Harvey Dinnerstein, proudly realistic painter, is dead at 94
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Harvey Dinnerstein, proudly realistic painter, is dead at 94
Harvey Dinnerstein, Brownstone, 1958-1960, oil on canvas, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of Mr. Philip Desind, 1986.90.1

by Richard Sandomir

NEW YORK, NY.- The Montgomery, Alabama, bus boycott was in its early days when Harvey Dinnerstein and his friend Burt Silverman — two socially conscious realist painters motivated by the lack of photographic evidence of the protests — took the train from Penn Station in Manhattan to Alabama in 1956 to draw that seminal chapter in the nascent civil rights movement.

They used pencils and charcoal to document the trial of the boycott’s leaders, including Martin Luther King Jr., as well as church rallies and services and the lives of people surviving without city buses.

“The Black community welcomed us into their homes, where we quickly realized that far more than the trial needed to be recorded,” they wrote in the catalog to an exhibition of their drawings at the Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts in 2006. “We intuitively decided to draw these ordinary citizens, and they became the primary subjects of our subsequent endeavors.”

Dinnerstein sketched a contemplative Rosa Parks, whose refusal to give up her seat to a white man on a bus in Montgomery had inspired the boycott; in his portrait, she is holding a Bible, her eyes seemingly closed. He depicted a group of about a dozen men and women, one of them on crutches, walking together, their destination unknown; people marching; men on the street talking; two men playing chess in a barbershop.

Those drawings are among the best-known works in Dinnerstein’s long career, in which he remained devoted to figurative realism and resisted the abstract expressionism that was starting to flourish in the early 1950s.

“There’s just an extraordinary humanity to them,” said Heather Campbell Coyle, curator of American art at the Delaware Art Museum, which exhibited the two men’s drawings in 2018. “The ones who are walking pull at me — to see a middle-aged Black man trudging in the heat of Montgomery because he’s not taking the bus.”

In June 1968, Dinnerstein traveled to Washington for Esquire magazine to draw the Poor People’s Campaign — an attempt organized by King, who had been assassinated in April, to seek economic justice for those living in poverty.

“The last time I had been this close to ‘The Movement’ was 12 years ago in Montgomery, Alabama,” he wrote. “One evening I drew the 10-year-old daughter of one of the organizers. That child is 22 years old today and I doubt that her dreams have in any measure been fulfilled.”

Dinnerstein, who in addition to his work on paintings and drawings was a longtime art teacher, died June 21 in Brooklyn. He was 94.

His death, in a hospital, was confirmed by his niece, concert pianist Simone Dinnerstein.

Harvey Dinnerstein was born April 3, 1928, in Brooklyn. His father, Louis, was a pharmacist; his mother, Sarah (Kobilansky) Dinnerstein, was a homemaker. At 14, he entered the High School of Music & Art, now the Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School of Music & Art and Performing Arts (where he met Silverman), and he knew quickly that he would be an artist.

“It never occurred to me to be anything other than artist. Well, perhaps a shortstop for the Brooklyn Dodgers, circa 1939,” he said in an interview last year with Linea, an online journal of the Art Students League.

He attended the Art Students League, where he studied with Russian-born painter Moses Soyer, before enrolling at the Tyler School of Art and Architecture at Temple University in Philadelphia, from which he graduated in 1950. He was drafted into the Army during the Korean War and served at Fort Monmouth, New Jersey, where he drew greeting cards for soldiers.

Dinnerstein came of age in the early 1950s. Unmoved by abstract expressionism, he followed in the artistic tradition of realists like Francisco Goya and Honoré Daumier.

“It was the moment when people said you have to think about de Kooning,” Alice Duncan, senior director of the Gerald Peters Gallery in Manhattan, which represents Dinnerstein, said in a phone interview. “And he was definitely not thinking of de Kooning.”

Instead, Dinnerstein largely depicted the life around him: on the subway, in parks, outside brownstones like his own in Brooklyn. In a rare foray into portraying a celebrity, Dinnerstein was commissioned by Sports Illustrated in 1974 to paint Yankee Hall of Famer Joe DiMaggio in what became a widely published image of him in his familiar wide stance, just after hitting the ball. He also won a Grammy Award in 1973 for best album cover for “The Siegel-Schwall Band,” by the Chicago blues band of the same name.

Dinnerstein was sometimes his own subject — depicting himself, for example, at work in the subway, sketching his fellow riders.

In one of his subway paintings, the figures around him include a man holding a small child, a young woman with a bicycle, a construction worker and a guide dog, while a woman on the platform pounds a conga drum and stray newspapers flutter about them. They pay Dinnerstein no mind.

In another, a daughter is asleep, sprawled across her mother’s legs.

“The atmosphere, which is generated by the stark overhead lighting, and the sterile environment made of that all-too-familiar formed plastic and stainless steel is flawlessly captured,” artist and art critic D. Dominick Lombardi wrote in The New York Times in 1999.

Dinnerstein said that he learned things about people while in the subway that he wasn’t taught in art school.

“The immediacy of a direct response to the human subject on a moving train forces one to develop powers of perception and memory,” he said in the catalog to the 2018 exhibition “Harvey Dinnerstein’s New York,” at the Gerald Peters Gallery. “The subway also revealed a view of the great diversity of life in the city that shaped my artistic vision over the years.”

His wife, Lois (Behrke) Dinnerstein, an art historian, also appears in his work: on a ferry at sunrise; on a winter’s day, her scarf flying in the wind. He also portrayed her alone, during the COVID-19 pandemic — in a portrait, with her hair poking out from under her hat, and in a hospital, an oxygen cannula in her nose, to treat pneumonia.

“The world I was familiar with has been drastically altered by the invisible virus, and I have great difficulty navigating this unfamiliar terrain,” he wrote on Linea last year. “But after a period of uncertainty, I found great solace when I picked up a drawing tool or brush and somehow the creative spark returned. An affirmation of life, beyond the shadows of the deadly virus.”

Dinnerstein was a revered teacher at the Art Students League for 40 years, stopping only when the pandemic struck in 2020. He also taught at the School of Visual Arts from 1965 to 1980 and the National Academy of Design from 1975 to 1992.

“If you were serious, he gave you a lot of rope,” said Jerry Weiss, a painter who studied with Dinnerstein at the Art Students League. “He’d come over and critique or compliment me, but I saw him savage other students who were glib or weren’t serious.”

Dinnerstein is survived by his wife; a daughter, Rachel Dinnerstein; a son, Michael; and a brother, Simon, a figurative artist.

One of Dinnerstein’s most evocative works is a tribute, painted in 2003, to those lost in the 9/11 attacks. Based in part on a candlelight procession outside his local firehouse, which lost 12 men, it shows a firefighter, a nun, a man with a child on his shoulders and several other people lined up amid the collapsed buildings, holding candles that light their downcast faces.

“With an intensity that recalls dramatically illuminated 17th-century compositions by Georges de La Tour and Caravaggio’s followers,” Gabriel R.Weisberg wrote in Fine Art Connoisseur magazine in 2008, “Dinnerstein creates a moving allegory of the hope that can emerge from disaster.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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