Oil on board
Framed: 54.6 x 44.5 x 5.1 cm (21 1/2 x 17 1/2 x 2 in.); Unframed: 40.7 x 31.8 cm (16 x 12 1/2 in.)
Mr. and Mrs. William H. Marlatt Fund 2001.123
Differential Complex is one of seven pure abstractions Dawson created in 1910. It represents a major breakthrough in Western art, one of the first occasions in which an artist rejected representation and created a purely abstract composition. Dawson's works predate the paintings that are generally mentioned in art history textbooks as the world's first pure abstractions: the paintings created later in that same year by Arthur Dove (1880–1946) in Westport, Connecticut, and Wassily Kandinsky (1866–1944) in Munich, Germany. Dawson seems to have absorbed the idea of abstract design through exposure to the work of Arthur Wesley Dow (1857–1922) in his high school art classes. In addition, he seems to have read books by Denman Ross, particularly Ross's A Theory of Pure Design, which proposed creating non-representational forms of art. Dawson's mathematical training and his work as an engineer also influenced his developments. Indeed, his early abstractions often suggest mathematical diagrams laid out on a blackboard. The radical geometric simplifications of Chicago architecture were another influence, as was the engineer's practice of thinking of structure in terms of invisible forces.
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