Robert Dash

Painter, Poet, and Gardener
Robert Dash
Durell Godfrey

    Robert W. Dash, a painter, poet, and extraordinary gardener, died after a long illness at Madoo, his home in Sagaponack, on Saturday. He was 82.

    The buildings and gardens at Madoo were unique visions, “quirky and surprising,” like Mr. Dash himself, in the words of a friend, Claudia Thomas, a Madoo board member. “Bob and Madoo are part of the old Sagaponack,” she said, and the garden captures and preserves the sense of a world that is rapidly vanishing. That is not to say Madoo will not evolve. “Our task is to maintain and expand what he’s created in a way that he would want it done.”

    Mr. Dash will be remembered for many achievements, but he was dear to The Star’s readers for his long-running bimonthly columns, “Notes From Madoo,” which were collected in book form by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in 2000. Ruminating on anything from the winter doldrums to fairies, plants, weather, months of the year, and gardeners he admired, the spontaneous and free-form associations poured forth as if he were speaking to a learned friend or a kindred spirit.

    Writing was just one of his pastimes, developed over a lifetime. He was born in New York City on June 8, 1931, to Emanuel Dash, an insurance executive, and Shirley Nisinson Dash. Due to illness, he was home-schooled as a child and, spending many hours by himself, developed interests in painting, poetry, and music that would continue throughout his life.

    He graduated from the University of New Mexico with a bachelor’s degree in ethnology and literature. Returning to Manhattan in the mid-1950s, he became an editor for Noonday Press and an art critic for Arts and Art News while he took up painting at night. It was at this time that he came to know the poets James Schuyler, John Ashbery, Frank O’Hara, Douglas Crase, and Barbara Guest, as well as the painter Fairfield Porter, all of whom became lifelong friends. In 1961, the first solo exhibition of his work was presented at the Kornblee Gallery.

    In 1974, he told an interviewer for the Archives of American Art’s oral history program that “the nice thing about painting is you don’t have words. It is just what it is. Take it or leave it. That is what I meant before about a more relaxed attitude about art in general. It is gratuitous, and I think one is very privileged if one has the talent and desire to do it.”

    Mr. Dash purchased the land that would become Madoo, meaning “My Dove” in Old Scot, in 1967. He began rearranging the historic 18th and 19th century buildings, renovating them and creating a summer house, where he died, as well as a winter house. Both have courtyards where plants were nurtured and fluorescent-lit studios where he painted.

    The unique and whimsical gardens at Madoo evolved from the houses outward. He created trees out of privet hedges, meadows with ornamental grasses, an Elizabethan-style knot garden from cuttings of a single boxwood shrub. A simple bridge over a manmade pond was turned into a Chinese structure with the addition of a pagoda-style roof.

    For the past two decades, the property has been deeded to the Madoo Conservancy, with Mr. Dash as lifetime tenant. The conservancy is charged with study, preservation, and enhancement of Madoo. The title to Mr. Dash’s decorative arts collections, artwork by his contemporaries, and extensive garden library in addition to his own paintings and drawings have now been transferred to the conservancy. 

    Jane Iselin, the president of Madoo’s board, said Mr. Dash left a document detailing his wishes for the site’s future management. “It was exquisitely written and about the spirit of the place, not specific plans, but that someone would have to carry on its spirit. He wrote ‘a garden is not preserved in amber.’ You can’t be unrealistic in stopping time.”

    Alejandro Saralegui, Madoo’s executive director, said some of the ideas they had contemplated for the future included exhibitions in the studios and even artist residencies since the property can sleep six.

    According to the conservancy, one of Mr. Dash’s greatest contributions to 20th century garden design was his Gingko Grove; “a sculptural stand of fastigiate gingkos with box balls planted among the trees.” The gardens were influenced by Rosemary Verey, a friend whose own gardens at Barnsley House in Gloucestershire inspired his laburnum arbor and frog fountain. Mr. Dash named his dog Barnsley with affection.

    “Bob was an artist in the studio and the garden, an irreverent debunker of pretension, and one of the most cultured and elegant writers around,” Sheridan Sansegundo, the longtime arts editor of The Star, who retired in 2007, said.

    Yesterday, she recalled her first visit to Madoo: “Coming from an English gardening tradition, where paintwork is, at its boldest, a timorous celadon, where yellow flowers are avoided, and where one would rather have slugs in the garden than dahlias or gladioli,” Madoo’s “bright chartreuse and purple gates, its exuberant, untamed plantings, its globes of box, like something from ‘Alice in Wonderland,’ opened my eyes to color in the garden like a thunderclap.”

    Mr. Dash painted landscapes inspired by his South Fork surroundings, but they were taken from memory primarily, although he dabbled in realism as well, creating a group of paintings for the Chesebrough-Ponds company with recognizable settings from Bridgehampton and Sagaponack.

    His work is in the collections of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, the Brooklyn Museum, and the Yale University Art Gallery, among others.

    Mr. Dash’s archives of poetry, manuscripts, and letters were acquired in 2010 by the Beineke Library at Yale. They included rare items such as a poetry painting from a series that Mr. Dash created with his friend James Schuyler.

    An exhibition of Mr. Dash’s pastels from 2011 to 2013 will open at the Drawing Room, an East Hampton gallery, on Oct. 4. His ashes will be scattered in the garden, which is now closed for the season. A memorial gathering is to be held at Madoo in the spring, and memorial contributions have been suggested to the Madoo Conservancy, Sagaponack 11962. He had no immediate survivors.