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Slidell's Renaissance Man 

He's from Tom Brokaw's "Greatest Generation" and he's been active in the New Orleans art scene for about as long as anyone can remember. A couple of years ago, the Newcomb Gallery exhibited a photo essay on the French Quarter in the early 1950s by Vogue Magazine photographer Jack Robinson, and there he was, a much younger but clearly recognizable George Dunbar in his studio, a familiar face in a sea of images of others who had long since faded into obscurity. Scion of one of the area's oldest legal families, he was a black sheep of sorts, choosing painting over law and living in Slidell instead of Uptown or Old Metairie. A stint in the Navy during World War II enabled him to bypass his parents and go to school on the GI bill, so in the late 1940s he studied at Temple University, the American hotbed of rigorous traditional art training.

It was also the heyday of the Abstract Expressionist movement, a period of explosive experimentation when traditional techniques were turned on their head by the likes of Jackson Pollock and Willem DeKooning. A close viewing of this retrospective at the Ogden suggests something of a tightrope walk between the rigors of academic art and Expressionism's visceral spontaneity, resulting in a series of tightly controlled explosions, fireworks made to conform to the dictates of a full-dress military parade. Actually, some of his early pieces are among the most interesting in the show for the simple reason that they are unexpected and have held up pretty well over time, not something that is always true of regional Abstract Expressionist efforts. But New Orleans artists were somehow in the thick of it early on. For instance, Fritz Bultman was part of Jackson Pollock's circle, Ida Kohlmeyer was a protŽgŽ of Mark Rothko and both studied with ab/ex avatar Hans Hofmann. George Dunbar was a friend of Franz Kline, but his work of that time is actually more reminiscent of Robert Motherwell without really being derivative.

Red M, 1959, a series of brilliant crimson and orange slashes on a crinkly paper backing, conveys something of that zeitgeist, the hard-edge boldness of the Sputnik and Cold War era mingled with spontaneous Žlan of beat poetry and modern jazz. Somewhere along the way, he became fascinated with metal leaf finishes on paintings built up with clay instead of the more usual gesso, a technique that did not lend itself to spontaneity.

A 2-foot-square piece labeled Untitled, 1963, echoes the compositional motifs of Kline and Motherwell, yet the palladium and gold leaf finish looks sedentary and almost ancient, like a masonry Roman wall eroded to reveal burnished metal. But metal -- even metal leaf -- is a language of its own, and works such as Gold Circles, 1974, suggest precisely machined forms like the elegant internal workings of an advanced diesel engine or a floor plan for the vestry of a Gothic cathedral inexplicably etched in platinum. Later works became increasingly symmetrical, suggesting Hindu or Buddhist mandalas, rose windows in Gothic cathedrals or perhaps the cloverleaf ramps of interstate highways. His Coin du Lestin series of clay and metal leaf paintings recall all of the above.

This impulse toward order and permanence, if not timelessness, may have had to do with his day job. Not content with simply shaping the forms that appear in paint and metal leaf, Dunbar was also instrumental in shaping Slidell as the developer of the River Oaks, Chamale Cove and, yes, Coin du Lestin subdivisions. The Coin du Lestin waterfront development may sound familiar because it is currently the bone of contention in St. Tammany Parish's lawsuit against FEMA for its refusal to clean up the canals that Katrina left choked with marsh grass. Included here is a site plan for the River Oaks subdivision with Dunbar's name prominently affixed as its "Developer," and its layout is actually more akin to the freeform compositions of the Abstract Expressionists than it is to his tightly controlled later paintings. Put it all together and you have an elder statesman who is, in his own quiet way, an influential regional tastemaker -- a renaissance man and an enduring legend in his own right.

click to enlarge George Dunbar's large 1959 painting,  Red M , conveys the zeitgeist of the Sputnik, beatnik and modern jazz era in a classic Abstract Expressionist composition.
  • George Dunbar's large 1959 painting, Red M , conveys the zeitgeist of the Sputnik, beatnik and modern jazz era in a classic Abstract Expressionist composition.
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