20 East 79 Street, New York
April 29 – May 31, 2003
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 art.
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.
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 radiant energy.
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.”