On view now until April 30 at the German Consulate in New York, Simon Dinnerstein's 1974 painting The Fulbright Triptych stands 14 feet across. Its central panel depicts a table covered in engraver's tools, with a view of rural Germany seen out two windows. In the right panel is Simon himself, in the left, his wife and daughter. Tacked to the walls in all three panels are dozens of reproductions and ephemera, from classic works of art to children's drawings, snapshots, and items of personal significance.
The title of the work comes from the fact that it was begun during a Fulbright scholarship to Germany, where Simon was to spend his time drawing, doing printmaking, and studying the engravings of Albrecht Dürer. One day as he was engraving at his desk, however, he was struck by a vision of an enormous painting. As he puts it:
I moved my chair back, perhaps 6 feet from the table. I saw the engraving plate, the tools, the reproductions on the wall, the long and deep landscape. Perhaps half of all of the objects and reproductions were there. I was struck by the whole look of it and thought it would make a wonderful painting. I saw the image in color. My drawings before were all in black and white. I hadn't painted since being in art school. Yet somehow, this world demanded to be explored in color. Just moments after, I imagined the wings, each of which were to have a human presence. The side panels existed in my mind, somewhere between the real and the unreal. They would provide a mood somewhat warmer than the middle panel, which to my mind appeared somewhat cooler. The new temperature, a conversation radiating out from the middle to the side panels, was the result of this dialogue. An unexpected fourteen foot wide first painting.
The unfinished painting was brought back on a boat to his native Brooklyn. It would be three more years before he would complete it. In that time, his daughter Simone would be born, and her portrait added to the Triptych.
A 2011 book about the painting (with essays by Rudolf Arnheim, Guy Davenport, Jhumpa Lahiri and others) is titled The Suspension of Time. And yet rather than capturing a particular instant, the painting instead condenses three years (and two countries) into a single moment. Out the windows is a view of rural Germany, but the floor is from Brooklyn. The reproductions on the wall play with time even further, serving as portals extending outward to the distant past or foretelling the future. Everything seems to exist in multiple temporalities at once.
I spoke with Dinnerstein about some of the many threads of meaning embedded in this complex painting.
Tim Nicholas: One of the things that initially struck me about the Triptych is that it feels out of time. It doesn't fit neatly into any particular movement, tradition, or historical style. It could just as easily relate to conceptual art as to figurative realism. Then there's the triptych format itself, which carries the association of Medieval and Renaissance art. This painting seems to me pre-modern, modern, and post-modern all at once. In fact, I'd say it throws such historical markers into question. My first impression was that the reproductions and ephemera on the wall was one of its most modern features. But then it began to remind me of all those Renaissance paintings of private galleries, with paintings stacked from floor to ceiling. I was reminded that this gesture of placing images within images, which I thought of as quintessentially modern or even post-modern, is in fact very old.
Simon Dinnerstein: I have also heard comments relating the painting to collage, to installation art and even to constructivist and conceptual art. What interests me here is that this is a type of figurative art which is open to lots of other twentieth century developments.
Your example of a painting which consists of images within images is apropos. However, it seems a cousin, for in the Triptych the images, are very diverse, not just paintings. These images become charged somehow, with a certain weird and magical intensity. These diverse visual references help us find ourselves. Somewhere, in the back of my head, must have been an image of Holbein's The Merchant Georg Gisze.
TN: Yes, they're not just paintings, and the intent also seems very different. In those older paintings, when images of other works of art were included, they were often a way of showing off the patron's wealth. But in the Triptych you have commercial postcard reproductions, magazine clippings, photo booth strips - things that have more of a personal value than a monetary value. I'm reminded of a passage from John Berger's Ways of Seeing where he describes the common practice of pinning images to one's bedroom wall, wherein "all the images belong to the same language and all are more or less equal within it." The Triptych seems like an outgrowth of this practice, and it has the same democracy of taste: children's drawings alongside old masters.
SD: A number of people have asked if these reproductions are collaged and, by this, they mean pasted on. I respond by mentioning that they are all painted. Sometimes I hear the term trompe-l'oeil used and, again, I can see some similarity.
The American artists Harnett and Peto were painters who worked in this manner. So, for instance Harnett might do a painting of a piece of paper, on a wall. The thing about trompe-l'oeil painting is that once you take in the illusion of the painting, that's just about it. The work is dazzling but exists on the surface as some type of "fool the eye" image. In the triptych, my sense is that once the images or reproductions are taken in, then the questions and thoughts begin. Something about this collection forces you to try to make sense of it, to figure it out, to understand the conversation between the images and between the people and the reproductions. Isn't this what we do when we try to take in all of the visual imagery that bombards us daily? However, I feel that when viewing the triptych, we find ourselves looking through the images, almost as portals. Somehow, each image seems magical or charged. Each is what it is and is also, in some cemented way, more… symbolically more.
A curious thing, in addition: The images are very diverse. If I actually (truly) put the real image of Jean Miele's drawing at age 9, next to Holbein's sensational painting of The Merchant Georg Gisze, the comparison would be absurd. I can just see this taking place in Berlin at the Neue Nationalgalerie in Berlin, I stride into the museum with Jean Miele's drawing and hold it next to the Holbein. Everyone starts laughing… and yet, in my painting there is a blurring of these boundaries. This blurring, I believe, is clearly 20th century. It is pluralistic, as you say, a democracy of taste that we are looking at. And, in this manner, perhaps in this world within the painting, Jean Miele's drawing might stand up to or surpass the Holbein.
TN: I'm glad you bring up those two examples. The Jean Miele drawing is one of my favorite of the items on the wall - it's so funny! I was wondering though if you could talk a little more about the Holbein painting. That image is positioned almost dead center in the central panel, and it feels like it has a special resonance with your painting as a whole. Gisze is surrounded by the tools and instruments of his trade, just as the table in the Triptych is covered in printmaking tools.
SD: This may seem crazy, but I didn't think that consciously of the position of the Holbein. I saw the painting in Berlin during the Fulbright year. I am a big fan of Holbein and this painting is up there with some of his best works. It has a curious acidy green background, a rare use of this particular color during the Renaissance. I think, without my clearly realizing it, that my painting is an echo of the Holbein or vice versa. In other words, if we are defined by the accoutrements of our life, our alter ego as seen in the array of things around the Holbein, constitute our attempt at finding an identity. Or, one could say finding meaning. I have come to see that the Holbein has another symbolic context. I remember reading Thomas Mann and I believe in Tonio Kröger, he uses a term to define his inner personality, a "bourgeois manque." I hope I am right, but I think Mann means here, a bourgeois, but gone astray. An artist, but one with a certain regularity about the life style, a 9-5 workstyle. What would be the image of such an artist? It literally would be the Merchant Georg Gisze.
TN: I'm very interested in this idea that we are "defined by the accoutrements of our life." My background is in film and so I'm inclined to make filmic comparisons, and I've told you before that one of the first associations I had upon seeing your painting was with Agnes Varda's film The Gleaners and I. This painting seems to me a culmination of a lifetime spent gleaning - be it objects, images, quotes, memories, or thoughts. I get the impression of someone for whom thinking, creating, and living one’s life are all intimately intertwined. I presume that when you collected all of these things, you never intended to put them directly into a painting.
SD: I must say, and probably this may seem utterly stupid, that if I saw The Gleaners and I without your suggestion, I would not have connected it with The Fulbright Triptych. However, your point here is brilliant and deeply poetic.
So, according to Varda, glaneur is to find. I think that we are talking here about finding items or images which are charged, for some reason or another. These objects (or images?) call out to you… why? The Gleaners in Millet's painting humbly stop to glean. And, couldn't one say that life is a voyage of discovery (gleaning) and thus we find ourselves or discover our identity through this avocation? In this haunting and poetic film, we see that all of these collectibles are being given a second life, through their selection. In this way, all of this selection transforms this collection, making it one's own. It puts us back in touch with ourselves. As Varda says, "I glean images for my film." Her heart shaped potatoes… a gleaner of inconsolable things… picking things up to tell one's story… The order seeks to ease the pain… Glean = to pay attention, psychoanalysis as gleaning…
And, yes, you are right my intention was simply collecting to begin with. At some point, after, the painting came. Actually, this is one of the reasons that I am turned off by the art historians who like to wrap up an artist's intentions into a nice neat package. Many times, the artist is clueless or working on intuition. They don't have an encyclopedia of iconography in front of them for constant consultation. So, for example, in my painting, there is a poem, that appears in the post in the middle panel. It came from a very young student, a precociously gifted writer, Gloria Mintz, all of 13 years old. She wrote the poem for a class assignment I gave. "Solitude: Grey and sweating / And only one I person / Fighting and fretting." I loved it. I kept it with me. It traveled. Found its way to this bulletin board. And, then, to this painting. It's early Camus.
TN: "The order seeks to ease the pain." I keep coming back to the stray burr on the floor, something out of place. There's also the lived-in texture of the wooden floor, the way the engraving is not quite perfectly centered, or the tools perfectly aligned, the wear and tear of the ephemera on the walls, but also the lushness of the plants over your head and your wife's head, the rolling hills outside. And all of this in contrast with the symmetry of the triptych form and the obsessive geometric ordering of the items pinned to the walls. To me it indicates an organizing principle for the painting as a whole: the opposition between the mental and the physical, you could say. Or between idealism and materialism. Our attempt to make sense of the world versus the world's inherent resistance to that attempt, its incessant, overflowing messiness.
SD: I agree completely with your take here. It is hard to make sense of the world or even to take in a collection of things, which is, in some way, a personal museum or analog of a world. Daniel Maidman, in a recent essay about the Triptych on Huffington Post comments, quite brilliantly, on the poignancy and tragedy of this quest. Perhaps we are all on a journey, Sisyphus-like, searching for windmills, as Cervantes would say.
On the other hand, perhaps all of these collections, limited as they are, do make sense. Yes, we are all limited and fallible, and in this quest (our life!), don't we find our center, our identity, with all of its limitations?
Slight tangent, though not really: Though the Triptych has conceptual and philosophical underpinnings to it, it is a painting that was produced by a painter. While it is true, I am interested in philosophy and the world of dream and conjecture and thought, I operate within our world, producing drawings and paintings. It appears to me that in the fine arts today, artists simply abstract some aphorism or truth and exclaim: let's talk about this. So, the weather report is read as poetry: skin tones, unmodulated, are recorded on hundreds of small, 10 x 8" panels (referencing a conversation on race); a virtually all black canvas is projected as an example of slow looking (a mesmerizingly long stare at black is considered an example of the incredible world of zen meditation). Are these examples of art or rhetoric? Is this the world that Tom Wolfe described in The Painted Word, pushed beyond absurdity? My daughter, in a phone conversation today, wonders why, if people are so interested in meditation (in terms of a black painting), they just don't stare at the wall? Find light and air that moves across a wall… you don't need an expensive frame for this.
In film, works such as Woman in the Dunes (Teshigahara) and Persona (Bergman) have highly philosophical underpinnings, but are backed up by technique, visual imagery, texture, composition, photography, lighting, the whole panorama of what filmic entails. My take here is that The Fulbright Triptych does something similar. In addition, cemented into this work is a philosophical system that provides an intense counterpoint.
TN: Absolutely. And seeing the painting up close, in person, I think you get a sense of how more than just a multiplicity of meaning, there's also a multiplicity of style or technique. It's funny that this was your first "real" painting, since the activity of copying old masters reminds me of a student exercise - it gives you the opportunity to try out working in many different styles. I also didn't notice until I saw the work in person how much the texture varies throughout, from near total flatness to almost sculptural uses of paint. I could read some philosophical meaning into that - maybe focusing on how our perception of the windows seems to alternate between "surface" and "opening", like a Magrittean trick. But it also just feels like someone engaging with the medium of paint: trying out what it can do, testing its power to create illusion as well as its power to create pure texture or pattern or color. You've been called a realist but I think this is only partly true. There are elements in the Triptych which are very stylized.
SD: I think that there is a strong surrealistic thread that runs through my work. I am not sure entirely how to describe this direction: but hyper-real, fanatically real, eerily real, would certainly be starting points. It has always felt important to tie in this heightened reality with something inward, with finding some inside core of the individuals that I am depicting. Also, there is an interest in abstraction and space and shape, which take the works away from a literal realism. Texture, impasto, the use of the palette knife also gives an abstract underpinning to this idea of reality. In a sense, one is coming at reality from the point of view of diverse artistic attack modes. And, use whatever you want, as long as it enhances your artistic vision. Actually, some of the early Flemish painters - Jan Van Eyck, Rogier van der Weyden - have always seemed surreal to me. Surrealism has some distancing device to it and an attenuated sense of reality. It tells a story, but the story is ever so real and ever so unclear. Balthus occupies this world… and so does the contemporary Spanish painter Antonio López García.
The Fulbright Triptych is also wildly intense, fanatically compulsive, a pushed reality, a highly-realized visualness. Seeing it quite a few times in the last 3 years, the painting seems almost digital, but before digital.
I like, particularly, the way reality is played with, in terms of the table and tools being right up there on the picture plane. There is just a sliver of a distance that is created when the observer's reality meets the reality in the painting. The figures in the wings choreograph the viewer, forcing the eye out to the periphery.
I was very conscious of playing with the surface and of the painting being really painted, not just flat. Some of the textures were created by literally throwing the paint on randomly. You can see this in the wallpaper. I remember using the back of the paint brush to get some of the texture of the little perforations in the wallpaper. These go on relentlessly, criss-crossing the whole 14 feet. The plate on the table is constructed with gold leaf to mime the copper plate that I was actually working on. If you look at the surface of the plate, you will see another grid, which supports an image of a garden in Brooklyn, though circular in form (a Brooklyn garden in Germany!). The golden glow of the plate, something like an orb or a weird sort of wafer is the center of the painting. I suppose this is where all the activity, the sense of process in the work is heading. It always seemed to connect with an image in Moby Dick where Ahab nails a coin to the mast for the individual who first sights the white whale. There are wonderful scenes in the book where Melville describes the coin glowing and mesmerizing the sailors, a kind or weird and exultant birth form.
TN: It's interesting that you mention the image of the coin from Moby Dick. There's a clipping from that book up there on the wall, but in the Suspension of Time book there is also a photograph of a coin that your wife Renée nailed to the back of the canvas stretcher bar when you first began the painting. Obviously that coin is not visible to the viewer, and yet knowing that it is there, it has a sort of magical resonance with all of these other elements which are visible. So many of the things depicted in this painting have very specific personal significances for you. In conversation and in the book, you're eager to share those personal meanings. But at the same time you seem to not think this knowledge necessary, since each spectator brings their own "form of life" (to reference your quotation of Wittgenstein) to bear on the art - each assigns their own personal significance. Do you think it is better to know something about the Triptych before seeing it, or to come to it without any foreknowledge?
SD: My sense is that really good art exists on a variety of levels. It's not just open to a club with members. It has more resonance. I like the idea that The Fulbright Triptych could be appreciated by a diverse group, from the mailman to a college professor, from a child of 7 to a grandmother of 80, from a clerk in a local hardware store to a philosopher. So, I like the idea of coming to the Triptych without any foreknowledge. I like the innocence of this approach and see this very same feature of awe in the painting.
TN: Personally, I was first drawn to the painting by the look of it. I liked the organizing principle of the grid, and I liked the way you rendered texture, whether of the floor or of skin. It was only later that I began to assign my own interpretations to it, and later still that I actually read the essays in your book and learned the stories behind many of the things depicted. But knowing those stories has enhanced my appreciation of the work. In particular, learning that the painting was begun two years before your daughter was even born seemed to unify a lot of what I'd already been thinking about the painting.
I want to conclude by focusing on one particular detail: the letter from your wife, located directly above the engraving plate, in which she recounts her dream about childbirth. “I was scared cause I thought there was a dead baby in me,” she writes, “but when the baby was delivered I faked everyone out cause it was just a big air bubble!!!”
Although it doesn't have to do with art directly, I can't help but see this letter as uniting the themes of art and family that permeate the entire work. The fear of still birth, or of giving birth to nothing but "hot air" - are these not also the fears of the artist? Especially on a project of this scale. When you began the painting you didn't know in advance every item that would hang on the wall. You didn't know your daughter would be included, since she hadn't even been conceived. There seems to be a very strong parallel here between starting a work of art and starting a family. In both making art and in raising children, your creations have a life of their own. There is a limit to how much you can plan. In the end one just has to hope, and leave space open, with faith it will be filled with something good.
SD: When I worked on this painting, I thought that I was old. I began it when I was all of 28 and finished when I was 31. For a good part of this period, 30 loomed and at the time, circa 1971-1974, the war in Vietnam, the adage was, "Don't trust anyone over 30."
Your many riffs and asides have helped me to learn a great deal about my very own painting. How lucky I am, as 2014 marks the 40th year anniversary of this painting's completion. If I am correct, paintings (and works of art) are both old and new, at one and the same time. So, if this work of art has something, it should stack up with other single works of art completed in these past 40 years. In this connection, I mean works of art that aren't only mine, but just exist across the spectrum.
A thought about the Triptych: it strikes me as rare for so many themes to appear in a single work of art. There wasn't a programme here. Actually, if this was carefully plotted, it would have seemed obvious to the viewer, and also heavy-handed. It's the innocence behind these themes that propels the painting.
To your very poetic riffs, i.e., the letter in the Triptych as uniting the themes of art and family, I would add the image of the copper plate. For some reason, it strikes me that this ovoid form is some type of representation (Jung?) of a birth form. I hope I am right about this. In any case, I am just becoming aware of this symbol and metaphor and the way it appears and re-appears in my work and in the work of others.
As far as your evocation of the link between art and birth, my strong belief is that life is full of wondrous possibilities and in its quixoticness, the only thing we can do is take a shot at what we want, what we believe in. It's an amazing game, the only down side is that none of us gets out of this game alive. It's once around and that is it. Herman Hesse's Siddharta puts his head to the ground to listen. "I can think. I can wait. I can fast."
Last point, Melville's image of the Whale could stand for many things. Suppose one took it to be a symbol for art, for the process, the quest, the product, the depth, the journey, the heart, the beauty, the pain. In that case, I have just realized that this quote [from Moby Dick tacked to the wall] makes even more sense than I thought it did.
The Fulbright Triptych is on exhibit in the lobby of the German Consulate, 871 United Nations Plaza, New York, NY until April 30, 2014. It can be viewed Monday through Friday, 9am to 5pm.
Born in Brooklyn in 1943, Simon Dinnerstein earned a BA in history at City College before studying painting and drawing at the Brooklyn Museum Art School. He has been represented in New York City by Staempfli Gallery and ACA Galleries. Dinnerstein, a member of the National Academy of Design, is the subject of several major monographs. The Suspension of Time, a 360-page book of 45 essays devoted entirely to The Fulbright Triptych, coincided with the exhibit of this work, which has been on display in the lobby of the German Consulate since June 2011. He has had 25 solo exhibitions, and resides in Park Slope, Brooklyn. www.simondinnerstein.com