When he was twelve, Dwinell Grant began studying landscape painting with his grandfather. Seeking further traditionaltraining, in 1931 Grant enrolled at the Dayton Art Institute, which he soon discovered had modernist leanings. After a year, he left Dayton to go to New York where he entered the National Academy of Design in 1933. By the time he arrived in New York, he had seen the Bliss collection and had begun thinking along modern lines. Although at the time, he said, his painting had not yet progressed “beyond the pointillist stage.” After five months, he left the National Academy and in 1935 became an instructor in art and director of dramatics at Wittenberg College in Ohio. By this time, Grant’s paintings were nonobjective, and he had come to believe that nonobjectivism “is a part of the earth itself. In creating it we do not say something about something else, but rather we produce a rhythm which is a part of nature’s rhythm and just as deep and fundamental as a heartbeat, a thunderstorm, the sequence of day and night or the growth of a girl into womanhood.… Nature is not something to be commented on, it is something to be.”(1)
At Wittenberg, Grant had little time to paint. His work with student dramatics provided an outlet for his innovative ideas. As the stage set for an experimental, symphonic drama, Grant designed and built a large, nonobjective construction, painted it gray, then lit it with colored lights controlled by dimmer switches. By varying the intensity of the lights, he found he could change the color, and therefore the mood, of the dramatic presentation.(2) Although Grant’s avant-garde ideas soon brought him criticism at Wittenberg, his friends at the Dayton Art Institute encouraged his work, and suggested he write to Hilla Rebay at the Guggenheim Foundation for support.
Rebay quickly became enthusiastic about Grant’s ideas and began sending him a fifteen dollar monthly stipend to help with the cost of materials. She arranged for Solomon Guggenheim to buy two of his drawings, and used several of his paintings in a group exhibition at the Museum of Non-Objective Painting in the summer of 1940.
The Constructivist stage set hadtransformed Grant’s ambitions, and he yearned to make an experimental, nonobjective film. He wrote to Rebay, “I am no prophet. I am simply an artist who sees a neglected beauty that is bursting to be possessed. In the midst of the confusion of nationalistic isms here will be an art that is clean, naked and straightforward. Itwill be barbaric because it will have none of the sickening stupid veneer that civilization has laid on the arts for hundreds of years, but it will not be crude. And it will drive in to the emotions a new depth because of the primitiveness, the directness, and the fundamentalness of its expression.”(3)
With Rebay’s assistance, Grant moved to New York and began working at theGuggenheim. His own art flourished, andbetween 1938 and 1941, he made several experimental films, including “Contrathemis,” an eight-minute, animated production, for which he did some four thousand drawings. In 1942, Grant went to work for a commercial film company and during World War II made navy training films. Soon thereafter, he began doing scientific illustration and making teaching films for the medical profession. Although he continued to paint and draw independently, his career in medical films took precedence, and until the mid 1970s, he exhibited his creative work only on rare occasions.
In New York in the early 1940s, Grant was friendly with John Sennhauser, Jean Xceron, Irene Rice Pereira, and others associated with the Guggenheim Foundation. However, he did not become actively involved with either the American Abstract Artists or other organizations that provided an artistic or political forum for practicing artists. His own vision had developed independently, and although his paintings bear some resemblance to those of Kandinsky, his interest in balance and rhythm grew intuitively rather than as the result of a theoretical searching for new forms of expression.
1. Dwinell Grant, letter to Hilla Rebay, 24 July 1940, Dwinell Grant Papers, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.
2. For Grant’s own description of the stage set and a newspaper clipping about the performance, see Grant’s letter to Hilla Rebay, 5 May 1940, in Grant Papers, Archives of American Art. I am grateful to Marina Pacini and Judy Throm of the Archives staff for their assistance.
3. Dwinell Grant, letter to Hilla Rebay, 5 June 1940, Grant Papers, Archives of American Art.
Virginia M. Mecklenburg The Patricia and Phillip Frost Collection: American Abstraction 1930–1945 (Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press for the National Museum of American Art, 1989)