Dehner, Dorothy (1901–1994)

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Dehner, Dorothy (1901–1994)

American sculptor of Surrealist and geometric abstractions who was a late bloomer as an artist, starting to sculpt in her 50s and going on to becoming an acclaimed figure in the art world. Name variations: Dorothy Smith. Born in 1901 in Cleveland, Ohio; died in New York, New York, on September 22, 1994; married David Smith (an artist), in 1927 (divorced 1951); married Ferdinand Mann, in 1957; children: two stepchildren.

Born in Cleveland in 1901 into a family of German and Dutch ancestry, Dorothy Dehner learned to paint with the help of three talented aunts while in her teens. She also was a dance student, studying with a former member of the Denishawn Company. Family affluence enabled her to travel to Europe to become acquainted with avant-garde developments in the arts. A difficult stage in her life began in her late teens after the deaths of her parents and only sister. Therapy for young Dorothy was a career in the theater. "When I was in a play," she said, "I could be anybody but me. I could feel good about myself." Eventually, in 1924, she broke away from her Cleveland roots to move to New York City. Besides appearing in off-Broadway plays, she enrolled at the Art Students League. Originally interested in sculpture, she decided to study drawing. Her circle of friends during these years included painters John Graham, Stuart Davis, and Arshile Gorky, all of whom were pioneers of abstract art in an America that was culturally isolationist and generally hostile to "alien European" ideas. Among the interesting artists she met was a strong-willed and ambitious sculptor, David Smith, whom she married in 1927.

At first Dehner and her husband lived in Brooklyn, but in 1940 they moved to the small town of Bolton Landing in upstate New York where they bought an 18th-century farmhouse. Although David Smith was becoming nationally recognized for his works of abstract sculpture, Dehner refused to abandon her own artistic impulses. Among the works she created at Bolton Landing was a series of paintings of idyllic rural scenes entitled "Life on the Farm." Reflecting some of her deepest inner struggles, she also did a remarkable series of ink drawings of demonic figures surrounded by vultures and bats, which she entitled the "Damnation Series." Despite these often impressive and powerful works, Dehner chose to play second fiddle to David Smith, who had emerged as an artistic superstar by the late 1940s. On occasion, as when her 1948 drawing "Star Cage" was used by Smith as inspiration for one of his sculptures, the couple would be able to collaborate on a project. But most of the time, Dehner felt overwhelmed and increasingly alienated by her husband's ego, his competitiveness, and in the final analysis by his indifference to her own artistic aspirations. The couple divorced in 1951. Although their marriage had failed, decades later Dehner continued to praise Smith as "America's greatest sculptor."

In 1955, Dorothy Dehner produced her first works of sculpture. "I'd always wanted to," she said. "Now I was free to do it." Small in scale and executed in bronze, these early works were seen by critics as owing something to David Smith's rangy, attenuated style, but other observers detected a special, Surrealist and lyrical touch that only Dehner possessed. Encouraged by what she was able to produce, Dehner now began to work in wood, and by 1957 she was able to exhibit her work at New York's prestigious Willard Gallery. Her second marriage in 1957, to Ferdinand Mann, was by all accounts a happy one. By 1965, her reputation in the art world enabled Dehner to enjoy a solo exhibition at the Jewish Museum in New York. Dehner was strongly inspired by African art, and her sculptures often reproduce the rough surfaces and totemlike quality of the art of Africa. Some of her most powerful works included Cenotaph for Li Po and Egyptian King, bronze sculptures described as being "tall ladder-like accumulations of disks and rectangles, … beautiful and successful in every way, like relics of some long-forgotten religion."

In the mid-1980s, Dorothy Dehner's eyesight deteriorated drastically, and she became legally blind. An error made with a prescription drug further weakened her sight to the point in the early 1990s that she was totally blind in one eye and had only limited vision in the other. But she refused to quit working ("I have come to accept my loss of vision and I just go on") and was able to work out a method of continuing to produce sculpture. She began to rely on a fabricator who could execute her ideas as described in maquettes that were in turn based on drawings she had done in the 1970s. Interviewed after she had become almost totally blind, Dorothy Dehner showed remarkable determination, asserting that she did not mind dying but did worry about pain. She had no illusions that her time had almost run out: "When you're seventy, you think you'll have another decade. When you're in your nineties, you know damn well you don't have much more time." She then added, "I love being old. Because I love what I am whenever I am, whether I'm four years old, or fifteen or thirty-two … no, I love my life."

Dorothy Dehner's art was spontaneous and central to her existence during the last four decades of her long and productive life. "I can never talk about my art," she once said. "Art historians can, but I really can't. Whatever that thing is on paper or in bronze, it came out of my fingers and my heart or soul." Dorothy Dehner died in New York City on September 22, 1994.


Bethune, Elizabeth de. "Dorothy Dehner," in Art Journal. Vol. 53, no. 1. Spring 1994, pp. 35–37.

Cotter, Holland. "Dorothy Dehner: Conquering Metal at a Dauntless 91," in The New York Times Biographical Service. November 1993, pp. 1592–1593.

Diehl, Carol. "Dorothy Dehner," in ARTnews. Vol. 95, no. 6. June 1996, pp. 148–149.

"Dorothy Dehner, 92, Sculptor With a Lyrically Surreal Style," in The New York Times Biographical Service. September 1994, p. 1450.

John Haag , Associate Professor of History, University of Georgia, Athens, Georgia