Treasures from the Vault: Friedel Dzubas

Alyssa Dumire, Director of Children’s Education

“Hey, I think that’s a Friedel!” I was flipping through old magazines to use for collage materials at our first Art + Writing Club meeting in August when I came upon a smiling couple in their cavernous living room, an abstract painting on the wall. My excitement was met with a lot of incredulous looks accompanied by “a what?”s and “you made that up”s. I explained that Friedel Dzubas was a lesser known Abstract Expressionist, and held up the lovely painting in that 1984 Gourmet magazine, but was still met with many dubious responses. So, I am here to tell you that Friedel Dzubas was indeed a real person with an illustrious painting career and a fascinating story.

Friedel Dzubas painting. Source: https://nonsite.org/article/greenberg-on-dzubas.

Today’s Treasure from the Vault is this untitled silkscreen that I first saw in the 2016 exhibition The Spirit of Innovation: American Abstraction, 1960 to 1975. I thought it was pretty, but it didn’t make it onto our tour script for that exhibition, so I didn’t pay it much attention. I later became aware of Friedel Dzubas when I read Ninth Street Women, as he shared a studio with Helen Frankenthaler. I looked him up and immediately remembered that pretty print from a few years back as his style, while it shows influence from Frankenthaler, is pretty distinctive. He was just on the other side of the wall when Frankenthaler painted her breakthrough Mountains and Sea. He was friends with her then-boyfriend, Clement Greenberg, too, and participated in the major Ninth Street Show in 1951. Friedel and Helen stopped sharing a studio shortly after his first solo show, when he temporarily quit painting due to a bad case of impostor syndrome. But how did he end up part of the New York School circle?

Friedel was born in Berlin in 1915 (the name is not made-up, just German!) to a Jewish father and Catholic mother. He would later claim to have attended art school in Berlin, but as a Mischling of half Jewish blood in Nazi Germany opportunities would have been scarce. After high school, he was apprenticed to a decorative painting firm where he learned how to paint frescoes, and he may have learned design skills from his uncles. When Jewish Youth Agricultural Training Camps formed after 1935 to help attendees obtain visas, Friedel enrolled, so when he immigrated to the US in 1939 at age 24, it was as a farmer. He and his German wife (his first of four marriages) landed at a farming settlement in Virginia, but he soon left for New York. He worked odd jobs, living in a boarding house and subsisting on Oreo’s until he was offered a job at a magazine in Chicago. While there, he kept up on the New York scene by religiously reading the Partisan Review and Commentary, the latter in which the now-infamous critic Clement Greenberg had posted an ad looking for a place to summer. Friedel responded with an offer to share his rental in Connecticut. Thus, when Friedel returned to the city after four years, he had an “in.”

Like Helen, he saw Jackson Pollock’s work as an important jumping-off point. Unlike her and some of the other Color Field painters with which he would be associated, he almost always painted with brushes on gessoed canvases rather than employing a direct staining technique. His training in design and fresco painting also influenced his practice. While other abstract painters might create preparatory sketches to test their ideas, the act of putting brush to canvas usually leaves significant room for improvisation. Friedel, however, often planned to a T his large-scale works, moving from color test to sketch, which he would reproduce on a canvas tacked to the floor, sometimes measuring each shape to scale and outlining them in gesso. For at least one of his large murals, he also created a cartoon mock-up with outlined shapes numbered to correspond to paint colors, following an age-old stained glass technique. Friedel’s studio assistant in the ‘80s, Wes Frantz, refuted the notion that spontaneity was absent from his practice as there are details in the finished works that the smaller versions lack, “and it’s in those details that Friedel sought his identity.”

FWMoA’s Friedel Dzubas silkscreen is large for a print at 60 inches long—he preferred, like most Abstract Expressionists, to work large. Long blocks of color with rounded corners nearly fill the paper. One end of each shape is softened, almost fading away to the white of the paper. This appears to be a result of Friedel’s technique of scrubbing the paint into his canvas, one that he employs in many of his works. He did paint the image on canvas, then presumably worked with a master printer to realize it as a silkscreen. Untitled is a Lincoln Center Edition, created in an ongoing project where leading artists create signed editions to benefit programming at the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts. The program has produced more than 150 editions by artists like Andy Warhol, John Baldessari, and Friedel’s old studio-mate Helen Frankenthaler.

Photocopy of Chubb Insurance ad that features a Friedel painting. It hangs on the wall beside the fireplace. In the back of the ad, towards what appears to be the dining room, there is a Cy Twombly on the wall!

In his long career, Friedel would have four solo museum exhibitions and teach at various institutions from Cornell to the School at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. While in Boston, he was commissioned to paint a 13 ½ x 57 ½ foot mural, the largest abstract painting in America. That couple from the magazine? They were in an insurance advertisement, published shortly after a major retrospective of Friedel’s work, so that painting might have been recognizable to those in-the-know as an important investment to protect. Today, how many would identify it as a Friedel Dzubas? Probably not many. He, like many artists, had a successful and steady career, but didn’t reach the celebrity status of, say, a Jackson Pollock. Even if you forget his name—or don’t believe it’s real—his style speaks for itself, instantly recognizable among his contemporaries.

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