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.