Dorothy Dehner, Demeter’s Harrow, 1990. Cor-ten steel, 28 x 48 x 32 in. Photo: © Dorothy Dehner Foundation, Courtesy Berry Campbell, New York

Dorothy Dehner

New York

Berry Campbell Gallery

My introduction to Dorothy Dehner’s sculpture came via a tiny photograph in a catalogue of David Smith’s work. Indeed, it has been Dehner’s fate until recently to exist as a footnote to Smith’s career. In a Smithsonian oral history from the 1960s, she described their 23-year marriage as both violent and loving; she also stated that it was impossible for two sculptors to exist in the same household. Her career didn’t begin until she was 56, after her divorce from Smith. And it is only now that her work—under-appreciated and rarely displayed despite its presence in major museum collections—is receiving the treatment it deserves in a sprawling and inclusive retrospective (on view through June 22, 2024) that reveals the scope of her talents.

­­­­­­­­Dehner’s sculpture can be viewed within the framework of postwar Modernism. All of the influences brought to bear on American artists of the time can be seen in her work—Surrealism, Constructivism, and abstraction, as well as avant-garde dance and music. The influence of Carl Jung, particularly his idea of the universal symbol, emerges in her work as a fascination with the totemic and in the linkage of artworks with ritual objects. True to the Abstract Expressionist milieu in which she lived, her work is highly imagistic and gestural. Dehner was part of a large community of artists; her close friend Louise Nevelson introduced her to John Cage whose theories influenced her “I Ching” assemblage series. Her sculptures are highly detailed and impeccably crafted, their overall compositions seamlessly blending material with imagery. The numerous small-scale wood pieces that she made in the 1970s were fabricated from stacked blocks set into phased linear sequences that integrate the color and grain of the wood into a distinctive series of shapes and patterns.

The most startling and emblematic works in the exhibition are a trio of welded works from the late 1980s and ’90s made only a few years before her death in 1994 at the age of 93. These fabricated steel objects use the tropes of geometric abstraction but activate the forms with the implication of a standing or recumbent figure. Demeter’s Harrow (1990), originally a small bronze made in 1970, reveals Dehner’s interest in Jungian archetypes and refers to the mythical creator of the seasons and goddess of the harvest. Made from rusted brown Cor-ten steel, the individual sections are reminiscent of plow blades, with triangular and circular disks rhythmically arranged along an angled spine of square tubing. Prelude and Fugue (1989) and Portal (1990) also blend the figurative with the geometric. In both works, the painted black steel is rounded off, the spacing between forms as significant as the forms themselves. These later, and much larger, works are the crown of Dehner’s career; they magnify her ideas, manifesting details and relationships that are less perceptible at the smaller scale of her early pieces. The careful sequences of her more intimate works become more powerful and dramatic as a consequence of scaling-up, and these works, in their monumentality, begin to resemble archaic remains or ruined statuary.