Friday, February 14th, 2020

Mystery Man Revealed: The Biography of Friedel Dzubas

Friedel Dzubas by Patricia L. Lewy

I first saw the paintings of Friedel Dzubas (1915-1994) in 1983, when I flew down to Washington for his retrospective at the Hirshhorn organized by Charles Millard. I loved it. Back in New York, I started work on a major article about it for Arts Magazine, and (believe it or not, by coincidence) spoke with Clement Greenberg on the phone.  “He’s great,” Greenberg said, “But nobody knows it.”  Or maybe it was “knows about him.”  Anyway, I know he said “great.”

Still, Dzubas has never become as well-known as Kenneth Noland, Morris Louis or Jules Olitski, three other painters admired by Greenberg, and associated with what in the 1960s was known as Color Field painting. or post-painterly abstraction. Moreover, Greenberg himself must bear some of the responsibility for Dzubas’s relative obscurity. The two had been close personal friends ever since 1948, when the critic placed an ad in Partisan Review, seeking a summer vacation home for himself and his son Danny, and the Berlin-born artist, recently arrived in New York, offered to sublet him rooms in a large Connecticut house that he himself had newly rented.

Photograph of Friedel Dzubas from 1972
Photograph of Friedel Dzubas from 1972

Throughout the 1950s, when Dzubas was painting gestural abstractions, and the ‘60s, when he took a more “post-painterly” turn, his work was exhibited in many of the same galleries that showed others Greenberg admired.  However, it was not until 1972, when the artist was teaching at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, that he developed his first truly distinctive, original style, with solid, powerful bands of color feathering away into airy glows of paler hue. The front cover of the book under review shows one of his first canvases in this mode —Fan Tan (1972), now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

And It was not until 1977 that Greenberg wrote about him. Even then it was only a curiously ambivalent little essay in an exhibition catalogue for the Kunsthalle in Bielefeld, GermanyAnd by 1977 Greenberg was no longer the kingmaker.

Patricia L. Lewy, a Mozart scholar turned art historian, is particularly insistent that Dzubas should be seen not as a Color Field painter but as a true independent. This newly revised, mammoth, lavishly illustrated edition of her absorbing monograph corrects typos and off-color illustrations from the original edition; the only thing it still lacks is an index.  Lewy argues that as a native of Germany, Dzubas differs from this New York peers on both artistic and personal grounds.  Artistically, she sees him as inspired by different earlier art: German as opposed to French, ranging back from Ernst Ludwig Kirchner to the German palaces decorated in the 18th  Century with murals by Giambattista Tiepolo. More dramatically, she tells of his early experiences  in Nazi Germany in the 1930s, a true horror story.

I had always believed that Dzubas was Catholic, because I’d heard of the mystical Catholicism he favored in later life and because of the long interview with him by Millard in the Hirshhorn catalogue.  Here Dzubas explained that he fled his birthplace in 1939 because he’d been a Communist and because he didn’t want to serve in Hitler’s army.  Thanks to Lewy’s impressive research, though, it turns out that the artist had a much more pressing need to emigrate: He was really a “Mischling,” or a child of mixed parentage, with a Catholic mother and a Jewish father.  The Nazis took a particularly grim view of Mischlings for defiling the Aryan race.

By the later 1930s, as a grim prelude to the Holocaust, Hitler and his Nazi government were already confiscating Jewish property and businesses, expelling Jews from jobs in the civil service and the universities, and barring the schools to Jewish children – not least, the Prussian Academy of Arts, where young Friedel had hoped to study. The Kristallnacht pogroms of November 1938 confirmed him in his decision to emigrate.

He was enabled in this effort by two Jewish organizations trying to relocate German-Jewish youths outside of Hitler’s expanding sphere of influence. These organizations set up a farm in Silesia where Jewish boys and girls were taught farming techniques.  The hope was that by being able to offer an occupation in demand by other nations, these youngsters could creep through the loopholes in the immigration regulations then in force in the United States and elsewhere.

the book under review
the book under review

Thus the future artist spent two years of his adolescence tending crops and farm animals in Silesia.  After he’d arrived in the America, he spent some months on a farm in Virginia that had been set up by Jewish organizers to host the young émigrés. Then he headed north in search of his real ambition: to seek an artistic career. To Millard, he referred to the farm in Virginia as merely a place where he was visiting with “friends,” nor did he offer the slightest hint that either it or his immigration had been made possible by Jews.

Despite what seems to have been considerable personal charm, in Lewy’s telling Dzubas doesn’t emerge as an altogether sympathetic character.  Denying his Jewish heritage was only one of his evasions of, or embroideries on, the truth. He also claimed to have studied in German schools that he couldn’t have attended, and he married his second wife without getting a divorce from the first. However, in the 1940s, with anti-Semitism very much prevalent in this country, Dzubas was far from the only Jew to try and evade it, as many did, of course, by changing their names.  Even more to the point, art is one thing and personality another.  The art is what really matters and survives –triumphantly in the case of Friedel Dzubas.

Patricia L. Lewy. Friedel Dzubas (Milan: Skira, revised edition 2019) ISBN: 978-88-572-3280-5. 390 pages, 390 illustrations, $65.