The Jewish Echoes In ‘The Fulbright Triptych’

Forty years after Simon Dinnerstein completed his monumental painting, the complex work is getting a fresh look.

08/09/2011
Staff Writer
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Germany was not Simon Dinnerstein’s first choice for a Fulbright grant. But he didn’t have much of a choice. It was 1970, and the Brooklyn-based artist, then 27, was barely making a living. He first applied to work with a noted Spanish painter, only listing Germany, to study the art of engraving in the birthplace of Dürer, as a back up.

“It didn’t come through,” Dinnerstein, now 68, said of his application to Spain. “But my second choice to Germany did.” Yet because of his Jewish background and because the Holocaust resonated so deeply, he explained, “there was some ambivalence about going.”

Dinnerstein and his wife, Renée, a teacher, debated whether to accept the scholarship, and they only tepidly agreed to take it. Now, however, there are few regrets. The monumental work that resulted from the grant, “The Fulbright Triptych,” has become his calling card. As Dinnerstein said: “Out of not getting what I wanted, I ended up getting much more than I wanted.”

“The Fulbright Triptych” — a massive oil portrait of the artist and his family that includes a trompe l’oeil of miniature masterpieces from Holbein to Degas — is getting a fresh look at the German Consulate here as part of a major retrospective of the artist’s career.

The exhibit coincides with the publication of a handsome new book, “The Suspension of Time: Reflections on Simon Dinnerstein and ‘The Fulbright Triptych,’” which includes essays by novelists like Jhumpa Lahiri, the actor John Turturro and the composer George Crumb.

“I found it so profoundly interesting that we’re here celebrating this painting that began only 30 years after the Holocaust,” said Daniel Slager, editor of “The Suspension of Time” and head of the publishing house that produced it, Milkweed Editions.

In addition to the Jewish back-story, Slager added, the novelty of the book’s form — 44 artists from all different fields commenting on a single work of art — convinced him to publish it. “I can’t tell you how many times I say, ‘This book is like no other,’” he noted. “We’ve never done a book like this before.”

The truth is that Dinnerstein had never done a painting like the triptych before either. He studied drawing at the Brooklyn Museum of Art’s graduate program (his teacher was David Levine, the longtime illustrator at The New York Review of Books). And his goal for the Fulbright was to expand his interest in drawing into engraving.

But when he arrived in the bucolic German village where he was stationed, not far from Kassel, he changed his focus. He gave up engraving, and committed himself entirely to painting. “I thought, ‘This would make a wonderful painting’,” Dinnerstein recalled, suggesting the blithely cavalier way in which he disregarded his craft.

Within days of that decision, he set out to paint a near-exact replica of the small attic apartment where he and his wife were living. The painting, which he finished three years later at his studio back in Brooklyn, meticulously recreates everything from the engraving table, tools and creamy white radiator behind it, to the dozens of postcard of paintings he pinned up as inspiration on his walls.

The view of the town his window overlooked dominates the center panel, and on each side there are two portraits: a pensive looking Simon to the right, with a bushy brown beard and dark blue shirt; and to the left, Renée, stern yet serene. In her lap is their daughter, a baby-aged Simone, who today is a renowned classical pianist. She was born a year after the painting began.

“It’s a painting I always knew as a kid,” Simone, 39, said in an interview. “But I appreciate it more and more as I get older. He was incredibly ambitious,” she said of her father. “That’s been both inspiring and intimidating for me, given that it was his first painting.”

Simon Dinnerstein’s mother immigrated to New York from Eastern Europe; his father was born in the city — “a resolute left Communist,” is how Dinnerstein described him, noting that his father was an American Communist Party member until he died, in the 1970s. Though avowedly secular, Dinnerstein was raised with a strong Jewish identity.

“Being Jewish is very complicated,” he said. “But it’s somehow in my DNA. Being Jewish is a verb, not a noun,” he continued. “It’s a point of view.”

It’s a point of view that strongly influenced his time in Germany, too. Dinnerstein recalled how, even after he and Renée decided to take the yearlong scholarship, they felt constantly aware of their Jewishness. Renée in particular was often on edge.

“She kind of got obsessed with asking people questions” about what they were doing during the Holocaust, he remembered. “I thought it was a poor question, because, what could you do?”

But he said she became less prying on account of one of her students. Renée was tutoring a German high school student in English and American history, when she got to the issue of race. Renée began talking about the Civil Rights movement, when the student asked her “How could you live there?”

“Renée said that she couldn’t figure out the answer to that,” Dinnerstein recalled. “And she then realized that she might not need to ask” Germans a similar question about what they were doing while Hitler was in power either.

There is no explicit Holocaust imagery, or even Jewish imagery, in “The Fulbright Triptych.” And yet several contributors to “The Suspension of Time” note a strong Jewish resonance.

“Look at ‘The Fulbright Triptych’ for a minute and the mind begins to fill in the blanks, sketch lines between data points, assemble a story out of pigment and air,” the novelist Anthony Doerr writes. “Is this about Judaism and Germany? Is this about family and work?”

Even more directly, Guy Davenport, an eminent art critic, writes in a letter to Dinnerstein from 1991, republished in the book: “My immediate feeling about it — and practically all your work — is that it is a perfect register (narrative, if you will, art-as-equivalent-at-the-highest-articulateness) of the Jewish soul.”

Davenport adds that the painting reminds him of a rabbinic teaching about the Hebrew letter “aleph.” The upper half of the letter symbolizes God and Torah, the teaching says, and the lower half human life. “The diagonal is the boundary between the two,” Davenport goes on. “The ‘Triptych’ says something of the same thing. … It’s an iconographer’s heaven!”

When asked what he thought Davenport meant, Dinnerstein said he understood it as a comment on Jewish intellectualism. “Teaching, learning, asking, questioning,” Dinnerstein said. “That’s Jewish. [And] I think that’s definitely in the painting.”

There is no mistaking the painting’s intelligence. The miniature artworks Dinnerstein recreates — from an Assyrian stele at least 3,000 years old, to a rendition of Bellini’s “St. Francis in Ecstasy” — read like an encyclopedia of art history.

Then, there are the literary facsimiles: a page of “Moby-Dick,” painted as if it were torn from the book and pegged to the wall, appears near a gnomic poem, also on a torn-looking scrap, by someone named Gloria Mintz. It reads: “Grey and sweating / And only one I person / Fighting and fretting.”

The poem was written by a student at an Orthodox women’s day school in Brooklyn where Dinnerstein was teaching humanities classes at the time. Dinnerstein told his students to come up with a poem that mixed existentialist ideas with the haiku form, and that’s what Mintz came up with. He loved it, and decided to paint it into to his triptych.

“I’m astonished by how people are [moved] by the triptych,” said Thietmar Bachmann, the head of the culture department at the German Consulate, and who organized the exhibit.

Bachmann said that Dinnerstein’s status as a Jewish artist who often notes the Holocaust’s influence on his work did not factor into his decision to mount the exhibit. “Of course we have to consider our past, but I’m a generation born after” the Holocaust, Bachmann said. “Today, the proportion of artists and curators who are Jewish is very high. For me, it’s quite normal to do this.”

Many other more recent artworks are included in the exhibit, but “The Fulbright Triptych” is unmistakably the cynosure. Yet as much as Dinnerstein sees the work as a search for his own identity, his own way in the world, its full meaning still escapes him.

Looking at it now, he said, 40 years later, he doesn’t even fully recognize himself. “I can’t get my arms around this painting,” he said, sitting in chair not far away from it. “As much as I put my arms around it, it eludes me, it still runs away.”

“Simon Dinnerstein: The Fulbright Triptych and Selected Works” is on view at the German Consulate until September 15. The German Consulate is located at 871 UN Plaza, on 49th Street and First Avenue. Contact germanconsulatenyc@gmail.com for more information. Copies of the book “The Suspension of Time,” by Milkweed Editions, are available at major online bookstores.

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