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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, Nova, 1979.  Magna on canvas, 51 x 115 inches, 129.5 x 292.1 cm.  Courtesy Yares Art.




Gradually, I am getting back into circulation – but so late into the autumn that I have a lot of catching up to do.  Not least among the shows I have managed to see and very much enjoyed was "Friedel Dzubas: Affective Color" at Yares Art (closed November 2).


Like Kenneth Noland, Morris Louis & Helen Frankenthaler, Dzubas (1915-1994) is often classed as a "Color-Field" painter or a "Post-Painterly" abstractionist.  And certainly he was more nearly identified with this group than with any other in the 1960s, when they were best known in the New York art world. 


However, during this period he also belonged more in the category of "adherent" than "innovator." His work in particular evinced a warm admiration for that of Frankenthaler (with whom he had actually been sharing a studio in 1952, when she painted her ground-breaking "Mountains and Sea").


However, at the end of the '60s, Dzubas began moving out of the Big Apple, initially for teaching jobs in upstate New York and then finally settling in Massachusetts.   True, he remained in close contact with his longtime friend, Clement Greenberg, and some hilarious photographs show the two men grinning & clowning together in Ithaca, NY, when Dzubas was teaching there at Cornell.


More importantly, though, this period also saw the artist for the first time developing his own individual and deeply resonant style.


The show at Yares had two fine paintings from this breakthrough moment, aptly titled "First Run" (1972) and "Number One" (1972).  Both are square, simple and composed to dramatize the signature image that Dzubas had developed: bold broad straight or slightly curved swaths of color that modulate as they rise or reach sideways to become progressively paler and more transparent (to one degree or another, showing the underlying white gesso shining through).


Aside from the many rich and varied colors with which Dzubas imbued this stroke, in his many later paintings employing it, I don't see it as "color field," in the '60s sense of the word.  It's not simple and iconic, like vintage Noland or Louis.  And it is definitely not "post-painterly." 


Rather it is very "painterly" or "malerisch" not only as Greenberg but also as Heinrich Wöllflin would have defined the term, meaning more like loose brushwork than precise drawing, with diagonal as opposed to rectilinear compositions, and affinities for the (late) baroque as opposed to the "classical" of the Renaissance.


For these reasons, Dzubas's newest biographer, Patricia L. Lewy, in the monograph whose latest edition has just been published, argues that he should be seen as an independent creator, not a member of any 20th century school or style.


I ran up against this same interpretation of Larry Poons last year, in interviewing Nathaniel Kahn, the director of the movie, "The Price of Everything," that starred Poons.  Kahn got testy when I attempted to get him to say that Poons was associated with "color-field" painting. He wanted his audiences to see Poons as a totally independent artist. 


And when Francine Tint had her show at Cavalier in the spring of 2018, few if indeed any of the reviews she got from out-of-town critics identified her as anything but an independent or an abstract expressionist (the latter being what her Wikipedia entry also says).


By the time I saw this Dzubas show (on October 25) I think it had changed somewhat from opening night (on September 14 -- that happens with successful shows sometimes).  On the other hand, I saw a number of old friends that might not have been there on opening night.  I remember in particular having seen – and admired --"Foen" (1974), "Nebel" (1971), and the monumental "Procession" (1975) in earlier gallery shows.  


After all, I have been following this artist ever since I was bowled over by his 1983 retrospective at the Hirshhorn Museum & Sculpture Garden, organized by Charles Millard


Still, there were some paintings that I couldn't remember having seen before and very much liked, among them "Green Edge" (1973), "Ikarus" (1973), "Other Side" (1980), and above all, "Nova" (1979).  In this last-named picture, what looks like scurrying clouds in front of a sunlit sky are colored (if you could only see them in the flesh) with rich stretches of peach, aqua, olive, chocolate and black. 


Although perfectly abstract and therefore rich in ambiguous imagery, these arching stretches of color also vividly summon up photographs I've seen of the rococo murals of GiambattistaTiepolo and his contemporaries in German palaces and churches, with many angelic or human figures flying against blue skies. This is not a coincidence. Dzubas had visited these monuments and would have been the first to acknowledge them as a source of inspiration to him.

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