Leo Dee (1931-2004)
by David B. Dearinger
Dee graduated from the Newark School in 1953 and was immediately drafted into the United States Army. After basic training at Camp Gordon, Georgia, he served the remainder of his two-year stint at Ft. Meade, Maryland, in the Signal Corps. He did not put his art on hold during these years, however, but honed his talents by designing and executing signs and posters for use at the army base and by executing drawings and painting portraits of his officers. Having completed his tour of duty in 1956, Dee used the GI Bill to return for two more years of study at the Newark School.
By that time, he had decided that his own preferred method of working -- concentrated, meticulous drawing in fine detail -- was not particularly suited to the deadlines often required in the business of professional illustration, for which he had been training. Accordingly, he changed his focus of study to a more general one that would allow him to plan a curriculum better suited to his own needs and goals. The teacher who had the most influence on Dee during this period was Hans Weingaertner. Dee studied, worked, and eventually shared a friendship with Weingaertner that would last until the latter's death in 1970. At the same time, and in keeping with the Newark School's desire to have its students receive a well-rounded education, Dee developed a deep love of music and an interest in sports, notably golf and swimming.
While continuing his studies, Dee supported himself, as have generations of art students, by taking a number of art-related jobs. For Dee, these were as varied as designing department store displays and advertising layouts, private teaching, decorative designing, and even painting images on giant parade balloons. But in 1958, when he was hired by his alma mater, the Newark School of Fine and Industrial Art, to teach life drawing, his professional life took its final and more stable form. Dee eventually became the leading instructor of realistic drawing at the Newark School, and he remained an influential and popular teacher there until his retirement in 1993.
Dee's earliest works were paintings, many of them nearly or totally abstract. Some of these were first shown at the Rabin & Krueger Gallery in Newark. That gallery, which subsequently acted as Dee's commercial agent, gave Dee his first one-man show and his earliest commercial success in 1957. But the gallery also played another, less direct role in Dee's development as an artist. Bernard Rabin, who had founded the business as the Cooperative Gallery in 1935, had acted as Joseph Stella's dealer, and it was at Rabin's gallery that Dee first saw Stella's drawings. Inspired by these early twentieth -century masterworks, Dee now began to turn more of his attention to drawing. He was especially attracted to Stella's use of silverpoint, an unforgiving, difficult technique that requires careful planning, precise application, and unwavering focus. It is actually one of several techniques grouped under the general classification of metalpoint, which refers to the use of a wire of copper, gold, lead, or silver mounted in a stylus. The tip of the wire is used like a pencil to draw on treated paper or panel. Silverpoint was especially popular among artists of the late medieval period and in the Renaissance, when it was used by northerners such Jan van Eyck (an artist whose work Leo Dee particularly admired) and Rogier van der Weyden and Italians such as Filippino Lippi, Sandro Botticelli, and Leonardo da Vinci. The method had an almost unavoidable appeal for Leo Dee, who was already in love with the craft of drawing. Indeed, he went on to create some of the most beautiful silverpoint drawings of the late twentieth century.
Leo Dee's exhibition history begins in 1957, when several of his works were included in a "new talents" exhibition held in the lavish showroom of the Newark Foam Rubber Center. It was a time when corporations, industrial giants, and even department stores -- entities that are rarely thought of as exhibition venues today -- often hosted major art shows, especially of contemporary art. The four "new talents" of 1957 were Leo Dee, Gustave Hunkele, Norman Locker, and David Snow, all of whom were graduates of the Newark School. This was the first exhibition for each of these four artists -- a "youthful coterie," as one critic called them. The show was so popular that one reviewer quipped that, at the opening reception, "not a foam rubber seat was vacant." That same writer called attention to Dee's abstract Composition No.2 (collection of Elaine Evans Dee) and described it as "a neatly balanced" composition "of two perfect sun and moon discs see-sawing on flat winglike areas." In this work Dee is already able to use lines economically while also giving his forms a sense of mass within a three-dimensional composition.
It was shortly after the 1957 exhibition that Dee produced one of his most introspective and obviously personal works, a striking self-portrait (cat. no. 1) that combines drawing with collage and might be identified as the artist's earliest masterwork. When it was acquired by the Newark Museum in 1961, it became the first of Dee's works to enter the collection of a major American museum. On that occasion it was praised for its combination of "abstract, geometric forms in collage" and for its "technical proficiency in drawing," which were declared "worthy of the Flemish artists of the 15th century." This marriage of devices and media, it was said, allowed Dee to "produce subtleties in form and outline and contrasts of textures of hair and flesh."  In other words, the artist here combined traditional realistic imaging of the human figure with the modernist technique of collage to produce a twentieth-century, psychoanalytic self-interpretation. Dee was well on his way to mastering the art of trompe l'oeil, an ability that would make it possible for him to mimic collage in his drawings without actually using it. This would become a hallmark of Dee's style.
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