THE NEW CRITERION
May 01, 2008
by James Panero
Art is work, of course, but just how should the work of art-making be done? Dada, pop art, and minimalism placed the premium on conception. The labor that went into the planning and reception of art went hand in hand with the relative effortlessness of execution. Artists traded in their traditional role as craftsmen to take on the guises of architects, designers, promoters, and businessmen. Meanwhile the manufacturing of art was contracted out to studio assistants and union-men.
The purity of such pre-programmed systems continues to influence the art world today, if the dominance of contemporary artists such as Jeff Koons, Damien Hirst, and Takashi Murakami is any indication. In this climate, the paintings of John Dubrow are therefore even more remarkable for the obvious effort that goes into their execution. Worked and worked over again in the studio, often over a period of months and years, Dubrow’s canvases willingly show the heavy-lifting that marked their production.
Born in 1958 in Salem, Massachusetts, Dubrow studied at the Camberwell School of Art in London. He followed this up at the San Francisco Art Institute, under the instruction of Bruce McGaw and Julius Hatofsky, before launching his career in New York in the 1980s. Dubrow has always been an effortful painter. With a representational style that had no need for cleverness or cliché, he approaches every image as if it was his first, seeing it fresh and throwing whatever he can at understanding it.
In the 1990s, as he set his sights on more ambitious subject matter, his work became more populated and complex. In 1997–98, Dubrow was tapped for a premiere spot in the Port Authority’s World Views project, which awarded empty office space in the World Trade Center to artists-in-residence. Ominously, a 1998New York Times story on this initiative reported that the higher floors of the Twin Towers were available to artists because they were “avoided by some tenants who recall how workers stranded by the 1993 bombing had to hike down hundreds of stairs.” Dubrow painted from the 85th floor.
The paintings that Dubrow produced through the Trade Center project are not merely records from a doomed building. They are monuments to a singular vision that seemed to take every brick and stone of the city and press them into canvas. Dubrow’s work from this period earned accolades from critics including Hilton Kramer, Roger Kimball, Mario Naves, Daniel Kunitz, and Jed Perl.
Soon after his Trade Center residency, Dubrow travelled to Israel. Here he painted scenes that appeared to be built up with the very sand of the Holy Land. These images were among the most resolved and accomplished of his career, but the accretion of matter on the surface of his work was also starting to become a burden. The process was getting in the way of the product.
It is a pleasure to report, then, that sometime in the early part of this decade, Dubrow started to strip his canvases down. The work of addition turned into the task of revision and clarification. It was a bold and at times destabilizing move, perhaps something of a painter’s mid-life crisis. Dubrow sought to find a new balance in his work. He simplified and abstracted the patterns of his compositions. He took his work down to the bare minimum of recognition, then built it up, then stripped it down again, adding a figure, taking it away, at times dashing the composition to pieces until the image could be built back up again to some resolution.
The early results of these efforts were uneven, but through this process Dubrow began to experiment with the power of form and color as he worked to remove the weight of detail. Whether Dubrow would eventually find a new balance for these forces has now been answered at Lori Bookstein Fine Art, where his latest work represents nothing less than a breakthrough.
At seventy-two by eighty-six inches, the epic Composition (Midday) (2007–08) forms the centerpiece of the show. An urban park scene of pedestrians, benches, trees, and buildings may be familiar terrain for Dubrow. But what we find here is something altogether different from the crenulation of detail we could expect in previous work. Fields of shapes invade the space. In the foreground, the light filtering to the pavement is transformed into pools and daubs of gray paint. A building on the left is nearly reduced into a Mondrian-like abstraction, a power-chord with blocks of orange and brown overhanging and framing a seated figure. What we might understand to be a street lamp similarly divides a tan building on the right in two while also echoing additional gray horizontal and vertical markings in the center of the composition.
But it is color as much as form that sets this work apart. Dubrow has never struck me as a colorist, but his command of the primary power of color is evident throughout this painting. He works in a limited palette that finds the same fields of color repeated in different parts of his canvas employed for very different purposes. The tan of the building is the same as the tan light illuminating a leg, a foot, a neck, and an ear in figures in the foreground. The spots of sunlight on the pavement—some of the most solid and frontal shapes of the compositions, built up with the palette knife—are also found in a building peeking through a tree.
Shocks of red are reflected across the canvas. Grays are repeated in rhythm. Pieces of Dubrow’s puzzle reach out to one another and reference one another. Bookstein is always supremely skilled at hanging its shows, and the connections one can make here are uncanny: colors and shapes are repeated across the paintings. The orange we see accenting Compositionalso appears as the jacket in Charlotte.
Over half of the paintings on view at Bookstein are portraits. These quiet, domestic scenes serve as a counterbalance to Dubrow’s riotous landscapes, which obliterate individuality. Two of the portraits feature familiar faces in the Bookstein gallery: Lori(2008), the owner, and Christina (2008), who works at the front desk.
These portraits lead up to the masterpiece of the exhibition. Tucked away in the gallery’s exhibition cubicle, Central Park II(2007–08) may not be as ambitious as Composition, or as large, but it strikes me as even more resonant. The painting is built from only five or so colors. The shape of the white sky echoes the leaves of the trees. The light on the grass forms a solid pool that is only divided by the shadow of a tree. Small figures can be seen reclining and twisting in space, surrounded by an overwhelming sense of verdure. If there was ever a painting for the current season, this is it.