An artist who seeks subject matter is like a person who can’t get up in the morning until he understands the purpose of life.
Porter could easily have said the same about segments of art’s audience. There lingers a tired complaint that unless some aspect of the human condition presents itself—some scene, narrative, or vignette—an artwork appears empty, dehumanized, self-absorbed. Among this species of beholders, interest is tethered to subject matter. The art of a work is little more than a carrier for the anecdotal burden of the piece. Art itself is valued primarily as a reflection of, or window into, higher things.
Such an unhappy position to take—rather like being unable to listen to music without a libretto to go with it. Hostility to philosophical modernism still overflows onto the art that accompanied it. Much loveliness is missed in the spillage.
That brings me to Bruce Dorfman, a artist whose work has captivated me all the years I have known it. His latest exhibition opened September 4th at June Kelly Gallery in Soho. The enduring accomplishment of his art is evident in this handsome, intelligent show.
Since his works combine both painting and assemblage, Dorfman describes them as composite paintings. The qualifier places his work in a line of descent from Kurt Schwitters’ initial Merz pieces, composed in the wake of World War I. These were collages and assemblages of found objects, evocative fragments of things from everyday life selected for arrangement in what can be thought of as painting with materials.
Dorfman has contributed to the practice built on that precedent for several decades, extending its pictorial possibilities with great chromatic sensitivity. It is precisely his gift for color that makes painting central to the work and that integrates the two techniques into a satisfying whole. Color remains the decisive element in his work. Materials, chosen for the holding power of their shapes, are left as they come or painted over to suit the harmonies of a composition. The detail, below, gives you a clearer look at the delicate transparencies and undertones he achieves within each chromatic zone.
Tucked into the upper left corner of this detail [above] is an image of Michael the Archangel torn from an old book of Russian icons. Its discreet presence—here, a droplet in a large rondel—hints at the source of the hieratic quality characteristic of my favorite Dorfman paintings: his signature vertical compositions. The heart of good pictorial art lies in its adjustment between the sense—sensation—of depth and the reality of a flat substrate. Dorfman negotiates that illusive balance with enviable agility. Your eye sinks into the surface of the materials. All invitation to movement is there, in the advance and recession of dimensional elements and in the spatial expressiveness of color. Yet the work in its entirety achieves a certain stillness. It is the poise associated with traditional icon painting. Looking at icons strictly as abstract compositions, they achieve their equilibrium through a hieratic scale of proportion that distributes color and shape according to weight. Dorfman does the same.
Phyllis Braff, writing in The New York Times of an earlier exhibition, described him quite well:
The precision with which he uses found objects sets Mr. Dorfman’s work apart. It is always clear that each item is playing multiple roles: establishing the essentials of the composition, providing tactile and reflective qualities and introducing suggestions of previous uses, personal history, or past events. . . . There is an unexpected elegance in the way Mr. Dorfman makes adjustment to scale and gives the smaller compositions the character of something quite grand.
It should be no surprise that many distinguished artists have preferred to teach in those uncommon institutions that maintain similarity to the historic atelier system. As is natural among academics, the conceptual trumps the visual. But in the atelier—a workshop—art making remains, above all else, a labor. The Art Students League remains just such a place. And Bruce Dorfman has served it with distinction.
Dorfman began his own training there under Yasuo Kuniyoshi before going on to the University of Iowa in the late Fifties. He returned to the League as an instructor in 1964, and teaches there still. For half a century, Dorfman has provided ballast for artists drawn to painting’s means as a carrier of its own ends—beauty, paramount among them. This, during decades swollen with illusions about art’s grand aims and the artist’s visionary role.
Aesthetic modernism is too often faulted for what, in reality, is the result of the academy’s appropriation of art training. Blame the state of contemporary art on captivity of the atelier by the podium. Critical theory, reigning in the classroom, is no help inside the studio where the only ideas that matter are pictorial ones. And where words do not matter at all.
Dorfman is an artist who understands that. The animated tactility of his work testifies to the obstinate fact that art comes to us from gifted hands in service to an eye. At the end of the day, sensibility is everything.