Occam’s Razor is the law of parsimony – the idea that the explanation with the fewest assumptions is the likeliest.
Addicted to efficiency, Americans subscribe to this whenever possible. Consequently, we tend to oversimplify art and artists. And once pigeonholed, artists are easy to dismiss.
However, essentializing artists is like explaining a meal or solving a conversation: It’s absurd.
This must drive Jamie Wyeth crazy – since the tether of the Wyeth name was wrapped around his neck from his prodigious start. But he is a very different artist than his father: While Andrew mastered paint, Jamie has a passionate love affair with it.
I bet Jamie envies Dahlov Ipcar’s last name. The daughter of William and Marguerite Zorach, the prodigy had her first solo show at MoMA at age 21 back in 1939 – when she had already been married to Adolph Ipcar for two years.
At age 95, Ipcar is still an active artist.
Her show at the Maine Jewish Museum is fantastic. In fact, it completely changed my opinion about her as an artist. Indeed – I was guilty of oversimplifying her, but, Ipcar deserves much of the blame by ever insisting (honestly and affably, mind you) she only ever did her own thing outside of any influence.
Culture is something we build together, and so I am turned off by artists who claim to be so original that they are above the rest of us – like Harold Bloom’s “agons.” I believe the anxiety of influence is a huge force in American creative culture, but I believe the proper response is to seek authenticity rather than mere originality.
Ipcar is absolutely authentic.
Rather than ever intentionally misleading anyone about her work, it’s probably that her sensibilities matured so long ago that she is completely fluent in her own language. She doesn’t need to look at Paul Manship, Marc Chagall, Franz Marc, Russian Futurism, Art Deco or the work of her parents any more. She has completely internalized it.
Ipcar’s first work in the handsome synagogue is an illustration-style picture of ducks and chickens that belies a very intelligent understanding of Yasuo Kuniyoshi – a Maine artist who was once a national favorite but whose critical fortunes were mauled by WWII-era attitudes.
Kuniyoshi was an emotive virtuoso grounded in subtle surrealism. Ipcar not only captures his look, but removes the horizon from the image – a trick Western art learned from Japanese prints. Yet, in Ipcar’s hands, this bit of pictorial sophistication feels sweet and naive.
It might be sweet, but it’s hardly naive.
Ipcar’s illustration-style watercolors are legible and witty. They feed on our assumption that illustrations – riddle-like – contain only one joke. An image of a knight riding down an ostrich to pluck a plume from its tail for his helmet will make your kids giggle (oh yes – bring the kids to this show), but something is intriguingly (and geographically) amiss.
It’s noteworthy that this human-chased ostrich is the only stressed-out animal in the show. Even a large caribou being hunted by wolves is cool – resigned, maybe, to nature’s beautiful symmetry.
The calm demeanor of the beasts makes a strong connection to Art Deco’s heroic essentialism – and particularly Paul Manship’s insistently stylized profiles (inspired by Egyptian and Indian art) like Colby College’s 1917 “Dancer and Gazelles.”
My favorite piece in the show is from the 1980s. It depicts an enviably and elegantly calm blue cream cat on a couch. With a tip of her hat to Will Barnet, Ipcar’s phenomenal geometrical design strikes a deliciously harmonious chord with the buff khaki patterns of the couch. In addition to its compositional coup, it’s the best painted piece in the show.
The painting that turned me around regarding Ipcar is “Outside In.” At first glance, I thought the 2011 piece was weak. Something about it seemed tentative and nervous – very different from the other works’ colorfully serene magic.
“Outside In” (pictured on D1) depicts an anxious cheetah peering through a doorway at passing zebras. It feels like a large apartment building with a Kafkaesque series of illogical doors and hallways. It’s a dream image that could be read differently for 1,001 nights. It’s absolutely brilliant.
Despite their stylization, there is something fresh about Ipcar’s paintings: They reflect a quick and intuitive approach rather than being overworked and over-determined. But don’t confuse improvisational immediacy with vapidity. Miles Davis, after all, improvised – but he was an intellectual heavyweight. Ipcar’s sensibilities are deeply steeped in intelligence and experience. It’s now second nature for her to divide up sections of her compositions by color – like Chagalls’ opera ceiling or his famous “I and the Village” – or to mobilize the triangular Cubist-inspired triangles of Franz Marc’s backgrounds.
Ipcar doesn’t just borrow ideas from other artists; like all the greats, she incorporates them into her own thinking. Americans tend to confuse originality and authenticity – overvaluing the former when what matters most is the latter. Invention follows authenticity, and Ipcar is absolutely an American original.
“Dahlov Ipcar at the Maine Jewish Museum” is eminently approachable. A video about Ipcar plays in the gallery. Her books and (fabulous) pillows, carpets and prints are all accessible – and fantastic. Everyone, from the youngest to the most sophisticated art fan, should see this show; it’s no less enjoyable than it is important.
Freelance writer Daniel Kany is an art historian who lives in Cumberland. He can be contacted at: