Friedel Dzubas: Thesis/Antithesis/Synthesis
Friedel Dzubas: Paintings of the 1960s at The Elkon Gallery, Inc.
April 1 to May 29, 2015
18 East 81st Street (between Madison and 5th avenues)
New York City, 212 535 3940
Epic Abstraction: Friedel Dzubas in the 1970s at Loretta Howard Gallery
April 9 to May 9, 2015
525-531 West 26th Street (between 10th and 11th avenues)
New York City, 212 695 0164
For most artists, a “late style” comes as the final fillip. With Friedel Dzubas, it represents the third stage of an evolution that may be viewed in terms of Hegelian dialectics.
The first stage, or thesis, is the Dzubas style of the 1950s, marked by the energy and dynamism common to so many gestural abstractionists of that period. The antithesis comes along in the 1960s, when — in the words of Barbara Rose — Dzubas “cleaned up and emptied out his canvases.” Instead of many active small shapes, the artist focused on a just a few, large and superbly calm ones. The final stage, or synthesis, occurred in the 1970s, and lasted right through to Dzubas’s death in 1994. The dynamism of the 1950s combined with the detachment of the 1960s in Olympian canvases of increasing scale distinguished by the artist’s unique stylistic device, a feathery spectrum of color.
Since Dzubas began to exhibit in the 1950s, one might think that he was born in the 1920s. In fact, he was born in 1915, only three years after Pollock — and in Berlin, which was still fighting World War I. As a boy, he knew that he wanted to become an artist, but his father, a textile factory manager, only allowed him to apprentice with a business firm of decorative painters.
In 1933, Adolf Hitler became chancellor of Germany. Friedel was Catholic, not Jewish, but his politics were leftist and he didn’t want to serve in Hitler’s army. Leaving Berlin in 1939, he wound up in Chicago, designing magazines for Ziff-Davis Publishing. There he also read articles by Clement Greenberg in Partisan Review, which impressed but mystified him. He moved to New York after the war, determined to become a fine artist, but only able to support himself freelancing in commercial design. In 1948, he became friends with Greenberg and through him met many of the first-generation abstract expressionists, and, in 1951, Helen Frankenthaler, Greenberg’s new companion.
She and Dzubas were sharing a studio in Manhattan when in 1952 she painted Mountains and Sea, a stain painting that was to inspire many artists, among them Dzubas himself. His work continued to resemble Frankenthaler’s throughout the 1950s, with brightly colored, vigorously wrought stains and splats.
Although there are no paintings by Dzubas from this period in the two shows under review, The Elkon Gallery has Eden (1964), a typical example of his bright and lively stain painting. Perhaps it was intended as a homage to Frankenthaler, as one of her best-known canvases is also titled Eden (1956). The other five paintings at Elkon give a good idea of Dzubas’s progress in the 1960s. Most distinctive are the three larger ones, all about seven feet by six feet. Here the artist has abandoned the stain technique. By applying a gesso primer, he kept his colors on the surface of the canvas and independent of each other.
The result is just a few large, often oval and subtly colored shapes on each canvas. The simplicity of Azure (1962) makes it particularly memorable. It is dominated by a large, jaunty area of pale aqua, set in the upper center of a big white field, and a dashing small peach horizontal comma of color at the bottom.
Still, it wasn’t until around 1972 that Dzubas achieved his truly original look, his device. This consists of bold rectangular slabs of color that feather off into increasingly paler shades, finally disappearing into the surrounding field. These feathered bands combine the vitality of the stain paintings of the ‘50s with the more emphatic shapes of the ‘60s. They dramatize the contrasts between colors while retaining the majesty of the resulting forms — particularly as the canvases themselves get larger.
Four huge canvases dominate the show at Loretta Howard Gallery. The smallest, Chenango (1973), which hangs in the front gallery and measures about four by 14 feet, is a symphony of churning reds and greens. Facing the entry in the back gallery is the largest painting here, Procession, (1975), which measures about 10 by 25 feet. To its left and right hang Nebel (1971) and Foen (1974). Nebel (“fog” or “mist” in German) is dominated by a misty field, with only a relatively small number of pats of deeper color. Foen, named for a treacherous warm spring Alpine wind, features ominously dark cloud-like shapes on top, with quivering paler earthlike colors below.
On the fourth wall in this back gallery hang eleven of the small colored acrylic sketches or modelli that preceded larger paintings, and were used by Dzubas to work out his ideas before he translated them into major scale. These range from 5 1/2 inches square to 13 1/2 by 31 inches, and they are a delight. Especially joyous are those that served as modelli for Inca (1975), Heath Cote (1978), and Westerly (1973). Even more illuminating is the modello for Procession since the resulting painting hangs on the opposite wall, providing an opportunity to compare what stayed and what changed in the larger finished work. On the right-hand side of both large and small paintings are a double row of vertical bands, feathered at one end or the other. They seem to have made the transition more or less intact, but the horizontals on the left-hand side of the larger canvas appear to have been more precisely worked out.
In a vitrine there is documentation for the creation of an even larger mural for a Boston bank in 1975, with an accompanying text by art historian Patricia Lewy Gidwitz, who is working on a book about the artist. Gidwitz quotes Wes Frantz, onetime studio assistant to Dzubas. “With Friedel’s painting the devil was in the details. If you compare closely a small sketch to a large painting, the large painting will have all the details that the small ones don’t. And it’s in those details that Friedel sought his identity.”