The painted surface “holds within it the colors of the sun and sky. It provides everything you need to create a world that unlocks the sensation of ‘being’ that lies at the root of our existence. That there are others who respond to this is part of the faith that allows art to exist.”
With statements such as this, Geoffrey Dorfman could write the book on the act of creativity.
A painter, composer, classical pianist, writer and professor of art and modern culture, he is a master at mining the creative impulse and rendering it in a pleasing form.
His current show — “Geoffrey Dorfman: Eye & Mind, Paintings and Monotypes” — opened last week at Rider University and runs through Sunday, March 3.
Audiences will have the opportunity to hear the artist in conversation with gallery curator Harry Naar this Thursday, February 14, at 7 p.m. Even though, Dorfman believes, “There is danger in trying to describe what you do.”
With a home and studio in Trenton’s Mill Hill neighborhood, Dorfman says he’s more tinkerer than engineer. “There’s no organization when I begin. The fugitive random play of light and shade is enough to stimulate me, and when I’m painting well — when I feel most the artist within me — each pass of the brush gives me the clue to the next one. I do eventually find my way.”
Regarding mistakes and accidents: “If a painter leaves something, it’s no longer an accident.”
For Dorfman, it’s not about churning out painting after painting; rather, artistic development is a life project, and painting is “a confrontation with the medium.”
Art making, for him, is a form of play. “The problem that a lot of people have with the word ‘play’ is that it sounds trivial, but it can be a matter of life and death,” he says. “Most of us have had the experience, when in a game and fully committed to victory, of it being at that moment the most important thing in our life.”
Another quote that could go into a book, “The only advice I offer my students is avoid repeating a color exactly in a picture; always alter it somewhat. avoid cliches. Not all shadows need to be cool, not all sunlight warm.”
Born and raised in Queens, N.Y., Dorfman’s parents’ careers achieved fruition later in life. When he was 17, his father started writing for comic books — DC, Marvel, ACG, Dell — and his mother taught high school. Dorfman says their careers did not influence him because he was already drawing and painting beginning in kindergarten. “My father was gifted as an artist, but possibly because of bursitis he didn’t take that route.”
Geoffrey’s gift was recognized early, both in visual art and piano. He studied piano privately during childhood and while he was a student at High School of Music and Art. Accepted to both Manhattan School of Music and Cooper Union, Geoffrey chose the latter because tuition was free — his family could not afford to pay. By age 21, Dorfman made a commitment to painting and gave up piano to earn an MFA from Syracuse University. He didn’t return to piano until age 38.
Since then he has given full-length solo concerts in Weill Hall at Carnegie Hall, Westminster Choir College, and other venues. In 1997 he opened Great Britain’s Marlborough Summer Festival with a full-length recital, and has just released a three-CD album, “19th Century Masterworks: Geoffrey Dorfman, Piano.”
At Cooper Union, he earned top grades in painting classes but not in other subject areas. “Painting was my major and my minor.” During the time he attended in the early 1970s, the faculty was divided between representational and abstract art. “You had to choose between modern and traditional, and the decision was clear to me,” he says. But the transition was not overnight.
Milton Resnick, an artist whose influence was so great over Dorfman that he wrote “Out of the Picture: Milton Resnick and the New York School” (Midmarch Arts Press, 2004), called figurative painting “beating a dead horse,” according to Dorfman. Yet at the end of Resnick’s life, he started figure painting.
The transition, for Dorfman, began by studying abstract artists, and then putting paint down on canvas and looking at it. “Norman Mailer started his second novel by just putting down a sentence,” says Dorfman. “Then the next sentence came, and the one after that. I don’t have a plan, but the picture lets me know what it needs to complete itself.”
He compares the process to a game of chess. “The possibilities start to narrow down, and sometimes I lose my way. If it’s a pyramid, the base is the beginning, and it narrows to the last brush stroke.
“How you begin isn’t that important,” he continues. “Sometimes I start by cleaning my brushes on a clean white canvas.”
When the pyramid crumbles, Dorfman has techniques for salvaging it: he may scrape the canvas, or simply turn it upside down.
When Robert Motherwell’s dealer paid him a $200 monthly stipend to produce 75 paintings a year, it may have been a good income for an artist when others were getting nothing, but it meant that the dealers didn’t understand the underlying emotions behind the paintings. “It was the devil’s bargain,” says Dorfman.
When he was a young man out of art school, an uncle offered Dorfman an opportunity to apprentice as a scenic designer in the film industry, but Dorfman turned down the opportunity, saying he didn’t want to work for a living.
Although Dorfman works as an abstract painter, he teaches still life and the figure.
When students bring him paintings asking for help on what they deem to be failures, he stresses they must learn to lose the thread, to change the premise. If there is one part the student likes and tries to save, it will no longer work as a whole. “You have to be willing to learn to sacrifice what you like,” he says. “Good parts don’t count; you have to get the whole working.”
No matter how gifted a student is, Dorfman says, once art school is finished, no one expects the students to continue. They are expected to get a job, possibly as a commercial artist. The true test of whether the student is an artist — “if you continue because you have to — it’s a terrifying existential moment. We’re not as free as we think — freedom is frightening, when no one is telling you what they expect of you.”
It doesn’t help that the parents of young art students believe their offspring, as artists, will wind up sleeping in the park.
“The only way to continue as an artist is by love, because it’s nutritious for your soul, because it’s something you can’t live without,” says Dorfman. “You have to find a way of making art by which you’re constantly stimulated by what you do, and if the work sells it’s a bonus. If you think of what people want to see, who is your audience, what do they expect, you’re in trouble.”
He points to Roy Lichtenstein, who continued to work in the way in which he had become successful all his life because of what people expected.
These days, even students who major in finance will have a hard time finding paid employment, so Dorfman tells his students, “You’re going to be poor anyway, you may as well do what you love. The worst thing imaginable is being poor and doing what you hate.”
When Dorfman told his filmmaker uncle that he didn’t want to work for a living, what he meant was, he wanted to do what he wanted to do, as in the old saw, “Do what you love and you’ll never work a day in your life.” Teaching at the College of Staten Island/CUNY has helped Dorfman to bridge the gap. “I came to it at the right time, and I was incredibly lucky.”
Music is more like life than painting in that it unfolds in time, he believes, and you experience the unspooling, whereas painting is frozen in time, an image is a static experience. “It removes the anticipatory moment,” he says. “In life, and in movies, images are in flux and you are moving your eyes — it’s a form of self-protection, so you don’t walk into things.” Looking at a static image involves a different kind of looking, one that many have difficulty with.
“It’s an esthetic emotion, versus a human emotion,” Dorfman says. “A painting takes narrative out of the equation; nothing is going to happen when you look at a wrought object. You’re removing the future, it’s totally in the present, and that’s where you see real beauty.”
He compares it to two lovers viewing a sunset. “They experience beauty as the sensation of time slowing down. That’s why people say, ‘Isn’t it as pretty as a picture?’”
Why does Dorfman choose such titles as “Nectar,” “Reliquary,” or “Rustles of Spring”? “Dammed if I know,” he says.
Reluctant to number his paintings, he offers just enough of a suggestion. A viewer might bring something of their own to it, but, by naming the paintings, Dorfman is directing viewers to a certain response. “I don’t want to tell you what’s there. That’s for you to experience. It’s not necessary for you to complete it, it can be enigmatic. Abstraction is like seeing something for the first time when you don’t have the word for it.”
You never forget the first time you heard the ocean, he says; and when you are older you realize it’s where you came from, you are tied to it. It’s a feeling that goes beyond, and you need a poet to reinvent those feelings in language.
Or, with painting, “the object is to create a revelation by moving paint, and keeping paint (as) paint — not turning it into a leaf, bark, a river or a nose — it’s simply color and paint. And within that, you can create the whole universe.”
Geoffrey Dorfman: Eye & Mind, Paintings and Monotypes, Bart Ludeke Center, Rider University. Through Sunday, March 3. Artist’s Talk, Thursday, February 14, 7 p.m. Gallery hours: Tuesday to Thursday, 11 a.m. to 7 p.m.; Sunday, noon to 4 p.m. www.rider.edu/artsgallery or 609-895-5588.