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Leon Dabo’s Notebook: An Interview with Frank Goss

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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?

Captured from ancestry.comCaptured from ancestry.comDabo 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.

 Stillwell House Fine Art and Antiques(also called Evening, North Shore (Long Island), oil on canvas, 36 x 27 inches Courtesy: Stillwell House Fine Art and Antiques

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.

Comments

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Beautiful Post

Thanks New York Public Library! This is a wonderfully illustrated post about the last year of our research. Thanks Tal!

I'm so glad I stumbled upon

I'm so glad I stumbled upon this post! I helped Mr. Goss look up some materials on Dabo at BPL's Brooklyn Collection, so was able to learn a little about the artist. The mystery drawings in his sketchbook are very intriguing...

What a find

How smart! It is really great that you were able to put this all together this year - the 100th Anniversary of the Armory. I just love the drawings. How in the world did he not know his own birth date.

Dabo

Wonderful. This is great to read, and see info on this wonderful American artist. I look forward to more blogs.

Leon Dabo

I have been a collector of this artist for over a decade. It is so exciting to see more information on him everyday!. Great!

The Armory As Dice

The Armory must have been a huge gamble for all of these guys. Some artists were new to the American public, some established, like Dabo. All the promotion and all of the press made for HUGE attendance. It launched so many careers and was the finale' for others. Dabo had many years ahead of him. How did he do? Were there reviews?

Last Night's Opening at Montclair

I attended last nights opening of the Monclair Art Museum's "ARMROY" show. The exhibit was just jammed. I had gone to see several of the artists' works, but not Dabo's. Wow was the Dabo great. I was talking to a friend who wss there and she mentioed the blog - great work. Although I did not go to see the Dabo, I was bowled over. There were hundreds of people and there was a crowd around the Dabo all night long. I was really impressed by his work and want to see more. The piece in the Montclair seemed to marry the American art before Dabo - to the minimal work after Dabo. Every time I went back to see it, there was a crowd around the Dabo. You guys are on to something. Who would guess that an artist who was dead for fifty years....could come back so powerfully. Please think about doing more about this artist. I am very glad to read about the New York Historical Museum show. Also, thanks for providing all the links.

It is a great pleasure to

It is a great pleasure to read this blog on Leon Dabo and the papers from the archives of the New York Public Library. Many people through the years have combed through so many old dusty folders (including these files) filled with snapshots from the life of this American artist. Myself, Paul Gallagher, and Ronald Knox, co-owners of Stillwell House Fine Art and Antiques in NJ, have spent over a decade working tirelessly on the Estate of this great artist, and continue to work with new Dabo enthusiasts. Frank Goss, the new representative of the Estate, is leading the way with his wonderful gallery and staff of scholars to bring new levels of research and understanding to his works. Bravo! It is in great hands! Last night I was privileged to be invited to the pre-opening Gala of the 100 year Anniversary of the Armory Show at the Montclair Museum of Art in Montclair, NJ. The exhibition, entitled "The New Spirit: American Art in the Armory Show, 1913", is co-curated by Gail Stavitsky, MAM chief curator, and guest curator Laurette McCarthy. They set the exhibition beautifully and it really gives the viewer a sense of how special all these works are, and how they hold their space even 100 years later. They also had a wonderful selection of ephemera dating back to the original show. What a thrill to see one of the four original Dabo oil paintings from this show. His painting as pictured in this blog, "Evening North Sierra", was a sight on the wall. It's polished, mature, and emotionally gripping presence was impossible to miss. The name of this particular painting has varied slightly over the 100+ year history since the original Armory Show of 1913. "Evening North Serra" was printed in the Armory Show 1913 program in the section at the back entitled "Additions to Exhibits since Catalogue was compiled". It was later widely referred to as "Evening North Sierra" but this is inaccurate because Dabo never painted the Sierra Nevada Mountains. After exclusively dealing with this artist's Estate for more than a decade and seeing over 750 of his works, we firmly believe the Armory Show program name was a misprint and was meant to read "Evening, North Shore", as Dabo is known to have painted many other works there and in the vicinity. There were many typos in the program. However, no matter what its title was, or was meant to be, this painting is magical! Like the earlier post by Tyler, it had a crowd and I heard so many wonderful comments that onlookers expressed. It is no wonder that this artist had such interest. I feel today his work commands an audience very much like it did in 1913. You can see why Theodore Roosevelt highlighted Dabo when he reviewed the 1913 show and specifically mentioned "Canadian Night", another of the four works that Dabo exhibited. I look forward to reading more comments on the conversation with Frank Goss, and from other wonderfully enlightened viewers of MAM's "The New Spirit: American Art in the Armory Show, 1913".

Leon Dabo

Wonderful information. It is fun to read all the old rediscovered info that is out and about.Loved hearingabout the differnt names of his paintings. Is this common that an aritst work has many names? Can the public go to the New York Library, and see all this info? I will go see the New Spirit show this weekend. I will report me visit! Great fun.

Leon dabo

Wow. I went to Montclair show on Sunday afternoon,and today went online to look up Leon Dabo. It is great to find this blog. His piece was moving in this display. I would like to see more pictures of this artist.

Leon Dabo

What a great interview! It's a nice introduction to the history and working method of an artist of whom I had never heard until my Armory Show search led me here.

Leon Dabo Armory

heard an older couple on the train today speak of the Armory Show opening in NJ. I did not know much about the show, or what it was and I found this blog. How interesting. This is really a great part of the history of American art. I think people do not realize how great this event was. I really enjoyed reading about the Leon Dabo painting at the NJ show. It is really amazing to think this work is so old. It looks really modern to me, Is art work like this valuable? Are their better pictures of it online? Did museums get paintings by this artist before of after he died? Is it because he died they are interested? I have so many questions.

Leon Darbo's Notebook

It was exciting to read Frank Goss's piece both for it's insight into the painter and the breadth of his work.We have been fortunate to view a small portion of the collection [pre and post restoration in some cases] and can appreciate the artist's work and style in a way that is difficult to discern only from photos. Mr. Goss has certainly grasped the painter's perspective from both a historicall and period viewpoint. This type exposure to the public is something that we don't often see anymore.

Nice To See Drawings

I am an artist. I love to draw and it is really nice to see these drawings that are so simple and beautiful. I would love to see more. Thanks.

Leon Dabo

Saw this fine "New Spirit" Show. The Leon Dabo work was among the finest in the Museum. I have loved this artist for years,and it is wonderful to see so many others with interest. The Picture show here of his oil does not do it justice. It has a presence that can't be described. It certainly looks like Long Island. I hope to see more works by this artist in person.

I have toi say I went to see

I have toi say I went to see the show in Montclair, and I was so happy when I left. I am a new fan of Leon Dabo. The best in the show. He has a style that is all his own. I hope to see more work by this artist , and look forward to reading this blog.

Feeling privileged.

I must say, I do feel especially privileged after reading this interview. I had the opportunity to research Dabo's life while working with Frank Goss in the past. Leon Dabo is truly an exquisite artist with such an incogitable range of style and talent that it's remarkable he's only just being re-discovered. I am blessed to own three of his incredible drawings and can only hope more people will acquire his works. I spent a great deal of time handling and inspecting these drawings and feel very attached to Dabo's prolific and impressive output. It's wonderful to see him honored for his work, and it all feels particularly poetic with the 100th anniversary of the 1913 Armory Show just behind us. I hope to see more discoveries from Frank, Jeremy, Nathan, and the crew in the future!

Leon Dabo

I have to say went to Stillwell House Antiques,in NJ and had a treat with the collection of Dabo drawings and Oil Paintings. They recommended that I look online at Sullivan Goss and American Gallery, and look at the paintings and videos they have done on Dabo. It was such an experience. I love this artist. I recommend this to any person who loves art and wants to see a master, and a group of people who are masters themselves. Edward

Leon Dabo

I have to say went to Stillwell House Antiques,in NJ and had a treat with the collection of Dabo drawings and Oil Paintings. They recommended that I look online at Sullivan Goss and American Gallery, and look at the paintings and videos they have done on Dabo. It was such an experience. I love this artist. I recommend this to any person who loves art and wants to see a master, and a group of people who are masters themselves. Edward

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