ArtWeekend

Encountering “The Fulbright Triptych”

A rare sighting of an elusive painting.

Simon Dinnerstein, “The Fulbright Triptych” (1971–74), oil on wood panels, overall: 79 1/2 x 156 inches, Palmer Museum of Art, The Pennsylvania State University, purchased with funds provided by the Friends of the Palmer Museum of Art (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic)

SUMMIT, New Jersey — To write about Simon Dinnerstein’s “The Fulbright Triptych” (1971–74) means, unavoidably, to write about what has already been written about it.

And the writing has been extensive: The Suspension of Time: Reflections on Simon Dinnerstein and The Fulbright Triptych, edited by Daniel Slager (Milkweed Editions, 2011), weighs in at 335 pages and includes more than 40 texts by a diverse range of contributors, from Rudolf Arnheim to Guy Davenport to John Turturro to George Crumb, along with an interview between the artist and Marshall Price, who is currently the Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art at Nasher Museum of Art.

The texts compiled here — “the only book devoted to a single painting of a living American artist,” according to the catalogue for a recent traveling exhibition of the painter’s work — include newspaper reviews, critical essays, reminiscences, business letters, and poetic incantations. Many of the authors discuss their first impressions of the painting, which invariably come from reproductions — the triptych itself has been ensconced since the early 1980s at the Palmer Museum of Art, Pennsylvania State University, with only occasional forays to other venues. A couple of contributors report that the reproduction is taped to the wall of their writing rooms.

Simon Dinnerstein, “The Fulbright Triptych” (1971–74), oil on wood panels, overall: 79 1/2 x 156 inches, Palmer Museum of Art, The Pennsylvania State University, detail, center panel: stopwatch

It makes perfect sense for “The Fulbright Triptych” to be the kind of image that would unlock a writer’s imagination: it is a multilayered narrative without a conclusion, brimming with details that can open any number of doors, and be spun in any direction. Take the stopwatch that Dinnerstein depicts near the dead center of the central panel: depending on who is writing about it, it can be a symbol of art’s ability to freeze time, or the starting gun for the three-year marathon that the painting process would become.

What is most intriguing about the critical history of “The Fulbright Triptych” is the degree to which the experience of the actual painting departs not only from its reproductions, but from its verbal descriptions as well, most markedly in terms of realism and trompe l’oeil.

A rare opportunity to see the triptych, which is a miracle to look at, outside its home institution is provided by the compact, unmissable exhibition, Simon Dinnerstein: Revisiting The Fulbright Triptych, in the chapel-like Mitzi & Warren Eisenberg Gallery of the Visual Arts Center of New Jersey.

Simon Dinnerstein, “The Fulbright Triptych” (1971–74), oil on wood panels, overall: 79 1/2 x 156 inches, Palmer Museum of Art, The Pennsylvania State University, detail, left panel: Simone Dinnerstein

Organized by the Center’s curator, Mary Birmingham, the show brings together the 14-foot-long painting with related drawings and prints, including the round copper etching plate that acts as focal point of the tabletop still life arrangement dominating the center panel.

For those who are unfamiliar with the work, a brief telling of its background is necessary to grasp its status as a touchstone of a particular era, and the possibilities it presents for our more stylistically multifarious moment.

“The Fulbright Triptych” is so named because it was begun after Dinnerstein won a Fulbright Grant to study printmaking in Germany, where he and his wife, Renée, an early childhood educator, spent a year in the small town of Hessisch Lichtenau, a less expensive alternative to nearby Kassel.

The Dinnersteins, as American Jews, had mixed feelings about living in Germany 25 years after the war; even as they were swept away by German art and culture, they were acutely aware that Kassel, which was bombed to rubble in 1943, had harbored a concentration camp whose inmates were forced to work in the city’s Panzer tank factory.

Simon Dinnerstein, “The Fulbright Triptych” (1971–74), oil on wood panels, overall: 79 1/2 x 156 inches, Palmer Museum of Art, The Pennsylvania State University, detail, left panel: Renée Dinnerstein

They approached the older adults they met warily, suspicious of the roles they might have played in wartime, but also grew close to their immediate neighbors, eventually naming their daughter, the concert pianist Simone Dinnerstein, after a local child. It goes without saying that paradox and complexity coursed through the artist’s thinking as he contemplated a project as massive, and personal, as the this one.

Its undertaking, and obstacles, were formidable. Not only was Dinnerstein a professed printmaker, but he also hadn’t attempted a painting since he left the Brooklyn Museum Art School in 1967. And in fact, he didn’t apply a stroke of paint while he was in Germany on the Fulbright. Instead, he sketched out the entire composition in Rapidograph pen across the three gessoed wood panels, for the most part without studies or revisions. He ended up shipping the embryonic work to the US at the end of his stint, where he picked it up again in a borrowed room on Fourth Avenue in Brooklyn, incorporating pieces of his new environment into the imagery.

The painting, then, is not of a particular place, but an amalgam of Dinnerstein’s studios in Hessisch Lichtenau and Brooklyn; the windows are in Germany while the roughly impastoed floorboards are in the US. This composite of settings immediately takes Dinnerstein out of the company of an older generation of observational painters, such as Philip Pearlstein, Lois Dodd, and Jane Frelicher, and places him closer to a near-contemporary like Gregory Gillespie, who mixed realism with fantasy into jarring, often nightmarish visions. (The connection between Dinnerstein’s art and the paintings of Gillespie, and of the American Surrealist George Tooker, is even more apparent in his later work.)

Simon Dinnerstein, “The Fulbright Triptych” (1971–74), oil on wood panels, overall: 79 1/2 x 156 inches, Palmer Museum of Art, The Pennsylvania State University, detail, left panel: Simone Dinnerstein

“The Fulbright Triptych,” which depicts the artist seated in the right panel, his wife and daughter on the left, and a tableful of engraving supplies beneath two open windows in the center, is a dream painting, but not in terms of incongruity or eeriness, as you would find in René Magritte or Paul Delvaux; rather, it employs the Freudian idea of condensation, in which unlikely images are jammed together to spark lines of thought or open portals of memory. The triptych’s array of postcards, photos, drawings, texts, and ephemera, painstakingly reproduced by the artist as decorations on a pegboard wall, function as pictorial triggers for the viewer’s free associations, as well as attributes (in the iconographic sense of symbolic identifiers) for the personalities of the two adult subjects.

But to see the work in person is to be struck, foremost, by the weight and volume of its forms and the clarity of its space. It radiates the realness of dreams while also maintaining their adamantine unreality. This is evident even before you enter the gallery, when you encounter Dinnerstein’s startling gaze through the gallery’s glass doors. You feel as if he is physically sitting there, waiting.

Writers contributing to The Suspension of Time compare Dinnerstein’s style to the trompe l’oeil still life paintings of the 19th-century American artists John F. Peto and William Harnett, but it is nothing of the sort. Rather than imitating reality with photographic precision, Dinnerstein approaches his forms with the omnivorous eye of a naif, painting them as if he were seeing them for the first time, without tricks or finesse. If the art of Albrecht Dürer is his ideal, he reaches for it in a way that echoes Henri Rousseau’s emulation of Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres — with a lucidity that extracts the elemental from the refined.

Simon Dinnerstein, “The Fulbright Triptych” (1971–74), oil on wood panels, overall: 79 1/2 x 156 inches, Palmer Museum of Art, The Pennsylvania State University, detail, center panel: table, radiator, and floor

The result is a mix of styles that abuts the crude textures of the battered floorboards against the radiator’s thinly painted, Precisionist reflections, while the windows reveal a townscape whose buildings are rendered in storybook detail beside vegetation that is abstracted into late-Monet blotches and streaks. The pressed wood of the pegboard is described in rough swipes of umber, rust, and moss, as if it were a stage set, but its thousands upon thousands of holes are transformed into shimmering, meticulously ordered points of paint.

This stylistic complexity is reflected in the picture’s richly thought-out content, some of it psychologically naked. The children’s drawings and other images surrounding Renée speak to her vocation as a teacher, but they also insinuate a fear of motherhood, which is made explicit in a letter she wrote to her husband, reproduced by Dinnerstein in the main panel, recounting an alarming pregnancy dream.

While some of the artifacts around Renée’s head are matter-of-fact, like the card emblazoned with the letter Y, used in the teaching of phonics, several of the drawings are grotesque and violent, revealing the latent monstrousness of children’s imaginations.

Simon Dinnerstein, “The Fulbright Triptych” (1971–74), oil on wood panels, overall: 79 1/2 x 156 inches, Palmer Museum of Art, The Pennsylvania State University, detail, left panel: child’s drawing

Most telling is the detail from Dieric Bouts’s “Mater Dolorosa (Sorrowing Virgin)” (c.1480-1500), stuck high on the wall — the counterpart to a detail from Jan van Eyck’s “Baudoin de Lannoy” (c.1437), a portrait of a stolid-looking statesman, above Simon’s head. In Dinnerstein’s version of Bouts’s picture, he exaggerates the tears on the Virgin’s cheeks and paints the whites of her eyes a bright, bloodshot red, making Renée’s attribute even more sorrowful than the original, while Simon’s is as stoic as can be.

The inclusion of baby Simone came much later in the painting process (originally, Renée was holding the card with the phonic Y), and so it’s intriguing to contemplate how much, if any, of the left panel was changed after she was born. The extremity of the Bouts image, however, also makes me wonder whether Dinnerstein was influenced by the legacy of the death camps, where women and children were separated upon arrival from the men, given that he is on one side and his wife and daughter are on the other, with a depopulated room and an empty German town in between.

The wide-ranging implications of the triptych’s pictorial references are what, to my mind, lift it out of the 1970s and plant it firmly in the current day, a perspective that runs counter to the historically focused tenor of much of the commentary around the painting; its power lies not in its adherence to models from the past, but in the openings it provides into the future.

Simon Dinnerstein, “The Fulbright Triptych” (1971–74), oil on wood panels, overall: 79 1/2 x 156 inches, Palmer Museum of Art, The Pennsylvania State University, detail, center panel: windows and tabletop

Laid out in a collage-like grid, these references — Edgar Degas, Jean Fouquet, Georges Seurat, Donatello, Assyrian statuary, even Larry Clark, whose sexually charged photo book, Tulsa, was published in 1971, the year Dinnerstein started the painting — are as loaded and indexical as the autobiographical motifs in late Jasper Johns: pictograms of a life and a system of thought that offer viewers anything they choose to find in them, from the superficial to the subterranean.

As thought balloons exposing the preoccupations of a young, married couple, these signifiers (quotes from Ludwig Wittgenstein and Moby-Dick, silly photo-booth portraits, and a minimalist poem by a teenage girl, among other private moments and public-facing statements) take their cue from the picture-messaging and bright surfaces of Pop, while looking beyond the hollow, consumerist side of contemporary life.

In its stubborn quirkiness, “The Fulbright Triptych” breaks with its self-identified Eurocentric past to explore more eclectic and layered carriers of meaning, resisting irony to capture instead a flickering mirage of the real.

Simon Dinnerstein: Revisiting The Fulbright Triptych continues at the Visual Arts Center of New Jersey (68 Elm Street, Summit, New Jersey) through June 16. The exhibition is curated by Mary Birmingham.

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