A knight in full armor rides his fancifully-dressed steed on a stage-like path through the forest with his retinue – a proudly prancing pony and a baby rhino – while the inhabitants (monkeys, toucans, a zebra, etc.) look on. It’s a childhood fantasy, playful and dreamy. You can practically hear the staccato visual rhythms, a sweet but triumphant little march.

“Return Home” is a 1971 watercolor by the late great Maine artist and illustrator Dahlov Ipcar, long one of America’s most recognizable artists. “Return Home” isn’t soaked in her puzzle-board geometrics, but we do see it in the fabric draped on the knight’s mount. And even that offers a hint to what Ipcar is all about. Her paintings set to these complex patterns comfortably reach out to the idea of fabric design. They are rich, decorative and, yes, even a little homespun. They are playful, comfortable and homey.

But they are also highly sophisticated responses to some of the leading intellectual art movements of Modernism, particularly Cubism and Surrealism. The surreal content was revolutionary not long ago, but we’re now so comfortable with the Freudian notion of the unconscious that it’s hard for us to be startled by imagined or dreamed scenes, however irrational. The cubist aspects of Ipcar’s work are easier to spot, but ultimately more difficult to parse. The obvious element, particularly in paintings like Ipcar’s large scenes of African animals, such as her 1994 “Luando Morning,” is the flat presentation of objects on the surface with clearly intentional disregard for the regular spatial rules. Ipcar’s cubism, however, is not the heady stuff of Picasso and Braque, but the more decorative and geometrical cubism of Max Weber and Juan Gris.

Ipcar takes her geometrical structure and layout logic from Gris. She breaks up the canvas like a quilt and sets different groups in their own geometrical sections. Here are zebras. Here is a scene of a cheetah chasing its speedy prey. Here are hyenas, and so on. From Weber, Ipcar takes a density that spreads over the surface with an almost pulsing energy, abundant and everywhere apparent.

In her 2012 “Equine Pinwheel,” Ipcar uses something like playing-card logic to present a painting that could be seen from any direction. It practically dares us to lay it flat, like a card – or a quilt. But this is no mere wish to be decoration. This is the history of landscape painting: flat vertical things that depict flat horizontal things. It’s Cubism, and not simply something that looks like Cubism: It’s about how painting works. And this is the key to Ipcar: If you underestimate her sophistication behind her homey veneer, you’re going to miss out on some great art.

“Equine Pinwheel,” 2012, oil on linen, 30 by 30 inches.

While her humble and hardworking home is often featured in her work, it was hardly a house of cultural naivete. Ipcar was the daughter of Marguerite and William Zorach – two of America’s greatest artists. (One of the strongest paintings in the show is a warm and appealing portrait of Ipcar’s father.) Both Zorachs have been remembered well and often in recent shows at the Portland Museum of Art and the Farnsworth Art Museum, for example. To find her own way, Ipcar married at 19 and took her husband’s name. This might not be a point of interest except that she had a solo show at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) when she was 21 years old under the name of Ipcar, not Zorach, an already impressive brand.

Let that sink in.

That was in 1939. MoMA opened to the public in 1929 and has long been known as a boys’ club.

Ipcar was born in 1917 and passed away in February 2017 at the age of 99. She was still showing and painting up until the year before she passed away.

Ipcar will be always be known as an illustrator (an excellent exhibition of her illustrations just came down from the Portland Public Library’s Lewis Gallery), but she was a great American artist, draftsman, designer and painter.

Rachel Walls’ gallery space at Fort Williams is an ideal space to see Ipcar’s work. It’s an authentic Maine place, mired in history and the tough-nut truth of the fortressed coast. (Fortress ruins, after all, are places where the imaginations of young people run wild.) Walls’ sense of place and history, as well, is handled with a quiet sense of time that fits the ephemeral flashes of Ipcar’s work: At moments, it feels dated, but then it pulls itself out to timelessness and back. It’s Blake’s Tyger, then Rousseau, Dali, cartoon and so on. But within any sense of design calendar, Ipcar comes back again and again until it’s obvious that she was always in the right place, holding our pulse, even if only through the beat of our children’s hearts.

Walls has scores of Ipcar’s iconically recognizable paintings. And in the handsome old building, the experience to a casual viewer is that of a large and excellent museum (without the price tag). These are joined by quirky older paintings, extraordinary flat fiber works and fabric sculptures of incomparable wit and whimsy. We also see that Ipcar’s illustrations are works of unusual depth and observation rather than the typical saccharine visual bonbons to occupy the young. Walls has, for example, works from a series of Ipcar’s farm illustrations, and these challenge our understandings and sensibilities. A factory farm in the 1950s, for example, is a model of clean efficiency exuding an obvious moral benefit for society.

“Lady and Tiger,” 1936, oil on hardboard, 7 by 7 inches.

Ipcar’s 1936 “Lady and Tiger,” a tiny tondo on beaverwood, might spin with the clarity of an illustration, but it’s hardly a puritanical object. Certainly, Ipcar’s work is great for families with children, but I wouldn’t suggest a close reading of a work like this. A child might see a tiger eating a lady in a dreamlike moment of fantasy, but a teen won’t. I saw it both ways, of course, but it made me blush.

Like the nearby Portland Head Light, Ipcar is iconic. But we should be careful not to overlook her qualities just because we’ve seen glimpses of her work again and again through the years. There is far more to her work than has ever been discussed. And now that she’s passed to the better angels of our nature, maybe it’s time we look a little more closely.

Freelance writer Daniel Kany is an art historian who lives in Cumberland. Contact him at:

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