January 20, 2005

John Dubrow at Lori Bookstein
by Maureen Mullarkey


Representational painters, particularly figurative ones, inhabit a distinct world within the larger, ever-shifting art scene. They comprise a culture, one aware of its position askance of reigning fashions. They share a sense of collective purpose, recognition of common antecedents, and an unapologetic love of what Kenyon Cox termed “the classic point of view.” 

Within that culture, John Dubrow is something of an unofficial standard bearer for his generation, and so it is a pleasure to have his paintings back in the city. When he moved his studio to Paris in August 2003, something essential fell from New York painting circles. I expect every serious painter around will see this show at Lori Bookstein Fine Art. They will come, as before, to inspect the quality of paint handling by an artist fluent in every aspect of representation, from landscape and cityscape to the architecture of the human figure. 

This time there is an added frisson: curiosity about Mr. Dubrow’s decamping to Paris, his subsequent about-face, and his surprising decision to leave blue-chip Salander-O’Reilly, with its imposing Old Master exhibitions, for a more personal relationship with Ms. Bookstein. Exiting Parnassus for 57th Street is riskier than leaving Williamsburg for the 3rd Arrondissement. But at Bookstein’s, the artist will no longer be competing for recognition with Tintoretto. 

Mr. Dubrow’s move abroad began auspiciously, at the prompting of Marc Fumaroli, an influential member of the Academie Française. Impressed by the artist’s last show at Salander, he invited the artist to exhibit in Paris just as the lease was up on Mr. Dubrow’s longtime studio. The artist was packing anyway; why not unpack in France? Despite introductions to leading galleries he met Gallic resistance to representation, even to painting itself. 

Convinced that painting was deader than Dieu, Parisian gallery-keeps (“Pompidou Mafia” in Mr. Dubrow’s phrase), on cue from the rue du Renard, were guarded against anything that crossed their installation/conceptual Maginot Line. In New York, recurring news of the death of painting is greeted gleefully as an excuse for resurrecting it. “But in France,” Mr. Dubrow explains, “it somehow stayed dead. Perhaps artists were intimidated by the history of painting; or maybe they naïvely believed the art magazines.” Creative isolation, aggravated by health and language difficulties, triggered a return to New York. 

The decision was abrupt, and his Paris canvases had to be finished on this side of the Atlantic. He was still painting them as the show was being hung. There is a cool to them, which has less to do with Parisian light than with sangfroid. If Paris kept its distance from Mr. Dubrow, he returned the formality with a detachment of his own. 

Compare the muted harmonies and pared down, anonymous forms of the Parisian street scenes with the livelier color play and more individuated foreground figures of “Prince and Broadway” (2002-3). Color chords are narrower and tones are adjusted with a broader, more casual, sweep in these latest painting. It is as if Parisian realities sparked involuntary withdrawal from the acquired pictorial subtleties that bind him to French painting. They encouraged, instead, a reassertion of his origins in Bay Area figuration. This is an intriguing shift for a painter who spent hours every week at the Louvre with Poussin. 

The chill is palpable in “Self-Portrait, Paris” (2004), begun in his studio in the Marais. Unlike painters’ traditional views of themselves, the image disconcerts. Rejecting attributes of the artist at work—the easel’s edge, a brush of palette in hand—he stands with arms hanging at his sides, immobilized. The figure is locked into the picture plane by the vertical of an open doorway and a V-shaped floor line that clamps the artist like a vise. Hands are covered with gloves, prophylactic against pigment and the hazards of painting. By the door stands an undefined tan rectangle, probably a flat box but suggesting a valise. It is the portrait of a man in stasis. Or in exile. 

Also on view is the ravishing “Westbeth Roof” (2001), lovely in coloration and rigorous in construction. “Tel Aviv” (2000) is a luminous scan across the tops of homes and shops. Both paintings build on the established diagonal—dramatic in the first, more indirect in the second—that is so useful in drawing the eye into the composition. Both are incandescent, shimmering with the heat of the sun and the vitality of the paint manipulation. Smaller paintings included “Interior” (2003-4), a hieratic view of subway riders, which the artist returned to after it was last exhibited, heightening and refining. Smaller Parisian streetscapes, of the 2ème and 10ème, complete the ensemble. 

Mr. Fumaroli’s catalog essay is more fulsome than helpful—a kiss on all four cheeks. It gives a clue, indirectly, to what tortuous complexities await an American in Paris. Back in New York, John Dubrow resumes his place in the conversation between a community of painters and the long durée of painting. It is a welcome return.