Thursday, April 1st, 2004

Judith Rothschild and Friedel Dzubas

Judith Rothschild: Abstract and Non-Objective – the 1940s
March 18 – May 1, 2004
Knoedler & Company
19 East 70th Street
New York, NY 10021

Friedel Dzubas: Paintings of the 1950s
March 18th to April 17th 2004
Jacobson Howard Gallery
19 East 76th Street
New York, NY 10021

Judith Rothschild’s name does not appear in the following books: Barbara Rose’s “Art Since 1900,” Dore Ashton’s “American Art Since 1945,” and Irving Sandler’s “The New York School and The Triumph of American Painting.” A quote about Willem de Kooning’s working methods by Friedel Dzubas appears in one of these books and his name appears alongside better known color field painters in another book. But there are no images or any descriptions of their work.

These painters are known in the art world as second wave artists. They did not develop a signature style, a marketable and easily recognized visual language, such as Rothko’s rectangles, Pollock’s drips, or Kline’s isolated black slashes. They were conservative in the sense that they explored painting styles invented by other artists. The prominence of avant-garde art, which is synonymous with novelty and shock value, guarantees that straightforward practitioners will become irrelevant to historians who write about the “major” developments.

Galleries have an ambiguous relationship to these second tier artists. In one sense, they act as revisionists, reminding us that other painters besides the ones who appear in the art history books made interesting and compelling work. On the other hand, galleries tend to overemphasize the importance of work that is often mediocre, and probably better forgotten. They emphasize the company the second tier artist kept in order to jack up the prices, with the hopes that the magical aura surrounding the canonized artist will rub off. The press release for the Dzubas exhibit reminds us that “Jackson Pollock was his close friend, and he shared a studio with Helen Frankenthaler.” Many of these artists will never have a monograph written about them so the catalog essay is often the only historical or critical document that will survive into the future.

Friedel Dzubas Cyclop 1959 oil on canvas, 92 x 45 inches Courtesy Jacobson Howard Gallery
Friedel Dzubas, Cyclop 1959 oil on canvas, 92 x 45 inches Courtesy Jacobson Howard Gallery

Friedel Dzubas was fortunate enough to live with Clement Greenberg in 1945, and he was helped by the influential critic for years after that. The paintings in the current show at Jacobson Howard Gallery are from the 1950s when the painter was still under the sway of Jackson Pollock and the Abstract Expressionists. These were done after the painter had stopped painting for 2 to 3 years. He said that his goal was to “purge the linear emotional garbage.” The tension created by his use of murky mid tones and hack and slash brushwork is more problematic than satisfying. Pollock restricted his use of color in his drip masterpieces and therefore his explosive and expanding linear clouds maintained their energy level. The linear aspects of the compositions were more important and they strengthened the impact of the layering of pigment. In such paintings as Easter Monday, 1956, de Kooning’s colors were opaque, dry, and intense or high pitched. He was much more conscientious and sparing than Dzubas, when using a brush loaded with black paint.

Dzubas’ emphasis would shift after the 1950s, when the purging of line was complete. He took up the cause of the color field painters, Frankenthaler, Noland, and Louis. Eventually he let the colors speak for themselves and the violent slashes of paint receded into the past. There are echoes of Frankenthaler’s palette, staining techniques, and brushwork in a few of these canvases. However, in Frankenthaler’s early work she played transparency off of transparency, and her handling was far more delicate and suggestive. “Cyclops,” (1959) is the best work in this exhibit because of the relationship between the title of the work and the shapes depicted. Swirls of thick encrusted white paint encircle a pupil like black dash. The problem with these paintings is that the violent and thick slashes of paint tend to weaken the impact of the swathes of transparent colors. The stained areas don’t quite gel with the expressionist brushwork. After the 1950s Dzubas began to apply large areas of stained color to his canvases and to allow these areas of uninterrupted transparent color to stand on their own.

Judith Rothschild Untitled Composition, May 1946 1946 oil on canvas, 24 x 31 inches  Courtesy Knoedler & Company
Judith Rothschild, Untitled Composition, May 1946 1946 oil on canvas, 24 x 31 inches Courtesy Knoedler & Company

According to David Cohen in his catalog essay Judith Rothschild was Hans Hofmann’s star pupil. Clearly Rothschild was influenced by the sage of painterliness and plasticity. The oil paintings in this show are the inspired and technically impressive progeny of such Cubist masterpieces as Picasso’s “The Painter and His Model,” (1928), and “Studio with Plaster Head,” (1925). In the 1940s, before Rothschild produced what critics have called a “milquetoast version of Cubism,” she painted these jigsaw puzzle like pictures. The tightly interlocking asymmetrical vertical and horizontal strips suggest many things, but are open to interpretation.

Whether we are looking at abstractions of figures in specific spaces, or still-lifes on a table, we are not quite sure. But the inventiveness and variety of forms is impressive. Black outline is generously applied and these outlines vary in thickness. Line and color are happily wedded. The colored portions of these paintings are intense and jewel like. They stand on their own even when they are outlined with thick black lines. But the colors don’t punch holes in the flattened out pictorial space. Each facet of these paintings is clearly articulated and they become unified through time. Rothschild creates a poetic echo chamber filled with improvised rectangles, triangles, and ovoids. The separate parts of the composition relate to each other through intuitive repetitions and subtle modifications.

In “Boruba II,” (1948), the thickness of the black outlines varies greatly and enhances the sense of movement. The abstract puzzle pieces have just enough specificity to retain the viewer’s interest. There is no beginning or end to these compositions and they resemble sunlight filled panes of medieval stained glass. Shapes are added or placed next to one another to satisfy the compositional problems the artist set up for herself. They resemble mosaics. Each part of the composition relates to another in obvious or not so obvious ways, but a quiet friction is generated in these shallow spaces. The gouache and collage pieces found in the smaller gallery are reminiscent of Kurt Schwitter’s collages because of Rothschild’s use of ticket stubs. These small pieces are not as tightly knit as the oil paintings but are just as textured and complex. Late in her career Rothschild explored Matisse’s late cut-outs with her relief paintings. She gladly worshipped at the altar of the two greatest painters of the twentieth century, Picasso and Matisse, yet she made powerful and distinctive work in the 1940s and towards the end of her life.

We do not know if the legacy of Rothschild and Dzubas suffered because of their reluctance to cave in to current trends, to stop painting and to start conceptualizing, or because they failed to develop a signature style. Both of them were content just to paint and to explore spatial concepts first introduced by other artists. Although it seems like a worthy task, to revise the history of modern art movements by displaying works by competent artists who have fallen through the cracks and are not mentioned in the narratives of modern art history, galleries are also trying to increase the value of their holdings by reminding us that these artists had connections to a tiny handful of artist all-stars. This also helps lend prestige to the gallery itself. One thing that is clear to me after seeing these exhibits is that the leading figures held sway over many different artists and left just as many possibilities behind them as they did masterpieces. By attempting to resurrect artists who have been marginalized or completely forgotten, galleries are fueling a self perpetuating process. They end up ignoring contemporary artists who do not have the ability to create a buzz, to catch the attention of trendy galleries and the mainstream art magazines