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art review re Leon Dabo

D. Wigmore Gallery

One of the most vital goals of modern art is the effort to depict ordinary visual subjects in radically new ways--ways that will bring out new layers of mood and identity within a single physical item. A wide range of these techniques can be seen among the various schools of modern art. It is rare to find a single artist whose works encompass the range and depth of several schools of art; such, however, are the works of Leon Dabo.

In an exhibit now showing at the D. Wigmore Gallery, the range of Dabo's style becomes apparent. The exhibit, grouped chronologically, begins with Dabo's works from the 1900s. Dabo's tonalist leanings during this period are easily apparent.

While Impressionism sought to reproduce the changing subjective aspects of the human eye, Tonalism seeks to reflect the very changings in human mood. Dabo's sweeping Hudson River scenes radiate feeling, with soft muted colors, and hills and valleys that seem as massive as continents. "Hudson River View" is layered with mood, with a riverscape composed almost entirely of somber blues and greys, and a forest that seems a single undulating mass. "Trees and Fields along the Hudson" captures quite a different mood, with soft pale green trees that blend together and a river that is just the faintest wisp of color in the distance. The soft lighting and light brushstrokes and large, smooth fields of color are especially reminsiscent of the outdoor works of Whistler, with whom Dabo studied.

Almost all these works feature the somber fields of color which characterized the Tonalist style. Only one work, "View from the Heights," alludes to Dabo's later methods, with bright pinks and greens, and a depiction of trees that seems almost Japanese with its light, stylized brushstrokes.

The tonalist underpinnings are especially apparent in his work "Spring Rain" which, with its depiction of a stark, grey tree standing alone in a wide barren landscape, is irresistibly suggestive to modern eyes of pictures of scarred battlefields.

Dabo kept his tonalist focus for several years, and saw the art world move away from that style towards more abstract themes. "Dabo was upset with the changes he saw occurring in the art world," said Kathryn Baumgartner, one of the exhibit's curators. During both world wars, he reduced his painting in order to work with groups which helped fellow artists caught in Europe or affected by the war.

The cheerfulness and bright colors of Dabo's works after the thirties and forties "were to compensate for the horrors he saw during the wars," said Baumgartner. "He helped many artists, and I really think this [his painting] helped him deal with what he saw."

Dabo moved to France in the forties, and his work underwent a dramatic change. New colors began to appear in his work, reminiscent of the colorful techniques of Gaugin or Monet. "Orange Sun" depicts a sky seething with yellow brushstrokes over an ominous background of dark blue, with a baleful sun glowering over an eerie blue mountain range. "Rock and Cloud Shapes" has almost a childish view, with soft pink cloud shapes and smooth light green rocks. In a style almost suggestive of Chagall, he experiments with bright colors, and large smooth shapes almost free of texture.

"Dabo tried what he called 'color harmonies'--he would build the work around two colors, and introduce a third, unrelated one," says Deedee Wigmore, the gallery's owner. "There's a whole underpinning of intellect to his work--a sense of history, trying to capture a mood. His emotional interpretations are a way to try to get the character of the place he's looking at."

His works from this period also show deliberate efforts to experiment with a whole family of colors within a single work. "Early Evening, Provence" is a patchwork of greens and khakis, with a hazy sun framed by clouds in almost the same earth tones as the land itself. In "Village and Fauve Hills," the sky and land seem to join, with bright pink clouds blending with golden hills. A small peasant village seems almost to grow out of the very hills themselves, in light orange and red brushstrokes. "View of the Valley, Aix En Provence", sets quite a different tone, with a medley of greens and bues covering a hillside. "Study in Grey" shows another side of his work, almost going back to his Tonalist roots. It is quite somber, with a depiction of a seaside scene stretching away to distant stormclouds and lone sails lost in the gloom. It is the genius of Dabo's use of color that he can use only greys to depict the scene, and yet still retain the feeling of authenticity, and holds the eye of the viewer with the feeling that this, too, is a truthful view of the world we live in.