Leo Dee (1931-2004)

by David B. Dearinger



The year 1963 was an especially significant one for Leo Dee, both personally and professionally. It was in that year that he married Elaine Evans, a professional art historian and museum curator who had appropriately worked with the world-class drawing collections at the Pierpont Morgan Library in New York and at the Smithsonian Institution's Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum, where she was Curator of Drawings and Prints. With their son Jeffrey, the Dees settled first in Nutley and then in Maplewood, New Jersey. At the same time, they began spending summers near Truro on Cape Cod, a place that would figure largely in Leo Dee's life and work.

That same year, 1963, a significant professional break came when Dee's collage drawing Self-Portrait, mentioned above, and his painting Reflections in White (cat. no. 2) received critical acclaim and public attention when they appeared in the Newark Museum's "Forms in Contemporary Art," an exhibition of a selection of that institution's recent acquisitions. Michael Lenson, writing for Newark's Sunday News, compared the self-portrait to works by Mondrian and called Reflections in White a "prodigious feat of superrealism."[14] Donald Malafronte, in Newark's Star-Ledger, proclaimed the latter "a tour-de-force" and praised Dee for his "intense concern for truth and purity."[15] Praise also came from John Canaday, the eminent art critic for the New York Times and one of the most influential art critics of his day. Canaday singled out Reflections in White and praised the manner in which Dee combined "staggering technical perfection" with "high decorative character" in the painting.[16] It was exactly these characteristics, in fact, that would later lead to comparisons of Dee's work to that of the great American trompe l'oeil painters of the nineteenth century such as William Michael Harnett and Jefferson D. Chalfant. Dee's work was even aligned with that of the famous Russian abstractionist and Suprematist painter Kasimir Malevich.[17]

The level of national attention Canaday brought to Dee was repeated in 1964, when Dee's work was included in an exhibition of contemporary American drawing that toured to museums around the country through 1966. The exhibition was organized by New York's American Federation of the Arts and was seen in such far-flung places as Flint, Michigan, Oklahoma City, Colorado Springs, Honolulu, and Washington, D.C., before making its final stop in Manhattan. At its last venue, the exhibition was reviewed by Grace Glueck, art critic for the New York Times. The show consisted of 100 drawings, some by recognized artists such as Isabel Bishop, Edwin Dickinson, Leonard Baskin, and Walter Murch. But Glueck selected only two for praise: Larry Zox's Untitled, 1964, and Leo Dee's Death and Transfiguration (cat. no. 3). Despite its rather grand but appropriately allegorical title -- rare for Dee -- Death and Transfiguration is a "pencil drawing of a withering apple half," as Glueck noted, with the seeded center of the sliced fruit shown in particular detail. It was this emphasis on the organic, which was evidently a feature of Zox's drawing as well, that caused Glueck to observe that both images "seemed to work down to the nub of each artist's style."[18]

Another major exhibition of 1966 that helped Dee transcend his regional affiliations was "Meticulous Realism," a survey of contemporary realistic drawings organized by the art gallery at the University of Maryland in College Park. Dee was represented there by five works -- a record number in a single show for the artist -- and his participation was heralded by the art critic of Newark's Star Ledger, Donald Malafronte. Malafronte had been following Dee's career for several years -- indeed, he owns three of Dee's drawings -- and he dedicated almost his entire review to Dee. The article carried the banner title "Newark Teacher Star of Show Featuring Meticulous Realism." Malafronte marveled at Dee's "slow and painstaking" method that, although it resulted in "low output," produced "a record of high quality." [19]

As noted by Grace Glueck, careful, close-up studies of single fruits or other organic objects became an important part of Dee's output beginning in the 1960s. But close studies of small things, such as a lemon or a shell, did not necessarily produce small drawings. For example, in Shell (1965, New Jersey State Museum, Trenton), Dee took an extreme, close-up view of part of his subject, but he drew it on a scale much larger than life; the image fills a sheet that measures over 32 x 27 inches. On the other hand, he could just as meticulously render the entire object, as he does with a second Shell (cat. no. 11) from the same period. Here, the tiny object, this time shown in its totality, is carefully balanced in an otherwise starkly white panel measuring 22 x 16 inches. These are the types of drawings that one contemporary critic called "modern icons" studied in "silverpoint magnification."[20] Similarly, when Dee exhibited examples of his drapery studies, a favorite theme first essayed in Reflections in White, the same writer declared that Dee had taken these simple subjects -- fruit, shells, or drapery -- and "sanctified [them] by an awesome mastery of silverpoint."[21]

During the 1970s and 1980s, Dee's work appeared in almost every major group or annual exhibition organized by or held in New Jersey's several art institutions and organizations, as well as in other important exhibitions in Philadelphia, New York, and Boston. Among these were the triennial exhibitions of New Jersey Artists, held at the Newark Museum (where he won a Purchase Award in 1981), and the annual exhibitions of the Audubon Artists, the National Academy of Design in New York (where he won the Cannon Prize in 1987), the New Jersey State Museum in Trenton (where he won a Purchase Award in 1970), and the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in Philadelphia. In 1965-66, Dee took part in the art section of the New Jersey Pavilion at the New York World's Fair and the traveling exhibition of drawings circulated by the American Federation of Arts, mentioned above. His work was selected for broader retrospective exhibitions of historic American art such as "150 Years of American Still Life Painting" at the Coe Kerr Gallery in New York in 1970, "American Master Drawings and Watercolors" at the Minneapolis Institute of Art and other venues in 1976-77, "American Portrait Drawing" at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., in 1980, and "The Fine Line: Drawing with Silver in America" at the Norton Gallery of Art, West Palm Beach, Florida, and elsewhere in 1985-86.

The first major retrospective exhibition of Dee's work was organized by the Coe Kerr Gallery in New York in 1975. From the early 1970s until it closed in 1994, the prestigious Coe Kerr Gallery earned a reputation for showing historic American art of the highest quality and for showcasing this country's best contemporary artists. The gallery's exhibition of Leo Dee's work represented the full range of his talent and interests and included fifty-two paintings, relief sculptures, drawings, and collages. The show, which was accompanied by a catalog with a definitive essay by art historian William H. Gerdts, was extremely well received and was favorably reviewed by a number of New York publications. It was called "one of the true delights and landmarks of New York's current fall season."[22] The New York Times praised Dee as a "painstaking still-life draftsman" who, given "a crumpled sheet of paper, an apple or pear (whole or rotten)" will produce ((something very good."[23]

The second major exhibition devoted to Dee's work was held at the New Jersey State Museum in 1978-79. The twenty-three objects in that show included six newer works that he had created since the earlier retrospective. By the time of both retrospectives, Dee's drawings and collages had joined the collections of a number of major American museums. Besides the Newark Museum and the New Jersey State Museum, he is represented in the Fogg Museum at Harvard, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Springfield (Massachusetts) Museum of Art, the Yale University Art Gallery, and the Columbus (Ohio) Museum. (See "Lenders to the Exhibition," p. 4.)

Following their retirements, the Dees moved permanently to Truro in 1996. There, Leo Dee continued to practice his art and to cultivate many of his other life-long interests, especially garden design. He continued the meticulous, slow process of creating silverpoint and other drawings in various techniques. Indulging his love of the out-of-doors, he turned with greater frequency to drawing the Cape Cod landscape, observing in careful detail the textures of a variety of ground covers, low bushes, marsh and dune grasses, and scrub pines. They are rendered with the same power of minute observation as are the still-life drawings, with great concern for the object's place on the page and the compositional role of negative space. His favorite subjects were the seaside dunes with their undulating forms of shifting sands, constantly attacked by wind and waves. In some instances, these quiet drawings document an appearance that has now changed [.24] He also continued to construct small-scale, sometimes marvelously personal collages. Working almost to the end, he died at his home in Truro on November 22, 2004.


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