February 07, 2005

John Dubrow’s Noble Pursuit: A Commitment to Tradition
by Mario Naves


Marc Fumaroli is a tease. In his catalog essay accompanying the exhibition of John Dubrow paintings at Lori Bookstein Fine Art, the esteemed professor of French literature and art theory mentions that two of the “oldest of today’s painter-painters” are men possessed of “grandeur,” “intelligence, energy and defiance.” He admires them deeply “for imposing among us, with the formidable authority of patriarchs, as a counter-current the living nobility of an art whose memory they at least in part embody.” 

But before you even get a chance to ponder who he's talking about, Professor Fumaroli shows them the door. “They don't move me,” he writes. They “belong to the contemporary they resist, whose most characteristic trait is a complete rejection of pleasure.” Whereupon he waxes enthusiastic about Mr. Dubrow, positing him as an alternative to the “deservedly famous” painters he feels no need to name. 

Well, I’m sorry: He does need to name them, if only to stop the rest of us from furrowing our brows in puzzlement. Who are these two painters? My best guess would be Lucian Freud and Leon Kossoff, or maybe Frank Auerbach. Messrs. Freud, Kossoff and Auerbach are logical choices because of their commonality of purpose. A deep-seated commitment to the art of painting; an abiding respect for the appearance of things, not least the figure; a passion for the tactility, fleshiness and firmness of oils—these characteristics, shared by Mr. Dubrow, are useful markers of comparison. 

They’re useful markers of distinction, too. In the end, the sole reason Mr. Dubrow offers a symmetrical counterpoint to the above-named painters lies in the quality of the pictures. Here I’m inclined to cut Professor Fumaroli some slack: Mr. Freud and Mr. Kossoff (if that is, in fact, who we’re talking about here) can’t cut the standard set by Mr. Dubrow. The Bookstein exhibition, which juxtaposes four recent canvases created in Paris with a handful of earlier New York pictures, offers a superlative opportunity to view the work of a painter of huge ambition, considerable gifts and an unassuming—indeed, self-effacing—demeanor. 

The last attribute is by no means the least. Mr. Dubrow’s significance as an artist lies, I believe, in his constitutional inability to showboat. His obligation to the rich and varied tradition of painting is palpable. The impastoed surfaces tell the story: They are dense with reflection. Painting is, for Mr. Dubrow, a rigorous dialogue between material and image, between aesthetic coherence and the changeability of life. This give-and-take can be relentless; I’m told that Mr. Dubrow still continues to work on some of the Bookstein canvases during off-hours, seeking to bring them to a state of rightness. Obsession would seem to pervade such efforts, yet the paintings themselves are never burdened by the quirks of personality. They take a steely pride in their independence. 

Mr. Dubrow’s deepening strengths as a painter are evident in “Self-Portrait, Paris” (2004), and one would hardly think it possible. After all, it shares space with “Prince and Broadway” (2002), a terse and haunting portrait of post-9/11 New York that would be the capstone for the life’s work of any other painter. Not for Mr. Dubrow. Self-Portrait, Paris isn’t as epochal as the earlier canvas—my lord, how could it be?—but its frank and fierce investigation of self evinces a painter who is only beginning to discover his true powers. Given the strength of the extant paintings, we have a lot to look forward to.