Robert Dash was a man with wonderful hands—for writing, for painting, for gardening, for talking, and for petting his beloved Norwich terrier, Barnsley.He was a man with a proper air, a garrulous nature and an intimidating intelligence, often punctuating his winding sentences with a thoughtful “yes” when he wasn’t speaking Latin, Greek or quoting poetry.
He was a man of contradictions—genuinely caring about those he had barely met, hosting parties and guests at his home while keeping his distance, and equally content reading classic literature or experimenting with new plant material, knee-deep in soil.
Mr. Dash knew who he was. There was only one man like him. And there will never be another.
The acclaimed artist and founder of the Madoo Conservancy died on Saturday at his home, nestled in the Sagaponack garden, with Barnsley by his side. He was 82 and had been in failing health; in the end, the cause of death was believed to be an infection.
“He is not the sort of person you could forget,” Madoo Conservancy President Jane Iselin said on Monday during a telephone interview. “If you met him, you would always remember him.”
Born June 8, 1931, in Greenwich Village, Mr. Dash returned to Manhattan in the late 1950s after studying at the University of New Mexico, in part to escape the city. He landed his first art show in 1960 and moved to Montauk soon after. There, he entertained friends and family—including a visit in 1963 from his 13-year-old nephew, Mike. Mr. Dash gave the young boy a quick rundown of the house and introduced him to the dogs. Then he handed him paint and a canvas, and sent him out in a rowboat to have lunch with his neighbor, historian and author Barbara Tuchman—of whom his nephew was a big fan.
“He had this generosity, but at the same time—I’ll never forget—he did it in a way that left me completely on my own as much as I wanted to be,” the younger Mr. Dash remarked on Monday from his home in Seattle, Washington. “He was intensely social, but he was also very private. And it was impossible to be around Bob for more than a couple of minutes without picking up this intensity and passion he had about the world. It was as if he ran on 500 volts when everybody else ran on 110. It’s like he breathed and saw the world as an artist does.”
Despite his natural surroundings on the East End, Mr. Dash—whose first forays into artistic expression were through piano and poetry—never practiced plein air painting, according to Madoo Conservancy Director Alejandro Saralegui. Instead of drawing by the water or out in a field, the self-taught abstract expressionist worked primarily from his vivid imagination and the world he observed around him.
The work secured Mr. Dash one-man shows at major galleries in Europe and the United States, as well as seats in the Museum of Modern Art, the Guggenheim and the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. On October 4, The Drawing Room in East Hampton will exhibit recent works by Mr. Dash, “From Blue Hill Pastels,” through November 4, and a number of his paintings can be found in the Parrish Art Museum’s permanent collection in Water Mill.
“At the moment, we have a lovely landscape on view,” Parrish Art Museum Director Terrie Sultan wrote on Monday in an email. “Daily, I am reminded of his ability to find beauty wherever he looked.”
In the summer of 1966, Mr. Dash saw it in a deceptively small, 1.91-acre swath of tractor turnaround land that happily grew hard, wild meadow grass. It was real estate that, at the time, not one agent expected to sell as residential property, let alone market as the site for a potential garden.
But for the artist, it was the perfect place.
There was no refrigerator, no machinery and no noise. Just kerosene lamps, cocktail parties, romanticism and two historic sheds—now surrounded by a whimsical, organic garden created “blunder by blunder, increment by increment,” Mr. Dash once said, “just as I would a painting”—that he called home for 47 years.
While the artist lived in his summer house, he would often rent out the winter house, traveling to and fro twice a year with just his clothing and a drawing that fellow abstract expressionist Willem de Kooning had given him one year as a birthday gift.
Peter Arnold, president of fashion giant Cynthia Rowley, first rented the winter house 25 years ago, and it wasn’t long before he encountered its owner. “I did find him intimidating on first meeting, because he was such a brilliant guy,” Mr. Arnold said of Mr. Dash on Monday during a telephone interview. “You were really in his thrall as a writer, painter and overall renaissance guy, in terms of his intellect. It was formidable. It took a while to get accustomed to being in his presence.”
After time, he did, thanks to many summer afternoons spent sitting at Mr. Dash’s table drinking wine and talking with him—“or being talked to,” Mr. Arnold laughed—about all matters of life, including baby names. This past summer, Mr. Arnold returned to the garden with his twin 9-year-old daughters, one of whom Mr. Dash had named Liliane.
“He will forever have a place in my heart for that alone,” Mr. Arnold said. “He was a man of another generation. So the fact that I was there with my male partner, that gave Bob a lot of pleasure. I think he loved the idea of that. It was a life that he would probably not have lived himself, but he liked knowing it was possible in this day and age.”
Though Mr. Dash had no children of his own, he forged lifelong impressions on those in his family—first with his nephew, and then, in 2010, with his great-nephew, Nate Bottman. After scouting Columbia University as a graduate school option, he stopped by Madoo to visit with Mr. Dash. And he left with a piece of unexpected advice.
“He told me that when he was starting out as an artist, he moved to New York because that’s where the best artists were, and that’s where you had to go to make it as an artist,” Mr. Bottman recalled on Tuesday in an email. “So I should figure out where ‘New York’ was for mathematicians, and go there.”
Because of that conversation, Mr. Bottman chose Massachusetts Institute of Technology over the University of California at Berkeley. And it was the first and last time the young man ever met his great-uncle.
“Bob clearly cared very much for me and spent most of the day giving me advice and telling me about lessons he’d learned,” Mr. Bottman said. “Bob spoke very directly and wasn’t afraid to speak his mind, so he said some outrageous things sometimes, which are probably too blue for you to print.”
Known to be a difficult dinner companion, Mr. Dash was prone to disagreement at the drop of a hat, Mr. Saralegui said. He often used 400-year-old vocabulary in day-to-day conversation, or, if he couldn’t think of the correct word, he just made one up.
That sensibility also applied to his garden. “Madoo”—which celebrated its 20th anniversary as a public garden last summer and means “my dove” in Old Scottish—is full of inventive moments, most notably the grove of ginkgo trees and boxwood balls that is internationally published and copied everywhere.
“It’s very Bob. It’s his greatest contribution to garden design in the 20th century,” Mr. Saralegui said. “Madoo is ultimately his greatest work of art. He loved the entirety of it. That beautiful life. He’s just a quirky guy satisfied by the simple things in life and just enjoying his dog at his feet.” For many years, he penned a column, “Notes From Madoo,” for The East Hampton Star.
As per his wishes, Mr. Dash’s ashes will soon be scattered over the garden’s clematis and roses, Mr. Saralegui said, and a memorial service will be held in the spring. Barnsley has found a new home not far from Madoo: with Ms. Iselin, in Bridgehampton.
“I just bought him a dog bed and dog toys, and I actually just got back from Madoo,” she said. “I got a shirt that belonged to Bob, so I put the shirt in the dog bed.”
She paused, and continued, “Barnsley will miss him terribly. So will I. There will never be another Bob Dash.”
His spirit will live on in the garden, she said. That is where Robert Dash will be.