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Report from the Front

Art criticism, sometimes with context, occasional politics. Published in hard copy 2-4 times a year. New shows: "events;" hard copy rates & how to support the online edition: "works."

 

FRIEDEL DZUBAS: A TALE OF TWO GALLERIES

Friedel Dzubas, Chenango, 1973. Acrylic (Magna) on canvas, 46 x 172 inches. Courtesy Loretta Howard Gallery.
Sometimes an artist is too big for one gallery. Take Friedel Dzubas, currently featured at Loretta Howard in Chelsea and Elkon on the Upper East Side. Each exhibition offers a different aspect of Dzubas—and both fit right into their neighborhoods.

In a nutshell, Chelsea values process, while the Upper East Side digs serenity. Dzubas, though he died in 1994, was – and remains – able to excel in both.

The occasion for both exhibitions is the centenary of the birth of the artist—who was born in 1915, only three years after Jackson Pollock and the year before Robert Motherwell. However, unlike them, he didn’t begin to attract a following until the 1960s, and didn’t achieve his own grandly Olympian style until the 1970s.

Hence, he really belongs to the second generation of abstract expressionists, contemporary or even junior to Helen Frankenthaler, Kenneth Noland, Morris Louis & Jules Olitski, in terms of achieving esthetic maturity.

And hence, the two exhibitions are entitled, “Friedel Dzubas: Paintings of the 1960s,” at Elkon (through May 29) and “Epic Abstraction: Friedel Dzubas in the 1970s” at Loretta Howard (through May 9).

BEGINNINGS

Politics had much to do with Dzubas’s late flowering, for he was born in Berlin, Germany, while World War I was still raging. He was the son of a clothing designer and textile factory manager and his wife.

By the time the future artist was in his teens, the Nazis had ascended to power and the outlook was for war. An ardent (if somewhat mystical) Catholic with left-wing political allegiances, Friedel had no wish to serve in Hitler’s army.

In August 1939 – the week before the Nazis invaded Poland, and World War II officially began---he fled to London. There he briefly stayed with an uncle, then progressed by stages to Canada and the U.S.

Although his gymnasium (high school) drawing teacher praised his drawings, he had had little or no further formal artistic education. He’d known he wanted to become an artist, but his father would only apprentice him to a business firm of decorative painters.

However, after working in New York as a house painter and occasional busboy, Friedel got a job designing magazines for Ziff-Davis Publishing in Chicago.

He was beginning to learn more about painting beyond the German Expressionists and Romantics he’d become familiar with in Berlin—although, at the same time, these German influences were to stay deep within him.

In Chicago, he moved with a circle of intellectuals who introduced him to Partisan Review. There he read articles by Clement Greenberg, being impressed but unable to make head or tail of them.

THEN, ENTERING THE ARENA….

After World War II ended in 1945, Dzubas came back to New York, determined to make his way in the world of fine art, but with enough experience in commercial design so that he could support himself by freelance assignments in that.

He also started reading Commentary, and one day in 1948, read an ad saying “Commentary editor looking for summer home for a period of about six weeks, preferably relatively close to New York.”

As he had just rented an old farmhouse in Redding, Connecticut, he answered the ad. It turned out to have been placed by Greenberg, so Greenberg sublet part of the house, and the two men became excellent friends.

This friendship was to endure to the ends of their lives -- helped out, no doubt, by the fact that they were only six years apart in age. To Dzubas, Greenberg was always more like an older brother than the father-figure he was to become to artists born in the 1920s or even later.

Through Greenberg, Dzubas met not only Greenberg’s colleagues on Partisan Review, but also Greenberg’s editor at The Nation, Margaret Marshall, and the first-generation abstract expressionists whom Greenberg had written about, from Pollock and de Kooning through to Rothko and beyond.

In 1951, Dzubas even met Frankenthaler (Greenberg’s new lady-friend). She and Dzubas were sharing a studio on West Twenty-Third Street when in 1952 she painted “Mountains and Sea.”

“Mountains and Sea” is often said to be the first “stain painting,” and there’s no doubt that it profoundly affected Louis and Noland, when Greenberg took them to see it. However, Dzubas may also have been using a stain technique before 1952.

Certainly, although he had three solo exhibitions in the 1950s (with Tibor de Nagy, Leo Castelli, and French & Co.), his work continued to look throughout the decade much like Frankenthaler’s stain paintings, with variously colored, vigorously overwrought splotches, splats and smears.

NEXT, PROGRESSING TO THE SERENITY OF THE 60’S…..

As Dzubas entered the new decade, he acquired a new dealer, Robert Elkon. Elkon died in 1983 at the age of 55; the gallery is now run by his widow, Dorothea McKenna Elkon. Its current exhibition – featuring six of Dzubas’s paintings from the 1960s—speaks of a laid-back, luxury-loving world where beauty for its own sake was (and I like to think still is) not an embarrassment to be apologized for but a pleasure to be enjoyed.

The six paintings on view hang comfortably in a single large square rear room on the second floor of a handsome old town house. They share the space with two deeply-cushioned, very comfortable love seats, a fireplace with an ornately-carved marble mantelpiece and bay windows giving out onto neatly cultivated backyard greenery.

Not even a receptionist’s motions and noises interfere with one’s contemplation here. The reception desk is located at the front of the building, and on the day that I saw this show, the windows were open, making the only sound that disturbed my tranquility the faint chirping of birds. True, we were only on the Upper East Side, but we could have been miles in the country.

Even these six paintings give a good idea of Dzubas’s progress in the 1960s. Occasionally, as can be seen in “Eden” (1964), he merely recapitulated his Hellenistic ‘50s (“Eden” is also the title of a great and very well-known Frankenthaler painting from 1956).

More importantly, in the early ‘60s, he purified his art by passing through a sequence of all-black paintings. Two small examples of these are here, both from 1961; one is entitled “After Hours” and the other, untitled. Though they still utilize a stain technique, their slashing blacks and grays on an all-white canvas make them distinctive.

Yet more distinctive are the three larger and slightly later paintings on view, all about 7 feet high and 6 feet wide. Here the artist has evidently abandoned the stain technique altogether. By applying a gesso primer before laying on his paints, he has been able to keep his colors on the surface of the canvas and independent of each other.

The result is just a few large, simple, often oval and deceptively bland shapes on each canvas, laid next to each other and subtly complementing one another in their colors—none of which are loud and domineering. “Tender” and “mellow” would be more like it.

“Nouveau” (1965) is the least successful, as its large tan shapes overwhelm both the surrounding white space, and smaller areas of blue, ruby- red and two shades of green.

“Azure” (1962) is much better, not least because of its simplicity. It’s dominated by a large, jaunty area of aqua, set in the upper center of a big white field, and with just a dashing small peach horizontal comma of color at the bottom.

Most ambitious and best is “Many Parts” (1962). At its center is a large commanding blue-gray shape, surrounded by other, more submissive shapes floating on the white field in from the edges of the canvas toward the center. A couple of these shapes are yellow, but one is lime-colored, one is tan and the one at the bottom is blue.

Altogether, the message of these three canvases in particular is quite simple: peace. The 1960s were not a peaceful era. Paintings such as these afforded temporary escape into an empyrean zone that allowed their viewers to return, refreshed and reinvigorated, to the tensions and conflicts of daily life.

To use a 60s term, they were the "r & r" of the art world--playing a role that can still be welcome today.

FINALLY, A MATURE EMPHASIS ON PROCESS, IN THE EPIC ‘70s

Although Dzubas had developed into his own person in the 1960s, it wasn’t until around 1972 that he achieved his most creative and original look. In that year, he painted a picture known as “Number One,” and it may well be the one that he considered his “breakthrough” painting.

“Number One” employs a device that was to become his signature, a way of presenting bold rectangular slabs of color that feather off into paler and paler shades at one end of them, until they disappear.

It’s a powerful device, one that dramatizes the richness of the color and the dynamism of the forms. With the coming of peace in the 70s, Dzubas became once again willing to deal with high drama in his paintings. He was to continue in this vein for the rest of his life – in canvases that often (though far from always) got bigger and bigger and bigger.

(He used to say that he liked to “lose” himself in them.)

Four of these huge, Olympian canvases, eleven of the small colored acrylic sketches or modelli that preceded them --- and copious documentation of the painstaking process that went into creating one from the other—constitute the subject of the exhibition in Chelsea at Loretta Howard.

It couldn’t be more appropriate for a busy neighborhood frequented by large numbers of artists and younger art-lovers, many of whom are eager to study “process” nowadays.

For some members of this audience, the Howard show’s emphasis on process may help them to develop their own techniques.

For others, it is simply “process” for its own sake that is much admired. Indeed, for some of these gallery-goers, the process may be even more important than the result.

Whatever the reason, the Loretta Howard show is rich in the type of resources helpful to study an artist’s process.

For one thing, instead of birds chirping we have a little video screen, with the artist explaining himself and his work.

For another, a large vitrine contains many materials documenting the multiple processes used by Dzubas between 1973 and 1975 to create “Crossing (Apocalypsis Cum Figuras, A. D. 1975).”

“Crossing,” measuring 13½ feet by 57½ feet, was commissioned by Lewis Cabot’s Artcounsel, Inc. to decorate the Shawmut Bank of Boston. Some observers have called it the largest abstract painting in the world.

Included with the processes presented in the vitrine is an extended text block by Patricia Lewy Gidwitz, a younger art historian and Mozart scholar working on a book about the artist. In her text block, she outlines the whole procedure—starting from the color tests and modelli, moving on through a scale study in red crayon, charcoal and graphite, and the techniques used to transfer the colors to the larger scale of the painting, then winding up with photographs showing Dzubas actually at work.

The Lewy Gidwitz statement concludes with a quotation from Wes Frantz, Dzubas’s studio assistant from 1980 to 1987. It points out that even in the process of translating one of these small modelli into a finished painting, Dzubas was still improvising – at least, to the extent that he would change, embellish, or eliminate details in the process.

“With Friedel’s painting the devil was in the details,” Frantz is quoted as saying. “If you compare closely a small sketch to a large painting, the large painting will have all the details that the small ones don’t. And it’s in those details that Friedel sought his identity.”

In case anybody doubts this, the most absorbing part of the show may be the opportunity to compare one of the four huge paintings, “Procession” (1975), with “Procession (sketch)” (1975), one of the eleven small modelli, that is also on view.

“Procession (sketch)” measures just 13 x 31 inches, while “Procession” measures 10 x 25 feet, yet both retain a similar lightness and airiness.

Both large and small pictures combine two rows of multicolored vertical bars on the right-hand side of the canvas with broader, softer, horizontal or vaguely diagonal shapes on the left, but if you compare the two versions, you can see, especially on the left side of the two images, how the forms in the larger one have been altered slightly, and rendered more crisply, with greater detail.

That said, several of the other ten small sketches – although measuring no more than 6 x 6—come off better as works in themselves than the sketch for “Procession.”

Although all are almost equally ingratiating, the most accomplished are “Inca (sketch)” (1975), “Juncture (sketch)” (1978), and “Westerly Sketch”(1973).

Again, although the large "Procession" is memorable for its basis in the smaller sketch, the other three large paintings are even more memorable in themselves.

The earliest, “Nebel” (1971), measures 7 x 16 feet, and predates the full development of the feathered stroke. Although it has pats of color scattered up top and down below, it's mostly a pale, cloudy field that justifies its title: Nebel means "mist" or "fog" in German.

Facing it, across the back gallery at Loretta Howard, is "Foen" (1974), measuring 7 x 17 feet, and, as befits its title, somewhat more ominous in tone. The Foen (in Switzerland especially) means a sometimes treacherous warm spring wind, and in this painting, lowering bolts of brown and purple on the upper part of the canvas crush down upon brighter lime and blue.

Best, though, is "Chenango" (1973), which hangs in the front gallery, and writhes throughout the length of its majestic 4 x 14-foot canvas with bold, magical bolts of dark greens on the left, and dark reds on the right.

Most of Greenberg's friends will recognize the title of this painting at Loretta Howard. It refers to the road in upstate Norwich NY where he had a house in the 1970s and 1980s, but only at Elkon can you see three hilarious photographs of him and Dzubas clowning around and mugging for the camera in nearby Ithaca NY, sometime around 1970, when Dzubas was teaching at Cornell.
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