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 from counterpoised abstract shapes of brushed color, which he juxtaposed, overlapped, and opened up to reveal his gessoed grounds. These embodied color forms constitute the overriding motif of Dzubas’s mature style and stand in contrast to the stain paintings by Morris Louis, Kenneth Noland, Jules Olitski, and Helen Frankenthaler, among others. Pouring or brushing acrylic paint onto raw canvas, these painters created fields of color that took on the appearance of dyed cloth. Dzubas, in contrast, primed every painting he ever made, but for a small series of bedsheet paintings in 1957 and a group of “black drawings” created between 1959 and 1962. Like Rothko and Newman, Dzubas applied paint over his grounds in a thin, texturally uniform manner. Yet, it was not until 1966—a decade after his painter colleagues—that Dzubas abandoned oils for synthetic acrylic colors. He would utilize “Magna” acrylic for the remainder of his career. Such flattened fields of hue were theorized by celebrated critic Clement Greenberg as examples of “Post Painterly Abstraction” or generally, “Color Field” painting.
Dzubas had been apprenticed to a wall decorations firm in Berlin before he was forced to emigrate to New York City in 1939 amid the escalating political and racial tensions in Nazi Germany. At first, 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 mixed with “a very aware, very sharp intellectual group of writers…[who] were very well informed [in] thought, politics, literature, etc. Also art.” Through them, Dzubas was exposed to essays published by Trotskyist New York intellectuals printed in Partisan Review, including several by Greenberg. 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 direct influence of Greenberg in 1948 when he responded to an ad Greenberg had placed in the Partisan Review for summer lodgings. Dzubas offered his newly leased sublet in Connecticut. Greenberg accepted and 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 and then with 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 Corcoran 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.
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, 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 what became his magnum opus, Crossing (Apocalypsis cum figuras), 1975, a mural 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 retrospectives of his 1970s work at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, and another retrospective at 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. That year, “Big Redux: Friedel Dzubas Mural Paintings,” was curated by Ai Kato and Patricia L Lewy at the gallery at Tower 49 in Manhattan. Among many large-scale paintings, it featured the first showing of Crossing (Apocalypsis cum figuras), 1975, in twenty-five years. Subsequent exhibitions have followed, an show of early work at the Loretta Howard Gallery and a major exhibition of a wide range of paintings at the artist’s estate gallery, Yares Art, in 2019.