20 East 79 Street, New York
April 29 - May 31, 2003
John Dubrow Frederick
oil on linen, 40½ x 41½ inches
(photo Paul Waldman, courtesy Salander-O'Reilly Galleries, LLC)
Against the backdrop of war,
gallery hopping seems a indolent sport. Does the world need another
painting? With scalding images everywhere-in newspapers, on television
and the internet-Van Gogh's comment that "there is more to life
than making pictures" comes back to me with the poignancy of a
rebuke. But every so often work presents itself that addresses the dignity
of life and the way it stands revealed in art. Art says it slant, but
that is no bar to truth. John Dubrow's exhibition, his fifth at Salander-O'Reilly,
testifies that some pictures are, indeed, necessary.
Salander-O'Reilly has become
indispensable to figurative painters who care about what Kenyon Cox
termed "the classic spirit." This is the point of view that,
as Cox wrote, ". . .desires that each new presentation of truth
and beauty shall show us the old truth and the old beauty, seen only
from a different angle and colored by a different medium. It wishes
to add link by link to the chain of tradition, but it does not wish
to break the chain." That was written in 1911. The chain is longer
now and Dubrow is establishing his place in it.
He brings a distinctive intelligence
to his motifs. At his finest, Dubrow invests subjects-places, no less
than people-with a moral dimension that is as rare as it is humane.
Perhaps it would be more accurate to say that he uncovers this dimension
where he finds it: in the architecture of cities and of the human form;
in the design inherent in man and his world
His cityscapes, lovely in
coloration and rigorous in construction, deserve the recognition they
have achieved. My favorite in this show is West Side Highway, one of
three luminous urban views. Gone is the vigorous diagonal so helpful
for leading the eye into the scene. Instead, the eye is greeted by a
series of verticals that lend definition to the seeming chaos of the
view. The midmost stake, marking the center of the canvas, is not an
object at all but a buttery slice of sunlight glancing off the side
of a building. This crucial vertical, in middle distance, is anticipated
by another in the foreground, a tall flue of similar color but lower
intensity. Both uprights are echoed by a prominent pair of chimneys
in the distance.
This use of a center plumb
line as an ordering device was put to fine effect by the British painter
Euan Uglow, with whom Dubrow shares both passion for craft and a singular
refinement. West Side Highway is a deft performance. It brings to mind
the essence of the painter's vocation: the call to master all that one's
art brings into play.
Dubrow's possession of his
art is fully evident in his portraits. The agitation of his paint surface
belies the tenderness of these paintings. His portrait of Frederick
Wiseman, in solitude amidst his film cans, is deeply appealing. So,
too, is the face of Dubrow's model, Josie. His self-portrait is a dynamic
confrontation with his own powers of concentration. Each of these paintings
is touched with a beauty that does not come from paint alone. Likeness
itself is of no particular interest. Only when it becomes a vehicle
for some indwelling truth behind the features does it gain value. In
short, when it becomes more than a picture. Dubrow has that quality
of empathy that marks the divide between facile verisimilitude and great
When the pressures of picture-making
supersede that empathy the result disappoints. Interior , a snapshot
of riders in a subway car, is a dull painting, unrelieved even by the
burst of pure yellow at its center. Prince and Broadway is laudable
for its obvious competence and is certainly imposing. But it impresses
in the way that heavy machinery does: by its sheer weight. Yet it seems
a mechanical exercise. No mattress of paint can subdue the photo underneath.
In both paintings, the initial snapshot rises to the surface as an irritant-like
a pea beneath layers of featherbed in the old fairy tale of the princess
and the pea. This is the danger of facility: it can distract an artist
from his real gifts, leaving him a mechanic of his own style.
John Dubrow Rephidim
oil on linen, 53 x 70 inches
But these considerations
pale beside the achievement on view in this exhibition.
There are two showstoppers here. One is a stunning panorama of Jerusalem,
all yellows and greens in an infinite multiplicity of tones. The other-thematically
adventurous and a challenge to art world pieties-is a biblical scene,
Rephidim. Both are breathtaking. They cry for discussion, not as two
disparate paintings but as works that exist in antiphonal relation to
each other. Unaccountably, they are hung in separate rooms. Jerusalem
is displayed as one cityscape among others. Rephidim is treated as an
anomalous "religious painting." Yet it is neither eccentric
nor narrowly religious. It is, in essence, a history painting intimately
bound to Dubrow's paintings of Israel.
The title derives from Exodus
which describes the battle between the tribes of Israel and the followers
of Amalek. Grandson of Esau, who hated his brother Jacob and all his
progeny, Amalek allied with other nations to attack the Israelites.
A terrorist, he struck from the rear in surprise attack, assaulting
the weakest trailing behind. (The battle site, Rephidim, is thought
to be Wadi Refayed, some miles west of Mt. Sinai.)
According to the story, Moses
watches the battle from a hill, with the rod-of-God in his hand . If
he keeps his arms raised heavenward, Israel will prevail. If he lowers
them, Amalek will rise. But Moses is aged and tired. Aaron and Hur bring
him a rock to sit on and keep his hands steady until sunset. Joshua
leads the Israelites to victory.
Dubrow's imagining of the
scene is incandescent in its loveliness. The canvas shimmers, quivering
with the tension of the scene, the heat of the desert sun and the vitality-fury-of
Dubrow's painting methods. Light is as much the subject here as the
biblical anecdote. Individual forms on which it falls are less important
than the light itself. Details are more felt than seen. Outlines tremble.
Small forms are subsumed into the impasto, intensifying the effect of
Dubrow adjusts his color
chords with great delicacy. Sobriety of form is rendered in a riot of
tonal subtlety. Meticulous adjustment of color to value, combined with
the harmony of half-tones, lends poetry to an image that, in lesser
hands, could sink into costume epic. Dubrow risked real peril with this
painting. The hazard of historical narrative is only one of them.
Specific religious dimension
is muted by omitting the rod from Moses' grasp. But the attitude of
supplication remains. To refer to the painting, as the catalogue does,
in terms of Titian or Poussin is to muffle the impact, silence its meaning.
This is not an occupational homage in the spirit of Uglow's tributes
to Poussin. Moses' intercessory posture, an unmistakable prayer for
victory, beckons to us from our own particular moment in history. As
epilogue to Dubrow's Israeli suite, Rephidim reverberates with assertions
of Israel's legitimacy and its people's claim on Jerusalem. It also
stands as a coded reminder of the comment, eloquent in the wake of 9/11:
"We are all Israelis now."