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November 18-December 16, 2006 at Manny Silverman Gallery, West Hollywood

by Mario Cutajar

Edward Dugmore, who died in 1996, was briefly associated with the San Francisco school of Abstract Expressionism thanks to a postwar sojourn out west. This led him to the California School of Fine Arts and a formative encounter with Clyfford Still before Dugmore moved to New York in 1952. Although he was well-received there and had solo shows at the Stable Gallery, he never achieved star status. Nonetheless, for the next four decades he remained steadfast in his devotion to a style of abstraction that by the mid-1960s had been eclipsed by pop and minimalism.

The three paintings that constitute this show date from the period between the late ’50s and early ’60s. The largest of these, “1961-D” (1961), is over 12 feet across. The smallest, “Untitled” (1959), is large enough at over eight feet wide.

Their composition is based on large interlocking areas of relatively flat color that evoke associations to peeling walls, maps, horse hides, geological strata, and polished sections of minerals. However, these associations remain incidental to a central concern with painterly accretion and erasure. As Nicholas Fox Weber remarked in a catalogue essay for a 1998 show at the Joseloff Gallery in Hartford, Connecticut (the artist’s home town), the geography of these paintings is ultimately “a territory established entirely by paint,” their evocativeness grounded in the materiality of the medium.

“1961-D”, 1961, oil on
canvas, 110 x 149".

Red and Black”, 1957, oil
on canvas, 105 x 131".

“Untitled”, 1959, oil
on canvas, 83 x 101".

The monumentality of these canvases is counterbalanced by the seductive delicacy of Dugmore’s touch and his nuanced handling of color. Passages of “flat” color are diaphanous veils enriched by suggestions of the painterly flesh underneath. Thus, the large dark masses that dominate all three paintings avoid becoming dead zones and instead hint at undisclosed depths. In the liveliest of the trio, “Untitled” (1959), the dark area easily occupies two-thirds of the surface, but the agitated variety of tones and values from which it has been built prevents it from turning into a nasty oil spill. Instead, it reads as a space pregnant with possibilities, much as the ill-lit cave walls must have appeared to Paleolithic artists. Blue and red fissures that cut into it from the creamy light area above further establish its penetrability, or one might almost say, its insubstantiality. Thus, in this as in so many of his paintings, Dugmore reveals that color is at once a substance and a vibration, a body and a spirit.

The play on this duality compliments a tension between tendencies toward both reduction and representation. Particularly in his later paintings, Dugmore could on occasion come close to monochromatic minimalism, but those occasions are deceptive if one reads into them any kind of cerebral intent. His lifelong preoccupation was with the evocative possibilities of color and texture, and he used those means to capture moods ranging from serenity to erotic frenzy. What is “old-fashioned” about Dugmore’s style of abstraction is that it never took anything to its “logical” conclusion and so remained impervious to the hipster coolness and conceptualism that came to dominate American art at the very moment that he was enjoying his first success.

For the rest of his life, he was a fish out of water in relation to the artworld that emerged around him; or at any rate, a fish swimming against the current. One can imagine that having come of age as an expressionist during the tight-collared Eisenhower years, the postminimalist and post pop disavowals of sensuality in favor of irony, and a later atmosphere of theoretical rigor might have struck him as a reimposition of the restrictions that painting had enabled him to escape. Where others might have given way to bitterness and disillusioned paralysis, Dugmore continued to pour himself the world of contemporary art.

into his painting, enlarging on possibilities that were latent in his early work. When Manny Silverman went to see him in his New York studio at the end of the ’80s, he felt he had stepped back into 1955. In 1955, Dugmore, for his part, felt he was boldly stepping into the future. “You felt huge. You felt all-encompassing. Like the wrong end of a telescope.” The paintings in this show are the other end of that telescope, through which the artist invites us to meet him halfway.