I was walking across West 23rd Street on Saturday night and ran into Roberta Smith and Jerry Saltz. "I thought you were snowbound," exclaimed Roberta, and I explained that I had whisked into town for the (delayed) opening reception for 80-year-old Finish Fetish artist Don Dudley. "We didn't know about it," Roberta responded and soon the two critics were conversing animatedly with the tall, majestic Mr. Dudley.
A few months ago, artist Chris Dorland, a tagger and Finish Fetish artist himself, went for dinner at the loft of one of his former professors at SUNY Purchase, painter Shirley Irons. While they were discussing Dorland's wall commission, recently unveiled at Lincoln Center, Shirley's husband, Don Dudley, who has been a professional furniture maker for 30 years, announced, "You know I was a painter, too." He took Dorland into his storage space and began to unwrap pieces that he had not taken our since the 1960s. Chris Dorland told me, "Even his wife was unaware of their existence."
Dorland was astounded at a subtle body of work, done on aluminum panels, which the Los Angeles-born Dudley had exhibited in Germany in the 1960s. Dorland immediately phoned one of his mentors, curator Simon Watson, who soon arrived at the Dudley loft and realized he had stumbled on a treasure trove of minimalist masterpieces. Watson takes up the story, "I immediately made a list of five Chelsea galleries and considered the pros and cons of showing Dudley's 1960s work at each of them. I selected I-20 gallery, because the gorgeous afternoon winter light coming off the Hudson gave this classic California work the right illumination."
A rave review from Ken Johnson followed in the New York Times. For someone who has shunned the limelight, Don Dudley enjoyed his star turn immensely last Saturday night. Even more astounding than the actual show was a suite of Dudley drawings, which I-20 Gallery director Jonathan LeVoi unveiled in the back room for artist Meghan Boody, camera ace Patrick McMullan, Rochester dealer Tippi Watson and half a dozen collectors.
Consisting of rows of vertical rectangles on deep, sensuous paper, each of the ten drawings is a distinct and different examination of color progression: some of them primaries, some meditations on darkness, others a delicate mix of sublime whites and lavenders. The conscientious craft of these pieces takes your breath away like a fine wine and, though they echo Ellsworth Kelly and John McCracken, the Dudley drawings stand, as a visual experience, completely on their own.
I mentioned to Don Dudley that the statuesque presentations of color reminded me of works by Robert Moskowitz and Anne Truitt. He was pleased. "Anne Truitt and I traded drawings in 1972. She understood the affinity of our work." The Dudley discovery is the kind of optimal adventure that many of us in the art world live for. It is especially pleasing that such a dignified and sparkling gentleman is its beneficiary.
CHARLIE FINCH is co-author of Most Art Sucks: Five Years of Coagula (Smart Art Press).