Long Looking in Lancaster
This article is from the archive of The New York Sun before the launch of its new website in 2022. The Sun has neither altered nor updated such articles but will seek to correct any errors, mis-categorizations or other problems introduced during transfer.
New-York-City-based artist John Dubrow’s work amounts to a full-throated argument for the continued vitality of painting today – a point made clear at the recently opened mid-career retrospective of his work at Lancaster, Pennsylvania’s Demuth Museum.
A Formal Realist: The Works of John Dubrow fills the museum, in an eighteenth-century townhouse, with thirty-five works, many of them large-scale. Dubrow’s paintings would benefit from better lighting and larger, less tightly packed rooms. However, the exhibit is invaluable, tracing Dubrow’s artistic evolution from the early 1980s to the present, with a focus on two subjects the artist comes back to time and again: self-portraiture and landscape.
The earliest painting in the exhibition, Abstraction (Meadowmak) is a heavily worked conglomeration of ochre, sienna and gray brushstrokes, made during Dubrow’s time as a graduate student at The San Francisco Art Institute. Though at first glance this painting may seem like an anomaly, the abstract piece foretells the densely impastoed cityscapes to follow, a signature of Dubrow’s mature work, and reveals the artist’s appetite for ambitiously oversized canvases.
After graduate school, Dubrow settled in South Williamsburg, Brooklyn. With his new neighborhood as a subject, Bridge, Summer, painted in 1988, is a highlight of this period. Over Brooklyn rooftops, the ironwork of the Williamsburg Bridge crisscrosses the canvas, interrupted on the right by a warehouse in the extreme foreground. Running the entire height of the painting, the close-up warehouse creates spatial tensions and scale jumps that will continue to animate Dubrow’s compositions for years to come.
World Trade Center, Harbor View, a more ambitious work, was created while Dubrow was artist-in-residence with Port Authority’s World Views Project in 1998. Looking southward from the 91st floor of the Lower Manhattan skyscraper, the harbor spreads out across the scene. Because of the unusual viewpoint, the horizon line in this large canvas is disconcertingly high, causing the eye to travel first down toward the streets below and then up, across the water, into the sensitively described atmospheric perspective where Staten Island meets sky.
Westbeth View North, 2001-2005, is also a smashing work. Painted from a studio in The Westbeth, the artists’ housing complex on the far-west side of Manhattan, here the paint is troweled on like cement. The West Side Highway, reduced to a slab of grey, curves into a gorgeous arrangement of red and orange squares that live a double life: they are both light-filled depictions of buildings alongside the highway and a jaunty patchwork of color, completely satisfying as simply heavy, physical, bristly paint.
In Dubrow’s recent, more simplified paintings, hefty shapes of flat color reduce his cityscapes and landscapes into more abstracted arrangements. And where before Dubrow would research a subject for a studio painting with drawings and oil sketches (some of his sketchbooks are on display here), now the artist uses an iPad painting application to make 21st century plein-air studies. The Demuth has exhibited some of these iPad studies for a recent playground painting next to the work itself.
Bleecker Playground 2, 2010-2011 hums with movement. Buoyant children, in contrast to adults sitting quietly to the side, animate the painting with off-kilter poses. Dappled light complicates the already busy scene, demonstrating Dubrow’s knack for organizing complex motifs into cohesive compositions.
Demuth Museum Executive Director Anne M. Lampe compares Dubrow to Charles Demuth (1883-1935), the Precisionist painter and Stieglitz Group member whose legacy the museum furthers in the modernist’s restored two-story former residence. “Both men are artists’ artists,” Ms. Lampe explains in the exhibition catalog, whose works “reward slow, contemplative viewing.”
The museum’s charming but less-than-ideal layout, with low-ceilings and improvised lighting, poses a challenge to the long looking Ms. Lampe rightly says Dubrow’s paintings merit. Nevertheless, this survey is a refreshing alternative to the typical museum mid-career retrospectives that tend to showcase already widely known artists. With this exhibit Ms. Lampe calls attention to a painter who “does not allow himself to get caught up in the fads of the day, nor does he allow himself to be overly academic, rather he is connected to a greater continuum of painting that allows his pictures to create universal truths that ultimately connect to and reward the patient viewer.”
Charles Demuth once wrote “paintings must be looked at and looked at and looked at.” In John Dubrow, Ms. Lampe has found an artist whose work can withstand the close examination Demuth espoused.
More information about Xico Greenwald’s work can be found at xicogreenwald.com