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The Art of John Dos Passos

February 22  - April 18, 2004


In fifty years American writer John Dos Passos (1896-1970) wrote forty-two literary works and created over four hundred pieces of art, providing a panoramic social history of the world he knew.  This exhibition presents sixty-four colorful watercolors and six pieces of dust jacket art that depict his extensive travels and adventures during the early 20th century.  Works that portray Dos Passos' desire to capture the spirit and times in which he lived are highlighted. (right: John Dos Passos (American, 1896-1970), Mountain Village, c.1920, watercolor on paper from sketchpad, Collection of Lucy Dos Passos Coggin)

John Dos Passos was born in Chicago, Illinois is 1896 and was raised in Europe by his mother.  He graduated from Harvard University in 1916 with a degree in English.  He traveled to Spain to study art and architecture and became an avid sketcher during the war years working in pencil, colored pencil and watercolor while serving in a volunteer ambulance corps.

Dos Passos' first major art exhibition was in New York at the National Art Club in 1922.  He later exhibited at the Whitney Studio Club, in group shows of the Salons of America at the Anderson Galleries and the R.C.A. Building in Rockefeller Center.  He participated in the artists communities in New York and Paris and was acquainted with Pablo Picasso, Fernand Léger, Russian émigré Natalia Gontcharova, Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, William Faulkner, e.e. cummings, Diego Rivera and Abraham Rattner. 

John Dos Passos wrote the foreword to the catalog for Rattner's first one man show in the United States at the Julien Levy Gallery in 1936.  An excerpt reads, "The great tradition of painting is built out of the chances painters have taken in the past with shapes and colors.  Abraham Rattner is a painter who takes chances.  He has come back from Paris intoxicated with shapes and colors instead of with the dogma of Cubism or Surrealism or Post-Expressionism."  Dos Passos collaborated with Rattner for the magazine Verve in the 1930s and purchased Rattner's Le Bistrot in 1938.  (left: John Dos Passos (American, 1896-1970), Watering Place, c. 1923, watercolor on paper, Collection of Lucy Dos Passos Coggin)

Dos Passos first achieved critical and popular recognition as a writer for his antiwar novel, Three Soldiers written in 1921.  Manhattan Transfer, written in 1925, portrayed a panoramic view of life in New York City between 1890 and 1925 and was an immense success. This powerful novel determined the style of the best of his later works using fragments of popular songs, news headlines, stream-of-consciousness monologues and naturalistic fragments from the lives of many unrelated characters.  Dos Passos' USA Trilogy used the same style and expanded his panorama to encompass the entire nation.  The Trilogy consists of The 42nd Parallel, 1930; 1919, 1932; and The Big Money, 1936.  The trilogy depicts the growth of American materialism from the 1890s to the Great Depression of the early 1930s.

The one hour PBS documentary, The Odyssey of John Dos Passos, will be shown continuously in the gallery.  On March 11, 2004 the film will be shown in its entirety in the Museum Auditorium.  This one hour documentary, narrated by journalist Robert Mac Neil, chronicles the life and work of John Dos Passos.  The story is told through rare archival footage and interviews with family, friends, well-known contemporary writers, critics and scholars.  William Hurt interprets excerpts from his diaries, letters and literary works dramatically.  "In college I think there was no work that had more influence on me than USA.  And to this day those three volumes of USA make up, in my mind, the idea of a great American novel", said Norman Mailer.   (right: John Dos Passos (American, 1896-1970), Still Life with Plants and Apples in a Basket, mid-1960s, watercolor on paper, Collection of Lucy Dos Passos Coggin)


Sample Wall Text from the Exhibition

John Dos Passos:  1896-1970
For John Dos Passos, art was an obligation fueled by passion.  He considered it to be his duty as an artist to record both the subjective and objective realities of specific moments and to express them in forms that conveyed the spirit of his time.  In fifty years as a writer Dos Passos wrote forty-two works  novels, poems, essays and plays  that provide a panoramic social history of the world he knew.  In half a century as a visual artist, he completed some four hundred artworks that chronicle the journeys of his life in bold colors.  This exhibition presents a memorable selection of those visual renderings.
Paris:  Mid-1920s
By 1924 Ernest Hemingway and Dos Passos had become close friends.  Dos Passos wrote in The Best Times, "He had an evangelistic streak that made him work to convert his friends to whatever mania he was encouraging at the time.  I did enjoy going to the six day bicycle races with him.  French sporting events had for me a special comical air that I enjoyed.  We would collect a quantity of wine and chesses and crunchy rolls, a pot of pâté and perhaps a cold chicken, and sit up in the gallery.  Hem knew all the statistics and the names and lives of the riders.  His enthusiasm was catching, but he tended to make a business of it while I just liked to eat and drink and to enjoy the show."
Focus on America:  1934-1970
The revolutionary fervor that inspired Dos Passos' most enduring literary and artistic works ended dramatically in Madrid in March 1937.  While filming a communist-sponsored documentary film with Ernest Hemingway about the effect of the Spanish Civil War on the country's people, Dos Passos learned that communist foreigners, apparently Russians, had executed his friend José Robles.  The shock of Robles' death led Dos Passos to publicly declare that the Russians brought to Spain "along with their enthusiasm and their munitions, the secret Jesuitical methods, the Trotsky witch hunt and all the intricate and bloody machinery of Kremlin Policy."  Hemingway had warned Dos Passos that if he publicly attacked the communists, his career would be irreparably damaged.  Dos Passos responded by writing a series of articles critical of communist ideology and a series of novels attacking the radical leftist movement.  For the rest of his career, Dos Passos' writing and art focused more intently on American subjects.

International Arts & Artists, a non-profit arts service organization dedicated to promoting excellence in the arts, in conjunction with Lucy Dos Passos Coggin, John Dos Passos' daughter, organized The Art of John Dos Passos.  The exhibition opened at the Queens Borough Library in New York in January 2001 and has since traveled to the Bayly Museum of Art at the University of Virginia and to the University of Richmond. 

rev. 7/11/05

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