Dove Block News & Notes

New Life for a Cottage That Doubled as an Artists’ Laboratory

Arthur Dove and Helen Torr’s former home, which is being restored by the Heckscher Museum of Art, in Centerport, N.Y.

CENTERPORT, N.Y. — Nestled among parking lots, a pond, a brick hotel and a divorce lawyer’s office, a clapboarded one-room cottage in this Long Island hamlet on the North Shore played a role in American art history. The artist couple Arthur Dove and Helen Torr, who were among the earliest American experimenters with abstraction, lived there in the 1930s and ’40s, and based their abstract and semiabstract canvases on nearby harbors, lighthouses and foghorns.

After Mr. Dove’s death in 1946, Ms. Torr remained in the house for two more decades, in poor health and surrounded by unsold artworks. “It’s all too late,” she would tell her sister, Mary Torr Rehm.

The cottage is now being restored by the Heckscher Museum of Art in Huntington, N.Y., which acquired the building in 1998. Current museum displays there and elsewhere, as well as new and forthcoming books, explore the couple’s careers, homes, obsession with weather, and previous spouses.

During a recent tour of the cottage, Michael W. Schantz, executive director of the Heckscher Museum, pointed out shadowy rectangles on the sepia and sea-green painted wood walls that showed where art had been hung. Hardly any furniture, except a rustic wood easel and a potbellied cast-iron stove, has been installed to give a sense of their austere décor.

Rachael Z. DeLue, an associate professor of art history at Princeton and author of a new book, “Arthur Dove: Always Connect,” said the house “was almost like a little laboratory.” The couple displayed their own artworks there alongside photographs by the gallery owner Alfred Stieglitz, who was a friend. They experimented with collaging seashells, pebbles and newspaper clippings, and they filled journals with notes about storms.

“January” (1935), a painting by Helen Torr. Hecksher Museum of Art

In the 1980s, a commemorative metal sign was posted along the roadside, noting that Mr. Dove had lived there. Mr. Schantz said plans are in the works to add Ms. Torr’s name to the sign.

The artists were not particularly famous in their lifetimes, and never made much money from their art. They recycled wooden grocery crates into panels for their paintings. At times, they lived on a houseboat, and spent some winters holed up at a yacht club. They did not do much to upgrade the Centerport building, which was previously a post office and a general store.

Alan Pensler, an art historian and dealer in Florida who is finishing a book, “Arthur Dove: A Reassessment” (to be published by Lucia/Marquand), said Mr. Dove “wanted freedom, and he forewent a lot of material comforts so he could paint on his own schedule.”

Mr. Dove grew up in Geneva, N.Y., where his father, William, was a builder and brick manufacturer. As an adult, Mr. Dove lived in Geneva for a few years, as well as Paris, New York City and two towns in Connecticut, Darien and Westport. He occasionally raised chickens and caught lobsters to pay his bills. In 1904, he married Florence Dorsey, who ran a tearoom in Westport. In 1921, he left his wife and son to move in with Ms. Torr, a Philadelphia native; she was married to the political cartoonist Clive Weed.

Ms. Torr devoted herself to fostering Mr. Dove’s career. She scarcely exhibited her own artworks; Stieglitz told her they were “too frail” to have much impact in his gallery. None of her works sold in her lifetime. “She suffered from extreme self-doubt,” the art curator Ellen Roberts wrote in the catalog for “O’Keeffe, Stettheimer, Torr, Zorach: Women Modernists in New York,” a show on view through Sept. 18 at the Portland Museum of Art in Maine. (It was organized by the Norton Museum of Art in West Palm Beach, Fla., with support from the Portland Museum.)

Ms. Torr died in 1967, after instructing her sister to discard the paintings in the Centerport attic. Instead, her sister entrusted them to the Heckscher Museum, which also owns Mr. Dove and Ms. Torr’s painting tools and supplies. The museum, just a few miles from the cottage, is currently exhibiting still lifes through Aug. 21, including Ms. Torr’s 1930 tableau “Feather and Shell.”

The artists’ cottage in 1938, in Centerport, N.Y. Heckscher Museum of Art
Stephen Mounkhall, a schoolteacher in Scarsdale, N.Y., is finishing a novel based on Mr. Dove and Ms. Torr’s lives. He has trekked the same roads and coastlines that the couple traveled. To maintain their peripatetic existence, Mr. Mounkhall said, Ms. Torr “must have been incredibly flexible.” The book’s title, “Lake Afternoon,” comes from Mr. Dove’s painting of monsters rising from frothy waters.

The curator and art historian Debra Bricker Balken is working on a complete catalog of Mr. Dove’s works, which can bring over $1 million each at auction; Ms. Torr’s works sell for tens of thousands.

Mr. Dove and Ms. Torr also spent time in Geneva, living in the top floor of a brick commercial building that his father had constructed in the 1870s. Before that, the space was used as a roller-skating rink. Legend has it that Mr. Dove roamed the room on roller skates, dabbing his paintbrush at works. Jim L. Spates, a retired sociologist, and Dave Bunnell, a real estate developer, are turning the space into a into a museum that honors the painters’ legacies.

Mr. Spates said that he recently discovered a wall with pencil outlines, which may be ghosts of paintings. The couple’s porcelain enamel bathtub has survived. He has been researching where Mr. Dove and Ms. Torr painted in the region, depicting farmsteads, grain elevators, lakefronts and moonrises.

In Centerport, the pond alongside the cottage is populated with birds. A sign warns drivers to watch out for “Ducks Crossing With Babies!!!” The cottage’s interior is lined with reproductions of maritime paintings by Mr. Dove and Ms. Torr and photos of the building from when it was a post office and store, covered in ads for ice cream, soap and yeast. The attic is draped in cobwebs.

Mr. Schantz said that the cottage would be raised a few feet to prevent flood damage, and missing sections of its porches would be recreated. Visitors can tour it by appointment. Artists can arrange to plant their easels on the lawns and perhaps turn the changing weather patterns into abstract forms.

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