Bruce Dorfman, Artist & Mentor

An artist who seeks subject matter is like a person who can’t get up in the morning until he understands the purpose of life.
                                                   Fairfield Porter

Porter could easily have said the same about segments of art’s audience. There lingers a tired complaint that unless some aspect of the human condition presents itself—some scene, narrative, or vignette—an artwork appears empty, dehumanized, self-absorbed. Among this species of beholders, interest is tethered to subject matter. The art of a work is little more than a carrier for the anecdotal burden of the piece. Art itself is valued primarily as a reflection of, or window into, higher things.

Bruce Dorfman. Santa Fe Silver (2010). Courtesy of June Kelly Gallery.

Such an unhappy position to take—rather like being unable to listen to music without a libretto to go with it. Hostility to philosophical modernism still overflows onto the art that accompanied it. Much loveliness is missed in the spillage.

Bruce Dorfman. Deep Past (1990). Private Collection

That brings me to Bruce Dorfman, a artist whose work has captivated me all the years I have known it. His latest exhibition opened September 4th at June Kelly Gallery in Soho. The enduring accomplishment of his art is evident in this handsome, intelligent show.

Since his works combine both painting and assemblage, Dorfman describes them as composite paintings. The qualifier places his work in a line of descent from Kurt Schwitters’ initial Merz pieces, composed in the wake of World War I.  These were collages and assemblages of found objects, evocative fragments of things from everyday life selected for arrangement in what can be thought of as painting with materials.

Bruce Dorfman. Yellow Russet Drop (Nora). 2007

Dorfman has contributed to the practice built on that precedent for several decades, extending its pictorial possibilities with great chromatic sensitivity. It is precisely his gift for color that makes painting central to the work and that integrates the two techniques into a satisfying whole. Color remains the decisive element in his work. Materials, chosen for the holding power of their shapes, are  left as they come or painted over to suit the harmonies of a composition. The detail, below, gives you a clearer look at the delicate transparencies and undertones he achieves within each chromatic zone.

Bruce Dorfman. Deep Past II (2015). Detail. Courtesy of June Kelly Gallery.

Tucked into the upper left corner of this detail [above] is an image of Michael the Archangel torn from an old book of Russian icons. Its discreet presence—here, a droplet in a large rondel—hints at the source of the hieratic quality characteristic of my favorite Dorfman paintings: his signature vertical compositions. The heart of good pictorial art lies in its adjustment between the sense—sensation—of depth and the reality of a flat substrate. Dorfman negotiates that illusive balance with enviable agility. Your eye sinks into the surface of the materials. All invitation to movement is there, in the advance and recession of dimensional elements and in the spatial expressiveness of color. Yet the work in its entirety achieves a certain stillness. It is the poise associated with traditional icon painting. Looking at icons strictly as abstract compositions, they achieve their equilibrium through a hieratic scale of proportion that distributes color and shape according to weight. Dorfman does the same.

                 Bruce Dorfman. Purple & Purple (2015). Courtesy of June Kelly Gallery.

Phyllis Braff, writing in The New York Times of an earlier exhibition, described him quite well:

The precision with which he uses found objects sets Mr. Dorfman's work apart. It is always clear that each item is playing multiple roles: establishing the essentials of the composition, providing tactile and reflective qualities and introducing suggestions of previous uses, personal history, or past events.  .  .  . There is an unexpected elegance in the way Mr. Dorfman makes adjustment to scale and gives the smaller compositions the character of something quite grand.

Bruce Dorfman. Molly Bloom (2012). Courtesy of the Artist.

It should be no surprise that many distinguished artists have preferred to teach in those uncommon institutions that maintain similarity to the historic atelier system. As is natural among academics, the conceptual trumps the visual. But in the atelier—a workshop—art making remains, above all else, a labor. The Art Students League remains just such a place. And Bruce Dorfman has served it with distinction.

Dorfman began his own training there under Yasuo Kuniyoshi before going on to the University of Iowa in the late Fifties. He returned to the League as an instructor in 1964, and teaches there still. For half a century, Dorfman has provided ballast for artists drawn to painting’s means as a carrier of its own ends—beauty, paramount among them. This, during decades swollen with illusions about art’s grand aims and the artist’s visionary role.

Aesthetic modernism is too often faulted for what, in reality, is the result of the academy’s appropriation of art training. Blame the state of contemporary art on captivity of the atelier by the podium. Critical theory, reigning in the classroom, is no help inside the studio where the only ideas that matter are pictorial ones. And where words do not matter at all. 

Dorfman is an artist who understands that. The animated tactility of his work testifies to the obstinate fact that art comes to us from gifted hands in service to an eye. At the end of the day, sensibility is everything.

Cloward-Piven Goes to Rome

You just slip out the back, Jack
Make a new plan, Stan
You don't need to be coy, Roy
Just listen to me
Hop on the bus, Gus
You don't need to discuss much
Just drop off the key, Lee
And get yourself free.
                           Paul Simon,
Fifty Ways to Leave Your Lover

The pope, too, has a pen and a phone. Has Francis’ motu proprio trumped the Synod? Or handicapped conservatives? Hard to say. But one thing now is certain: Marriage is indissoluble except when it is not. Put another way, indissolubility is revealed to be more soluble than we had previously understood.

Anonymous. Illustrated Police News (19th C.). British Library Board.

Analyses of this latest twist of the mercy spanner have been piling up. Papal apologists offer their expected apologias; critics beg to differ. Among those with differences are some very serious, informed voices. Some insist nothing has changed; neater and kinder is all. Others discern a material shift: The language of endurance—until death do us part—still stands but the substance can be had gluten-free. Annulments are on track to be dispatched in short order; even, according to some commentators, in cases where one spouse contests. And a slam dunk is anticipated if both parties want out. Craft the right narrative, and your marriage never existed.

Ibsen's Nora tells Helmer she wants to leave him. Ad for an extract of meat (c. 1900).

It is better to leave judgments on the complexities of canon law to others. But impressions are admissible. And, given the range of responses, the overriding impression is one of calculated incoherence and premeditated chaos. It is disquieting, this sense that the confusion is intended—that the Year of Mercy is a feint. Disarray begins to look like the opening move in an endgame designed to bring the Church into more congenial conformity with the world it was charged to leaven.

Are we witnessing the Cloward-Piven strategy adapted for pastoral ministry? A prized demolition tool of the Left, it was developed by two activist sociologists at Columbia University and published in The Nation in 1966. Roughly summarized, the maneuver proposes to overwhelm a system with a surfeit of demands; the resulting crisis can then be used to reshape the system according to a desired agenda. For Richard Cloward and Frances Fox Piven, the system targeted for collapse and total reconstruction was welfare. For Pope Francis, it appears to be the Church’s historic ordering of the obligations and consequences of an enduring marriage bond. 

Cloward-Piven sought to eliminate poverty by first expanding welfare rolls and benefits. Sacramental marriage can be channeled along a similar route, propelled by easier, quicker, and less costly annulments on the mart to all comers. Cardinal Kasper has said that Francis estimates that upwards of half of all Catholic marriages are invalid. That is a bitter—to me, disingenuous—guesstimate, one that points to impatience with traditional insistence on permanency. If Church prohibition against divorce is seen as an impediment to evangelization, then increasing access to annulment can be considered self-justifying.

Leseur Brothers. Republican Divorce: Reconciliation Between Spouses (18th C.)

The casuistry already rife in annulment proceedings, worrisome to John Paul II, is poised to worsen. Incentive to conjure grounds for annulment out of the common regrets, resentments, and intangible strains of marriage has been given a boost. 

The Diocese of Brooklyn under Bishop Francis Mugavero bears remembering. During his tenure, from 1968 until his retirement in 1990, Brooklyn was a recognized annulment mill. Word was: If you want your vows dissolved, establish a residence in Brooklyn and register with a local parish. The annulment process descended into the functional equivalent of back-dating a check to avoid penalty. 

Streamlining, as it is called, risks normalizing the old Brooklyn approach. Worse, it gambles with the Church's credibility on sexual ethics overall.

Achille Beltrame. Signing Petitions Against Introducing Divorce Law. La Domenica del Corriere, 1902.

On my mind lately are the divorces I have known over the years. I was intimate with some, and watched others from a friendly distance. Of the twenty or so divorces familiar to me, only one could be called “no fault.” (Barbara and David simply found dating more satisfying than marriage. They jumped ship in less than a year.) All others were exceedingly sad.

Two women quit faithful spouses to pursue careers unencumbered by husband and child. One neighbor exchanged a decent man and a young son for a flashier mate. Another left the steady, conscientious father of her two teenagers when, one fateful day, she realized her heart sank when she heard his key in the door. She did not know why; she knew only that it did.

In every other instance, it was the husband who left. One was an ex-priest who walked out on his wife and two toddlers to live with another man. Each of the rest abandoned his wife for a younger woman. All had children.

John Everett Millais. Retribution (1854). A bigamous man. ©Trustees of British Museum.

One particular divorce still hurts to think about. Maggie and Bruce were an impressive, lively pair with four children, one of them adopted. To younger couples in their neighborhood circle, they were a spirited model of marital generosity and parental good sense. In their twenty fifth year of marriage, Bruce met a younger woman. Life fell apart. Maggie consented to divorce but not to annulment. Bruce remarried without it.

Divorce was sorrowful enough for the couple’s children, the younger ones still in their teens. Annulment would have inflicted on the three biological children the added wrench of knowing that, in the Church’s eyes, they were bastard products of an invalid—nonexistent—marriage. The adopted daughter, discarded at birth by one set of parents and again by her legal father, was already schooled in the fecklessness of men. Annulment would have provided added lesson in the skewed sympathies of clerics.

Bruce and his second family are the coveted objects of this current fever for mercy. But where is the kindness—or even courtesy—to Maggie and her children? To the many more Maggies? To all relinquished, humiliated spouses on the receiving end of these discounted annulments?

The law of unintended consequences is cunning and relentless—a true god of surprises. Something unsavory inhabits papal cooing about “Church, as mother” as a rationale for streamlining annulments and for lifting canonical penalties from second civil marriages contracted while the first still holds sacramentally. There is reason to fear this  Year of Mercy will yield its own cruelties.

Adulterous Couple Paraded Through Town (11th C.) Bibliotheque municipale, Agen, FR.

Note: After posting this, I read yesterday's Rorate Coeli essay that quotes from a September 9th article in L'Osservatore Roman by Msgr. Pio Vito Pinto, Dean of the Tribunal of the Roman Rota. Pinto, who headed the Commission for the reformed annulment protocols, wrote this:

Francis makes a real beginning to his reform: by putting the poor at the center, that is, the divorced and remarried .  .  .

In other words, the divorced and remarried have been rebaptized as a victim class, like the poor. This pushes papal politics beyond leftism. We are into crackpottery now.

The Second Coming of Peronismo

Peronism is the highest level of consciousness reached by the Argentine working class.
          Statement of the Movement of Priests for the Third World, 1971

We mustn’t pay too much attention to people who talk to us of prudence. We must be fanatical.
                                                               Eva Perón

By whatever varietal name you call it, populist leftism is experiencing a rebirth, with the Vicar of Christ as an attendant midwife. Jorge Bergolio grew up amid extravagant devotion to Juan and Eva Perón. The agitated history of those years and the collapse of the peronato into violence and economic ruin is well documented. What matters here is that Pope Francis brings to the Chair of Peter an embrace of the Peronist mystique untempered by its lessons.

Argentina’s historic self-immolation illustrates that good intentions are not sufficient for good politics. Neglect of productivity—the means of creating income—in favor of income redistribution (between industries and occupations, between skilled and unskilled workers) proved lethal to the economic growth needed to achieve durable long-term prosperity. Yet the peronato is being revived, this time on a global scale. Peronism rebounds under the pretext of climate change.

Achille Beltrane. Mussolini in Cathedral Square, Milan. Published in La Domenica del Corriere (1930).

Benito Mussolini served as a role model for Perón in the 1930s as he had for Hitler in the '20s. A student of Mussolini's control of the Italian economy and an admirer of his oratorical hold on the populace, Perón acquired shrewd appreciation for populist gestures. Eva adopted her husband’s politics and dedicated herself to advancing his social goals. A charismatic pair, they ruled more by force of personality—personalismo—than democratic procedure. Ushers of an “option for the poor,” they glorified the lower classes and denigrated the wealthy. [This, while amassing a huge personal fortune from the welfare foundation Eva created. And, it seems, with no sense of contradiction.]

Roland Kirby. “We Know We're Good” (c. early 1940's). Satirical comment on Tammany Hall.

Evita incarnated the enchantments of populism. She held weekly audiences and was routinely photographed kissing the sick, the leprous, the syphilitic. The Fundación Eva Perón ballooned into a mammoth patronage machine, insuring Eva’s status as a peronista heroine. The glittering First Lady wore her own wealth as a pledge of impending affluence to all. As she wrote in her autobiography:

I wish them [the poor] to accustom themselves to live like the rich . . . For
when all is said and done, everyone has a right to be rich on this Argentine soil . . . and in any part of the world.”

Currier & Ives. A Changed Man (1880). Museum of the City of New York.

She railed against “the rich and powerful exploiters of the people,” adding “[God] will make them pay for all that the poor have suffered, down to the last drop of their blood.” In Paraguay, Pope Francis echoed the incendiary Peronist note. He instructed audiences “not to yield to an economic model which is idolatrous, which needs to sacrifice human lives on the altar of money and profit.”

Philibert Debucourt. Parisian Shopping Arcade (1807). Musée de le Ville de Paris.

Eva’s image is said to have replaced the Virgin in many homes. Her titles included The Lady of Hope, The Mother of the Innocents, The Workers’ Plenipotentiary, The Bridge of Love, and crowning the litany, Spiritual Leader of Our Nation. Even today, she remains a semi-sacred figure. Her legend is still a force in Argentine politics.

This in mind, I turned to a copy of V.S. Naipaul’s 1974 The Return of Eva Perón. The title applies to a single essay out of four in the book, one evoking the alchemy that turned Eva into a saint and Peronism into a religion:

The Peronist revolution was going bad. Argentina’s accumulated wartime wealth was running low; the colonial economy, unregenerated, plundered, mismanaged, was beginning to founder; the peso was falling; the workers, to whom so much had been given, were not always loyal. But she [Eva] still cherished her especial pain that “there were people who were rich.”

Naipaul skims details of the cult of Evita—“the public passion play of the dictatorship”—to summon the atmosphere surrounding the pageant that was essential to the authoritarian mystique. Writing some twenty years after her death, he describes a villa miseria, not far from Buenos Aires’ proxy for the Bois de Boulogne:

[It was] a shantytown with unpaved streets and black runnels of filth .... Seventy thousand people lived there, nearly all Indians, blank and slightly imbecilic in appearance, from the north and from Bolivia and Paraguay; so that suddenly you were reminded that you were not in Paris or Europe but in South America. The priest in charge was one of the[marxisant] “Priests for the Third World.” He wore a black leather jacket and his little concrete shed of a church, over-simple, rocked with some amplified Argentine song. It had been whispered to me that the priest came of a very good family; and perhaps the change of company had made him vain. He was, of course, a Peronist: “Only an Argentine can understand Peronism. I can talk to you for five years about Peronism, but you will never understand.”

But couldn’t we try? He said that Peronism wasn’t concerned with economic growth; they rejected the consumer society. But hadn’t he just been complaining about the unemployment in the interior, the result of government folly, that was sending two Indians into his shantytown for every one that left? He said wasn’t going to waste his time talking to a norteamericano; some people were concerned only with GNP. And, leaving us, he bore down, all smiles, on some approaching Indians.

The river wind was damp, the concrete shed unheated, and I wanted to leave. But the man with me was uneasy. He said we should at least wait and tell the father I wasn’t an American. We did so. And the father, abashed, explained that Peronism was really concerned with the development of the human spirit. Such a development had taken place in Cuba and in China; in those countries they had turned their backs on the industrial society.

Rollin Kirby. “Trying to Turn Out the Light” (early 1930s). The Tammany Tiger.

Today’s climate change zealotry—its romantic hostility to development, to democratic (distinct from crony) capitalism and entrepreneurial culture, its appetite for state-controlled economies —replays Perón’s failed biases. The Thirties die hard. Karl Marx’s much-quoted comment on Louis Bonaparte comes straight to mind:

Hegel remarks somewhere that all facts and personages of great importance in world history occur, as it were, twice. He forgot to add: the first time as tragedy, the second as farce.

Marx himself forgot to note that, however much farce informs the second time around, the repetition also bears the rancid seeds of tragedy.

Note: This post is an addendum to an essay of mine that appears today in The Federalist.

Reinhard Marx, Agony Uncle

It is September. Time to slide out of the hammock and get going. But on what? Headlines piled up over August. Every one of them is a depth meter that gives a reading on how far down the rabbit hole we find ourselves, as an electorate no less than a faith community. And that is very far indeed. Too far for the first day back to school. 

All summer, the news read like a parody of The Onion or—on Church doings—Eye of the Tiber. It is tempting to think these two venues are the only straight news sources we have; and that the mainstream press burlesques them both. In that spirit, let me ease into this new semester with a wholesale borrowing—part piracy, part plaudit—from a blog named St. Corbinian’s Bear. The Bear prizes anonymity but he [Why am I sure it’s a he?] is deeply serious, as every good satirist has to be. And loaded for bear.

As you go, keep in mind that humor is one of the proofs of the existence of God. Be certain of it. Aquinas thought to mention only five proofs but that is no bar to a sixth. Or perhaps the great Dominican decided that humor was a subset of the Argument from Design: It works toward a goal; directs the hearer toward an end; gets to the truth of things with angelic speed. And in times like this, it could be all we've got.

Enough prologue. Herewith, lifted whole hog (but with permission) from the Bear’s August 7 posting:

Dear Reinhard: Is Sex With a Prostitute Adultery?

Once again, we look over the shoulder of Germany’s favorite advice columnist, Reinhard Marx, as he opens up his mailbag.

Dear Reinhard,

My wife and I have been married for eighteen years and have a six year old daughter. I love my wife, but for three years I have been seeing a sex worker in a Munich brothel, Magdalena. She is the only working girl I ever visit, and I have fallen in love with her. Although I realize this may be less than ideal, I love both my wife and Magdalena.

I hear some people saying that this may be “adultery,” and, further, that it could be a mortal sin and maybe I shouldn't take communion! I am a good Catholic and want to do the right thing. Surely God recognizes the stable and loving relationship I enjoy alongside my marriage? What should I do?

Muddled in Munich

Anonymous. The Prodigal Son & Cortesans (16th C). Musée de la Ville de Paris, Paris.

Reinhard replies...

Dear Muddled:

Don't be so hard on yourself. As the editors of the traditions gathered together under the name “Jeremiah” wrote: “The heart is perverse above all things, and unsearchable, who can know it?” Pascal, though only a Frenchman, expressed a similar sentiment when he said, “The heart has its reasons that reason knows not.” What these authors, separated by centuries, agree upon is this: you cannot control whom you love.

The important thing is that we find a way for you to feel welcome in the Church in your clandestine extramarital relationship with Magdalena. Is it right to call a committed, though unorthodox, loving relationship adultery? I think not. So enjoy the blessings of love (and love!) and do not let small-hearted naysayers keep you from communion!

I am sending you an autographed copy of Pope Francis' friend and collaborator Archbishop Victor Manuel Fernandez's “Heal Me With Your Mouth: the Art of Kissing.” (Sounds like you could use it!)

God bless you!

Johann Opitz. Prostitutes & Idlers in Front of Church (1826). Wien Museum, Vienna.

The Bear has sat in on the agony uncle more than once. Each time, Marx has managed to regularize the oddities of modern relationships with creative efficiency. For those of us chafing under hidebound, life-denying judgments and demands that hamper our bliss, Marx is our man. All Lebkuchen; no gall, no ashes. Great thanks to the Bear for monitoring his mail.

Note: Agony aunt—or uncle, in this case—is my favorite term for an advice columnist. A Dear Abby for the sorely perplexed. It is also one of my favorite Britishisms, to which I am entitled by birth. I grew up listening to a Liverpudlian grandfather who lapsed into Cockney when the mood was on him. He'd have made a withering agony uncle himself. But then he was Dutch Reformed.

Until Later

There is a hush over August. Its quietude invites every Jackself to take as one's own Hopkins' interior monologue: “Let be, call off thoughts awhile.” Words, too, need a rest. Only in silence can we hear the psalmist: Be still, and know that I Am God.

Emile Bernard. Madeleine in the Bois d'Amour on the River Aven. (late 1900s). Musée d'Orsay, Paris.

Until later. And with glad wishes for a sweet summer's end.