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Art: Woodmere retrospective a tribute to Murray Dessner

As his friend and longtime colleague Elizabeth Osborne observed, Murray Dessner was making his strongest paintings when he died of cancer Sept. 22, seven weeks short of his 78th birthday.

"Urbino Rising," a 2001 tribute to Raphael, illustrates Murray Dessner’s move toward contemplative serenity without sacrificing cloudlike spatial luminescence and scintillating color
"Urbino Rising," a 2001 tribute to Raphael, illustrates Murray Dessner’s move toward contemplative serenity without sacrificing cloudlike spatial luminescence and scintillating colorRead more

As his friend and longtime colleague Elizabeth Osborne observed, Murray Dessner was making his strongest paintings when he died of cancer Sept. 22, seven weeks short of his 78th birthday.

Two exhibitions that opened this month allow Dessner's admirers and the public at large to judge for themselves. (A third, outside Wilmington, closed Saturday.)

Dessner is one of four artists associated with the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts showing at the Berman Museum of Ursinus College in Collegeville through Jan. 13. (The others are Osborne, Bruce Samuelson, and Vincent Desiderio.)

The principal tribute to Dessner, as it must now be characterized, is a retrospective at Woodmere Art Museum in Chestnut Hill. Despite his illness, Dessner participated in the creation of this display of 25 paintings and one print.

That's not many works for an exhibition that covers more than 45 years, but then Woodmere isn't a large museum. Also, the Dessner show is sharing the space, and the spotlight, with an unusual show that brings together work by painter Louise Fishman, a Philadelphia native; her mother, Gertrude Fisher-Fishman; and her aunt, Razel Kapustin.

For Dessner, the size of the checklist isn't a significant problem because the 26 pictures not only span his entire creative life, from student days at the Pennsylvania Academy to the present, they also represent all its major phases.

In doing so, they offer visitors a fascinating insight into the way an artist's career path can twist and turn over decades. In Dessner's case, the transitions from one phase to another turn out to be startling, and even puzzling.

One might conclude that he was restless, not content with developing a congenial style and endlessly refining it, as many artists do, but continuing to experiment boldly until he arrived at a perfect equilibrium, which he did over the last 15 years or so.

Dessner's career was all the more remarkable because he jumped into art relatively late, at 25, when he began to take drawing classes at the Fleisher Art Memorial on his home turf, South Philadelphia.

He had discovered art through a girlfriend who was a student at Tyler School of Art. He read her art history textbooks and sometimes attended lectures with her. That exposure led him to Fleisher, where an instructor, Filomena Dellaripa, recognized a latent talent and urged him to apply to the academy.

With some trepidation he did, was accepted, and went on to become a top student, guided and encouraged by teachers such as Osborne, Ben Kamihira, Hobson Pittman, Morris Blackburn, and Franklin C. Watkins.

The earliest painting in the Woodmere show, a 1965 oil titled Thoreau, affirms his student precocity. It's a beguiling abstraction that hints, though a flesh-colored passage, of a subliminal figure; it reminded me a bit of Willem de Kooning and a bit of Arshile Gorky.

During the mid-1960s, several traveling scholarships from the academy allowed Dessner to travel through Europe, where he eventually discovered Venice and the Greek island of Patmos, both of which influenced his subsequent treatment of color and light.

These elements turned out to be the quintessence of his late paintings, which will be remembered as his mature, signature mode of expression. Color became a priority first, in the early 1970s, when he began to make hard-edged, boldly linear abstractions such as Hard Edge Yellow and Hard Edge Gray Maroon.

These compositions are precisely rendered, schematically logical and calculated, especially regarding the color juxtapositions.

Perhaps, for Dessner's taste, they proved to be too much so, because from then he turned 180 degrees, to more improvisational abstractions such as Lady Locks (For Marian), which appear to be random, chaotic, and amorphous.

Lady Locks was painted on the floor, the acrylic pigment poured directly from the container. I like Dessner's rationale for the rejection of control: He wanted people to react to the painting viscerally, without thinking about it, especially about its compositional sequence.

Pouring led in turn to "frame" compositions such as Morning Glory, in which the images become soft and grainy, the colors quiet, and the edges emphasized by painted, framelike borders.

Knowing how Dessner's story ends, it's natural to anticipate that such paintings of the late 1970s and early 1980s signal the advent of his final phase.

Yet he still had one more major shift to get out of his system - into figuration, montage, dreams, and storytelling.

This appears, quite dramatically, in two large paintings, L'Chaim of 1986 and Viet Nam of 1992. Both appropriate familiar images from other artists and published sources.

L'Chaim, which evokes the suffering of the Jews before and during World War II, combines pictures of Jerusalem's Western Wall and Dome of the Rock, people behind barbed wire, and visual quotations from Marc Chagall.

People who remember the Vietnam War period might recognize in Viet Nam the Pieta-like figure of a wounded Marine from an iconic combat photograph by Larry Burrows.

It is reinforced by similarly powerful flashes of memory - a naked girl burned by napalm running down a road, a Viet Cong prisoner about to be executed on the street, the killings at Kent State.

These are sober, disturbing paintings, nightmares of suffering from the past that seem to be a million miles removed from Dessner's lodestars of Titian and Veronese. However, within a few years, with the small painting A Day in Rome (For Teddy), he returned to his original trajectory, the pursuit of an apotheosis of color and light.

Beginning with Big Red Blossom of 1996 and Natural Ridge of 1997, Dessner constructed the galaxylike conflations of brilliant color and celestial illumination that he carried to the end, in recent paintings such as Café au Lait and his last picture, Yesterday's Mist.

The surfaces of the earlier pictures in this sequence are textural, like classic abstract expressionism, but beginning with Urbino Rising in 2001, his tribute to the Italian master Raphael, Dessner moved steadily toward contemplative serenity without sacrificing the formal qualities of cloudlike spatial luminescence and scintillating color.

The uplifting paintings from the last decade - Venezia, Saturation, Spring's Light, and Last Horizon - turned out to be a curtain call. One isn't tempted to speculate on what might have come after them; they constitute a magnificent legacy that any painter might envy.

Homer extended. The Philadelphia Museum of Art has extended the exhibition "Shipwreck! Winslow Homer and the Life Line" through Dec. 31.

Art: Murray Dessner: A Retrospective

Through Jan. 6 at the Woodmere Art Museum, 9201 Germantown Ave.

Hours: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesdays through Thursdays, 10 to 8:45 Fridays, 10 to 6 Saturdays, and 10 to 5 Sundays.

Admission: $10 general, $7 for visitors 55 and older, free to children and students with ID.

Information: 215-247-0476,