Meeting Simon Dinnerstein was just lucky, one of those New York things. New York City’s lucky because there are so many opportunities. And this was one of them.
My work brings me into contact with artists. Writing reviews put me in their orbit.
But meeting Simon Dinnerstein, painter of the Fulbright Triptych, was accidental.
The Fulbright Triptych is widely considered a modern masterpiece, and Dinnerstein reminded me of it, sending a link about its showing in Boston.
Meeting Simon Dinnerstein at the National Academy Museum
On a mild June night, we walked with the crowds along Fifth Avenue, the street shut down for the annual Museum Mile Festival. Lines circled around the block, waiting entry to several museums.
The festival starts at 82nd Street at the Met and stretches 28 blocks north to the underrated Museum of the City of New York. Entrance is free aalls along the way.
New York’s Biggest Block Party
Billed as “New York’s Biggest Block Party,” it’s less party than a celebration. And it feels like the tourists are back in their hotels, and you are among only New Yorkers.
That’s a rare event among museums on Fifth.
We dismissed the Neue Gallery, one of our first choices, because the line was out of sight down the Avenue.
The Guggenheim’s lapped itself, the end passing the beginning near the main entrance.
But the National Academy Museum, lesser known but a top choice, had a smaller line.
Their 2015 Annual, The Depth of the Surface, had just opened.
This nearly two-hundred year old museum, founded by legendary artists Thomas Cole, Rembrandt Peale and Samuel F. B. Morse, among others, mounts annuals that are irresistible. They draw on a select membership of only 320 artists.
Inside the Annual
It didn’t take long to be thrilled.
Upstairs, Simon Dinnerstein’s Can the Universe Be Held in the Gaze of a Small Dog? brought us to a standstill. It hung in the broad reception hallway.
For me, it was something like the time I saw Renoir’s Luncheon of the Boating Party at the Phillips Collection. Or walking into MOMA’s Monet room.
My eyes took it to a place deep inside.
I love art, but I’m not a scholar. I hold the amateur belief that some art speaks to you and some doesn’t.
Historian’s (and my wife) love Paul Klee, although I’ve never gotten the same thrill. But the late paintings of less known Hans Hoffman get me every time.
That said – and maybe it’s a kind of disclaimer – Can the Universe Be Held in the Gaze of a Small Dog was, for me, as instantly exciting as almost any artwork I’ve seen.
And I’ve seen thousands, from the Leopold Museum in Vienna to the Frye in Seattle.
Simon Dinnerstein’s work stands out as unique, ethereal and penetrating. You won’t see anything else like it, and when it gets inside you, its reach is deep and sustaining.
Can the Universe Be Held in the Gaze of a Small Dog? kept Dinnerstein busy for three years. He worked with pencil and powdered graphite, applied with acrylic brushes.
Back in Time: Meet Simon Dinnerstein’s Masterpiece
The Fulbright Triptych started when Dinnerstein was twenty-eight, working on a scholarship in Germany. He finished back home in Brooklyn three years later. It’s considered a masterpiece, if somewhat neglected.
It’s a brilliant. meticulous comment on a moment in his family history. A startling variation on a style, triptych, usually used only for religious works, sets it apart.
The Suspension of Time: Reflections of Simon Dinnerstein’s The Fulbright Triptych” edited by Daniel Slager is the only book currently in print focusing exclusively on a single work of one artist.
Fans from composer George Crumb to actor John Turturro contribute their thoughts.
When last shown publicly in New York, at the German Consulate General in 2011, Roberta Smith’s enthusiastic review unfortunately refers to Dinnerstein as a “one hit wonder.”
Smith may have thought she was discussing pop music, but admits that might not be right. It “implies that his painting brought him some renown.”
She laments that the Met didn’t buy it when it was first shown. It could languish in their massive storage vaults, rarely seen again.
The hit parade mindset assumes that artists go for monster hit after monster hit. Quality and context aren’t relevant.
Note: Visit Dinnerstein’s website (click here) to see a digital reproduction of The Fulbright Triptych and other examples of his work.
Meeting Simon Dinnerstein: The Fascinating Gaze of a Small Dog
Can the Universe Be Held in the Gaze of a Small Dog has a quirky circuitous history. Fortunately.
Commissioned to recognize a romantic relationship, between Sam Simon, co-creator of the Simpsons, and Jenna Stewart, it was orphaned when the relationship fell apart.
So, Dinnerstein did what any smart jazz composer would do. He improvised.
“I think the whole thing could’ve literally collapsed when he backed away,” Dinnerstein told ArtNews.
“But I thought the picture had a lot of energy and mystery to it and a kind of seizing of life. And I thought to keep going. And then I came up with this idea in which my family emerged out of the ashes.”
Dinnerstein erased Stewart and replaced her with his daughter, the celebrated concert pianist, Simone Dinnerstein. His grandson, Adrian, joined her on the cylindrical cloud hovering with a gathering of dogs above the the Sturm und Drang of Manhattan.
Dinnerstein replaced Simon with a soaring view of Lower Manhattan, sailing into the horizon. The dogs stayed in the picture. There was a deeper symbolism.
“When I worked on this piece I thought of incredible depictions of animals and dogs by such artists as Van Eyck, Durer, Titian, Courbet, Freud. I thought it would be a challenge to see if what I could convey of these animals would somehow compete with the wonderful work of artists that I admire.
“I tried to convey some internal life force within each animal.”
“What I wanted really was to occupy these dogs, to convey their inner world, their eyes, noses, texture, smell, dampness, their heat and heart. I wanted them to speak as much as the 2 humans that occupy the same space.
“I wanted their eyes and dignity to compete with the woman and young boy that hover over them.
“Deep in the space, above it all is a panoramic view, which attempts to depict the tiniest details, as well as the shear vastness of New York.
…two or more realities are juxtaposed against each other…
“So, in a way, we are in a surrealistic space, where two or more realities are juxtaposed against each other.”
The result is a work of visual art uncannily unlike any other, rooted in Dinnerstein’s passion for art history.
For a detailed look at Can the Universe Be Held in the Gaze of a Small Dog, click here.
“A number of exhibitions have influenced me toward this particular approach – the large Degas, Lucian Freud and Balthus retrospectives and a recent Egon Schiele retrospective,” Dinnerstein explains.
“I am very interested in this combination of modernism and tradition, of skill and a new, or highly personal response to the figure in art. I enjoy this combination and feel it is one which unites multiple influences and audiences. The work of the contemporary Spanish artist, Antonio Lopez Garcia, would come to mind, in terms of similar enthusiasms and the use of dream elements.”
As philosophical as Dinnerstein is about his influences and how his work fits in the larger perspective, the proof of any w art’s specialness is how it answers the hunger minds have for nonverbal representation, for visual art and music.
We don’t need art history to love the Mona Lisa or to be stunned by a room full of Rothkos. They speak to us in a primal way. We just need our spirits filled by what our eyes inhale.
Who knows where Can the Universe Be Held in the Gaze of a Small Dog will land in the world of art. I hope it hangs somewhere I can visit for a fresh look. As with the Rauschenberg print on my wall, I’ll be treated to new features every time.
It was dumb luck that I found Dinnerstein standing next to his newest work. One of the greatest pleasures in art is to be taken by surprise.
See more of Simon Dinnerstein’s work and other articles at his website.
While you’re at it, discover Simon’s brilliant daughter, pianist Simone Dinnerstein here.