Geoffrey Dorfman describes the paint he works with as holding everything necessary to “create a world that … unlocks the sensation of being that lies at the root of our existence.” As an abstract painter, Mr. Dorfman imbues his work with color, texture, and light.
An exhibition of 18 of Mr. Dorfman’s paintings and six monotypes opens at the Rider University Art Gallery tomorrow evening, Thursday, February 7, with a reception for the artist from from 5 to 7 p.m. Titled “Geoffrey Dorfman: Eye and Mind,” the exhibition continues through Sunday, March 3. Gallery Director Harry I. Naar will lead a discussion with the artist on Thursday, February 14 at 7 p.m.
In an interview with Mr. Dorfman in the Gallery, the artist described his process: “Every stroke gives you an indication of your next move. If things are working well, a painting can be done quickly but if not, the effort can be futile.” He doesn’t work from a prior sketch. He doesn’t spatter or throw paint. It’s a misconception, he says, that abstract artists work in a frenzy, throwing paint around in drugged abandon. “I’m not an athletic painter. If anything, I have a strong classical streak.” His antecedents are Willem De Kooning and Milton Resnick but there’s also a dash of French influence.
“Dorfman comes out of a long and strong tradition of painting out of ‘discovery,’ searching and finding and developing images. He pushes, pulls, and twists the paint, across and through the surface of the canvas with rhythmical, gestural forms, and calligraphic marks,” says Mr. Naar. “Spend time looking at his paintings and you’ll begin to discover a world of strong feelings and sensations. Some are dramatic and bold while others are soft and quiet. His work is strong and quite beautiful.”
The result of 45 years of putting paint on canvas, Mr. Dorfman’s paintings are all different and yet they are his paintings. “You are not going to see work like this anywhere else,” he says. The artist has no affectations about his art. He doesn’t call himself an abstract expressionist and he doesn’t care to be compared to Kandinsky, whose work he regards as cerebral. “My work is more felt,” he says.
He’s an intuitive artist and while his starting point is always the same, the paintings he creates are endlessly varied. First, he “activates” the canvas by applying paint in an arbitrary way. He likens his process to chess, which has well-defined moves at the start that require little thought. But as his work develops, there’s a lot of movement. It’s not all additive, he says, a lot of paint gets taken off and elements get moved around. “My paintings expand, although there are moments of concentration within the whole.”
“Art is a form of play and always has been,” he says. That’s not to trivialize it, on the contrary, play is a fundamental part of the creative process.
How does he know when a painting is finished? “That’s the most important aspect of a painting; sometimes I realize I stopped too early and go back into it. There is a moment when it just ‘comes together.’ Cezanne described it thus, says Mr. Dorfman linking his fingers together in demonstration.
“The hard task of any art is bringing unity and variety together. That’s the play of art, abstract or representative,” he says. “Achieving either one alone is easy but bringing them together is not.” Unlike Rothko who stained the canvas with paint, applying it in a way that erases its substance, Dorfman embraces the substance of his medium. “I like to be frank about the way a painting is made. I like the idea that people might feel it’s available to them, that they could do this themselves.
“Some paints are grainy, mineral, and weigh a ton; some are honey and vegetal; some offer friction to the brush; some apply with ease. The oil, the color, the brushwork; all of that is the sensuous aspect, the feeling part. Over time the surface gets increasingly complex and catches light rather than reflects it.”
He uses housepainter’s brushes and applies paint in a way that he says is “straightforward, prosaic rather than poetic.” Which is not to say that the end result is prosaic. Anything but, as the Rider exhibition demonstrates.
The majority of the work included is recent and each is titled. “The idea of numbering my paintings, as Jackson Pollock did, is too dry for me. Besides it can be confusing. Even in music this type of numbering can be confusing. A poetic or imagistic title sticks in your mind.”
The reference to music comes naturally to Dorfman, who is also a concert pianist. Having pursued composition at the Manhattan School of Music, he has performed in Weill Hall at Carnegie Hall, Bechstein Hall, the Marjorie Deane Little Theater at the Westside YMCA, Columbia University, the Cooper Union, and at Great Britain’s Marlborough Summer Festival. But classical music has scores to be followed or interpreted. Dorfman decided on painting instead. “Art isn’t a discipline in the sense that music is,” he says.
When asked about the exhibition’s title, “Eye and Mind,” Mr. Dorfman launches into a discussion on perception. “What makes something complete is a matter of mind,” he says. “Perception involves interpretation by the mind; fragments don’t interest me, in abstract art this is crucial, fragments just show the activity of the brush; to create a whole in abstract expressionism takes a great deal of work.” Dorfman may work for weeks or months on a painting, often going back again and again to a piece over time. In a “good” year, he’ll created around 16 paintings, half of that in a “bad” year.
Mr. Dorfman lives in the historic Mill Hill district of Trenton. He received his BFA from Cooper Union and his MFA from Syracuse University. Since 1978, he’s taught at the College of Staten Island/CUNY and he’s the author of several articles on painting for ArtForum, as well as the book Out of the Picture: Milton Resnick and the New York School, published by Midmarch Arts Press in 2004.
He received the Henry Ward Ranger prize from the National Academy of Design and was awarded a National Endowment for the Arts Individual Fellowship Grant, and he has curated numerous exhibitions, most recently “Hans Hoffman: The Legacy” at The Painting Center in New York City.
In the conversation with Mr. Naar that is included in the catalogue that accompanies the exhibition, Dorfman describes the effect that the 1969 New York Painting and Sculpture show at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City had on him. “The Hans Hofman room just knocked me out,” he says. “The mountains of saturated pigment made the pictures look like slabs of chroma; it was quite dazzling. The paintings spoke of an ecstatic state. Frankly there was nothing in figurative painting of that time that could compete with it.”
Appeal of the Abstract
“Abstract art is not appealing to everyone,” says Mr. Dorfman. “In art as in literature, there’s been a retreat from Modernism, and Abstract Expressionism appeals to a particular kind of person: one who is intrigued by complexity, who is is not discouraged if they don’t get an immediate sense of what something is about and who doesn’t dismiss something out of hand if it doesn’t immediately speak meaning to them.” According to Mr. Dorfman, vision and understanding are not identical, even though we often conflate the two as when we say “don’t you see,” when we mean “don’t you understand.”
Abstract art works at a more visceral level than representative art, says Dorfman. “It has to do with feelings and a kind of recognition that is basic to knowledge.”
Mr. Dorfman isn’t one for neat predictable endings. He prefers to be kept in suspense. Of his upcoming discussion with Mr. Naar at the Gallery on Valentine’s Day, Mr. Dorfman says he prefers not to know what the gallery director has in mind to talk about in advance. “That way it will be much more interesting.”
“Art is a constant joy,” he says “Sometimes I get so excited that I have to leave the studio. If people feel a sense of ebullience when looking at my paintings that’s wonderful, but it’s not something I set out to achieve, I wouldn’t know how.”
“Geoffrey Dorfman: Eye and Mind,” will be on view at The Rider University Art Gallery, Bart Luedeke Center, 2083 Lawrenceville Road, Lawrenceville through March 3. All except one of the paintings is for sale. Gallery hours are: Tuesday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 7 p.m., Sunday noon to 4 p.m. Admission is free. For more information, call (609) 895-5588, or visit: www.rider.edu/artsgallery.