“FIRST HOUSE” Oil on canvas by Charles DuBack, 1957.
Looking backward, history seems a whole lot more orderly than it does while you're living it. The current show of paintings from some 50 years ago by the veteran painter Charles DuBack at the Portland Museum of Art gives rise to contemplations about the complexity of decisions made and paths taken or not.
Most of the paintings are from about the time that DuBack started coming to Maine from New York, the late '50s, and they illuminate his thinking at a period when modernist ideas were getting their American expression in powerful ways. The show is complemented by a group of small, more recent watercolors that will be familiar to those who know DuBack's work from his many exhibitions here in Maine.
DuBack has moved somewhat restlessly among different styles (witness his big cutout collage of cooperage workers in the museum's contemporary gallery), but much of his work has been landscapes painted with small areas of intense local color areas that build up into his image. It's a modernist-inspired method that has been used to good effect by many of his contemporaries like Stephen Pace and others.
This show, though, brings us to the period when DuBack was confronting the work of New York School painters like Mark Rothko and Barnett Newman. He shows, for instance, the six-foot-tall "Bogg Road, Somerville, Me," 1959. This painting has a thin violet strip across the top, a large beige area beneath it, four horizontal stripes just above the midpoint, and then another large, slightly modulated beige area that fills the entire bottom half.
In structure one would take this for an abstract painting done with pure color fields, as in Rothko or, about the same time, Ken Noland. Yet a more careful look reveals that these are colors found in the land, placed more or less where they would appear in a conventional landscape. The top can be read as sky, its lower boundary the horizon, the area below that as bog water, the stripes below that as greenery, and so forth.
DuBack stated recently that this group of rarely-seen paintings was a project in re-educating himself. I think it was rather more than that. As a young (he was in his early 30s) artist in New York he was intimately aware of what was attracting all the attention. The achievements of the purely abstract work of Pollock and Rothko were real enough, but still new, and hard, perhaps, to come terms with.
The octagonal painting "Goldenrod," undated but from the mid-'50s, has 13 horizontal stripes within its geometric shape, and, except for its colors, bears no resemblance to any imaginable location. Here DuBack is on the border of pure, color-based abstraction. He was trying to reconcile what was going on around him with the method of working he cared about, a pictorial response to the landscape.
You can see how he sought to reconcile these ideas in the little collage "Riverside," 1960, that's made with nothing but rectangles to indicate trees, shore, water and sky; in the much larger painting "First House," rectangles define roofs, walls, chimneys, a walkway, and even smoke. In "Rose," 1957, the severity of the purely rectangular composition is offset by the small red shape that provides the title.