Most art historians don't know what to make of Manierre Dawson, a civil engineer credited as the first American abstract painter. But a Penn State professor is attempting to make sense of the artist's seemingly-unrelated professions in a new exhibition.
The exhibition, "Manierre Dawson: Engineer/Artist," will be on display in the Diversity Studies Room of Pattee Library until Jan. 8.
Randy Ploog, an affiliate associate professor of art history, has researched the artist for 15 years. He's interested in the fact that although Dawson's style resembles European Modernism, his work predates that of prominent modernists of his time. Ploog theorizes that Dawson was influenced not by Europe, but by his own engineering background.
"An art historian's first inclination is to connect Dawson back to Europe," said Ploog, Class of 1996. "But it was impossible for him to know of European artists when he came out with his paintings. Historians haven't known how to explain him, so he's been neglected."
Years after composing a dissertation on the same topic, Ploog compiled his research onto a series of panels analyzing the influences behind Dawson's paintings. The exhibition also includes a 20-minute DVD further explaining Ploog's theory and artifacts contributed by Penn State's College of Engineering.
Ploog's research of Dawson's artwork began with a look into his curriculum as a civil engineering student at Chicago's Armour Institute, now the Illinois Institute of Technology, in the early 1900s. Ploog said he found out what courses Dawson took and what textbooks he used at the time, eventually determining that the progressions of Dawson's engineering education and his artistic endeavors were parallel.
"For art historians, this means that you never know where your research is going to take you," he said. "For artists, it means that you never know where your inspiration is going to come from."
The exhibition can be seen as two separate, simultaneous showcases -- while the panels draw connections between Dawson's artwork and his engineering schooling, the Penn State artifacts reflect the history of the College of Engineering.
David Faulds, engineering laboratories supervisor at the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, personally collected and saved antiquated equipment for about a decade, along with pictures of the college and anecdotes preserved through alumni letters.
Catherine Grigor, the manager of public relations and marketing for Penn State's University Libraries, said such artifacts and the complementing panels attract both engineers and artists alike.
"The exhibition shows how abstraction works, how mathematical drawings can be morphed into paintings," she said.
Ploog said he hopes to have his exhibition featured at other art galleries of engineering schools, but explained most engineering schools don't have art galleries. Although the exhibition has a space at Penn State, Grigor said she is concerned it still is not getting the attention it deserves.
"It's a shame that many people don't know about it," she said.