Some artists, like the steepest ascents of the Tour de France bicycle race, are hors catégorie – impossible to classify. How, for example, is one to categorize Friedel Dzubas? The stormy drama of his most achieved paintings suggests that he was an expressionist, a not unreasonable assumption, since he was a transplanted European who recalled seeing the work of the German Expressionists, as a student in the 1930s (before National Socialism declared such work to be "degenerate") and "liking it a lot." "What appealed to me was the use of color," Dzubas said, in an interview conducted by Charles W. Millard in 1982, at the time of a major retrospective exhibition at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington, D.C. "That was very exciting. It seemed to me these people not only spoke directly, they also felt deeply. There was passion."
Much of Dzubas’s work, in fact, could be accurately described as a translation of that deep feeling and passion into pure abstraction. Yet the broad expanses of subtly modulated hues in his mature paintings are very different from the dense paint handling and often acidic color of his 20th century German modernist forebears; instead, Dzubas’s pictures demonstrate affinities not with European art but with the post-war American painters, loosely grouped under the rubric of Color Field, who made weightless color the key expressive element of their work. Similarly, the monumental scale, the sense of infinite expansiveness, and the sheer audacity of Dzubas’s most striking canvases make them seem indebted not to the calculated structure of European easel painting but to the unfettered all-overness of Jackson Pollock – to whom Dzubas was close – or, among the Color Field painters who built on Pollock’s innovations, of Morris Louis. Yet there’s a persistent sense of the hand in Dzubas’s most powerful canvases, an emphasis on the act of transferring fluid, responsive paint to a surface that speaks to a method quite unlike Pollock’s disembodied pours and skeins or the floods of transparent color in Louis’s work or that of his colleagues. This sense of virtuoso touch reminds us that, in that same interview, Dzubas answered the question "Whom do you like?" with "Tiepolo."
Even in terms of simple chronology, it’s hard to know how to discuss Dzubas. Born in Berlin in 1915 – he died near Boston in 1994 – he belonged to the generation of the Abstract Expressionists. He could, in fact, easily have been part of that legendary group during their glory years at the Club and the Cedar Tavern, since he fled Germany in 1939 and settled in New York in 1940. Yet, despite his friendship with Pollock, the artists with whom Dzubas was publically linked were the Color Field painters with whom he exhibited and with whose work his own was critically discussed. These aesthetic peers were generally a decade or more younger than he. Helen Frankenthaler, for example, with whom Dzubas shared a studio in the 1950s, was almost fourteen years his junior and Frank Stella, with whom he exchanged paintings, twenty one years younger. There are clear affinities among Dzubas’s work and that of this generation of painters, which explains his close association with them – Clement Greenberg included him in the celebrated 1964 exhibition "Post-Painterly Abstraction," at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the formal announcement of the challenge to Abstract Expressionism’s contingent, unstable, "malerisch" approach, issued by painters on the East and West coast and in Canada. Yet Dzubas’s mature work can also be described as conspicuously unlike that of his friends and colleagues. Where the Color Field painters’ efforts are deliberately "cool," in Marshall MacLuhan’s sense of the word (another challenge to Abstract Expressionism’s emotional charge), Dzubas’s works are obviously serious, loaded, and above all, passionate – a reprisal of the quality he admired, as a student, in the German Expressionists, absent the dark anxiety that his coevals, the Abstract Expressionists, often seemed to cultivate as a mark of authenticity. He was fascinated by the emotional resonance of tonal and chromatic contrast at a time when close-valued color was highly admired, and in suggesting illusionistic ambiguous depths, in an era of unbroken surfaces that restated the literal flatness of the canvas. The more intently we look at Dzubas, in fact, the more we are forced to think about the late art historian Eugene Goossen’s often repeated dictum "No movements. Just artists."
However we choose to deal with this conundrum, however we decide to think of Dzubas – as expressionist or as master of color-based abstraction, as essentially European or as characteristically American, or in any other way – the potency of his large paintings of the 1970s and 1980s is undeniable. Part of what makes these works remarkable is their surprising combination of apparent spontaneity and near monumental scale. The sheer size of the long horizontal paintings such as this exhibition’s Ikarus, Chenango, Procession, or Spessart and the generosity of the gestures with which Dzubas constructed them are noteworthy in themselves, but what is even more extraordinary is the energy embodied by those gestures. The big, dragged blocks of color that float against indeterminate fields reveal themselves as being made of multiple, albeit broad, rapid strokes and stabs, yet they read as singular events, zones of distinctive hues that appear propelled by a single, determined impulse, an impulse that lends these ample, loosely defined shapes a particular kind of vitality. The all-over expanse that Dzubas conjures up with his floating masses of color may owe something to Pollock, but the animation and complexity of such works are wholly Dzubas’s own. Asked by Millard about his interest in working on a large scale, Dzubas replied that he found that it was more difficult to paint small abstract pictures than bigger ones. "It has something to do with impulse and spontaneity," he said, "and the body facilitates the acting-out impulse, so the surface will receive the activity."
In the 1970s and early 1980s, Dzubas often made small studies for very large paintings, such as this exhibition’s study for Procession; astonishingly, he was able to use these intimate sketches as the basis of enormous canvases without losing freshness, liveliness, or a sense of immediacy. Eventually, however, he abandoned the practice. "Now," he told Millard, "when I work large – when I work anything – I have been trying to start painting without knowing what I want to paint, and then go with the storm, so to speak. I conquer by going with it. When you work large, it’s easier to get lost, and I want to get lost."
Dzubas’s large scale paintings such as this exhibition’s Ikarus, Chenango, Procession, or Spessart have been described as being simultaneously old-fashioned and completely of the moment in which they were made. The label "old-fashioned" is provoked, I suspect, because such works seem to invite comparison to the Grand Manner – the intensely serious, virtuoso treatment of Important Subjects to which the most ambitious artists of the 17th and 18th centuries aspired – not simply because of their evidently impressive size but also because of their emotional temperature, palette, and what might be described as their "feeling tone." The rich orchestration of contrasting hues and tones in these paintings could be similarly described as "old-fashioned" – abstract equivalents for the opulent fictive textures and the theatrical chiaroscuro of High Baroque painting. Confronted by these works, viewers often fall back on musical analogies. I’ve heard comparisons to Romantic symphonic compositions or to Beethoven; one deeply engaged beholder specified "late Beethoven."
Yet the unequivocal abstractness of Dzubas’s canvases, however dramatic or storm-tossed his structures of colored masses, places them firmly in their own time. While his jostling, blocks of color could be read as potent metaphors for everything from human relationships to cosmic events, they are, in the end, joyous celebrations of the art of painting itself, its long history included. The very way Dzubas insists on both the lack of substance and the hand-made quality of his color masses, making the ends of the blocks fray off to become part of the continuous surface of the canvas, is an assertion of the miraculous fiction of painting itself. Dzubas was well aware of this kind of contradiction in his work. Towards the end of his life as a painter, he said that more than ever he delighted in "doing things that I am told I should not be able to do." Charles W. Millard, in his catalogue essay for the Dzubas retrospective, authoritatively summed up the elusive qualities of this strikingly individual painter’s work.
"He has built upon a foundation of European finesse a structure of peculiarly American freedom," Millard wrote of Dzubas in 1983, "and in doing so has integrated and projected his own personality in a manner characteristic of artists of his caliber. The pictures that stand witness to this process will take their places among the finest this century, or any century, has produced."
'Monumental Works' ©2014 Karen Wilkin