Friedel Dzubas: A Short Biography
By Patricia L. Lewy, PhD
In a prolific career that spanned nearly five decades, Friedel Dzubas created a wide-ranging visual language out of counterpoised abstract shapes of color and light. Ranging from Abstract Expressionist gestures in the 1950s to clean-edged discrete pools of chroma on white fields in the 1960s, Dzubas then amassed dynamic shapes of dramatic coloration that exploded on a monumental scale in canvases during the 1970s and 1980s.
Dzubas had been apprenticed to a wall decorations firm in Germany before he was forced to emigrate from Berlin to New York City in 1939 amid the escalating political and racial tensions in Nazi Germany. In New York City he took on odd jobs, working as a bus boy, delivery boy, waiter, and free-lance illustrator until a chance meeting with the publisher William B. Ziff led to a position as head graphic designer for the Chicago publishing firm, ZiffDavis. During this period, Dzubas worked primarily in watercolor, the most readily available and least expensive artistic medium that might provide entrée into the art world. Dzubas’s “neo-romantic” landscapes, as he called them, were accepted into several Chicago Art Institute Watercolor Annuals during those years (1943, 1944, and again in 1948, after his move back to New York in 1945). While living in Chicago, Dzubas found “a very aware, very sharp intellectual group of writers…[who] were very well informed [in] thought, politics, literature, etc. Also art.” It was through this group that Dzubas began reading articles by the Trotskyist New York intellectuals printed in Partisan Review, including editor Clement Greenberg, who would prove decisive for Dzubas’s artistic career. Returning to New York in 1945, Dzubas mixed with the “crowd below 14th Street” and became a “voting member” of the Eight Street Club, a gathering place for New York School artists.
Dzubas came under the influence of Greenberg in 1948 when he responded to an add Greenberg had placed in the Partisan Review for summer lodging. They remained close friends over subsequent decades until their deaths – both in 1994. Through Greenberg’s auspices, Dzubas showed at “Talent 50,” jointly curated by Meyer Schapiro and Greenberg, participated in the “Ninth Street Show” in 1951, and by 1952 had his first one-person exhibition at the Tibor de Nagy Gallery. From 1958, Dzubas exhibited at the Leo Castelli Gallery, the Robert Elkon Gallery from 1961, where the dealer Robert Elkon presented him in several significant solo exhibitions, moving on to the Andre Emmerich Gallery in the latter part of the decade. During this period, Dzubas was included in exhibitions such as “Sixty American Painters 1960” at the Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, “Abstract Expressionists and Imagists at the Guggenheim Museum” in 1961, the 1961 Pittsburgh International Exhibition, the Corocoran 28th Biennial of 1963, The Whitney Annual of 1963, and “Black and White” at the Jewish Museum in 1964. Greenberg included Dzubas in “Post Painterly Abstraction” at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in 1964, in which the critic had gathered under this loose rubric a group of color-based abstract painters.
With representation in America (Lawrence Rubin, Knoedler, and Emmerich, New York and Nicholas Wilder, Los Angeles, among others), the United Kingdom (Kasmin Ltd., London), Canada (David Mirvish Gallery, Toronto), and Germany (Hans Strelow) in the 1960s and 1970s, the success of Dzubas’s career was assured. He left New York City in 1967 for a teaching position at Cornell University, and then moved to Cambridge, Massachusetts as visiting artist at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston from 1976 to 1983. While in Boston, Dzubas was commissioned by Shawmut Bank of Boston to create a gargantuan-sized painting – 13 ½ x 57 ½ feet – for the lobby, the largest abstract painting in America to date.
Dzubas’s teaching was legendary, having evolved a strong rapport with students over many years, from early on at the University of South Florida, Dartmouth College, and Sarah Lawrence College, to later in his career at Cornell University and the Museum School (Boston), in addition to various workshops such the Emma Lake Workshop in Canada. Dzubas had four major museum exhibitions, the first at the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston, followed by a retrospective of his 1970s work at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston and the Kunsthalle, Bielefeld, Germany. A major retrospective of Dzubas’s work was mounted by the curator Charles Millard in 1983 at the Hirshhorn Museum & Sculpture Garden, Washington, D.C. Dzubas was featured in countless one-person gallery exhibitions throughout his lifetime and after, for example, the stunning exhibition of monumental works at the Sam and Adele Golden Gallery in 2014. Dzubas died in 1994 after a long illness at age 79. 2015 marks the centennial year of his birth, celebrated by exhibitions at the Loretta Howard Gallery with works from the 1970s and at the Elkon Gallery with works from the 1960s.