Bruce Dorfman: An Interview

Bruce Dorfman, art classes instructor, Molly Bloom, 2012

CLICK IMAGE TO ENLARGE  Bruce Dorfman, Molly Bloom, 2012. Combined media, 52 x 34 x 4 in. overall.

Ira Goldberg: I have to ask you about these two pieces here: Molly Bloom and Teyjat. These are recent?

Bruce Dorfman: They are very recent.

What I see is a wedding of the old, where you have tonal variations of most of the dominant color and the lack of the specific, hard-edged border, compared with the new stuff that has that same cohesive quality. You have been working for decades on this cohesion of color, and yet you lose the border. Have you found some sort of happy medium?

In my recent works, I wanted to see if they could be taken to the brink of disorganization, without a loss of coherence. There is a kind of an informed intuition that I trust to drive my art.

Did you determine that direction when you did these others?

Yes. I was working with that concept. I really wanted to see if I could create a large image of a fragment and use whatever materials came to hand as needed, as long as the work could be made technically durable. I have been wanting to see how far I could take the uses of any necessary materials, including large, heavy deckled papers, metals and anything else without the whole thing collapsing. I’d done that in small pieces. I wanted to do it in large pieces.

Bruce Dorfman, art classes instructor, Teyjat, 2012

CLICK IMAGE TO ENLARGE  Bruce Dorfman, Teyjat, 2012. Combined media, 65 x 38 x 4 in. overall.

Do you feel you did that in the three-dimensional, freestanding pieces?

Those works represent an ongoing and underlying issue that has always disturbed me a lot. It strikes me that much of what has happened with modernist painting is that a lot of really great wine has been created by new winemakers with brushes and whatever tools they have. But the bottle itself, the window-related rectangular painting, remains constant, traditional and convenient. I think it must be possible to get a coherent bottle that’s also personal. This is an idea that just doesn’t go away for me. That three-dimensional piece was about that. But I don’t think it fulfilled itself. I don’t think I ever got that. There have been four such pieces. The other three are gone now. I have the remaining one that was on exhibition at the league.

These recent pieces do have a lot to do with that, although there is something about these works that still hasn’t happened. There is something that is needed. I think the problem with this is—and I’ve done a lot of thinking about it lately—that there is sort of a synthesis of not accepting a conventional spatial boundary.

You must have felt that you went beyond your comfort level.

Perhaps. But creation is never ever comfortable. There is something that’s happening, and it’s partly psychological. There are certain very personal things that I have been able to achieve and give expression to. I don’t want those things to disappear, so what I am involved with at this point is an effort to gain a synthesis and to bring all of it together somehow, without compromising any of it. It should be possible to orchestrate my work to get this thing all together.

CLICK IMAGE TO ENLARGE  Bruce Dorfman, Sung Red, 2012. Combined media, 57 x 48 x 6 in. overall.

What drove you in this direction?

The passage of time. My life to this point.

Your work, one can easily say, is very personal. There is no mistaking a Bruce Dorfman. You can look at the work and, immediately, you know exactly who did it. This is what so many artists strive for: a personal signature. It is not an easy thing to do. One has to release oneself from trying to do it. The moment one tries to, one falls into a pattern. When one wants to create just for the sake of creating, there’s not enough drive behind it to make it function. You have found a harmony of color, a way of expressing yourself that bears an elegance in what you do. And you found it early on and maintained that for a long time. It has sustained you. Yet, in conversations we’ve had, I felt you needed to break out of a pattern, to go into another realm. I think some of the other realm occurred in the three-dimensional piece. Satisfying or not, you had to go back to something that was on a two-dimensional plane, even though it was heavily textural and broke up the normal pattern of color. Is that accurate?

Somewhat, yes. I think a crucial variable that I’ve always been reaching around for, since the 1960s, has been the spatial variable: how to orchestrate the things that I love visually, the things that I need to see at any given time, in relationship to some sort of achievement with respect to created, visual space. The notion of such a space as a necessary aspect of what one does has been crucial to me. To make it as distinctive as the other aspects of what one is doing has caused a lot of changes in the emphases in my work over the years.

I try, to the extent that I can, to reassure my students, fellow artists, and colleagues when I hear them becoming disturbed about the processes that their art involves and about their lives in art. I had the good fortune of being reassured by my family from a very early age that what I had to say, and my perception of beauty, was valuable. My father and mother were very validating in that regard. There was an ongoing reassurance that there was something important about each person, including me. I was led to believe that the things that I loved to see, that I loved to look at, and that I favored, were valuable and important. That was always there and remains there.

In my view, one’s strengths are incredibly important. That’s where people should go, not to their weaknesses, not to the things they have the greatest difficulties with unless, for some reason, they must. So, if they love red, they should look at red. And they should express everything they can about red, and red in relationship to whatever else that is valuable and important because it is a preference. It is a choice. Choice is utterly distinctive. Like a fingerprint. It is what one is close to, what one can relate to. And then it becomes a question of how well one gives expression to that and what can one do with that. It’s not just a matter of throwing it out there, and you know, I love red, so here’s red. It becomes a question of what you have to say about red that is distinctive, that belongs to you, that you love. It is the song you sing and the way you sing it.

CLICK IMAGE TO ENLARGE  Bruce Dorfman, Windsock, 2009. Combined media, 64 x 47 x 3 in. overall.

And that makes it visually poetic.

It does. I believe this can take place very early on, if there is that kind of validation, if it is what one admires and chooses and selects creatively. People’s creative expressions of preferences really need to be validated, paid attention to and responded to.

There is a tendency, on the other hand, for people who are in positions of authority to pay too much attention to what people are having difficulty with, or feel disinclined to do. There may be reasons for that, and that’s not my business. It turns out people do have strengths, things that they love very much, that they are very concerned about. The problem is getting them not to fret about the things they think they should be doing. We are not talking about moral issues now; we’re talking about creative issues. The emphasis should always be on the individual’s strengths and a clear expression of those strengths.

From time to time, I listened to people about things that I couldn’t relate or respond to well. I was being told by those people who were in those positions of authority that I should relate to these things and that I should be able to do this or that. That this or that was essential. Somehow that didn’t interest me at all. So I would place myself somewhere else.

A lot of that validation, by the way, didn’t just come from my home; it came from my time at the Art Students League.

CLICK IMAGE TO ENLARGE  Bruce Dorfman, Aria (One), 2005. Combined media, 68 x 38 x 3 in.

That’s what we do.

Which is wonderful. You can risk being right. You can risk being wrong.

What’s the role of metaphor in your work?

I came from a kind of figuration, which I was involved with during the 1960s. I recently re-hung the last of the figurative pieces that I did. It is that piece hanging right over there. You’ll see the figuration in it. That is Aria (One), actually completed and exhibited in 2005.

Do you feel that the juxtaposition of three forms, well-placed on a surface, has the same kind of power as metaphor to convey a sense of art?

Yes, if that artist is able to communicate an underlying understanding of what he, or she, is doing. If the terms are discernible and clear and reach a complete level of fulfillment on that page or that canvas, I don’t see any difference at all.

If I am involved with the shape of a leg, then I am responding to that beautiful thing over there. I am translating it when I get it onto that paper. It has some relationship to what it is about that I am seeing over there that I really like a lot. I’m not putting anything onto that page that I am not interested in or I don’t like seeing. I want to see it the way I want to see it. So, I’ll take that leg, and I’ll take as much of what she’s got over there that is really beautiful and important to me, and express that as well and as clearly as I can. As I go along with that, from piece to piece to piece to piece, I clarify those concerns, increasingly, from one piece to another. There is no formula for this. I ask, “What is needed here?”

The ability to recognize that must be acquired through a lot of study and practice.

I suppose that’s true. But not necessarily. I’m rotten spoiled in that way. From the time I was maybe four or five years old, I was looking at art with people around me who were very comforting and assuring. It was no problem for me to look at something from other places and get it in terms of its total configuration. I understand that. The question is, then, how does one impart this to people who are in their twenties, or are middle-aged, or have MFAs, and they’ve been drilled and drilled and drilled and drilled. They have no idea what they want. They’ve just been drilled and drilled. I find it very disconcerting when I’m sitting with somebody who’s in their mid-twenties and they’ve been everywhere and they’ve studied with every teacher you can think of, and you ask them, “What is it you prefer to draw a line with?” They have no idea. “Well,” they answer, “I use charcoal.” I ask, “How come? Why?”

Well, maybe it’s because the paleolithic humans used charcoal on cave walls. I think there is a drive or necessity to connect with our creative origins.

That is an interesting idea. But what is it that those people did? And which of those people, where? Just what was that “charcoal”?

But this is not about working. This is not about creating. It’s about the image of creating. This is what we keep getting caught up in. You see, going to your strengths is really a very natural approach to doing anything. Knowing what you’re good at and holding to it. There is a flip side to that, which is a kind of romantic idea or an image of doing what you can’t do, of breaking out of what you feel is a limitation. Should one have no limitations? Because, if you are really a great artist, you should be able do anything.

Bruce Dorfman, art classes instructor, Yellow Russet Drop (Nora), 2007.

CLICK IMAGE TO ENLARGE  Bruce Dorfman, Yellow Russet Drop (Nora), 2007.  Combined media, 48 x 30 x 3 in.

I don’t think going to your strengths is at all natural. It seems to me that more than frequently, individuals are constantly reminded about what they are “just not cut out for.” I really believe that, as an Artist, I cannot, and do not want to, do everything and anything. I choose not to. Where I make a choice about something I must discover, use or invent a relevant way to express that choice. I think that an artist is someone who, in any kind of aesthetic realm, might be able to try everything but doesn’t. Try to find a drawing in graphite by Rembrandt. Michelangelo could have painted like Malevich, except for some sort of conceptual issue.The ability to do that—with the passage of time, going to your strengths—I think that, unless you’re imitating yourself, your strengths keep changing. They keep clarifying. The emphases within those strengths keep shifting, and so you keep going and you find out more. In the doing of that, one has to come up with ways to create those clarifications. So, existing techniques are useful only to the extent that they actually are. To the extent that they are not, one has to come up with new ones. I think every artist has done that somehow. There is nothing that’s formulaic, unless it’s academic.

There was a point when I had a tremendous amount of confusion about where I was going with my use of the figure. I loved working with the specific image of the female figure. I received just as much favorable attention when that was happening. I loved the delineation of the female form in space; however, what that space should be or could be was never clear to me. I saw it in Eastern terms initially. I would have a figure in an open space, with no accoutrements. Then, it was largely linear with some color. It was a latter day Pascin kind of thing with more vibrant color. Then, as this idea about needing to have a personal space, a more personal bottle to put this drink in, kept evolving, I found that the delineation somehow limited what I was able to do with the space. I wondered if there was some way of carrying those feelings about the female figure forward into my painting in translation, so that the delineation wouldn’t be there, but everything else would be. That work over there resembles what happened.

You must have found it very liberating.

In some sense yes, but there is something that I miss about it, that I feel very nostalgic about. Every time I work, even with these pieces, I’m always thinking about the possibility of inserting this linear image and how unlikely that will be of happening.

I’ll tell you a secret. You’re probably the only person I ever mentioned this to. Every time any of these get done, I keep thinking there must be a way that I can bring this thing that I feel strongly about, into it, without confusing the levels of abstraction so that it makes sense.

CLICK IMAGE TO ENLARGE  Bruce Dorfman, Odessa, 2012. Combined media, 58 x 59 x 5 in. overall.

Yes, one I recall has a horizontal figure.

Yes, there was a white one with a barely discernible figure shifting out of two or three positions. It was slipped into a solo show in 2005 while I was with Kouros Gallery.

There was also a very sensual quality about it.

This is a very complicated thing. While work went that way, there was something, a boundary, an amalgam of different levels of abstraction that simply didn’t permit me the expression of visual concerns that I had to have. I couldn’t figure out how to open it up. I had an exhibition of such pieces at the New School in the 1980s. I felt that all these pieces had multiple images and shifting physical planes. I felt that they were filled with compromise. It wasn’t this and it wasn’t that. There has also been a thing with me that something should be very committed. It shouldn’t be both this and that…no measure for measure.

To get to a place that can take you beyond the normal boundaries is a challenge. You cannot have conflict between something that you want to identify as the subject of the piece and the idea of the piece being self-evident. Well, let’s put it this way: The greatest art has no identity.

I understand that it does carry the artist’s identity.

The goal here is to be rid of any anchor, an adherence to some idea that represents you. At the same time, it does not represent art in the way that you really intend it to be.

I still believe a reconciliation is possible. Either I haven’t been able to figure that out or I am unwilling to give expression to reconciliation. I am concerned about the juxtaposition of different levels of reality, or abstraction, and any expression of uncertainty that may bring on. A big problem is the expression of insufficient commitment to a given level of abstraction or representation. This is really bothering me. I could easily get into that open section of red there and have a head in profile. That makes no sense at all. But then, art doesn’t eventually.

Like a lot of other people I’m a big fan of Rembrandt, I love that universe that he created.

There is a self-portrait he did in his fifties or sixties. He’s standing there, and there’s an open space next to him, and in that open space there’s this large circular line.

A lot of my paintings have that line. Now that line is directly lifted from Rembrandt. It is. Maybe ninety percent of what I’ve done references that line. Now, what the hell was that line about? Did it actually represent anything? It doesn’t matter. It makes perfect sense. In that painting it makes perfect sense. There’s no problem with that line. It doesn’t matter what it is. So, I’m thinking ideally, it must be possible. I mean, Rembrandt did it. It was possible for him to join something that was understood conceptually with something else, something that he needed to see. He also needed to take that into translation and make a statement about it. It must be possible. I am endlessly concerned with this and have this problem.

Bruce Dorfman, art classes instructor, Enso, 2011

CLICK IMAGE TO ENLARGE  Bruce Dorfman, Enso, 2011. Combined media, 64 x 61 x 6 in. overall.

I don’t understand what the problem is.

The reconciliation of different levels of abstraction in a single work. In everything I’ve done, for decades now, the figure has been omitted. But, actually, only ostensibly. It is actually there by sensation, by feeling.

That arrow in the yellow piece is something that you repeat frequently also.

Yeah, that also comes up. But that is much more of an abstraction than the silhouette of a figure.

Once you’ve got the silhouette of a figure or anything that is figurative, you’re taking people someplace else. To be part of this experience without the expression of compromise has been a huge problem to me. I have not been able to solve it. I see other people try to do it, including some people that you and I both like very much, professionally and personally. When I look, I see something very well done, and I also see compromise. I see an unwillingness to choose between this or that. It is sort of this, and it is sort of that. And it’s very nice for everybody. But isn’t it possible somehow to get these things wed?

The major issue is that there is connectivity to spiritual experience.

Thank you for calling it spiritual. You see that image in the 1970 work? Look inside that circle.

We’re looking at an earlier catalogue of yours, of a work from around 1970, a much earlier time.

That’s how long this effort has been going on. That’s a circular piece on canvas with wooden arcs, large wooden arcs that hinge to the side of it. There is a female image in there; worked into the space, but then it all but disappears.

Yes, it took a while, but yes, I do see it.

That is the point….non-congruent, but reconciled and orchestrated elements.

There is a figure in there, but I don’t know that it is congruous to the structure.


Suggestion: You might be able to fulfill your statement with nothing more than that arc. You might be able to say something about the figure with nothing more than that arc.

That would be perfect. That is what became the ideal. All the sensuality, all of the eroticism, all of the love, all of the romance, all of it would have to go under these lines and shapes and colors and so forth. I think that’s the metaphor you’re talking about.

Yes.   ♦

Bruce Dorfman teaches combined media, assemblage, art in three dimensions, and painting at the Art Students League of New York. Ira Goldberg is the executive director of the Art Students League of New York.

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    I shut my eyes in order to see. — Paul Gauguin