April 24, 2008

John Dubrow’s Handsome Urban Motifs
by Maureen Mullarkey


Since his first New York exhibition in 1985, John Dubrow has created some of the finest paintings of his generation. The commanding suite of aerial cityscapes born of his 1997–98 residency in the World Trade Center towers comes straight to mind. So do his views of Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, and sun-drenched roofscapes of New York. Certain portraits from the beginning of the decade – Frederick Wiseman among his film cans; the model Josie – are memorable works of art that surpass the fugitive occasion of their making. 

This is Mr. Dubrow’s third solo show at Lori Bookstein Fine Art. Eleven paintings are on display: one monumental cityscape, a view of Central Park, a series of portraits of the artist’s friends and colleagues, and two self-portraits. The urban scenes tip the balance between subtraction and specificity in favor of the former; this shift generates one kind of impact while minimizing another. It is a handsome pictorial approach, but one that masks Mr. Dubrow’s unique capacity for communion with the deepest realities of his subject. Consequently, his renewed interest in portraiture is welcome. It marks a return to his most gracious and distinguishing gifts. 

Surface richness remains constant in Mr. Dubrow’s work. What seems to have changed is his relation to his urban motifs. Earlier empathy with the concreteness of experience has cooled to a sophisticated bravura. Newcomers to his work will find it vigorous and striking. Only those who have known his painting more than a decade will feel the drop in temperature. 

Altered emotional tone is apparent in “Composition (Midday)” (2007–08), a generalized evocation of an urban pocket park. Here, wit of observation is almost wholly in service to color and design; both take precedence over the sap of a living place. The painting process trumps the motif. Flat, coloristic patterning and anonymous figuration suggest the Bay Area movement that was an early influence on Mr. Dubrow. 

Faceless figures line benches on either side of the pavement. Some are smaller than others, a concession to distance; otherwise, foreground figures and background ones occupy the same plane. The figure nearest the viewer is granted a suggestion of features in a manner that recalls the cycling between representation and abstraction of David Park’s very early figurative work. Everything here depends on color, reduced in intensity and deftly distributed. 

Artists find in nature what they need and discard the rest. “Central Park II” (2007–08) offers a broadly treated, upward sweep of encompassing greenery, a prompt to the act of painting. Color reaches to the sky and enfolds it, letting light through to create shadow patterns but not letting enough through to sharpen borders between forms. The character and movement of tonal fields substitutes for the finessing of distinct masses. 

It is impossible not to weigh these recent park scenes against Mr. Dubrow’s majestic “Prospect Park,” painted over several years between the mid- and late-1990s. That work grew out of a pictorial ethos, indebted to classical traditions, that Poussin could have assented to. In that earlier, more complex composition, figures retained their humanity, and the park acquired something of the pastoral calm of the roman campagna. In current urban views, the authority of the past lingers in San Francisco of the 1950s, a narrower place on the timeline. 

Mr. Dubrow is in fuller possession of his art in the portraits here. Two in particular resonate with a sensitivity that transcends simple likeness, which is only part of the obligation of a portrait. Likeness gains significance when it becomes a sign of some indwelling truth behind the features. In other words, when it becomes more than a picture. 

“Marc” (2006) presents French historian Marc Fumaroli surrounded by the attributes of his trade. A clutter of books, on shelves and on the floor, enlivens the dominant design and establishes the sitter as a man of letters. The ceremonial ostentation of his dress — a kimono with modified obi over trousers and tie — is a telling, near-rhetorical detail that complements the hauteur of the facial expression. The subject, facing the viewer but glancing elsewhere, offers an imposing and mannered presence. It is this capacity for conveying an internal disposition with a minimum of means that is Mr. Dubrow’s most gracious and distinguishing trait. 

“Bruce” (2007) is touched with a beauty that does not come from paint alone. The sculptor stands in his studio at a three-quarter turn just askance of center. Modeling stands and easels provide directionals and further divide the space; a background doorway leads into light, a relief from the darksome mood of the unlit workroom. Illumination radiates from within the sympathetically modeled head above a white cowl-neck sweater, moon-pale and encircled by a black jacket. That stark black/white contrast, so understated against variegated neutrals, leads the eye to the figure’s expression. Amid the grays, it manifests a certain melancholy. 

“Self-Portrait” (2007) is a variant of Mr. Dubrow’s frontal, three-quarter self-portrait exhibited at Salander-O’Reilly five years ago. Comparison is inevitable. Where the earlier work was a frank, limpid character study, the current painting presents a more guarded likeness. The viewer’s expectations of full-face portraiture are halted by the planar emphasis and shrouded gaze. It is no less effective pictorially for being more reticent. 

To be of one’s time is not a matter of style but of wakeful attention to the nature of one’s time. In the age of mass man, a malignant abstraction, art is most civilizing when it enables us to imagine the particular. Mr. Dubrow is supremely capable of doing just that. And so he remains one of our most valuable painters.