The Indelible Fingerprint of the Art and Legacy of the Father of Contemporary Art in Louisiana
RISING DEFIANTLY ABOVE THE BANKS of Bayou Bonfouca stands George Dunbar’s largest work of art, his home and two studios carved into the marshland by the legendary artist himself. Inside, sweeping panoramic floor to ceiling windows open onto a seemingly endless expanse of marshland sitting on the cusp of Lake Pontchartrain.
On one side of the room, a large antique mirror reflects two of Dunbar’s works of scale—a piece from the series Coin du Lestin, a carved geometric composition reminiscent of Celtic knots, hangs over a stately stone fireplace, and on the adjacent wall hangs a large work of scale from his Surge series, depicting precise vertical carvings shining triumphantly from the dark abyss of two floating black rectangles. The sun’s beams illuminate the palladium-gilded clay of which the works are composed, creating a refraction effect and drawing the eye to the center of the piece.
On a clear day overlooking the water, Dunbar sits at the head of his glass dining table reading the morning paper. Dunbar is a small man with a formidable presence, even into his 90s.
George Dunbar was born in New Orleans in 1927, the son of Phelps Dunbar’s founding partner, Charles Edward Dunbar, Jr., a Tulane and Harvard Law School graduate who developed the modern civil service system in Louisiana, and Ethelyn Legendre Dunbar, of New Orleans.
From a young age, George Dunbar’s mother taught him a deep appreciation for the arts and culture. Dunbar explains: “My mother believed in travel, and she took me places when I was very young. She would drop me off at the museums and leave me there for hours. I got to the point where I knew the Metropolitan so well as a little boy, that I would just gravitate to the certain areas I liked.”
Dunbar attended Country Day in Metairie and was a star quarterback for the football team. He knew from an early age that art was his true passion. “When I was in high school, I enjoyed drawing cartoons of the people in my class, particularly when they didn’t know it,” Dunbar tells me jocularly.
After high school, Dunbar was offered a scholarship at ULL to play football. But he felt the patriotic call to serve and joined the navy at 17 and was deployed to the Philippines during World War II. Following his military service, he studied at the Grand Chaumiere in Paris, France, and later received a B.F.A. in painting from the Tyler School of Art at Temple University. Just as Dunbar began to gain notoriety, fate brought him home to Louisiana to care for his ailing mother, and the history of Louisiana Contemporary Art was changed for the better.
Soon after returning to Louisiana, Dunbar became a founding member of the Orleans Gallery. “I was taking care of my mother, who had a long term illness. My intention after returning from Europe was to return to Soho and be a painter there. But what I discovered was a group of very good, very serious, up-and-coming contemporary artists in New Orleans, only two of whom were from here. It was a gallery of artists opening and operating a gallery for artists. We opened in what is now the entrance to the Historic New Orleans Collection,” Dunbar recalls.
The audacious goal of the gallery was to foster contemporary art in Louisiana and to make other cities aware of New Orleans as a creative arts and cultural center. Not only did the Gallery accomplish this goal, but virtually every art gallery in New Orleans finds its nexus in the art and artists of the Orleans Gallery.
Opened in 1956, on the stark white walls hung the works of Ida Rittenberg Kohlmeyer, Lin Emery, George Dureau, and George Dunbar, among many other Louisiana contemporaries. Dunbar tells me the real reason for opening the Orleans Gallery: “We wanted a clean space. All good contemporary artists want a space where the artwork isn’t competing. What you see now as commonplace in galleries didn’t exist at that time: a clean space free from distraction with great lighting that would allow the work to speak for itself.”
Dunbar describes the brilliant manner in which new artists were admitted to the Orleans Gallery. The Gallery created a selection committee made up of “the heads of the art schools at LSU and Tulane, and two museum directors,” to whom artists blindly submitted their work. As a result, the committee chose artists’ works based entirely on merit, without regard to gender or even notoriety. “Ida Rittenberg Kohlmeyer and George Dureau got in that way; as did Katherine Choy, a teacher at Newcomb, and in my opinion, the best ceramist to ever come through New Orleans.”
To provide for his family, Dunbar also became the largest land developer in Slidell while simultaneously pursuing his art and fostering and teaching a generation of young artists. He explains: “I would dig canals in the morning when I was young. I would paint in the afternoon, and at night I would teach. It was a long day, but I was doing different things all day.”
Dunbar taught at the 331 School with Robert Helmer and ran that for about eight years on Chartres Street in the French Quarter. He has also taught art classes at Tulane University, UNO, and Isidore Newman. And he co-founded the first art gallery on the Northshore with Helmer, converting an old library to a serene, contemporary, well-lit space.
National notoriety, however, certainly did not allude Dunbar. Since his first solo exhibition in Philadelphia in 1953, Dunbar’s artwork has been displayed in museums, galleries, and exhibits around the world, including a oneman show of his work titled, “George Dunbar: Elements of Chance,” at New Orleans Museum of Art. Dunbar found himself at the forefront of the art world and the abstract expressionist movement in New York in the 1950’s, being shown alongside Franz Kline and Willem de Kooning.
Even at 95, Dunbar’s work is ever-changing and evolving, and his work continues to speak for itself. He visits and revisits different periods of his work, constantly challenging himself to create new work that is fresh, relatable, but distinctively Dunbar. “I change my work all the time. I don’t want to be a one-trick pony. I want to experiment and try other things and do other things. But as an artist, it is so important that even if you change and do something entirely different, somewhere along the line your thumbprint remains a part of it.”
Dunbar spends weeks, sometimes months, on a single work. His process is tedious and rife with the pursuit of movement, depth, texture, and perfectionism. Dunbar’s use of clay as an essential component of his work harnesses the elements of the swampland that surrounds him. He regularly paints dozens of layers of clay, heated in small batches and combined with a natural, proprietary concoction of pigmentation, clay, and emulsifiers, which when added together and sanded down create the smooth surfaces in the negative space of Dunbar’s work. “Surface is really something that I’m very aware of and something I’m always trying to look for,” he tells me.
The raised portions of his work are skillfully molded from the clay, then filed down, carved, scraped, grated, sanded, and occasionally shot with birdshot, to achieve the unique textures for which his work is known. “Sometimes we absorb things that influence our paintings. Living in the marsh, I see this landscape change color and texture almost every month. Texture and surfaces have always been very important to me. Looking at a marsh from above is an influence of some kind, both consciously and subconsciously. I love texture, and I do lots of things to distress works.”
Dunbar works meticulously with a menagerie of tools, found objects, and construction and cooking instruments, as well as traditional art supplies to mine the surface of his unique, contemporary masterpieces. He often adds his signature, usually a last step in his process, with a sharp object such as an ice pick and sometimes signs his pieces on more than one side. A true abstract, he tells me, should be able to be displayed in multiple ways.
“The most important thing in my work now is to keep moving,” Dunbar tells me. A nimble nonagenarian, Dunbar uses a cane, but still works intensively every day in his studio, creating the unique marks, painting on layers of clay, and meticulously adding gold and palladium leaf to his works in the traditional means of leafing that has been used for thousands of years. “When I was stationed in the Philippines in WWII, I would go to small towns, and I would see gold leaf. I went to Cuba before the revolution and gold leaf seemed to be everywhere. In Central America and Mexico, I saw gold leaf in churches and in sacred places.”
There is also more to the beauty of Dunbar’s work than first meets the eye. “If you get really close to some of my works, you’ll see that I sandblast the surface to make the clay show through the gold leaf,” he tells me. The lines in each work are etched through layers of clay with Dunbar’s hand, creating a palpable depth that is not visually apparent without close inspection. “The lines in my works are really engravings. I use engraving tools to make marks through the gold leafing, which is very thin, into the clay below,” he tells me.
Despite the depth and dimension of his works, which border on the sculptural, Dunbar still considers himself primarily a painter. “I am painting, and all of a sudden, I’m using clay to build up a surface over time. I think a lot of painters end up doing sculpture too. Even though they are totally different medias, it is important to try different things to evoke different effects.”
Dunbar is completely open to the artistic process, and he is willing to cede control to make the art as visually appealing as possible. “Sometimes as an abstract artist you’ll be working all day with different colors and mediums, and the floor becomes littered with what you were using. Sometimes what makes it onto the canvas is not as interesting as what makes it onto the floor. I call that the ‘accidental triumph,’” he tells me.
“The most important thing to me as far as people viewing my work is to know that I have my thumb print on it. That it is mine.” Critics, collectors, and museums agree, Dunbar’s thumbprint on contemporary art and his home of Louisiana is indelible.
The Ogden Museum recently awarded Dunbar the prestigious OPUS Award for his significant, lifelong contributions to the complex fabric of the Southern Arts in front of four hundred artists, philanthropists, and patrons of the arts at the Ogden Museum of Southern Art’s “O What A Night” Gala. Noticeably moved by the well-deserved honor, Dunbar held back tears remarking: “There is no greater honor than to be recognized by my peers and the children of my peers. Thank you.”
Dunbar is the subject of an upcoming, all encompassing PBS documentary about his life and art, and he has recently been honored by the Helis Foundation with the placement of the largest sculpture to ever be commissioned for display on the Sculpture Corridor on Poydras Street in the Central Business District in New Orleans.
His public works can be viewed at esteemed institutions such as the British Museum, the Whitney Museum of American Art, New Orleans Museum of Art, and Ogden Museum of Southern Art.