In his 1963 novel “Cat’s Cradle,” American author Kurt Vonnegut introduced the concept of a duprass: a loving couple linked in a cosmically significant manner and who work together for a greater purpose. Trenton-based artists Tracey Jones and Geoffrey Dorfman could be described as such a couple. Their memories work collectively so that if, for example, Jones can’t remember the name of one of her paintings, Dorfman can summon it up.
The two abstract painters met while students at Cooper Union, went to Syracuse University for their master’s degrees together, and both teach at the College of Staten Island, City University (both started as adjunct; she is now tenured). Dorfman has a studio on the second floor of their Mill Hill home, Jones on the third floor, and they order paint and canvas together. Dorfman had a solo exhibition at the Gallery at Rider University in 2013, and “Tracey Jones, Then and Now: A Survey” is on view at the Gallery through October 16, with a gallery talk Thursday, September 22, at 7 p.m.
While Jones and Dorfman were at Syracuse, the abstract painter Milton Resnick came as a visiting professor. Meeting and getting to know him was an experience that transformed their lives. “His lectures were like punk performances with extreme attitude,” wrote David Reed in an essay in Art in America. “But also like a meeting with a worried, kindly grandfather.”
It could also be said that Resnick was part of a duprass; his wife Pat Passlof was another abstract painter. In fact Jones, Dorfman, Resnick, and Passlof could make up what Vonnegut termed a karass — a group of people linked in a cosmically significant manner (although Resnick and Passlof, like the well-know relationship between 20th century French philosophers Jean Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, lived apart. Passlof wrote that the two were incompatible but could not live without one another). In this karass, the greater purpose they are all working toward is abstract expressionism. All four abstract expressionists made their home in New York in the 1970s and ’80s.
Passlof, too, taught at the College of Staten Island. In an end-of-life decision, Resnick took his life in 2004, and in 2011, when Passlof died, both Jones and Dorfman became trustees of the Milton Resnick and Pat Passlof Foundation. Based in a repurposed synagogue Resnick used as his studio at 87 Eldridge Street, just a stone’s throw from Manhattan’s New Museum and Tenement Museum, the foundation will exhibit works by Resnick, Passlof, and other painters working in or influenced by the abstract expressionist movement; host poetry readings, performances and lectures; and house an archive of Resnick and Passlof’s papers, available to scholars. The building itself, with its rich architectural history and rose windows, will be a draw when it opens, projected for fall, 2017.
Dorfman, who is also a concert pianist and composer, is the author of “Out of the Picture: Milton Resnick and the New York School,” and Jones served as the executor of Passlof’s estate.
As we climb the three flights to the studio, the dogs — Sam and Tommy — vocalize their wish to come along but are kept out with a gate. The cats are welcome in the studio, where enormous canvases lean against walls, and even the floor, with its colorful paint splatter, is a work of art. One cat is content in a basket, another stretches out on newspaper, and a third basks in the sun.
Using brushes from the hardware store, Jones applies and scrapes paint, creating pitted surfaces in purples, blues, greens, and pinks. She works on large canvases and layers on a lot of paint. This can be costly, and so she buys her paint from a colleague in Albany who manufactures it. When living in Manhattan, Jones and Dorfman made their own paint using machines that had belonged to Resnick.
“We made it by the gallons,” says Jones. “We did it with friends — it was like a paint coop. You could buy the pigment and linseed oil, and we used a giant mixer and press. It was fun working together but incredibly messy. We had to cover ourselves with masks and Vaseline.”
Born in Manhattan (Dorfman is also from New York, albeit Queens), Jones moved with her family to Long Island, then New Jersey (first Drakestown, then Long Valley), before settling in New Hope, Pennsylvania. “My parents liked antiques and old houses and wanted to own their home so made the transition from city to country,” she says.
As a child, Jones did not like school, except for art. She made a map of Hades, the Underworld, for Latin class, which enabled her to pass. She graduated from Solebury High School after the family moved to New Hope.
Jones was a student at Bucks County Community College (BCCC) in its early days, and most of the art faculty members were just a few years older than she. From there she went to Cooper Union — it was tuition free, and she lived frugally, sharing an apartment “with kitchen privileges” on 89th Street. She worked as a waitress and in the wee hours in hatcheck at Rodney Dangerfield’s nightclub.
“I was terrified I would mix up coats, but they fed me dinner. I always had a job. My parents helped but I had to be responsible.” Her father worked as a credit manager for Ford Motors, and later both parents operated Rosemary Jones Antiques in Lambertville. “They were the first antique people there, paying $100 a month to rent the shop. Antiques were cheap [to acquire] then.”
Jones’s mother ran the shop until a few years after her father died, at age 54 (Jones was in her 30s), and then opened a booth in Quakertown, Pennsylvania. “But the antique market changed. They liked old country furniture and redware, but now everyone likes mid-century modern.” Jones’s kitchen is filled with country-style chairs and shelves of pottery from her parents.
As an art student, Jones was taught to draw from life, using a model or a still life, and it’s what she teaches today. But even as far back as her days at BCCC she was encouraged to do her own thing. She taught herself through books on artists Paul Klee and Claude Monet, and was even working on landscapes in graduate school. “There’s a fine line between abstract and landscape — it’s just a horizontal line,” she says.
“To find yourself as an artist takes many years. I trusted that work and paint would take me there. Artists see things that influence them; they digest it and spit it out with their own imprint. I have my students start by painting still life. They don’t think it’s creative, but they have to learn the craft of painting, mixing colors, and looking at something and seeing how to take something three-dimensional and interpret it on a flat surface. Then they can rebel.”
Few of her students, she anticipates, will become painters — most are majoring in other fields. “You can’t make someone a painter. It’s a calling.” If they work in museums, become dealers, or write about art, she will be happy to have given them an education in looking at and appreciating art.
An artist doesn’t have to do the same thing all her life, Jones says. “I like the idea that you can do different things if the inclination arises.” Some of Jones’s canvases include dogs. She did a series based on tables and dogs. “The surface is similar, but the drawing is different.”
Jones has enjoyed the company of cats and dogs all her life and has had a cast of pets since moving to Mill Hill 23 years ago. Jones claims she cooked on a hot plate until moving to Trenton. The 3,000-square-foot New York loft they previously lived in had heat, a refrigerator, a toaster oven, a shower, a toilet, and a fold-out bed.
“Living illegally was cheaper,” she says. “But it was a dangerous and noisy neighborhood with squatters and people setting bonfires.” They had to put up metal shutters. “It was OK for a while, when we were young. We had an art community, with colleagues who were doing pottery and papermaking. We could work three days a week to pay the rent.” But the neighborhood was so ominous her parents feared visiting.
Trenton held appeal because it was closer to Jones’s family — her mother, 89, lives in Lambertville, as do two brothers, while another brother lives in Quakertown, Pennsylvania. (A sister lives on a boat in Guatemala.) Jones’s brothers had owned the building she and Dorfman now live in, having done the structural refurbishment it needed.
Jones and Dorfman bought it for $80,000, putting in walls while commuting to New York — she worked as the manager of a plant store, then did paste up and mechanicals for magazines and newspapers, including the Times of Trenton, during the era of the transition to computerization. She cobbled together freelance and adjunct work and even taught at Artworks until finally getting tenure.
One of the advantages of being in a duprass is the support each artist offers the other. “We bring out the best in each other and offer each other feedback. Even if negative it keeps you on your toes. Geoff has a good eye.”
When the Resnick and Passlof Foundation opens, she says, “it will promote abstract and contemporary painting. They would have liked that.”
Tracey Jones, Then and Now: A Survey, Rider University Art Gallery, Bart Luedeke Center, 2083 Lawrenceville Road, Lawrenceville. Through October 16. Gallery talk Thursday, September 22, 7 p.m. 609-921-2663 or www.rider.edu/artgallery.