Harvey Dinnerstein, Parade (detail), 1970–72
Finding Harvey Dinnerstein ~ A Remembrance
The year must have been 1976.. I was a young painter in Pennsylvania.. well.. a student of painting. I had moved there from Georgia, via Florence Italy. I’d read Chaim Potok’s “My Name is Asher Lev”.. and I was searching.. searching for a teacher who could teach me how to paint in a traditional yet vibrant representational manner. It may seem hard to believe now, but in 1976 there were not many teachers who held the knowledge and or were willing to share it. All art.. all serious art at least.. art that one could easily find out about (from newspapers, magazines or by word of mouth).. was abstract. There were very few places one could go to learn the secrets of the masters. But, I was on that quest. It had led me to Florence at age 18, where I studied drawing with American expatriate Ben Long. Long was studying with Annigoni. While in Florence, a group of expats met regularly for a small life drawing class. It was after one of these classes that Charles Cecil, in conversation with Long and Richard Maury named off a list of realist painters living in America. One must remember that there was no internet then.. all information about such esoteric subjects was passed down by a small but earnest cadre of students. I was looking for a teacher I could study with in America so the information shared was like gold. Folks on the short list of about ten names of American realist painters included.. Andrew Wyeth in Pennsylvania, Ives Gammel in Boston, Richard Lack in Minnesota, Nelson Shanks also in Pennsylvania, Aaron Shikler in New York.. as well as a few others. Within a year, I moved to Pennsylvania enrolled in University of the Arts (PCA) and set out to meet these artists in my search for a teacher. Andrew Wyeth, contacted via 411 on the telephone, let me know decisively that he did not take private students. Meanwhile I transferred to The Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts after seeing The Gross Clinic and realizing that Thomas Eakins had studied there. The Academy was filled with memories, echoes and shadows of its heyday.. but was in the middle of the Seventies and as an institution embraced contemporary art movements. In exhibitions there I saw Diebenkorn and Stella. Still I felt that the secrets of the masters was like a grail.. at the time, the abstractionists of the day held only a passing interest for me.. I was driven to discover and learn the deeper lost secrets of traditional art. American artist Nelson Shanks lived in New Hope Pennsylvania. He was one of the leading portraits of his day. I spent two years studying privately alongside him as an apprentice. It was a coveted position. As only the students with the most potential (re ability to draw) were selected to be a Shanks apprentice. Shanks, as a portraitist, had an uncanny ability to capture a likeness.. and his knowledge of the history of painting was vast.
Still, even though I was learning to paint what I saw.. with a tradition passed down directly from the European masters, I was looking for something more, for someone who tackled grander more ambitious and dramatic scenes. It was around this time, while I was first studying with Shanks that I found my way up to Boston, to visit another artist on the list from the expats in Florence.. Ives Gammel. Gammel was a curmudgeon of a man living and working in an eponymous studio school in Fenway Studios. Gammel had an old school air about him, but he was rude and curt. He demanded devotion from his students and insisted on their full attention. The day I spent with him was all about him. When he finally turned and asked me a question.. he asked how I had found my way to him.. who had told me about him.. I answered telling him that his name was on a list I’d gathered in Florence.. when he asked the names of the several artists who had helped compile the list.. I told him and his response was.. “oh so you are a name dropper huh?” I was 19 or 20.. and I just looked at him. I realized he was not my man. But, he had a strong and dedicated following of students who were devoted to him and his rigorous approach to sight-size painting. One of his students was a nice lean artist named Hilary Holmes. Holmes was an advanced student. In visiting his studio filled with his impressive works (including a gorgeous portrait of his young blonde wife that I can still remember clearly today) it was with almost a sense of betrayal of Gammel that he whispered the name of his previous instructor in NY.. Harvey Dinnerstein. Holmes had a life/sized study which Dinnerstein had given him (I believe for posing). It was a virtuosic display .. a young man and woman half-reclining.. apparently outdoors in sunlight rendered in broad strokes. Who was this Dinnerstein? He wasn’t in my list of American artists. Holmes told me that I should give him a visit, saying that he was a talented painter and teacher.. who dared to paint large ambitious paintings.. and then.. leaning in.. whispering.. possibly betraying his current instructor.. he added that.. Harvey was “a nice man”.
I got Dinnerstein’s number from looking up the area code of Brooklyn in the telephone book and dialing 411. I called him. That’s how things were done back then. I drove up from Philadelphia in my wife’s yellow Toyota Corolla. I had first scheduled to meet Aaron Shikler in his uptown studio in the morning.. he was polite.. giving me an hour of his time.. Shikler (who was on the Florence list) was well known at the time for his poignant portrait of John F Kennedy looking downward and walking as if in a dream. Although he had a marvelous touch and facility, there was something about Shikler which felt like his time had already passed.. as if he was hanging on to a past glory. In the afternoon, after lunch, I’d arranged the meeting with Dinnerstein, who lived way over on President Street near Prospect Park. I was only twenty.. I was young.. innocent.. green. Harvey Dinnerstein even then seemed like an old man to me.. but an enthusiastic and vibrant old man.. in reality he must have only been in his fifties.. but with his long graying salt and pepper beard he appeared older. In the dining room of his Brownstone at 933 President Street hung his ambitious “Parade” painting.. a large multi-figure composition depicting a Sixties-style protest replete with hippies and nude figures and mixed races.. a pig’s head on a stake.. a galloping horse and rider.. a skeleton with an hourglass.. a bubble boy.. a goat. The painting was filled with so much energy and life.. I’d never seen anything like it. I couldn’t believe that it was painted by a living artist. Its composition and technique were founded on the solid principles of the masters but its subject was of the moment. I was raised in the era of protests of the Sixties and I felt the energy and power of a whole era in this painting. It spoke to me on a deep resounding level. I had found the grail. I had found the Jewish painter who was the living embodiment of Chaim Potok’s fictional Asher Lev. Someone had brought it all together.. someone who in the words of Robert Beverly Hale was.. “driving all the horses at once”. I was in awe. And yet Dinnerstein was humble. He seemed appreciative that this unknown young painter from Georgia/Florence/Pennsylvania was interested in his work.. he invited me upstairs into his studio. It was on the top floor of his brownstone where he lived with his wife Lois.. an art historian.. and his teenaged children. I learned that he taught at The Art Students League and The School of Visual Arts and The National Academy of Design. But even with those commitments primarily he was a painter. Entering his light filled studio illuminated by a rooftop skylight was like being invited into a secret realm. His drawings and paintings were strewn everywhere. What was supposed to be a one-hour studio visit stretched into the late afternoon as he opened drawer after drawer of his flat files revealing drawing after drawing. Rough semi-abstract charcoal compositional drawings.. finely rendered silverpoint drawings that looked as if they could have come from the hands of Ingres or Durer. He spent the whole afternoon sharing tips and advice with me.. never in an egotistical way.. always in an attempt to offer me what I needed. He listened and responded to my questions. He was alive in the moment but held the wisdom of experience and the knowledge of all the past masters. Time stood still in his studio that day.. light from the late afternoon sun seemed eternal on his studio wall. I had finally found what I was looking for. And although I didn’t move to New York and never studied with him officially.. he was a great teacher and mentor to me. He was a sage. We wrote letters back and forth for many years. I divorced and moved all around the country while he stayed put in his home and studio. My address would change.. but he’d still manage to get letters to me through my galleries. It is a rare thing for us the meet that one person who has exactly what we need.. and rarer still for them to be open and giving and willing to share. We own one small drawing of his.. a charcoal and pencil drawing on buff paper.. it appears to be a road.. a piece of a highway.. perhaps in Ohio.. perhaps on a summer evening.. it looks like a Dutch drawing a Rembrandt or a Van Reyusdahl.. but then one notices in the distance.. a car on the road.. rounding the bend.. tail lights leaving the picture.. it appears to be an old Chevy from the early Sixties.. with wing lights.. disappearing around the curve. Wherever Harvey Dinnerstein is.. wherever he is going.. he is happy.. he is content.. he played the game on his own terms.. he made a life out of it.. he had his family.. and his home.. his culture.. he painted within a tradition that he honored and admired.. yet he made work that was fresh and alive.. it doesn’t represent a decade or a half-century.. it is more than just the time in which he existed on the planet.. Harvey Dinnerstein captured a whole era.. a time that is fleeting and will never return. the moment.. the microcosm in which he lived.. but the macrocosm of the whole era in human culture.. the renaissance.. the Judeo-Christian tradition.. his domestic life.. New York City.. the artworld.. the current events of the day.. the whole thing.. Harvey Dinnerstein got it.. and gave it back.. it is there in his paintings.. and in his indelible spirit that inhabits his work.. and the work of his students.. and all of the people whose lives he touched.. by being real.. and selfless.. by giving up an afternoon of painting to spend time sharing drawings with a young unknown art student in his upstairs studio as the sun sinks low and streaks across the wall.. forever and ever..
Harvey Dinnerstein, The Road
Harvey Dinnerstein was born in Brownsville Brooklyn New York on April 3rd 1928. He passed on June 21, 2022. Dinnerstein studied at Tyler School of Art in Philadelphia Pennsylvania. His work can be found in the permanent collection of The Metropolitan Museum, The Whitney Museum, The Butler Art Institute, The Smithsonian Museum of American Art and The Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. He is survived by his wife Lois, children Rachel and Michael, niece, pianist Simone Dinnerstein, and brother Simon Dinnerstein.