Simon Dinnerstein Says: Lethem, Lahiri, Turturro and Others Write a Painter’s Gospel

Repackaged as Mr. Rosenthal’s anthology, Mr. Slager and Milkweed immediately agreed to the project. The contributors list eventually ran to nearly 50, from film theorists and museum directors to Brooklyn literati (Jhumpa Lahiri, Jonathan Lethem), an actor (John Turturro) and the former head of the German Fulbright Commission, giving the finished product the feel of a set of gospels, that is, a bunch of people telling the same story, embellished by hearsay, exegesis, hindsight. In brief, Mr. Dinnerstein–a somewhat provincial American Jew, from the time when Brooklyn was still the provinces–moves with his young wife to a small town in Germany on a Fulbright grant to learn printmaking. Three years, an immersion in the northern Renaissance tradition and the birth of a daughter later, the Triptych is back in New York, and completed.

   Though the beard is gray and the thick brown hair largely gone, Mr. Dinnerstein, at 68, is instantly recognizable as the male figure in The Fulbright Triptych. He occupies the right panel. His wife and infant daughter–teacher Renée and Simone, now a noted concert pianist–occupy the left. The center portion features twin windows, looking out on a deep-perspective view of a nondescript German village. It’s the table below, show in even more extreme perspective, with a glowing flat disk at its center, that summons and flummoxes.

Like a Hogswartsian real-estate agent, Mr. Dinnerstein began an impromptu tour of his painting. “If you’re right here, you can take in your right, take in your left, but when you go closer than this, you’re almost in the space.” We moved toward the table, into the artist’s studio, and Mr. Dinnerstein pointed out the tools of the printmaker’s trade: burins, scraper, burnisher. Back “out” in the Tenri Gallery, Angela’s Garden, the copper plate “made” on this table, hangs on a wall–more tangible than its painted counterpart, but not by much. 

“And you get even closer”–we move closer–“you can literally read a lot of the stuff, like letter-by-letter, word-by-word, and so forth. It’s kind of like an obsessive’s obsessive.”

The postcard van Eycks, Vermeers and Seurats make visual and narrative sense from the middle distance–a young painter pasting up inspirations. Only with a nose to the paint does the rest of the paper ephemera, arrayed around the figures like halos, give up their secrets: Handwritten aerograms. Typed quotations from Wittgenstein and Moby Dick. Drawings by Renée’s students–crayon, watercolor and ballpoint pen, all uncannily transposed to oil paint.

Most remarkable of all, two tiny photo-booth strips of the mugging couple, one with Simone as a toddler and one before she was born. They evoke the early church’s notion of acheiropoieta (“icons not made by hand”)–a run-around of the graven-images commandment that proclaimed true icons, like the Shroud of Turin and many even less plausible examples, weren’t paintings but rather mechanical and spiritual reproductions of the subject. 

A cell phone rang to the tune of Tracy Chapman’s “Fast Car.” Renée was on the line, and wondering when Simon would be back in Park Slope. Either The Fulbright Triptych had come to life, or life had come, again, to the Triptych. Either way, the effect was celestial.

editorial@observer.com