Charles DuBack: by color alone

By Rufus Foshee | Nov 08, 2009

Though Charles DuBack, who has spent a lot of his life on the river in St. George, has had several small shows in Midcoast Maine recently, his show at the Center for Maine Contemporary Art in Rockport in 2004 was his last major show.

One has to be careful to avoid tripping on one's own words, not only regarding the work of DuBack, but also art in general. Writing of the DuBack show in Rockport in 2004 in Art In America, Carl Little was quick to point out, "... two oils exemplify DuBack's primary subjects: the figure and the landscape (the two are sometimes combined).” What Little failed to point out is, when they are combined is it a figure painting or is it a landscape? Perhaps it might be called a "figurescape," as useful as any word if one must attach labels.

I have had the privilege of seeing many of DuBack's works, some of which have not been shown publicly, among them his night paintings, drawings on paper. Seeing these works, and having seen a great many others, I am reminded that one needs to have seen many to get a feel about the work over his long career.

I am a bit of a coward in taking the easy path in writing about art. I hold firmly that all painting is only color and that all color is form, therefore avoiding hang-ups about landscapes or figures, the abstract or the real.

On more than one occasion, I have wished that children did not have art classes. They should be left alone with materials with which to work and not guided as to what is acceptable and what is not. When I have talked to young people about art, I have used one of Louise Nevelson’s edicts, "There is only one line, you can bend it any way you please," remembering that a line is form, therefore color.

DuBack, above all, is a carefully calibrated colorist, evidenced by his work and his color charts in his studio. Some might call his colors surreal, as they have those of Helen Frankenthaler.

Words become more and more meaningless because the society we live in places so little importance on their meaning. But as the concept of surreal art was established in the early 20th century, many felt it was depicting an unreal object in a real place. Limited though such a definition may be, it has meaning.

But if one is going to say that color is surreal, a greater demand for explication must be made. Looking back over centuries of painting, which artists had real colors, which did not?

In the development of American art, Georgia O'Keeffe put out her challenge as early as 1916, causing her contemporaries, men, to declare that she was too colorful.

Looking back over that early development, in the late 19th century and early 20th century, one might easily argue that it was past time for more color. O'Keeffe had it. If anyone is in doubt, examine her 1916-18 watercolors.

Just what curator Susan Danly had in mind when she organized the current DuBack exhibition at the Portland Museum of Art is difficult to tell. Within its limited range, there is the risk that viewers may go away with a misimpression. Much of Duback’s work that is here is from the very middle of the 20th century and, as I think the curator intended, one sees why this exhibition is called "Coming to Maine." What is revealed, clearly, is what Duback had witnessed during his years in New York, and foretells what will follow as he worked over decades.

When Danly was pressed for further explanation for the limitations of this exhibition she said it was the only space she had. Not a valid criteria for such a determination.

As DuBack worked in the 1950s, one sees his turning point about 1960, when large surfaces were reduced to color grids that one may see as more abstract or more realistic at the same time.

As one enters the elevator hall, there are exhibited a good many DuBack miniatures more related to his earlier work that one fears may not be noticed at all.

The Portland curatorial department has not followed the growing custom of providing editorial information in large print accompanying the works of the artists. Such material is often very helpful, unlike the current printing on the elevator walls and a voice repeating those words. One might prefer canned music.

Though I know DuBack's work well, this exhibition makes little sense, reminding one that it might have been lifted out of a large retrospective, leaving one to wonder what happened after 1960. The answer is a great deal.

Now that the Portland Museum has teased the public with this minor exhibition, perhaps it will mount a full retrospective and give the public an opportunity to see DuBack's development over decades.
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