|Simon Dinnerstein with Can the Universe Be Held in the Gaze of a Small Dog|
Sometimes, this blog will step a little away from its primary theme, urban photography, to recognize inspiration that feeds it, exceptional work and ideas that alter perspective. Simon Dinnerstein’s Can the Universe Be Held in the Gaze of a Small Dog is one such exception.
On a mild June night, we joined the crowds walking along Fifth Avenue, some circling blocks in lines awaiting entry at various museums and generally enjoying the pleasures of the annual Museum Mile Festival. The festival starts at the 82nd Street entrance to the Metropolitan Museum and stretches 28 blocks north to the underrated Museum of the City of New York. Entrance is free at venues along the way.
Billed as “New York’s Biggest Block Party,” it’s less party than it is a celebration of the arts. Like spring’s first seventy degree weekend day in Central Park, you get a sense that the tourists are back in their hotels and you are among only New Yorkers, a rare enough event among museums on Fifth.
Assessing the length of lines of eager art lovers, we quickly dismissed the Neue Gallery, one of our first choices, because the end of their line was out of sight down the Avenue. A line for the Guggenheim, which we were fortunately not interested in, lapped itself all the way around the block, the last passing the first near the main entrance.
We saw that the National Academy Museum, one of our two top choices, had a much smaller line, hard to understand because 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, drawing on a select membership of only 320 artists.
Inside the Annual
It didn’t take long to be thrilled. After climbing the first set of stairs and making a turn toward the gallery space, Simon Dinnerstein’s large drawing brought several of us to a standstill 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 in Washington or when I walked into the room full of Monet’s large garden paintings that was the highlight of the Museum of Modern Art until the new building opened in 2004.
I love art, but I’m not a scholar. I hold the amateur belief that some works of art speak to you and some don’t, with plenty of gray area between. Historian’s (and my wife) love Paul Klee, although I’ve never gotten the thrill so many others have. The much less well revered Hans Hoffman can hold my eye as long as any other visual artist.
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, immediately ethereal and penetrating. You won’t see anything else like it, and if it gets inside you, its reach will be deep and sustaining.
Quick note: Don’t let the term “drawing” mislead you. This is no off the cuff work or study for something greater. It occupied this world-renowned artist for three years, working with pencil and powdered graphite, applied with acrylic brushes normally reserved for more traditional painting.
Back in Time: Simon Dinnerstein’s Masterpiece
The Fulbright Triptych, begun when Dinnerstein was twenty-eight and working on a scholarship in Germany and finished back home in Brooklyn three years later, is widely considered a masterpiece, if somewhat neglected, a brilliant meticulous comment on a moment in his family history and a startling variation on a style, triptych, usually used only for religious works.
The work has the honor of being the subject of the only book currently in print focusing exclusively on a single work of one artist: The Suspension of Time: Reflections of Simon Dinnerstein’s The Fulbright Triptych” edited by Daniel Slager. Fans from composer George Crumb to actor John Turturro add 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,” as if discussing pop music, although she allows that that might be inaccurate because it “implies that his painting brought him some renown.” She laments that the Met didn’t buy it when it was first shown where it could languish in the massive storage vaults they maintain for rarely, if ever to be seen again art.
The hit parade mindset assumes that an artist will produce monster hit after monster hit. Quality and context are irrelevant. Artists deserve a longer look at the full body of their work, not just the ones lucky enough to score. Mozart and J. C. Bach, not to mention Van Gogh were no hit wonders in their day. Time and a longer view showed us something else.
Go to Dinnerstein’s website (click here) to see a digital reproduction of The Fulbright Triptych and other examples of his work.
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.
Originally commissioned to recognize a romantic relationship, between Sam Simon, co-creator of the Simpsons, and Jenna Stewart, the commission was canceled before being finished because the relationship fell apart. An artist of modern sensibilities rooted deeply in the history of art, 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.”
The artist erased Stewart and replaced her with his daughter, the celebrated concert pianist, Simone Dinnerstein (seen as an infant in The Fulbright Triptych.) His grandson, Adrian, joined her on the cylindrical cloud hovering gracefully with a gathering of dogs above the the Sturm und Drang of Manhattan.
In a stroke of what looks like transcendental genius, Dinnerstein replaced Simon with a soaring above view of Lower Manhattan sailing into the horizon. The dogs, all of which stayed in the picture, belonged to Simon and Stewart. For the artist, 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.
“So, in a way, we are in a surrealistic space, where two or more realities are juxtaposed against each other.”
The net result is a work of visual art uncannily unlike any other while being rooted in Dinnerstein’s passion for art history. For a more detailed look at Can the Universe Be Held in the Gaze of a Small Dog, paste this link into any web browser: http://simondinnerstein.com/email/universe_06web.pdf.
“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,” he 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 can be about his influences and how his work fits in the larger perspective, the proof of any work of art’s specialness is how it answers the hunger minds have for nonverbal representation, for visual art and music. We don’t need to know art history to love the Mona Lisa or to be stunned by a room full of Rothkos. We just need to have our spirits filled by what our eyes are treated to.
I can’t guess at the ultimate place Can the Universe Be Held in the Gaze of a Small Dog will be in the world of art. I hope it hangs somewhere I can sometimes visit for a fresh look. As with the Rauschenberg print on my wall, I believe 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.