George Dunbar
ESSAY
 

 

 

 

  GEORGE B. DUNBAR

   By EDWARD LUCIE SMITH



      George Dunbar occupies a unique position in the recent history of the visual arts in New Orleans. On the one hand he is as he himself declares, "a local yokel," and on the other he is a maker of work with universal implications. The story of his career is full of resonance's for students of the contemporary American cultural scene.

      Though New Orleans and its environs have now become favored places of residence for artists, few of these are as intimately linked to this area of Louisiana as he is. His mother's family were sugar planters in an area very close to the city;  his father was a member of the oldest law firm in the city.  He and his brother were both meant to follow their father's footsteps and pursue legal careers—"but early on I made a wise decision not to become a lawyer."  Did the positive decision to become an artist follow immediately on the negative one not to follow his father's footsteps?  Dunbar is not sure that it did, thought certain early influences were at work:  "One thing that was a factor was that my mother took me with her to New York every year."  Her way of disposing him when it looked as if he might be underfoot was to take him to the Metropolitan Museum of Art.  "I was left there and told that I was very fortunate to be there for two hours alone.  That forced me to look at things—it turned out to be a very worthwhile experience."

    The decision to become an artist followed a period in the service. Unlike the wars which followed it in the second half of the twentieth century, World War II was a popular cause with young Americans. George Dunbar joined the Navy straight out of high school and worked as a salvage diver for two years.  When he came out, it was time to go to university. Since his family was a prosperous one, this is the course he would have followed anyway. But what his period in the service did was to free him from any obligation to follow his parents' wishes in his choice of what course of studies he followed, since he now had access to the benefits conferred by the GI Bill.  Sure now of the path he wanted to pursue, Dunbar elected to study art.

     Another aspect of his freedom of choice was that he was at liberty to choose not only his course of study but also the institution at which he enrolled. As he saw it, the choice lay between Cranbrook Academy of Art (Bloomfield Hills, Michigan) and Tyler School of Art at Temple University in Philadelphia— then the two most prestigious art schools in the country. His choice fell on Tyler "because of the location—I could see art shows on the weekend in New York."

     At this point it is worth recalling, however briefly, what the American art world was like at that period: the late 1940s and early 1950s. The Abstract Expressionist style, born in the earlier years of the 1940s, had now become a dominant force. The leadership of American painting was becoming recognized worldwide, and New York was in the process of replacing Paris as the focus of artistic innovation. Let me cite a few key dates: In 1943 Arshile Gorky painted his Garden in Sochi series, and Jackson Pollock had his first solo exhibition at Peggy Guggenheim's Art of this Century Gallery. In 1947 Pollock began making his "drip" paintings and in the following year Barnett Newman started making color field paintings. In 1949 Robert Motherwell began painting his Elegies to the Spanish Republic. In 1951 The Museum of Modern Art in New York held its survey exhibition Abstract Painting and Sculpture in America, now generally recognized as an official consecration of the new school. In 1952 the influential New York critic Harold Rosenberg coined the term 'Action Painting,' which was to gain wide currency among his fellow critics, among artists, and with the general public.

     George Dunbar graduated from Tyler in 1951 with a degree in painting, and these were the influences to which he was exposed. He names Willem de Kooning as one of his chief influences at this time, though as much for the traditional as for the revolutionary aspect of his work: "I could see that de Kooning continued to draw as he painted—he allowed the sculptural aspects of drawing to become part of his painting." Other influences were "Kline, maybe Motherwell, maybe Rothko a little bit. I was an Action Painter." The only one of these major figures he knew personally was Franz Kline. They even exhibited together in Philadelphia on one occasion. Dunbar recalls a useful lesson gained from the calligraphy Kline painted on pages torn from telephone books: "He realized that if you have to go back and rework an area, you lose the vigor. If you're dealing with a surface you can't correct that surface. It has to be there."

     There was another and very important aspect of Tyler, however, which had nothing to do with its propinquity to New York. This was the strong emphasis which its system of teaching placed on the technical tradition: "You had to learn to grind your own paints. You had to learn various processes such as underpaying and things of that kind—traditional methods of oil painting." Anyone who encounters George Dunbar's work today will immediately recognize that, while his methods are now seldom 'traditional' in the narrow sense sometimes given to that term, he nevertheless has an enormous respect for refinements of technical skill=he is unashamedly a virtuoso, at a time when virtuosity has become suspect. No one confronted with an example of his work would venture to utter the now time-hallowed put-down: "A child of ten could do it."

     After leaving Tyler, George Dunbar traveled in Europe for a year, spending some time in Paris working in another traditional setting, La Grande Chaumiere, one of several long-established "free" (in the sense of not being linked to the French official system) academies where aspiring artists, among them many foreigners, came to draw and paint.

     The thing which drew him back to New Orleans was his mother's ill-health. "I hadn't planned to go back, but when I did it grabbed me—there was something I realized I really missed about the city." The problem which immediately confronted him, however, was that which confronts all young artists: that of how to make a living. In the 1950's, New Orleans, a relatively small city by American standards, had only a very rudimentary infrastructure for the support of contemporary art. Dunbar had his first exhibition in the city in 1955 at the 331 Gallery, which was the offshoot of what was essentially an interior decorating business. He taught at a school adjacent to this gallery and also conducted workshops at the Tulane University School of Architecture, but it soon became clear to him that his was no way to make a living or for that matter to build a career.

     Finding a solution to these problems took him in two apparently quite different directions. The 1950s were a crucial moment in the actual physical development of the city. Hitherto compact, confined between the Mississippi River and Lake Pontchartrain, it was just beginning, like many other American communities, to burst its boundaries, influenced both by population growth and by the availability of the automobile. Dunbar decided that he wanted to develop real estate in the suburbs, preferably on sites overlooking water which is such an important physical and psychological element of local traditions. Much of the hinterland north of New Orleans was successfully reshaped by him—reshaped, often, in an extremely literal sense, since he made bayous and canals where none had existed previously. The double life he led—working as a real estate developer by day, and as an artist in the evening and at night—was, he now admits, sometimes unduly stressful. Not only did he spend "many all-night sessions" working at his art, but the demands of his day job were themselves often heavy. "You take your business problems home with you and sometimes it interferes with the time you use for making art, so there were periods when [being a real estate developer] was a diversion." On the other hand, there were aesthetic compensations even in his business activities. "I did a lot of earth-moving, a lot of digging of canals and things of this kind, and I got a lot of satisfaction out of that. There was some similarity to working in a medium that no one else had worked with in art." Perhaps, if he had belonged to a slightly younger generation, Dunbar might have thrown in his lot with the Land Artists of the late 1960s and early 1970s—men like Robert Smithson and Michael Heizer.
     He was also touched by the attitudes towards his parallel activity as an artist which he found among the people who worked with him on his real estate development projects. "People respected the fact that you did it—they tried not to burden your time. There was respect for someone who was doing something different. Possibly they didn't understand what I was doing, but they recognized I was serious about it."

     Another aspect of that seriousness was his determination not only to find a way of making art, but of presenting it professionally. The response by Dunbar and five fellow artists was the creation, in the mid-1950s, of the Orleans Gallery, the first artists' co-operative gallery in New Orleans, and almost certainly the first in the whole of the American South. The Orleans Gallery is now generally acknowledged as the kernel from which the whole of the present vigorous contemporary art scene in New Orleans was to sprout. It must nevertheless be added that the growth of contemporary art in the city might not have been so rapid without the support of the New Orleans Museum of Art, then called the Issac Delgado Museum of Art. Dunbar was given a solo exhibition there in August 1964. The present show, held just over thirty-three years later, is the successor to that enterprise.

     The work displayed in 1964 could be broadly described as "action paintings"—this, indeed, is the term the artist himself still uses for them. The present selection looks very unlike most peoples' notion of action painting or any form of Abstract Expressionism. The first thing to emphasize, therefore, is that this is a deliberately incomplete view of George Dunbar's achievement, though it does feature techniques and types of imagery for which he is now well-known. In addition to things which can broadly speaking be described as paintings, there are a number of fully three-dimensional objects. What most of the paintings and objects have in common is their employment of metal leaf. Three metals are involved- gold, platinum and palladium—but the gold comes in a number of different hues according to the alloy. Stylistically the works fall into two groups. There are some which make use of compass-drawn designs, others which are freer and more baroque. The three-dimensional pieces fall almost entirely into the second category.

     George Dunbar first began to use metal leaf in the 1960s. At this time he was making numerous trips to Mexico, because his wife liked it. Among the places he visited were Mexico City, Cuemavaca and Cozumel. While he was not attracted to Mexican contemporary art, which to his eye had too close a resemblance to that of the American Regionalists—Thomas Hart Benton and other (the ruling hegemony Abstract Expressionism had over-thrown) —he did gradually become fascinated with the gilded surfaces he saw in Mexican churches. He was attracted not to historical associations but to the integral yet mysteriously reflective surface. Dunbar was already accustomed to making collages, but there was something about the nature of collage that troubled him. "I always objected when one surface stood away from the picture plan so to speak. The problem was to incorporate gold leaf into painting without its acquiring a decorative aspect that I did not want."

     The application of gold leaf to a surface imposes its own rules. It is applied to a very fine, very smooth clay surface using rabbit-skin glue. That is, in a broad sense, it is a painstaking, artisanal technique related to the traditional oil painting techniques which Dunbar had mastered during his student years at Tyler. What he now wanted to do was to find some way of reconciling this method of working with the Abstract Expressionist ethos which was still important to him. To begin with, he was content to follow the rules the material seemed to lay down for itself. Early examples emphasize the square shapes of the gold leaf, which is supplied in this form in what is appropriately known as a "book".

     Dunbar says that, at this stage, he was still ignorant of some of the problems—the adverse impact of moisture, the way some of the less high-carat leaf tended to tarnish, as indeed did the silver leaf with which he occasionally experimented. At the same time, he was already beginning to feed in to the work ideas and techniques suggested by previous, more orthodox forms of artistic activity. For example, at one time he had made string drawings—"take a string, dip it in ink, drag it over the canvas." He wanted to find a technique with the same spontaneity. He found, for example, that the metal leaf surfaces were even less susceptible to being reworked than rapid drawings of the type Franz Kline had made. Since he had been making some prints, he decided to see how the new surface would respond to engraving. But here again problems arose. It was very difficult to use dry-point techniques freehand. In addition, the lines made by the engraving tool were not sufficiently visible at a distance. The solutions were complex—to use compass-drawn lines, to use a series of very fine lines close together, and to use numerous layers of clay in different colors. Though Dunbar does not make the comparison, there is an affinity here with certain aspects of traditional Japanese lacquer technique, which also discovers spontaneous effects within a very laborious and painstaking technical framework.

     Dunbar also perceived that the fine clay to which the leaf was applied was itself "a very sensual material." And this encouraged him to build it up, often using rags as a foundation, then modeling paste shaped with a spatula, before applying the final coasting of metal leaf. Using a spatula to draw into the still-wet surface of the modeling paste seemed to him to offer a method equivalent to the string drawings which he had once produced—something just as free and spontaneous. In addition, as he notes, there was "a natural evolution from the modeled pieces to things which were [fully] three-dimensional".

     Though the flat, engraved works sometimes make use of recognizable symbols, such as a heart, one of the striking differences between them and the modeled works is that the latter tend to be markedly more figurative. In particular, many of the modeled works, both those in relief and those fully in the round, offer allusions to the female body. The kind of body Dunbar favors is very much like that employed by de Kooning in his celebrated Women paintings— broad-hipped and deep-breasted. So here, too, there is a connection with the Abstract Expressionism Dunbar has never wholly abandoned, though he has, over the years, transformed it until its presence becomes almost unrecognizable.

     If one looks at ways of trying to bring the two aspects of the metal leaf works together intellectually, so that they coalesce into a whole, I think it can be done through metaphor, and through reference to the broad outline of Dunbar's biography which has been given above. The compass-drawn works, it seems to me, can be thought of as being maps or architectural plans, or better still as plans for gardens. Digging into their clay surfaces, deliberately distressing them through sanding (sometimes even by firing shotgun shells at them), Dunbar was doing a version of some of the things he did when reshaping the environs of New Orleans. The figurative works supply the more specifically human element, and transfer the idea of fecundity (so important to the physical climate of Louisiana) to a different plane.

     One of the fascinating things about metal leaf is that, while it is obviously sensual and sumptuous—something that offers physical delight in a very direct, uninhibited way—it can also be withdrawn and ambiguous. For example, as the spectator changes position in relation to some of the works shown here, more particularly the flat ones, various aspects of the overall design appear, then disappear, according to the angle of view and how the light itself strikes the picture plane. These are not works from which one can extract their fullest meaning by treating them in a passive way. They demand the viewer's cooperation. It is not too much to say that we are invited to enter into a king of dance. I think they will delight visitors to the exhibition just as they delight me. Quite apart from that, they represent one of the most distinguished bodies of visual work to have been produced in New Orleans during the past few decades.

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