Dzubas, Friedel Alfred

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Dzubas, Friedel Alfred

(b. 20 April 1915 in Berlin, Germany; d. 14 December 1994 in Newton, Massachusetts), artist in the style of abstract expressionism known as the New York School whose paintings have endured through the birth and demise of many artistic trends.

Dzubas was the youngest of three sons born to Martin Dzubas, a clothing designer and textile factory manager, and Martha Schmidt Dzubas, a homemaker. An indifferent student, Dzubas was encouraged to paint and draw by his grandmother and drawing teacher in the local school. His parents did not approve of art as Dzubas’s career path, but they did arrange an apprenticeship to an established Berlin decorative arts firm in 1933 when he was seventeen. Until he fled Germany in August 1939 to avoid conscription in Hitler’s army, Dzubas threw himself into his painting, attended lectures, was an extra in the State Opera Company, and briefly joined a Communist youth organization. During this period of heady youthful exploration and self-education, he painted landscapes in watercolor and social scenes in oil paint. He visited museums and learned about contemporary art, particularly the German expressionists.

On 22 June 1939 he married Dorothea Brasch in Frankfurt. They later had one child. Two months later he fled Germany by train and stayed in London with an uncle until he booked passage on a ship for Montreal, Canada. Dzubas then made his way to the United States. His wife joined him in Virginia, where he was working on a farm. From 1940 until 1952 he painted while making frequent moves and working at a wide variety of jobs, including jobs as a busboy, housepainter, and graphic designer for the Chicago firm of Ziff-Davis. After a divorce from Dorothea in 1945, he moved to New York City, where he continued to free-lance as a graphic designer.

In 1948 he met the art critic Clement Greenberg, who introduced him to abstract expressionists such as Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, and Franz Klein. Dzubas became a member of the Eighth Street Club, an artists’ group that met at the Cedar Bar in Greenwich Village to discuss and argue about contemporary art. Initially, Dzubas painted works of expressionistic color held together by a style of energetic line drawing that was influenced by Paul Klee. After meeting Jackson Pollock, Dzubas, in interviews, spoke of the powerful influence Pollock exerted on him, not so much in technique but in the potential for artistic freedom that Pollock explored.

In 1952 Dzubas shared a studio with another rising abstract expressionist, Helen Frankenthaler. In November of that year he had his first one-man show at New York’s Tibor de Nagy gallery. The exhibit, while not a financial success, provided Dzubas with the exposure he needed to build his reputation as an artist. Unfortunately his personal life was disintegrating. He had married Marilyn Morgan in 1946 and had two children, but this marriage was breaking up. His divorce left him with serious self doubts, and he withdrew from painting for two years.

Dzubas returned to painting in 1955, and gave free rein to his expressionism by using color in partnership with a frenetic black linear calligraphy. This style of work reached its peak in 1959, when Dzubas completed a number of paintings with titles and influences from baroque architecture and religious sentiment. He credited this “baroque” period to ten months of travel in Austria and Germany, and to his obsession with baroque paintings. Dzubas was naturalized as a U.S. citizen in May 1959.

In the early 1960s Dzubas purged himself of the dense black calligraphic compositions and began to consider a canvas as a place to assemble simple, meaningful forms. Color became a tool for reaching a new emotional and expressive level, and Dzubas balanced big blocks of thinly washed color on large canvases. He hit a level of artistic maturity with this direction. His personal life was changing, too. He married Allison Gray in 1963 and had one child, but they divorced in 1970. By 1973 he had married again, this time to Mary Kelsey, but they divorced in 1978. They had no children.

Dzubas began a period of intense activity during the 1960s and 1970s, teaching at a number of colleges and universities. He received recognition for his work, sold paintings, won two Guggenheim Fellowships (1966 and 1968) and a National Endowment for the Arts Painting Fellowship (1968), was positively reviewed in numerous newspaper and magazine articles, and showed his paintings at major galleries and museums in the United States and Europe. In 1990 the André Emmerich Gallery in New York mounted a retrospective of four decades of his paintings, from 1950 through 1990. Dzubas died at his home in Newton, Massachusetts, from complications of Parkinson’s disease at the age of seventy-nine, and was buried in Mount Auburn Cemetery in Boston.

Dzubas did not receive the wide public recognition given to other important painters in the New York School, peers such as Pollock, de Kooning, or Frankenthaler. While other artists changed painting styles, Dzubas held fast to his philosophy of creating nonobjective, color-saturated paintings that are recognized by critics and art collectors as some of the finest abstract paintings produced in this period. His work has endured through the birth and demise of many artistic trends because of its aesthetic excellence. While Dzubas retained a sensibility that was grounded in the richness of the old masters, as his fraying blocks of color swirled and bumped across the canvas, he was engaged in the only reliable constant in his life, his art.

Dzubas’s personal papers and correspondence are in the care of his daughter Hannele Dzubas of Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts. For information about Dzubas’s life and work, see catalogs prepared for exhibitions such as Charles W. Millard, Friedel Dzubas, for the Hirshhorn Museum, Washington, D.C. (1983); Karen Wilkin (introduction), Friedel Dzubas, New Paintings, for the Andre Emmerich Gallery, New York City (1987); Works by Friedel Dzubas, for the Nassau County Museum of Art, Long Island, New York (1987); and Karen Wilkin, Friedel Dzubas: Four Decades, 1950–1990, for the André Emmerich Gallery (1991). Dzubas was interviewed by Charles Millard on 25 Aug. 1982 in Washington, D.C, and on 17 Aug. 1982 in Cambridge, Massachusetts. The original tapes of these interviews are on deposit at the Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C. An obituary is in the New York Times (14 Dec. 1994).

Rosemarie S. Cardoso