Byron Dobell, one of the most respected and accomplished editors in New York magazine publishing history, is also a painter, and his seventh solo show, “Recent Works,” is currently on view at Chelsea’s First Street Gallery (526 West 26th Street). Mr. Dobell, who’s 80 (but doesn’t look a day over 65!), worked as an editor at many important magazines in the city, including Time, Esquire, New York and American Heritage, and edited writers like Tom Wolfe and David Halberstam before they were household names. But 17 years ago, Mr. Dobell left the media world to pursue a lifelong passion: portraiture painting. Over the years he’s painted many friends and colleagues, including New York magazine founder Clay Felker; Tim Forbes, chief operating officer of Forbes, Dominique Browning, editor in chief of late House & Garden, and feminist icon Betty Friedan (the Friedan piece now hangs in the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery).
At his Recent Works’ opening last week, Mr. Dobell dressed in a sharp navy jacket, an eye-catching tie and round, thin-framed spectacles. The room was noisy and bustling with his friends, mostly graying folks from the magazine business, who braved the biting cold to make it to the party. They held their hands behind their backs and considered Mr. Dobell’s small, sketchy “Life Study” chalk drawings of his less famous models lounging, seemingly in mid-air. There are also serene landscapes inspired by his travels to Scotland, Rome and New Hampshire. In some paintings, little trees sway in front of fuzzy bushes swirled with strands of India ink.
Within an hour of the opening, red dot stickers appeared next to almost every one of the 33 works on display. “They’re really like measles, all over the place,” Mr. Dobell said of the dots, in an interview after the opening. “I sold 24 pictures out of 33. It was a success! And I still have three weeks to go. It’s almost a sell-out and it’s quite astonishing to me.”
It’s also “quite astonishing” to Mr. Dobell that he has been able to have two very successful careers in fields usually plagued with false starts, failure or financial ruin. “[It] is not only astonishing to my friends, but totally astonishing to me. I can’t believe that I sold that many paintings. It’s like giving birth to 20 or 30 children. How did I do it?”
Mr. Dobell started sketching when he was a pre-teen growing up in the Bronx. (“You might not want to go back this far, you know, ever since before Egypt,” Mr. Dobell added with a chuckle.) His mother would take him to the Heckscher Institute at 5th Avenue and 105th Street (it’s now El Museo del Barrio), and on Saturdays, for a dollar a visit, he would use charcoal and draw from casts of ancient Greek and Roman works. Using those sketches as a portfolio, he was accepted into the High School of Music and Art, the education center for the most gifted public school students opened by former mayor Fiorello H. LaGuardia in 1936.
“So I was an art major for four years in this wonderful, idyllic high school, which is in the legendary mists of time in my mind now. But at some point along the way, when I began to think about making a living, there was no question then, in the 1940s, it was impossible to be an artist unless you had a family to support you. There was just no way. Even professional artists were broke.”
Mr. Dobell came from a poor, working class family. So what were his other options?
“One of my boyhood romantic ideals was to be a journalist. My generation got that from Hitchcock’s Foreign Correspondent. We all wanted to be Joel McCrea [who played journalist Johnny Jones], you know, tracking down subversives and becoming famous.”
He became editor of his high school newspaper and studied humanities at Columbia before entering the Army and editing the newspaper.
“When I got out [of the Army in 1946] I pretty much realized that the only way I was going to make a living was as a journalist,” Mr. Dobell said. “I worked my way up the editorial ladder. I got to be the editor of a number of magazines, practically every magazine in the world, it seems to me. But the big jobs were Time Inc., three times. Three separate tours of duty. And Esquire, three times, three separate tours of duty.”
Esquire, in its Vietnam-era glory days!
“Under Harold Hayes, it was wonderful,” he agreed. “We discovered, you know, writers like Tom Wolfe. We worked with writers like Gay Talese, David Halberstam. All the great writers that were starting out and now are old men, like me.”
“I was editor in chief of Book World, the book review supplement to the Washington Post. Let’s see, I was the executive editor of New York magazine under Clay. I became, eventually, the editor of Esquire, for a short time again, before it was sold,” Mr. Dobell continued. “My last stint, I was editor of American Heritage for eight years and I was named to the Hall of Fame, for whatever that is worth. That and 5 cents will get you to Staten Island.”
All during this time, Mr. Dobell was reserving his Wednesday nights to study painting under Aaron Shikler, a great American portraitist, and David Levine, one of the great American watercolorists and caricaturists. He studied with them for 40 years. During his free time, he painted portraits of his editor friends as a hobby.
“Eventually, I was getting so many commissions that I said to my late wife, ‘You know, I think I can make a living painting portraits, and other things. But mainly the portraits for income.’ So I quit. I quit the magazine field. I already felt like I had achieved what I was going to achieve in the magazine world. And I began to paint full time.”
He doesn’t make his models get cramped and cranky by sitting for hours on end. Instead, he asks for a couple of hours to sketch from the person directly and take notes on coloring. Then he takes a black and white photograph to paint from until he can ask his subject to come back for another hour or so to finish the job. “I make it painless, like painless dentistry. I work very swiftly,” Mr. Dobell explained.
Mr. Dobell routinely takes in art around the city as well, wandering the expansive halls of the Met, the Frick and the Brooklyn Museum of Art weekly. He especially relishes the Roman and Greek statues. “People think [they’re] cold and lifeless. I think exactly the opposite. I think they’re profoundly moving and that’s why a number of the [paintings] in the show are marble or bronze figures from the past,” he said.
When he’s not painting or going to a museum, he indulges in a new Upper East Side past time: baby watching. “My wife and I like to go to Three Guys, sort of a very upscale coffee shop, too upscale lately, at Madison and 76th because all the Park Avenue mommies and nannies bring their children there,” he explained. “We love baby watching. That is the big occupation of the Upper East Side and that’s the dirty little secret of the Upper East Side.”
He also occasionally edits stories (“Once an editor, always an editor,” he admits) and calls writer friends with story ideas. He writes himself, sometimes. A short memoir piece about a year living in Paris was recently published in The Nation.
Mr. Dobell doesn’t seem to miss the cutthroat magazine business. “I think I would’ve always been an artist if I had been encouraged financially in any way as a boy,” he said.
“Everything has to do with appetite. If you’re a journalist, you look at something like what’s you’re appetite, what inspires you to write. It’s the same thing with art,” Mr. Dobell added. “What is my appetite? What do I wish to digest, or devour, for nourishment. That connects to literature and art and everything else, quite frankly.”