December 01, 1998

John Dubrow’s Painterly Hand: It’s unmistakably American in candor and command, light and imagery
by Hilton Kramer


One of the ways in which the contemporary art scene has improved in recent years—there are, of course, a great many ways in which it hasn’t improved—is the freedom that younger painters now enjoy in exploring what might be called the more traditional ambitions of the pictorial medium. Although we are still treated to a lot of blather in high places about art that is said to be “cutting edge:” or “transgressive” or otherwise revolutionary, there is no longer any stigma attached to traditional artistic pursuits. Everyone knows that there is no authentic avant-garde today, that the very idea of contemporary avant-garde is now a self-evident contradiction, if not outright hype—even though there is no shortage of critics and curators who, out of a nostalgia of the good old days of avant-garde uproar, persist in pretending otherwise. 

The recovery of pictorial tradition is not something easily obtained, however. It requires, in addition to raw talent, the skill, patience, convictions, and whatever is the opposite of the instant gratification that late 20th-century urban life and culture tends to discourage. It requires something else, too—a keen understanding of artistic precedent and the ways in which it can be made to illuminate contemporary experience. 

In this respect, I have been much impressed by the recent paintings of John Dubrow, an American artist trained in London and San Francisco who, at the age of 40, has lately produced a number of works that do indeed address the traditional ambitions of the pictorial medium with some notable success. In an exhibition earlier this season at the Salander-O’Reilly Galleries, in New York, Dubrow’s principal subject was New York City itself—a daunting challenge, to be sure, but one that the artists has approached with the requisite confidence, energy, and intelligence. 

Dubrow’s New York is, in its every pictorial detail—and these are paintings that abound in rich depictive detail—a recognizably late 20th century subject. Nothing could be more up-to-date, in fact, than his aerial views of Manhattan seen from a temporary studio atop one of the towers of the World Trade Center. At ground level, too, the myriad figures that populate the vast panoramic scene in “Prospect Park” (1994-98) are similarly recognizable as late 20th-century American types. While the conceptions of this painting, which is 12 feet wide and 7 feet tall, may recall to us Seurat’s “Grande Jatte,” the picture itself is unmistakably American in the character of its imagery, the quality of its light, and in the candor of its painterly command. 

The French critic Félix Fénéon said of the “Grande Jatte,” when it was first exhibited in 1886, that it was “like a Puvis de Chavannes gone modern,” and one might similarly say of Dubrow’s “Prospect Park” that it is like a Seurat gone late 20th-century American. The figures in this painting are younger, less bourgeois, more relaxed. Their clothes are straight from the Gap and Banana Republic. Their bodies are more athletic. Even their many pet dogs have a late 20th-century insouciant sociability. The painterly factor, while scrupulous in its attention to nuances of light, space, and color, is likewise freer in the air that it breathes and more physically assertive in the feeling it conveys. Yet we are never in doubt as to what the painting owes to a pictorial tradition that long antedates its creation. 

It says something, too, about Dubrow’s scrupulousness as an artist that this latest version of Prospect Park is actually a revision of a picture that was exhibited once before as a finished work. Clearly he felt he hadn’t gotten the painting quite right the first time around, and so he went back to work on it—a practice we hear little about on the current scene. 

Dubrow’s aerial views of Manhattan are no less ambitious than his Prospect Park painting, but they represent a different kind of pictorial challenge. In an essay for the catalogue accompanying the show at Salander-O’Reilly, Mario Naves compared these paintings to “a cubist still life,” and the comparison is particularly apt in regard to the first of these pictures—the 1997 World Trade Center, View of Manhattan, in which the buildings occupying the island of Manhattan are rendered as distinct blocky objects crowding a tabletop tipped up almost, but not quite, to the top edge of the picture. The other two views of Manhattan are more open and landscape-like in their spatial reach, especially the “View of East River” (1997), where Brooklyn fades in the distance under a pale sky. 

This is all very lively painting that avoids the picturesque in favor of a bold painterly structure. As Naves wrote of these pictures, “The blocky density of the vista is matched by the painting’s emphatic brushwork.” He wrote, too, of the “punctuations of paint” that “demarcate depth and location,” and it is indeed for a virtuosic handling of an immense pictorial space that these paintings are so remarkable. 

I think these paintings recall us, too, to certain artistic precedents. As our eyes traverse the painterly terrain composed of bold patches of pigment in the “World Trade Center” pictures. I am reminded of the series of paintings that Camille Pissarro devoted to the Paris cityscape in the 1890s. Up close, those Paris paintings look like illegible accretions of painterly touches, yet from across the room they reveal themselves to be totally persuasive in their depiction of a commanding space. Something similar happens in our experience of Dubrow’s city paintings, which honor artistic precedent ever as they illuminate contemporary experience.