingly extreme limit. In a sense, Dow could only go as far as the postimpressionist rationale for what simplistic modernists have too often since termed literal flatness [in painting], and which proves inadequate before the hypothetical spatiality of cubism—as made possible by Cézanne. And yet many people today have still to understand the prior and more fundamental lesson, which means they still have everything to gain from reading Dow.”

New Era

[P. 47 – 48] Artschwager was obviously interested in this section of my essay, to judge by his markings, even if my art-historical hair-splitting about the limits of Postimpressionism, no doubt seems tediously technical here and now. I think it interested Richard because here Postimpressionism is riding on the category of design. Quite apart from details, these extended passages show Artschwager’s thorough absorption in the Dowian discourse.

[Pp. 48 – 49] Richard is also interested to see Dow’s own observations when he went to Europe to see what all the clamor was about: “The notion of painting itself has begun to split up and fall to pieces. Even in a picture, the most oily of oil paintings, there seem to be two things involved, the representative element of the subject, and the formal element, or the laws of beautiful line, notan and colour. Now the former of these might be ranked with poetry, but there can be no question that the latter must be ranked with music. It is not intellectual, but sensuous; and yet it is the vehicle of transcendent creation and mysterious beauty, as is the sound of music.” [Pp. 49 – 50] Stateside, Artschwager also found interesting how, at the Armory Show, it was as yet “hardly obvious . . . that cubism was much more than just another oddball modernist style; it was not yet manifest as the great revisionist style of the twentieth century, which, more than any other movement, finally dismantled and reconstituted the very presuppositions of representation in Western painting.”

[P. 51] Apropos of John Dewey’s Art as Experience (1934), where I say that a quality called “definiteness” seems too automatically a good thing for a philosopher, Richard marked that this “seems more urgent for the symmetry of Dewey’s formulation than in encouraging art and artistic awareness—given that most naïve art students are always already doggedly committed to ‘definiteness.’” Of course, Richard’s own “definiteness” was something else altogether, something like artistic sure-footedness instead of picky detail.

[P. 52] Our American sculptor was also interested in the idea that Dow was not merely concerned to adapt fine art to industrial production: “Instead he tended more radically to take pure ‘design’ as an unacknowledged undergirding strength of ornamental art which had something aesthetically beneficial—by no means compromising—to offer less materially instrumental fine art. So his was never that utterly detached, ‘formalistic’ formalism which tends to harbor the seeds of its own materialistic contradiction.”

Photo-Secession and Film

[P. 54] This passage finds Artschwager giving double-lined emphasis: “Dow’s Composition is a document of the international secessionist movement of the turn of the century, affirming planar-decorative over and against naturalistic value in art, including photography. When Alfred Stieglitz and Edward Steichen founded the ‘Photo Secession’ in New York, in 1902, that outpost of modernism was named in obvious sympathy with the Sezessionen of Munich, Berlin, and Vienna; the term ‘photo’ would only have seemed all the more avant-garde.” [P. 57] It will emphasize how carefully Richard read the manuscript that in the middle of this section he wants to “check footnote” on Max Weber’s 1958 memory of arriving in Paris in 1905 and feeling “When I got to Paris in 1905, I was struck by the fact that Mr. Dow anticipated some of the aesthetic principles of art the Fauves had striven for only years later.”

[P. 58] Artschwager obviously liked having practical things enter into theory, and another point I think he could also exercise here was German-American pride. Where I am discussing Aloïs Riegl’s sense of nearsighted versus farsighted art, in regard to the photographer and cinematographer Karl Struss, Richard is interested in his “‘Struss Pictorial Lens,’ which he was already producing in 1909. Hardly had Riegl discovered an essentially modern gratification of pictorial flatness in a previously overlooked or discounted . . . (far- or long-sighted) aspect of Roman art, truncating of apparent distance, when this first-generation German-American came up with this device for producing the telephoto look of a cropped and spatially flattened pictorial field.” (At the same time he also exercises a certain All-Americaness by correcting my spelling of “lapstrake,” as in boat design.)

[P. 59] Relatedly, in terms of cinematography, Eisenstein himself enters in, not so much for “borrow[ing] a very Dowean Japanese illustration” for “The Cinematic Principle and the Ideogram” (1929; later incorporated into Film Form), as for his ‘nearsighted’ manner of cropping: think of Artschwager’s Sailor paintings. [Pp. 60 – 61] Artschwager really goes to town with three heavy lines in the margin with Dow’s borrowing of this passage from Fenollosa (on the ideogram) in contradiction of bad, “brick-by-brick” film composition from Eisenstein’s point of view: “European logic thought is a kind of brickyard. It is baked into little hard units or concepts. These are piled in rows according to size and then labeled with words for future use. This use consists in picking out a few bricks, each by its convenient label, and sticking them together into a sort of wall called a sentence by the use either of white mortar for the positive copula ‘is,’ or black mortar for the negative copula ‘is not.’ In this way we produce such admirable propositions as ‘A ring-tailed baboon is not a constitutional assembly.’”


[Pp. 61 – 62] This last section starts out: “In American painting and even more notably in printmaking Dow’s direct, personal influence as a teacher was as widespread as the influence of his Composition”—marked in the margin by Artschwager. After a little discussion of Dow’s most famous pupil, Georgia O’Keeffe, it attracted Richard’s attention that lately, even under Postmodernism, a ‘Discipline-Based Art Education’ has appealed to Dow as a “turn-of-the-century modernist aiming to overcome a popular sense of picture-making as a useless activity with design as the basis of ‘practical arts’ (with Viktor Lowenfeld representing an art education of more subjective fulfillment in the heyday of Abstract Expressionism).”

[Pp. 63 – 64] Toward the end, Artschwager is almost continually engaged with the text. After I speak of Hermann Rorschach’s 1921 inkblot test as more akin to Expressionism, he is interested the quite different, “more constructivistic test of curiously Dowian ilk . . . devised in the 1930s by the Gestalt psychologist Ehrig Wartegg. The subject was given a small linear or simple geometrical element placed within an otherwise empty field as a structural hint, and asked to generate around it some sort of incorporating pictorial image.”

[P. 64] Artschwager also takes an interest in an extended passage on Meyer Schapiro’s critique of Jurgis Baltrušaitis’s notion of medieval images being generated from geometric schemata. Schapiro saw that idea in relation to “later cubist theory, as in such hands as André Lhote’s, [which] had entered an academic impasse(this gets extra heavy emphasis by Artschwager). Perhaps the criticism of Lhote’s “system of teaching drawing to children, whereby small basic geometric shapes would be arranged and rearranged into natural forms to copychimed with Artschwager’s need to get out from under Minimalism. Here it is worth speculating why such a complex art-historical cadenza should have interested our artist. The answer would seem to be that, as definitive Minimalist sculpture was deliberately restricted to the most uninflected forms (and colors), Richard was a Postminimalist insofar as he was in opposition to it. He executed forms as frank as any, but with funny idiosyncrasies such as fuzzy, steel-wooly surfaces or, as in the furniture, the post-Pop surfaces of the commercial and despised suburban counter-top material of artificial wood or marble Formica, in frankly simple yet supposedly tasteless dispositions, bulked-out in DIY plywood—though, then again, the bulky forms (and chamfered angles) of rather formally similar Stickley furniture were long considered much too hefty for a modern interior.  

[P. 65] Now a paragraph where Artschwager actually draws three emphatic lines in the margin alongside the bracketed passage here: “During all these years, Composition was still kept actively in print. And as to Dow’s direct importance for art education, Herbert Read offers a testimonial in his postwar classic Education Through Art (1943; rev., 1958). After naming as pioneers of modern art education Ebenezer Cooke in England and [Franz] Cižek in Vienna, Read writes, ‘About the same time, a similar movement sprang up in America, where the pioneer was Arthur Wesley Dow, whose book Composition, first published in 1899, led to a new conception of art teaching in that country.’” I think his enthusiasm here extends to Read, the anarchist’s, respect for Dow, which strikes Artschwager as a fine recommendation. (He also indicates interest in my thought that Read’s speaking of opposition to Dow among some “enlightened educationalists” might be an allusion to Dewey.)

The latter part of the same paragraph is not only scored on the left but also has a marginal comment. Despite a “Deweyan-experimentalist” attitude toward “new materials,” one Frances Bradshaw Blanchard’s Retreat From Likeness in the Theory of Painting (1945) “nevertheless also attests to the formal stimulation of Dow’s system: ‘Abstraction has been recommended also as an interim way of painting, a kind of proving ground of form and color. Years ago Georgia O’Keeffe made this use of it on the advice of her teacher, Arthur Dow. Many teachers now show students how abstraction can help them make an initial plan for a picture. [The sentence about to be glossed by Artschwager]: Geometrical patterns sharpen and clarify spatial relations: ‘Euclid alone has looked on Beauty bare.’” The marginal gloss is a sympathetic, “First of all, helpful in getting a likeness.”

[P. 66] Now, with no fewer than three lines at the left, suggesting perhaps how Dow has been eclipsed by the classier Fenollosa: “Beck, for whom ‘Fenollosa is the American symbol for the Asiatic art-influence which has reached Europe in like measure,’ captions the diagram in question simply ‘Foundations of the Fenollosa System of Art Education.’ Interestingly, he opposes to the advocacy of a ‘line that measures,’ in the children’s drawing instruction of the Swiss pedagogical reformer Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi (1746 – 1827), ‘Fenollosa’s line that divides (that is, divides a defined rectangular field).’” Even if it credits it only to Fenollosa, this at least conveys the most important feature of the Dowian system for later abstract art in America: the sense of painting as a matter of the division of the field.

[Pp. 67 – 68] In this complicated section I accuse E.H. Gombrich of barking up the wrong tree by showing a Japanese étagère (scouted out from Rutherford Alcock’s Art and Industries of Japan, 1878) that has been offered simplistically (in Decio Gioseffi’s La falsa preistoria di Piet Mondrian e le origini del neoclassicismo, 1957) as a source for Mondrian’s classic paintings. Apart from the historical preposterousness of this hat-trick, in a Dowian light there would be no scandal at all in having such asymmetrically rectilinear Japanese étagères—‘mere’ decorative art; indeed, mere furniture—suggest ‘high’ art.

[P. 68] At the end, Artschwager is interested to read that a near contemporary of his, the Abstract Expressionist painter Alfred Leslie, made some “notan” drawings in black wash, staring in 1967, and culminating in 1977-83, “after Leslie was inspired by reading a copy of Dow’s Composition encountered in the Chinese language branch of the New York Public Library. This artist [Leslie] writes that Dow’s dissemination of a “modernist cornerstone ‘beauty entirely independent of meaning’ was not without insight and probity.”

Then comes the last notation, marking the last paragraph as a kind of American spiritual over-and-out: “Is ‘Tao,’ finally, too sublime a term to refer to the ‘method’ of this humble namesake of Wesley? Composition, his principal contribution to art theory—an art theory of rather homemade synthesism at that—[as] . . . a kind of tract beseeching conversion to a grace-informing method.” It would have been great to be able to ask Richard if he agreed with that.


Joseph Masheck

JOSEPH MASHECK, art historian and critic, has been awarded the 2018 ‘Lifetime Achievement Award for Writing on Art,’ by the C.A.A.