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Book Reveals The Story Of Forgotten Midcentury Manhattan Watercolorist

The Artist Book Foundation in North Adams, Massachusetts publishes the stories and works of artists whose lives have gone largely undocumented. The nonprofit’s latest highlights a watercolorist who captured Manhattan’s golden age. 

One of the most iconic works inside The Metropolitan Museum of Art is a watercolor called “Spring in Central Park.” It’s seen all over The MET’s store: on puzzles, posters, coasters, umbrellas and scarves.

But Artist Book Foundation Executive Director Leslie van Breen says artist Adolf Dehn’s life has flown under the radar.

“It has become really the quintessential romantic, elegant depiction of Manhattan in the midcentury but I am not sure not everyone knows who painted it until now,” van Breen says.

The book “Adolf Dehn: Midcentury Manhattan” has been in works for about five years.

“And it has taken that long for the family to identify all the work that we actually wanted to collect and put into a publication, into a monograph, that would truly celebrate the life and work of this American artist,” van Breen says.

In the 1930s and 40s, Dehn was known for his illustrations in Vogue and Vanity Fair of New York City’s burlesque theaters and Harlem nightclubs, extraordinary skylines and harbors, and (of course) blissful scenes of Central Park.

Author Philip Eliasoph says people just stopped being interested in his work at some point.

“With the exception of professional art critiques and a few art dealers around the country, you would mention the name Adolf Dehn and I don’t think 300 people around the country would know who the name Adolf Dehn was,” Eliasoph says.

Eliasoph is an art historian at Fairfield University and regular contributor to The New York Times’ Arts & Culture blog. In August 1941, Dehn was featured and championed in a Life magazine spread. Four months later the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, and the U.S. was thrust into war.

“Because it became guilt by association,” Eliasoph says. “This art was considered to be so tainted because it looked Stalinist.”

Dehn’s fame ran out.

Nevertheless, Henry Adams, who wrote the foreword of the book and is an art history professor at Case Western Reserve University, says Dehn transformed the art of lithography and watercolor.

“For something you draw with a crayon, to something where you use sandpaper – you use scrapping, you use a razor blade, you use something called tuse, which is a liquid ink so that he basically transformed lithography from being something similar to an academic drawing to being as rich in its effects as a painting,” Adams says.

Unfortunately, van Breen says, books that catalog the life of an artist can be hard to find on the bookshelf.

“It’s just become too time-consuming, too detail-oriented, it’s not as commercially viable as they would like it to be. But that doesn’t preclude the need to document this history. Historically, we need to have a record of what is going on in our culture, artistically as well as practically, and a lot of this information will be lost forever if we don’t,” van Breen says.

Works by Adolf Dehn are on display at the nonprofit’s headquarters at Building 13 at MASS MoCA through January.

Quotes from Philip Eliasoph and Henry Adams in this piece include audio from an open house event recorded by Parallax Pictures and provided to WAMC by The Artist Book Foundation.  

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