David Einstein: Searching for the Light Within

The enduring quality of Einstein’s paintings lies in their distinctive translucency

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Jay Jorgensen

David Einstein started teaching acrylic painting and basic design at College of the Desert about 13 years ago — a few years after relocating from his native Detroit suburb. He continues to teach and loves it. He enjoys educating people about art so much, in fact, that he became director of COD’s new Walter N. Marks Center for the Arts. Itself a full-time job, the gallery position challenges him to acquire exhibitions that are at once educational for students and interesting to collectors (the COD Foundation benefits from sales proceeds).

Lately, Einstein finds less time to create art, a frustrating fact of life — especially as more collectors discover the mystical qualities of his signature Color Veil paintings since last year’s publication of Fixing the World: Jewish American Painters in the Twentieth Century (University Press of New England). The book gives bright, full-page attention to Einstein’s 1975 Light Echo (60×48, acrylic on canvas) and proposes a link between his heritage and his canvases, pointing to Exodus’ reference to the parokhet (curtain or veil) “that separates the Holy of Holies wherein the Tablets of the Law reside, from the outer regions of the Tabernacle, which is the tangible intermediary between the intangible God and the Israelites.”

Einstein, who sells mostly through Zolla/Lieberman Gallery in Chicago, told author Ori Z. Soltes that his paintings represent echoes of that veil. However, Einstein is first and foremost a colorist, and the abstract Veils push the limits of color theory without religious pretense. (Soltes “has an enviable ability to uncover Jewish dimensions not readily apparent,” notes ARTnews book reviewer Stephen May).

The enduring quality of Einstein’s paintings lies in the distinctive translucency — or, as he describes, “piercing the veil and going to a higher level through use of color and inner illumination. … I’m creating a consciousness of how I interpret the world around me. I’m at complete peace with these paintings.

“The process allows me to resolve a lot of conflicts,” he continues. “Surface issues, figure/ground relationships — the whole compositional dilemma.”

Early exposure to art compelled Einstein to ask and answer such existential questions. He was in junior high when he began attending exhibitions at Detroit Institute of Art, where he also took classes. But the mystical, or spiritual, dimension to Einstein’s work, which achieves a dynamic between transparency and translucency, more likely comes from a college-era trip to Japan. “I went to try to understand the spiritual way of dealing with nature, universe, and family,” says Einstein, who suggests Buddhism was more influential to his work than Judaism. “It was exciting to go to Japan as a Westerner because [the traditions there] went back hundreds of years.”   

Einstein tuned his technical skills and began to execute his vision at the elite Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture in Maine, where “tired of figures,” he heeded the advice of friend and mentor Brice Marden, who suggested dealing with the space around the figure. “It opened up a whole new way of seeing nature and dealing with the colors that come out of nature,” Einstein beams.

Marden also imparted the uncompromising philosophy of sticking to your guns, as he put it. “He said [Jasper] Johns and [Robert] Rauschenberg stay true to themselves,” Einstein recalls. “Little did I know, Brice was Rauschenberg’s assistant. Since then, I’ve stayed true to my process.”

Einstein pursued his master’s in fine art at Wayne State University and eventually took a loft in New York and reconnected with Marden. Grace Hokin, who learned about Einstein’s work through Richard Gray, an influential Chicago gallery owner, picked up Einstein’s show for Grace Hokin Gallery in Palm Beach, Fla., and Chicago. Soon he’d land a solo showin New York and invite collectors to his loft to discuss commissioned pieces.

Einstein adds marks to his newest veils, daring viewers to rethink how they observe space. The colors in the veil become ever more serious and meditative. These paintings combine his signature technique of the 1970s with bolder, more traditional strokes he experimented with in the 1980s and ’90s.

Soltes, who teaches at Georgetown University, curated a 1996 exhibition at B’nai Brith Klutznick National Jewish Museum in Washington, D.C., consisting of the works that appear in the 2003 book. Einstein’s Light Echo appears alongside pieces by Mark Rothko, Helen Frankenthaler, Susan Rothenberg, and Philip Guston — a testament to his conviction that artists must remain true to themselves rather than adapt to market trends. “I still have some brushes that I was using 20 years ago,” he says. “They’re like a security blanket.”

This article was originally published February, 2004 and updated for the web June, 2007.

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