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Dorothy Dehner papers, 1920-1987, bulk 1951-1987

Dorothy Dehner papers, 1920-1987, bulk 1951-1987

Dehner, Dorothy, 1901-1994

Sculptor, Painter, Printmaker

Collection Information

Size: 4.4 linear feet

Summary: Papers include extensive correspondence, business and financial papers, writings, interviews, printed material, photographs, student papers, one item of art work, and scattered personal papers and material relating to her first husband sculptor David Smith.

Comprising a series of biographical material are interviews (mostly untranscribed), personal papers such as notes on Dehner's biography and career, list of things taken from Bolton Landing, recipes, and a wedding announcement for her stepdaughter, Abby Mann Thernstrom, and material relating to David Smith such as a copy of his last will and testament, a letter of introduction (dating from their trip to Europe in the mid-1930s), and a chronology of Smith's life.

Correspondence consists of numerous letters and enclosures concerning both professional and personal matters. Correspondents include artists, museums, galleries, art dealers, researchers, curators, friends, and relatives. Correspondence documents Dehner's various personal and professional relationships, the active role she played in promoting and exhibiting her art work, as well as the key role she played in fostering art historical research (on David Smith, herself, and other artists of her era), and her many other creative activities, including her various writing efforts.

Found amongst Dehner's business and financial papers are records relating to various galleries and/or exhibitions, including the Willard Gallery and exhibitions at the Philadelphia Art Alliance and Parsons-Dreyfuss Gallery, and to various projects, such as the Committee for the American Participation in the Triennale and the Great Southwest Industrial Park, as well as scattered records relating to personal business matters and finances, such as lists, tax records, authentication of art works, and sales agreements.

Dehner's writings include poems (including one dated from high school and drafts of ones published in Tracks), various pieces on John Graham (including versions of a memoir, which were published as a foreword to the re-issue of System and Dialectics of Art and as an article in Leonardo) and on David Smith (including articles on their first meeting and on Smith's 1940 work, "Medals for Dishonor"), lectures and speeches, and various pieces on art and other topics. Writings shed light on other aspects of Dehner's creativity and concern. Also included are writings of others, some of which shed light on Dehner's life and work.

Printed material includes exhibition catalogs, announcements, and clippings (on herself and Smith, and to a limited extent, on other artists). Photographs are of Dehner, her second husband, Ferdinand Mann, John Graham, and various works of art, as well as an abstract photograph by David Smith, dating from circa 1934.

Art work includes two etchings. One, undated, is of portraits of artists done by one another on one etching plate. Artists include (left to right) top row: Lucille Corcos by Dehner, David Smith by Lucille Corcos, Adolph Gottlieb by Edgar Levy, bottom row: Edgar Levy by Esther Gottlieb, Dorothy Dehner by Adolph Gottlieb, Esther Gottlieb by David Smith. A cat and alligator were drawn by Edgar Levy in the middle border. The etching is 91/100 and was printed by Michael Kirk on the Charles Brand Press in the Parsons School of Design Studios and seems to have originally belonged to Garnett McCoy, former Curator of the Archives. The second etching is an abstract by Dehner, also undated.

Biographical/Historical Note

Dorothy Dehner (1901-1994) was a sculptor from New York, N.Y. Dehner was born in Cleveland, Ohio. She married sculptor David Smith in 1927.

Provenance

The Dorothy Dehner papers were donated 1967-1987 in increments by Dorothy Dehner. She also lent materials for microfilming between 1967 and 1977, some of which was subsequently donated.

Related Materials

Location of Originals

  • Reels D298A, 1372 and portions of reels D298 and 1269: Originals returned to Dorothy Dehner after microfilming.

A Finding Aid to the Dorothy Dehner Papers,
1920-1987
(bulk 1951-1987)
, in the Archives of American Art
AAA.dehndoro
Biographical Note
Dorothy Dehner was born in Cleveland, Ohio in 1901. Her father died when she was about ten and the family moved to Pasadena, California in 1915. After the death of her mother and sister, she was raised by her mother's sister, Aunt Florence. Dehner was exposed to art as a child, receiving instruction in drawing and painting. She studied drama for a year at UCLA in 1922-1923 before moving to New York with the intention of pursuing a theatrical career. In 1925, she traveled alone to Europe, where she visited Italy, Switzerland, and France and where she began to draw seriously.
Upon her return to New York, Dehner enrolled in the Art Students League intending to study sculpture, but, uninspired by the work of William Zorach's sculpture class, ended up studying drawing with Kimon Nicolaides instead. In 1926, she met fellow artist David Smith in the rooming house they shared. At her suggestion, he too enrolled in the Art Students League. In 1927, they were married.
At the League, Dehner and Smith studied with the modernist painter, Jan Matulka, and befriended Weber and Thomas Furlong, through whom they met the Russian painter and theoretician, John Graham. Graham introduced them to the avant-garde art world and ended up having a profound influence on them both and their work. Around this time, they also befriended other young artists, such as Adolph Gottlieb, Mark Rothko, and Edgar and Lucille Corcos Levy. In 1929, after a visit to the Furlong's summer home in upstate New York, Dehner and Smith bought a farm in Bolton Landing, which became their permanent home in 1940 and was later named Terminal Iron Works. They spent eight months in the Virgin Islands, in 1931-1932, where Dehner painted abstract still lifes of shells and marine life. In the fall of 1935, they traveled to Europe, where they met up with Graham in Paris, spent five months in Greece, and toured the Soviet Union, with other stops along the way.
During her years at Bolton Landing (from 1940 to 1950), Dehner progressed in her work, producing a series of paintings titled
Life on the Farm
and embarking upon a series of abstract geometric drawings in ink and watercolor. In 1943, she had a joint exhibition with Smith at the Albany Institute of History and Art. Three years later, she participated in the annual exhibition of Audubon Artists and was awarded a first prize for drawing; and in 1948, she had her first one-woman show at Skidmore College.
Dehner left Bolton Landing in 1950 (she was divorced from Smith two years later) and returned to school, earning her degree from Skidmore College in 1952. She moved back to New York City, and supported herself over the next several years by teaching at various schools, including the Barnard School for Girls. She had her first solo exhibition in the city at the Rose Fried Gallery, and studied engraving at Stanley William Hayter's Atelier 17. At this point, Dehner started making sculpture, first experimenting in wax and then casting her wax sculptures in bronze. In 1955, she began working at the Sculpture Center, and from this point on, focused mainly on sculpture with occasional forays in drawing and print-making. In addition to works in bronze, she went on to create sculptures in wood (during the 1970s) and steel (during the 1980s).
In 1955, Dehner married the New York publisher, Ferdinand Mann. That same year, she joined the Willard Gallery, run by Marian Willard. She had her first exhibition of drawings there in 1955 (which led to a solo exhibition at the Art Institute of Chicago) and her first sculpture show there in 1957; she continued to show at the Willard Gallery regularly until 1976. Over the next several decades, Dehner's work was frequently exhibited in solo and groups shows at museums and galleries across the country, and was acquired for both public and private collections.
In addition to her art work, Dehner was also a published poet and writer. She wrote the foreword to the 1971 re-issue of John Graham's
System and Dialectics of Art
, and an essay on David Smith's "Medals for Dishonor," which was published in
Art Journal
in 1977. And two of her poems, "Past Tense" and "Two Lines," appeared in the journal
Tracks
in 1977.
Dehner continued to work into her nineties. She passed away in 1994.
Arrangement
The Dorothy Dehner papers are arranged into 7 series:
Series 1: Biographical Material, 1935-1982 (bulk 1950s-1982) (Box 1; 0.5 linear feet)
Series 2: Correspondence, 1927-1987 (Boxes 1-4; 2.6 linear feet)
Series 3: Business and Financial Papers, 1940-1985 (Box 4; 0.3 linear feet)
Series 4: Writings, 1920, 1951-1987 (Box 4; 0.3 linear feet)
Series 5: Printed Material, 1940-1987 (Boxes 4-5; 0.6 linear feet)
Series 6: Art Work, undated (OV1; 1 item)
Series 7: Photographs, 1930s-1986 (Box 5; 0.1 linear feet)
The collection has not been re-filmed to reflect the above arrangement. In an effort to provide continued access to the existing microfilm, microfilm reel information was gathered from previous box and folder labels and is provided, where possible, in parentheses after folder titles in the container listing below. Unfilmed material has likewise been noted. Researchers should note that reel numbers have not been verified.
Provenance
The Dorothy Dehner papers were donated 1967-1987 in increments by Dorothy Dehner. She also lent materials for microfilming between 1967 and 1977, some of which was subsequently donated.
Location of Originals
  • Reels D298A, 1372 and portions of reels D298 and 1269: Originals returned to Dorothy Dehner after microfilming.
Processing Information
The Dorothy Dehner papers were typically microfilmed in the order they were loaned and/or donated; material comprising the last donation made in 1987 was never microfilmed. Portions of the collection received a preliminary level of processing. The microfilmed and unmicrofilmed portions were integrated, and the entire collection processed, arranged, and described in accordance with archival standards by Jennifer Meehan in 2005-2006 as part of the Terra Foundation for American Art Digitization Grant.

Additional Forms Available

Microfilm reels D298-D298A, 1269, 1372 available for use at Archives of American Art offices and through interlibrary loan.

Restrictions on Access

Use of original papers requires an appointment and is limited to the Archives' Washington, D.C., Research Center. Contact Reference Services for more information.

How to Cite This Collection

Dorothy Dehner papers, 1920-1987, bulk 1951-1987. Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.

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