Photo credit: Matthew Septimus

Editor’s note: This autumn, David Yezzi, The New Criterion’s Executive Editor, interviewed the figurative painter John Dubrow at his studio on Warren Street in Lower Manhattan.

TNC: When I first got to know your work, you were finishing a large painting of figures in Prospect Park. Then, later, you were among a group of painters working on the top floors of the Twin Towers. Those World Trade Center paintings became very important for you.

DUBROW: In the 1980s, I had been painting cityscapes from rooftops near my studio in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. At the time, I was alternating between observed cityscapes and imagined scenes of people moving in urban environments, with the occasional portrait. So, when the World Trade Center project happened, it was a very natural extension of my city paintings.

The first time I went up to the eighty-fifth floor, I looked down and was overwhelmed. To take it all in, I had to look through three separate windows, because the painting I ended up doing—of Manhattan looking uptown—was 90 by 96 inches. Yet even though it was a cityscape, it was closer in a way to the abstract paintings I had done early on. The city seemed completely Cubist from up there. There were so many facets! When you look from that height, the whole thing becomes just a fragmented mess of stuff. And I thought, “What a great thing to be able to try and organize this.” I spent a year up in the World Trade Center. Rackstraw Downes was there, painting interiors, on his own floor. There were fourteen or fifteen of us, including my friend Diana Horowitz and Lois Dodd.

In the meantime, I was finishing that Prospect Park painting. For three years, I had worked almost every day on it, without working on anything else. Thankfully, the World Trade Center project rescued me from working much longer on that painting!

TNC: The Prospect Park painting hung for years in the lobby of the Hilton in Midtown. The canvas got quite heavy, didn’t it?

DUBROW: It’s hundreds of pounds. The paint was almost half an inch thick, more. The whole thing was billowing and collapsing from the weight. Each day, I kept thinking that the resolution was going to be today!

The crazy thing about thinking that you can resolve a painting in a day—and it can happen that way in paintings—is that sometimes you have to wait. There are so many false endings. With this painting, it took three years for that day to arrive.

After that—and after painting the entirety of New York City and the harbor—I wondered where I might go to paint another city. It was really just a random thought. Someone suggested that Jerusalem would be interesting to paint, and before I knew it I was there painting the entirety of that city from a hillside. What started as a six week trip turned into seven months and three large paintings. But I haven’t done a lot of cityscapes from life since. It’s been about ten years since I painted a cityscape that way without figures.

TNC: You started out by painting large, figurative paintings, didn’t you. Where was that?

DUBROW: I studied at Syracuse University and at Camberwell in London, but my training really began in San Francisco, at the Art Institute, which was very Bay Area Figurative–based. I had two professors: Bruce McGaw, a figurative painter who had been friends with Diebenkorn and Park, and Julius Hatofsky, who was a close friend of Hilton Kramer’s and a second-generation abstract expressionist.

Camberwell had a very strong tradition of figurative painting, but I wasn’t ready to take advantage of that. Then, when I got out to San Francisco, I saw an early Diebenkorn. I saw James Weeks and Elmer Bishoff, and I thought, “Oh, this is something.”

Image courtesy of the artist.

TNC: Early Diebenkorn, meaning figurative Diebenkorn?

DUBROW: Yes, the post–New Mexico Die-benkorn. I remember the first painting I did under McGaw, of a fisherman on the island of Ischia, where I had been traveling. (I had taken a photo. Back then I had no qualms about working from photos, which I do now.) I finished this painting in a week, and he came over and said, “What would happen if you moved the door to the right-hand side? As opposed to where it is now, over on the left.”

It was like a light bulb going on in my head. The idea that a painting is flexible and that this solution that you think you have can be completely moved to something else was so extraordinary. And I started doing it. There was a sort of high, like a euphoria, in the act of changing dramatically a painting. It’s worth talking about, the act of moving things around in paintings, because most of the time the resolution of a painting for me comes with a dramatic change in the very basis of the composition.

TNC: What was your work with Hatofsky like?

DUBROW: Hatofsky was an abstract expressionist who incorporated some figurative language into his work. I began to be very influenced by him as a young graduate student. My work began to shift from large figurative paintings, which were multi-figure paintings and landscapes—not so unlike what I’m doing now, but less developed—into abstraction. It happened over four or five months; every painting got closer to abstraction, and then all of a sudden I looked up and I was an abstract painter.

I worked that way for a year and a half or two years, and then the reverse happened. Over the course of a few months and a few paintings, I began to be more figurative. The abstractions were always done in a very similar way to my figurative paintings. I would go out and draw on the street or in a landscape, and I’d come back with these drawings and put the thing together through the shapes and forms I had found outside.

Image courtesy of the artist.

TNC: It strikes me that that tension—between pushing things towards abstraction and then pulling them back to the figure—has remained an important dynamic in your work.

DUBROW: It’s at the core of what I do. I think that over the past thirty years, I’ve been edging more towards abstraction at certain points by allowing the flat planes of color to become more dominant. At other times, I hold more to perceptual detail. I don’t want to say it’s realism, because it’s not that. There’s some realism to it, because all of my paintings are tied to a moment in time that I’ve experienced. But they’re also tied to the inherent properties of an abstract picture. So you’ve got these two things, which are fighting each other in a way. I think that’s the reason it takes me sometimes eighteen months to resolve a picture. These things don’t necessarily sit easily together.

TNC: How have portraits and self-portraits figured in your work? 

DUBROW: The self-portraits are simply when I have no one to paint, and I don’t want to paint a cityscape. I always swear that this will be the last one, because they are intensely difficult, but not because of any psychological drama of looking at oneself in the mirror. It has to do with the mirror as a funny visual construct. It’s got this bluish-greenish light.

Also, one tends to look in a mirror very differently from how one looks at the world. You focus on objects in a mirror differently. When I’m scanning the world, my eye is bouncing around and taking in bits and pieces and also at the same time zeroing in on something. In a mirror, one tends to look into one’s own eyes, and the color relationships are all messed up, because of the blue-green tint. There’s all sorts of stuff that goes on with self-portraits. So I always swear that this is the last one I’ll do. Then I come to the end of a painting, and I don’t have a model that I’m interested in painting, and I do another one. 

TNC: The self-portraits are all quite different. They seem to follow the movement in your work toward a kind of realism and then recede back into abstraction. Is that a way for you to check in on your relationship with that dynamic?

DUBROW: It ends up being one, in retrospect. When I look back at a series of self-portraits, they become a very interesting record of where I was formally—where I was on that line between figuration and abstraction.

I think that, earlier in my painting life, I felt like I had to choose in a much stronger way between those approaches. When I was doing the World Trade Center paintings or the Israel paintings, I felt very tied to a sort of faithfulness. Even though my process didn’t change, my conceptual idea of faithfulness was so strong at that point. It was as if I needed to record every moment that I was seeing. And then I had the kickback from that, where all of a sudden I wanted to flatten things out and become much less [constrained by the external object]. So I sort of hit a wall with that and had to go in the other direction and flatten out these large planes of color. When an old friend of mine saw those paintings from 2005, he said, “These remind me of someone I knew in art school. Wait, they remind me of you in art school, when you were just getting into abstraction.” So, things kind of came full circle, and I was finally able to approach that synthesis between figuration and abstraction that had interested me early on. Now I feel like I’m still integrating those two approaches. It’s a painting-by-painting situation, where I’m not tied to a certain idea of how my paintings should look.

TNC: So, as you say, you’ve been doing a lot of figurative painting in urban settings, but not really painting the city from life at a panoramic level. 

DUBROW: It’s a very different thing because I’m inventing these paintings now, whereas those paintings were these records of standing in a spot for several months and trying to organize the information that I was confronted with, very much like the portraits that I do. I felt a little boxed-in after the Israel pictures, this process of confronting nature.

TNC: Well, you can’t really move the door to the right-hand side if you’re trying to get the city exactly so.

DUBROW: What would happen is, rather than move the door to the right-hand side, I would move the entire city to the right-hand side. What I would actually do is, say, I’ve got a street going down the center with buildings coming up on the right-hand side, I’d move the entire street three inches over and paint everything again. Every few months I would.

In Tel Aviv, after painting for three months on a rooftop, I brought the painting down to my studio and moved the horizon line down four inches. So, there is a sense of “moving the door.” But there’s not the sense of “I’m taking out this building.” I’m always deciding what one chooses to locate in the picture. I’m trying to move a viewer’s eye in a certain kind of way.

Bruce Gagnier by John Dubrow. Image courtesy of the artist.

TNC: You’re using an iPad these days?

DUBROW: In my figure paintings and in the abstractions early on, I’ve always gone outside and done lots and lots of thumbnail drawings. Most of the time those drawings would just end up on the studio floor. Every painting had hundreds of little sketches. I would go back repeatedly to the motif. I would get new ideas for figure arrangements, and I would be looking at the shapes in tree foliage. I’d get all sorts of ideas about how things work in life. Then I read in the Times about David Hockney using this Brushes app. At first I thought, This sounds like nonsense to me. I’m as much a part of the digital age as anyone else, but my method was something I’d been doing for twenty years. I never had a use for going into Photoshop and seeing, if I made that purple shirt red, what that would do. That would cut short the exploration and discovery in the studio that is so much a part of it for me.

So, I downloaded this app on my iPhone. It’s a little difficult drawing with one’s finger, but all of a sudden I realized that I had color in my pocket. I can go out and do what I’ve been doing for twenty-five years, and now I have color. It was almost as if I had a watercolor pad and watercolors.

In my old sketchbook drawings, I would make little notes about color, like Bonnard used to, and write in “chartreuse,” for example, or “violet.” I also have a good visual memory, so I try to go to locations and really absorb what the color feels like for me, so that when I get back to the studio have a clear memory of it.

All of a sudden, I began going out with the iPad. Although I have to sketch in the shade, because of how the screen works—you can’t see it in the sun—I now can get very specific colors. In the studio, of course, I’m always pushing the color—either suppressing it or heightening it—depending on what the painting needs. Since I’ve started going out with my iPad, I’ve almost entirely stopped drawing in a sketchbook.

In the same way as with my drawings, I never work up the iPad sketches into anything more than scribbles. It’s very important to me that all the research be done on the paintings themselves. The sketches are just a notation. There’s something about the improvisatory act of painting for me: I find the painting through that act.

TNC: To return to the portraits: You’ve painted some very notable subjects, painters like William Bailey, poets like Mark Strand, other artists. What’s your relationship to your subjects? Has it been rocky at times?

DUBROW: A lot of times I don’t know the people I’m painting very well, and I get to know them over the course of the many sessions that they pose for me. (Sometimes it can be as many as 15 or 20 sessions or as few as 6 or 7.) It’s mostly been an extraordinary process of getting to know somebody. I don’t have a clear sense of the portrait, of what the sort of narrative is going to be up front. I don’t know what my take is going to be. I wait. In the first day or two, when we set up the parameters of the picture, I want them to be as comfortable as possible. I’m looking for a moment when they seem most themselves, whatever that is.

It’s a very easy process for my subjects, because all they’re doing is talking most of the time. They’re not keeping still. One of the things that’s so surprising for people when I paint them is that they’re allowed to move around. They’re not holding a pose. In a very loose way, they’re keeping their . . .

TNC: Their disposition in space, in a certain way?

DUBROW: Yeah. Like in my cityscape paintings, so much is in the relationship of the colors—of the blue on that shoulder to the grey on the back wall. When I’m there painting, that’s a lot of what I’m doing. The likeness is almost incidental. The likeness comes out as we continue on the painting. It’s almost as if it emerges on its own. I’m not worried about a likeness. I am thinking about a kind of expression they might have. But that’s much further down the line, when I’ve seen a whole range of their expressions and I decide to choose what seems most pertinent to the painting.

Image courtesy of the artist.

TNC: So then, what is a portrait, exactly?

DUBROW: The portrait is a combination of the subject and me and the choices that I’m making. Most people have a very clear sense of their image, and it can be difficult at times to have this new concept of your image in the world. Oftentimes, if there’s hesitation on their part when I’m finished, it’s because they’ve never seen this particular image of themselves, and it takes a while for them to take it in and accept it. I remember someone I painted, a writer, worrying about the image I had arrived at, and I said: “There are so many other images of you out in the world. Don’t worry; this is just one of many.” And he said, “But they’ll only believe you.” There’s something about painting that takes on its own life. We believe the Picasso portrait of Gertrude Stein more than we believe the photographs of her. It’s just extraordinary.

In the portraits, it really is an ensemble. The reason that I go to their apartments or their places of work is not simply because I want to get a whole new range of color and possibilities for my painting. That’s one of the reasons. The other reason is that I want to paint a person in their environment and relate them to their life in some way. This is very important to me. 

TNC: You often travel to see Old Master works. How have they influenced you?

DUBROW: When I was younger, when I was in art school, I remember going to the Gardner to see The Rape of Europa. I stood in front of that painting for several hours and tried to deconstruct the decisions that went into how it was made. In a way, I tried to imagine myself as the painter. I was never much interested in trying to emulate or approximate what an Old Master painting looked like. What I was trying to figure out was, What were the structural issues in this painting and how did they shift as the painter made this? I went back repeatedly, day after day, and planted myself in front of The Rape of Europa. The guards didn’t know what to make of me.

When The Flaying of Marsyas came to London in 1984, I spent a week in front of that painting, trying to figure out how Titian’s mind put that painting together. I felt that the longer I spent with it the more I could internalize it and, in a way, the more I could forget it. When I went back into the studio with those things that I had learned, I wouldn’t be thinking about them anymore. It would be somehow part of my toolbox. Some sort of memory of it would almost get into my dna—all the decisions that a painting goes through to get to a satisfactory resolution.

At the same time I was doing that with those Titians, I was painting abstractions and moving forms around. Each day I would have a composition, and each day I would change it. This could go on seemingly indefinitely. It’s what I’ve been doing more or less ever since. The painting is flexible, the composition never fixed. It’s almost by trial and error, where error is the rule; error is the vehicle though which I finally surprise myself into a resolution that holds.

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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 31 Number 4, on page 43
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