The Art Students League is pleased to present a limited retrospective highlighting the pivotal moments in Bruce Dorfman’s more than five-decade long career. Independent from passing artistic trends, Dorfman has steadfastly developed a personal direction in his work that integrates an expressive use of color with combinations of materials to create what he regards as “composite” paintings. His enduring inspiration has been a deep love of found and transformed everyday objects and the art of the Sung Dynasty, Ukyo-e, Constructivism, painted sculpture, Marino Marini, and, most profoundly, Piero della Francesa. A survey of his work illustrates a clear trajectory from an early interest in still life and landscape painting, to a decade of figuration, followed by combinations of figuration and construction. His recent work challenges traditional lines between painting and sculpture with circular shaped compositions and layers of fabric, metal, and wood that protrude beyond the conventional limits of the canvas.
Looking at the development of his work overtime, Dorfman sees a great deal of continuity. When viewing his 2016 retrospective at Monmouth University he noted an “overall sense of unity within all of the variation that occurred. There was a strong governing sense of personality and choice that ran through the whole thing.” Despite Dorfman’s awareness of, and reverence for, the choices that drive the creative process, the artist’s emotions and experience are at the core of the work. “The way my art looks, and the feelings my art reflects, is not the result of a self-conscious decision, but rather the result of a deeply felt need, and a given use of formal means. Both the need and the formal means are rooted in an extreme intensity of experience.”
A formative experience in Dorfman’s early career occurred while he was studying with Yasuo Kuniyoshi and Arnold Blanch at the League’s Woodstock campus in 1952. Kuniyoshi often brought in his favorite objects from his home for the students to paint. One day he selected a prized pair of English stoneware pitchers, which he had used in his own painting. Dorfman vividly remembers that Kuniyoshi became furious when he found his students were simply rendering the pitchers rather than really seeing them. “He took the pitchers, smashed them on the table, and said, ‘There, now paint that!’ and left. He didn’t come back until the following week. I took that very seriously. It was a hell of a sacrifice for him to make in order to try to give us something, in terms of an understanding.” In response, Dorfman painted Broken Pitchers, composing the fractured vessels to create an implicit perpendicular. This structure establishes strong horizontal and vertical forms as a continuing and important feature of Dorfman’s work. The interplay between circular and rectangular forms and the tension between representation and abstraction created by the deconstruction of the pitcher into floating fragments would become recurring themes, to this day.
While Arnold Blanch praised Broken Pitchers for its beauty, Kuniyoshi responded with a critical warning: “If you keep painting that way, you’ll be dead by the time you are thirty.” Dorfman interpreted this as a caution that the painting was too perfect, too resolved, and that it was essential that the creative process be allowed to generate questions—not only answers—that propel the artist to continue to create. For Dorfman, this very early painting established crucial and enduring concepts for art-making both compositionally and philosophically.
Throughout the 1960s, Dorfman further explored the relationship between representation and abstraction in Greenleaves (1960) and Umbrian Landscape (1961), expressing the colors and rhythms of the Tuscan countryside as shifting and interlocking color blocks and transforming a vase of plants with suggestive brush marks into a study of different hues of green.
The figure appears repeatedly in Dorfman’s work from the sixties, such as his iconic Woodstock poster, where a young woman is shown in profile tying back her hair with a long red ribbon. Although she is the centerpiece of the composition, she is rendered incisively in contour lines and is somewhat ethereal. The viewer’s eye gravitates first not to her face, which is only glimpsed in profile, but to the dynamic lines of her red ribbon. By the end of the decade, Dorfman eliminated figurative elements, but has continued to reevaluate the conceptual underpinnings of that choice. A silhouette of a female, again seen in profile, reoccurs in his 2005 painting Aria One. This time the figure is in a face-off with a strong vertical strip of canvas painted sky blue. In this reverential pairing of abstract form and representational subject matter, the powerful blue vertical zip dominates.
Dorfman began developing his signature style in the 1980s, when he combined vertically oriented canvas with horizontal bands of found materials such as wood, paper, and metal. He meticulously arranged the salvaged objects, incorporating them into compositions that harness the evocative and emotive power of color. The narrow, rectangular format of these works may derive from the ancient scroll format of Far Eastern painting, which Dorfman’s titles sometimes reference as sources. Many of his works have musical references as well. White Graphite, 1989, was inspired “by the look of black on a sheet of music paper, the amount of compression the notes are placed under,” and considers the formal interaction between opposites. Dorfman “had a feeling about trying to pressure black—get it caught between all the areas of white. It creates a strange kind of poetic.” He returned to this theme, decades later, in the small composite Dover Et Dieppe, 2007, layering fragments of black and grey torn paper between strips of white wood.
In tandem with the large-scale pieces, throughout his career Dorfman has created smaller works, such as Fielder’s Choice (1983–85), Portuguese Doorway (1993) and more recently his Flite series (2012–15) that function similarly to preparatory drawings. Dorfman explains: “The making of these small pieces is a kind of drawing. In an important way, they inform the development of the larger paintings—they open up areas of concern that I might not have seen earlier. It’s especially surprising to me when I take a small piece and blow it up into a transparency. There are ideas that come from that I use later on.” In the small-format pieces he experiments freely, layering strips of metal, small pieces of torn paper, and occasionally dollops of pure pigment.
The Flite series, which develops motifs related to an arrow-like form that also appears in the 2009 work Windsock, has been especially significant. The arrow is condensed in Flite III, piercing the core of cluster of black, white, and red paint, reduced to a single slanted directional line in Flight IV, rendered in cut paper in Flite V and Flite VI, and completely deconstructed in Flite VII, only to return larger and bolder in Flite VIII. The series informed other major works from this period including Chinatown (2013–15) and Odessa (2012–15), both of which employ assemblage to play with the boundary between two-dimensional painting and a wall-mounted sculpture.
Whereas Chinatown and Odessa puncture the traditional rectangular frame with protruding pieces at the edges, in the early 2000s Dorfman also began creating circular-shaped constructions, initially in a small format. The circle is a central component to the pivotal work Woodrose (2010), where the shift to a horizontal orientation anticipates the creation of two vibrant, large circular compositions Bernini’s Dream and Sung Red the following year. These composites, featuring undulating strips of fabric and vivid colors, possess a monumentality that is reinforced by their tondo format, with its roots in Renaissance painting and sculpture.
One of the more classical tenets of Dorfman’s work is his commitment to creating art that is life-affirming and beautiful. He has “no interest in an art of rejection, or alienation, or denial, or rebellion or anything of that sort.” In tandem with the abstract expressionist and constructivist influences in his work, Dorfman admires Piero della Francesca’s painting. His appreciation was reinforced by conversations with Philip Guston, while Dorfman was studying at Woodstock. Looking at the Renaissance master’s painting Dorfman observes: “The beauty with which Piero sings his song, the song itself, the many meanings of his art, are felt and grasped. Access to the art itself is made possible, directly.”
As a teacher at the Art Students League since 1964, Dorfman is an important link between great modernist painters such as Kuniyoshi, Blanch, Guston, and Charles Alston and the many contemporary artists he has taught over the years. Among them are the renowned conceptual and video artists Ai Weiwei and Gary Hill. Dorfman’s artistic philosophy is palpable when standing in front of his complex but elegant constructions. In his words, “Each and every work is inevitably new, with its own problems and joys. The problems are always in abundance, but the joys more than make up for them.”
Bruce Dorfman / Inclusive Moments: Selected Works opens October 5 and continues through January 5 in the Gallery of the American Fine Arts Society.
- Stephanie Cassidy, “Bruce Dorfman: The Retrospective Interview,” Linea: The Artists Voice, December 19, 2016.
- Bruce Dorfman, “About My Work,” distributed on the occasion of a Gallery Talk given by the artist at the June Kelly Gallery NYC, October 3, 2015. Reprinted in Bruce Dorfman: Past Present: Paintings, Drawings and Combined Media. New Jersey: Monmouth University, 2016, 3.
- Stephanie Cassidy, “Bruce Dorfman: The Retrospective Interview.”
- Gerrit Henry, Bruce Dorfman: Paintings and Collages 1989–1990. Washington, D.C.: Arts East Foundation, 1990, 4.
- Ibid, 3.
- Renée Lerner, Taped Interview with Bruce Dorfman at the Art Students League, December 31, 1985, 3. Cited in Lois Katz, Bruce Dorfman: Nightsongs and Placefields Paintings. Washington D.C.: Arts East Foundation, 1988, 10.
- Bruce Dorfman, “Piero della Francesca in America,” Linea: The Artists Voice, March 24, 2013.
- Bruce Dorfman, “About My Work.”