Two Urbanites
John Dubrow’s paintings at Lori Bookstein; Ben Aronson’s cityscapes at Tibor de Nagy

SINCE HIS FIRST NEW YORK EXHIBITION IN 1985, John Dubrow has created some of the finest paintings of his generation. The commanding suite of aerial cityscapes born of his 1997-98 residency in the World Trade Towers comes straight to mind. So do his views of Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and sun-drenched roofscapes of New York. Certain portraits from the beginning of the decade — Frederick Wiseman among his film cans; the model Josie — are memorable works of art that surpass the fugitive occasion of their making.

Union Square II, John Dubrow

This is Mr. Dubrow’s third solo show at Lori Bookstein Fine Art. Eleven paintings are on display: one monumental cityscape, a view of Central Park, a series of portraits of the artist’s friends and colleagues, and two self-portraits. The urban scenes tip the balance between subtraction and specificity in favor of the former. This shift generates one kind of impact while it minimizes another. It is a handsome pictorial approach but one that masks Mr. Dubrow’s unique capacity for communion with the deepest realities of his subject. Consequently, his renewed interest in portraiture is welcome. It marks a return to his most gracious and distinguishing gifts.

Surface richness remains constant in Mr. Dubrow’s work. What seems to have changed is his relation to his urban motifs. Earlier empathy with the concreteness of experience has cooled to a sophisticated bravura. Newcomers to his work will find it vigorous and striking. Only those who have known his painting over a decade or more will feel the drop in temperature.

Altered emotional tone is apparent in “Composition (Midday),” 2007-8, a generalized evocation of an urban pocket park. Here, wit of observation is almost wholly in service to color and design; both take precedence over the sap of a living place. The painting process trumps the motif. Flat, coloristic patterning and anonymous figuration suggests the Bay Area movement that was an early influence on Mr. Dubrow.

Faceless figures line benches on either side of the pavement. Some are smaller than others, a concession to distance; otherwise, foreground figures and background ones occupy the same plane. One figure nearest the viewer is granted a suggestion of features in a manner that recalls the cycling between representation and abstraction of David Park’s very early figurative work. Everything here depends on color, reduced in intensity and deftly distributed.

Artists find in nature what they need and discard the rest. “Central Park II” (2007-8) offers a broadly treated, upward sweep of encompassing greenery, a prompt to the act of painting. Color reaches to the sky and enfolds it, letting light through to create shadow patterns but not enough to sharpen borders between forms. The character and movement of tonal fields substitutes for the finessing of distinct masses.

It is impossible not to weigh these recent park scenes against Mr. Dubrow’s majestic “Prospect Park,” painted over several years from the mid- to late Nineties. That work grew out of a pictorial ethos, indebted to classical traditions, that Poussin could have assented to. In that earlier, more complex composition, figures retained their humanity and the park acquired something of the pastoral calm of the Roman Campagna. In current urban views, the authority of the past lingers in San Francisco of the 1950s, a narrower place on the timeline.

Mr. Dubrow is in fuller possession of his art in the portraits here. Two in particular resonate with a sensitivity that transcends simple likeness. Likeness is only part of the obligation of a portrait. It gains significance when it become a sign of some indwelling truth behind the features. In other words, when it becomes more than a picture.

“Marc” (2006) presents French historian Marc Fumaroli surrounded by the attributes of his trade. A clutter of books, on shelves and on the floor, enlivens the dominant design and establishes the sitter as a man of letters. The ceremonial ostentation of his dress — a kimono with modified obi over trousers and tie—is a telling, near-rhetorical, detail that complements the hauteur of the facial expression. Mr. Fumaroli, facing the viewer but glancing elsewhere, offers an imposing and mannered presence. Mr. Dubrow’s capacity for conveying an internal disposition with a minimum of means is a rare gift.

“Bruce” (2007) is touched with a beauty that does not come from paint alone. The sculptor stands in his studio at a three-quarter turn just askance of center. Modeling stands and easels provide directionals and further divide the space; a background doorway leads into light, a relief from the darksome mood of the unlit work room. Illumination radiates from within the sympathetically modeled head above a white cowl-necked sweater, moon pale and encircled by a black jacket. That stark black/white contrast, so understated against variegated neutrals, leads the eye to the figure’s expression. Amid the grays, it manifests a certain melancholy.

“Self-Portrait” (2007) is a variant of Mr. Dubrow’s frontal, three-quarter self-portrait exhibited at Salander-O’Reilly five years ago. Comparison is inevitable. Where the earlier work was a frank, limpid character study, the current painting presents a more guarded likeness. The viewer’s expectations of full-face portraiture are halted by the planar emphasis and shrouded gaze. it is no less effective pictorially for being more reticent.

To be of one’s time is not a matter of style but of wakeful attention to the nature of one’s time. In the age of mass man, a malignant abstraction, art is most civilizing when it enables us to imagine the particular. Mr. Dubrow is supremely capable of doing just that. And so he remains one of our most valuable painters.

“John Dubrow: Paintings” at Lori Bookstein Fine Art (37 West 57th Street, 212-750-0949).


THE PLEASURE OF CITYSCAPES GOES BACK TO ANTIQUITY. We know that from the frescoes of the villa at Boscoreale, painted around 40-30 B.C. and buried under the lava of Vesuvius. Walls included trompe l’oeil architectural details of a spatially ambiguous but distinctly urban setting. Even in his country house, the old Roman owner wanted reference to what Ben Aronson calls “a city’s urban current.”

Urban Reflections, Ben Aronson

Mr. Aronson’s second exhibition of cityscapes at Tibor de Nagy is a lively blend of architectural and pedestrian scenes of New York, San Francisco and Paris. The grace of effect of these panel paintings lies in his skillful, sensitive massing of light and shadow. Light at different times of day, in different latitudes, under different weather conditions is the essential subject of paintings that rely only anecdotally on particular locations

While some scenes might be worked from studies done directly on site, Mr. Aronson’s approach would not be possible without the camera, a more rapid means of notetaking. His work is far from photorealism but, like much contemporary urban painting, it owes a debt to photography. What matters, of course, is what is accomplished with the photograph, how it is revised to serve larger non-photographic purposes. Mr. Aronson’s transformations are intelligent, painterly and beautiful.

“Late Afternoon Sun by Lincoln Center” (2008) is a particularly vivacious example of his working method. Sunlight divides the architecture of tall buildings from the muted street below. The attention of the viewer travels between the transient luminosity of the structures, a medley of carefully adjusted cadmium yellows, and the play of darkened warm tones at street level. Foreground details blur slightly, as they would if glimpsed quickly in passing.

A similar approach in “Rising Shadows, Boulevard Saint Germain” (2008) turns a tourist snapshot into an essay on movement and color. Retreating light passes through the tops of trees and glances off isolated reflective surfaces in flashes of red and clear cobalt. “Rue de Roi de Sicile” (2008) is a study in gritty Parisian grays, punctuated by the various reds of a canopy, a street light and the back lights of cars. In both pieces, subordination of detail lends an air of solidity and truth to images no more that a foot square.

“Ascending Traffic” (2008) is a steep view down a San Francisco street that slopes toward the Bay. The composition divides diagonally into
distinct zones of gloom and light. The shadow zone is relieved only by hushed reflections on darkened cars, directing the eye to the glow of that side of the street catching the last light before sunset. The slant of late day sun provides a tenebrist’s side lighting that unites disparate buildings in a radiant flare.

“Nighthawks” (2008) is Mr. Aronson’s clever update of Hopper’s 1942 scene in a nighttime diner. The famous lunch counter gives way to a sleek bar in a chic restaurant. An elegant foreground table setting, with silver and linen, highlights today’s greater affluence.

Close-range views of faceless pedestrians, such as “Counterpoint” (2008), tend toward slurry clichés of the anonymous urban crowd. But the large, imposing “Urban Reflections” (2008} is pitch-perfect in its balance of articulation and indistinction. Instead of simply being erased, individuals recede into shadow. Tonal relations integrate passing figures into darkened harmony with the modern building facade that reflects their movement. Nicely done.


“Ben Aronson: Urban Currents” at Tibor de Nagy Gallery until May 17 (724 Fifth Avenue, 212-262-5050)

These reviews appeared first in The New York Sun on April 24 and April 10, 2008, respectively.

Copyright 2008, Maureen Mullarkey

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