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Report from the Front

Art criticism, sometimes with context, occasional politics. New shows: "events;" how to support the online edition: "works."



FRIEDEL DZUBAS, "Northdrift", 1959. Oil on canvas, 19 x 38 inches. 'Friedel Dzubas' (lower left); signed, titled and inscribed 'DZUBAS /"NORTHDRIFT." Courtesy of Loretta Howard Gallery.
The current show at Loretta Howard is “Friedel Dzubas: Gestural Abstraction” (through April 21). It reminds me of an important article written by Clement Greenberg in 1947. Called “The Present Prospects of American Painting and Sculpture,” this article appeared in the British magazine Horizon.

In it, Greenberg reported that America had two artists worthy of international recognition, Jackson Pollock & David Smith. However, this didn’t satisfy him.

“The art of no country,” he wrote, “can live and perpetuate itself exclusively on spasmodic feeling, high spirits and the infinite subdivision of sensibility.”

He longed for a “bland, large, balanced Apollonian art in which passion does not fill in the gaps left by the faulty or omitted application of theory but takes off from where the most advanced theory stops, and in which an intense detachment informs all.”

In this longing for the Apollonian, Greenberg was taking a leaf from Nietzsche, who had contrasted the Apollonian and Dionysian modes of culture in “The Birth of Tragedy.” These two modes were named after the Greek god of the sun, and Greek god of wine and the dance.

Apollo, the sun god, stood for rational thinking and order, while Dionysus stood for irrationality, chaos and appeals to emotions and instincts.

It would appear that to Greenberg, not only Pollock and Smith, but also the seven or eight other people in America in 1947 whose “tentatives” he considered “promising,” were still stuck in a Dionysian phase, with its emphasis on chaos, emotions and instincts.

That is not such a bad way to describe abstract expressionism in the 1940s and more especially the 1950s, a decade when the agitated gesturalism of Willem de Kooning ruled the roost, and fleets of second-generation abstract expressionists were following his example.

And this period in the career of one of Greenberg’s closest friends is the one that is featured at Loretta Howard in her Dzubas exhibition.

According to its press release, “The exhibition focuses on eight pivotal early works spanning the 1950’s and early 1960’s. A common thread among these oils is Dzubas’s expressive brushstroke.”

This bravura brushwork, argues Patricia I. Lewy, author of the forthcoming monograph on Dzubas, “extended into his future production….[and] would come to define his future paintings to extraordinary effect.”

All very well, but as I see it, Dzubas still had a long way to go before he achieved his mature style in the 1970s, and that serene mature style is a lot closer to the large, bland and balanced Apollonian mode than it is to his emotional, not say chaotic Dionysian mode of the 1950s.

Much as I admire Dzubas, I have to say that I think this exhibition shows him at least as much in the process of becoming as it does in the act of being: while often exciting, it is sometimes (to use Greenberg’s words) overly marked by passion used to fill in the gaps between faulty or omitted application of theory.

Put another way, the paint application is sometimes uneven, and the quality of works on view a bit uneven as well.

The best painting from this period in the show is “Northdrift” (1959), a relatively small one right at the entrance with sky-blue starting near the center and enhanced by black, green and yellow. All the paint in this picture, while quite heavy, lies equally upon the canvas and contributes to a crisp, perfectly finished look.

Other pieces didn’t come off as well -- especially “Over the Hill” (1957), the big one facing the entrance, with the paint so heavily laid on that it cakes unevenly at the center. One thinks sadly of the over-done precedents being created by de Kooning and his fans during this period.

Still, the smaller untitled Dzubas from 1956 that hangs over the reception desk, while dark in colors – mostly blacks and browns with touches of blue, green, red and yellow -- suggests Helen Frankenthaler’s lighter touch of letting thinned layers of paint sink into the canvas and manages to come off a good deal better.

Another fair example of Dzubas’s more successful images during this period would be “Moonhunt”’ (1958), a tall vertical with a brown thicket in the center, mustard sunrise back behind and some blue triangles and splotches at the bottom.

Or the untitled one from 1957 with wild areas of black and blue over green that reminded me of a big dog with a water bowl in front of him.

In the end, however, the only other painting on the checklist that really enchanted me was “Orono Tondo,” a small circular painting in a square frame from the early 1970s.

With its far gentler, much more serene brushwork and muted colors, it didn’t try as hard as the earlier examples. After all, the artist had finally achieved mastery – upon entering into his Apollonian phase.

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