John Dubrow at Lori Bookstein Fine Art

Unsentimental: John Dubrow’s <i>Self Portrait</i> (2007).<br /> (Lori Bookstein Fine Art)John Dubrow, Self-Portrait (2007), oil on canvas; courtesy Lori Bookstein Fine Art

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Drive—aesthetic drive—is rare in contemporary art. Commerce is the thing. And John Dubrow, whose paintings are at Lori Bookstein Fine Art, wants to sell his art as much as the next guy. But viewers will recognize that commerce is the last thing on Mr. Dubrow’s mind when he’s in the studio. His paintings are relentlessly independent, his drive is never in question and, boy, is it intimidating.

Initiative counts for bubkes if the results are lousy; drive can’t be the sole determinant of merit. Mr. Dubrow’s paintings, whether it’s a portrait of his dealer or a cityscape, evince this simple truth. Looking at them is to know an unforgiving temperament. Mr. Dubrow’s standards are almost unbearably high.

Each painting at Bookstein is articulated with impressive dexterity. Putting oils to canvas with a palette knife—look closely and you’ll spy fleeting charges of a brush—Mr. Dubrow lays down dense and solid chunks of color, texture and space, offering a tangible record of the picture’s shaping. Even then, the paintings feel in flux, as if Mr. Dubrow doubts that a particular pictorial criterion has been met. But that’s his problem, not ours. The paintings are good to look at.

Notwithstanding tenures in Paris and Israel, Mr. Dubrow is a New York artist. The city has prompted his most far-reaching pictures as seen in previous exhibitions. Views of Manhattan, painted from an 85th floor of the World Trade Center in 1997, capture the city’s architectural sweep and complexity—they’re as severe as the headiest Cubist picture. The post-9/11Prince and Broadway (2002-2003) is, in heartbreaking contrast, haunted by history.

In recent years, Mr. Dubrow has reclaimed New York and its public spaces as Edenic retreats. Composition (Midday) (2007-2008), the centerpiece of the Bookstein exhibition and the largest painting on view, is a light-filled vista of what appears to be Union Square Park. Visitors sit on benches, converse, daydream and, in the foreground, tap away at the laptop. Concision is the rule. The towering building on the left is upfront geometry—Mondrian basking in the sunshine.

Mr. Dubrow’s art is inching ever closer to abstraction. Flat planes of color abut each other; forms are constructed like puzzles. Paint becomes all but completely independent—a shock of creamy white spreads and sprawls over the bottom section of Composition (Midday). An immaculate clatter of books, the sleeves of a shirt and the startlingly simplified Charlotte(2007) retain descriptive intricacy even as Mr. Dubrow’s palette knife bluntly abbreviates it.

Mr. Dubrow’s palette is, in fits and starts, gaining in intensity and saturation. A master of rich chromatic restraint, the paintings are now punctuated by uninflected bursts of hard purple, red and, in the eye-popping shirt worn by Christina (2008), crisp aquamarine. These colors are stringent and seductive, and controlled with startling subtlety. How Mr. Dubrow holds in check the high and bright blue seen in the sleeves worn by Marc (2006) is something of a wonder.

Mr. Dubrow’s portraits are odd, at once hugely specific and forever distant. You intuit the connection Mr. Dubrow holds for his subject in, say, Bruce(2008), but stern sobriety pervades and upsets the pictures. It’s not that he doesn’t care for these people; his priorities are rooted elsewhere. Mr. Dubrow is as ruthless as Matisse and as disbelieving as Giacometti. Self-Portrait (2007) is a daunting exemplar of his persistence.

Mr. Dubrow’s art has the heft and monumentality of geological formations; the particular and ephemeral are given structure and the temporary guarantee of permanence. The more his eye investigates, the more absorbing and impenetrable becomes the subject of attention. Mr. Dubrow invites us to take in his paintings with the same degree of rigor he brings to creating them. They are a workout and a pleasure.

© 2008 Mario Naves

Originally published in the May 13, 2008 edition of The New York Observer.

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