Leon Dabo’s Notebook: An Interview with Frank Goss
In 1955, the artist Leon Dabo (d. 1960) donated a thin manuscript volume to The New York Public Library. Prolific during his time, Dabo is perhaps best known as a muralist and landscape painter. Dabo also spent many years in New York, and was involved with organizing the artistic community, including a part in shaping the 1913 Armory Show. Seemingly an address book, the volume Dabo donated also contains a handful of small sketches. Looked at as a whole the pages provide information about his social life and artistic process.
To learn about Leon Dabo and discover additional context about his life and work, I recently interviewed Frank Goss, a representative of the Dabo estate. The conversation draws from specific features of the notebook. Goss had much to say about Dabo's technique and style, his travels, and his role in independent art exhibitions in New York.
A full transcript of this interview follows, illustrated with snapshots from the volume itself.
Frank, included in this notebook are a few sketches, some clearly in Dabo's hand and some more stylistically disparate. Can you describe how the pencil sketch above is cohesive with his body of work?
Dabo's signature style is very apparent in the drawing above. He loved working in pencil. Between the drawings in the Estate and those in the 25 known sketchbooks there are over 1,000 surviving drawings. He used a sharp point on a pencil which he laid lightly on the paper. Using either the tip of the pencil or the side of the "lead", without any sense of formality he 1) created the bounding box of the drawing with a single line, 2) outlined the principle elements of the composition, 3) shaded-in planes of some elements and 4) made cursive notations about color and tone. Other compositional elements that repeat across Dabo's work are visible in this sketch. He often used multiple horizontal elements with a distinctly high horizon line, which here he has labeled "coucher soleil" or sunset. The great majority of Dabo's tonal works are set in the hours of early morning or late evening.
Can you speak to how Dabo related to his environment?
As an artist, Dabo's formative years were spent studying and working with three noted muralists: Charles Rollinson Lamb, John LaFarge, and Dabo's own father, Ignace Schott. It is thought that in addition to murals he painted for his mentors, he completed over twenty of his own commissions, most of which in Brooklyn and New York. Nearly all of his murals depict the human figure in religious or historical groupings. In his murals, the emphasis was on intimacy, such as depictions of Joseph, Mary and the infant Jesus. Both the landscape sketch above and the Brooklyn Bridge here show an artist working with the limitlessness of an open landscape. This simple excerpt from the famous bridge in some ways implies that the bridge goes on forever. Where Dabo's saints and heroes were formally depicted with absolute definition and purpose, many of his drawings and paintings are bucolic and appear done without effort.
So he was involved in both capturing his surroundings, and altering them with decoration. In the notebook, the language annotating the sketches switches between English and French, and the addresses included range from George Bernard Shaw in London and "Leonelle" Feininger in Berlin. Can you comment on Dabo's internationalism?
Dabo traveled broadly. Though he spent time in England, Germany, Greece and the Middle East, his life was primarily split between Manhattan and France. There are many mysteries in Dabo's life. For most of his life, his birthplace was reported to have been Detroit and his birth year as 1868. In the years since his death, scholars realized that one or both of these "facts" was in doubt. Recently, Jeremy Tessmer, a California scholar, was able to locate the document pictured below using Ancestry.com. A birth certificate confirms that the artist was born on July 9, 1864 in the village of "Dabo Neuvelle" near Saverne, France. However, in French salons he was always considered an American.
Among the more art-historically interesting pages are lists of artists' names, including this page below left. Dabo was involved with a number of New York artist groups, including leading The Pastellists and exhibiting with The Eight. How was Dabo involved with the Association of American Painters and Sculptors and the 1913 Armory Show?
On this page, he lists by last name other founding members of the Association: Arthur B. Davies, Walt Kuhn, John Frederick Mowbray-Clarke, Gutzon Borglum and Leon Dabo. Dabo seems to be taking notes of the meetings as the committee prepared for the International Exhibition of Modern Art, later known as the Armory Show. At the time of the meeting, the "committee on building" was apparently considering the use of the 71st Armory, but eventually they settled on the 69th Regiment Armory in Spring of 1912.
In addition to being one of the organizers, Dabo showed four works at the New York exhibition, one of which is shown here. Like the notebook drawing, in Evening, North Sierra, Dabo employes a high horizon, multiple horizontal lines and a sense of a limitless scape. It is also apparent that there is a relationship between his drawings and his painting when it came to palette. Of necessity, pencil is restricted to shades of grey, but this is not unlike many of Dabo's most famous paintings where he employs two or three tonal colors in a minimalist arrangement.
Because of Dabo's identifiable style, it is apparent that a few pages contain either experimentations or were not executed by the artist. Can you comment on this sketch?
The drawing with three figures above is certainly an anomaly. Nowhere in the other 1,000-plus extant drawings does Dabo employ a dulled pencil, heavily marking the paper with figures rounded-out so reductively and plumply. Although it is possible that another artist from the Armory group did this drawing, it is also possible that Dabo, having spent much of his career in France would have been influenced by the drawings of Matisse or one of the other luminaries included in the Armory show. The sketchbook would make a wonderful study for an art historian who could spend time with this and other drawings in the sketchbook that are not done in the typical style of Dabo. We can only guess at the origin of this and the second, angular drawing in the NYPL sketchbook. The latter drawing brings to mind the work of Abraham Walkowitz, a fellow Armory organizer and exhibitor. There is a relationship between the two - correspondence is among the Leon Dabo papers at the New-York Historical Society. Was Dabo influenced by Walkowitz or did he simply pass his sketchbook along to Walkowitz at one of the organizing meetings for the Armory show? My hope is that later scholars will solve the puzzle created by this tantalizing NYPL treasure.
In 2013, there are a few exhibitions scheduled in commemoration of the centennial of the Armory Show. One at Long Island's Heckscher Museum of Art, open now through April 14. Another will be held at New Jersey's Montclair Art Museum running February 17-June 16. Fittingly, the finale will be held at the New-York Historical Society, October 11 - February 23, 2014. The Smithsonian's Archives of American Art has also created a very interesting online exhibit, using their archival collection.
Frank Goss is an art historian and art dealer in Santa Barbara, CA. He has supported the first two hardbound monographs and several webpages devoted to Dabo. He is working with Nathan Vonk, William Gerdts and a half dozen other scholars on forthcoming monographs on Dabo's Still Life paintings and his early Tonal work.
The Manuscripts and Archives Division of The New York Public Library holds over 29,000 linear feet of archival material in over 3,000 collections, including those important to art and provenance research and visual resources. More information about locating holdings and contacting a manuscripts specialist can be found on the Division page. Of particular value to those interested in the Armory Show are the John Quinn papers. The lawyer who incorporated the group in 1912, he was an honorary member of the Association of American Painters and Sculptors and patron of many artists represented in the exhibition.