Dan Tranberg: Layering the Sublime


Dan Tranberg’s final works, completed in the two years before his death on May 29, are composed of pleasurable colors and forms, yet offer surprising intellectual challenges and a range of emotional information. He made many of the small painted collage-like works displayed at Bonfoey Gallery (opening October 14) in his hospital room as he struggled with cancer during his long last winter. While those pieces would stand on their own under any circumstances, it’s amazing that Tranberg’s often notebook-sized abstract studies manage to combine qualities like sanity and delight, humor and tenderness. His idiosyncratic, sensual reading of late modernist practice is related to both abstract expressionism and (more obviously) to the hard-edged American abstraction of the 1960s. Tranberg comments on dimensions of human experience usually considered beyond the range of color theory and examinations of pure form.

Executed mainly on watercolor paper, the series as a whole projects a crisp physicality, clean, clipped and free. From within the protection of mat, glass, frame, and gallery, these works seem boundless in principle, excerpting their own infinities. Each compact invention hums with self-contained interactions, like an abstract engine. Each seems built to examine ultimately human experiences—the discreet shocks and subtle surface vibrato, the rippling of the world to which human senses are closely and constantly attuned, as edges and masses meet or miss, stick and pull away, meld under and around our bodies.

Born in New Jersey, Dan Tranberg was trained at  Northern Illinois  University, and later at Purdue University, first in ceramics, then in photography and drawing for his 1991 MFA. Soon afterwards he moved to Cleveland, where he quickly became an indispensable part of the northern Ohio arts scene as a writer and as an exhibiting visual artist. Eventually he also taught unusual courses about writing and artistic practice at the Cleveland Institute of Art, over a period of some fifteen years. Those who followed his column Art Matters, published frequently in The Plain Dealer’s Friday! magazine, looked forward to Tranberg’s clear writing and his sharp sense of what was noteworthy in contemporary art. His attention became an invaluable addition to Cleveland’s cultural seriousness, to its sense of itself as a place where art of broad cultural significance might be created. Tranberg’s sensitive reviews and essays published in the Plain Dealer and in the Free Times, Art in America, Bomb, Angle (a magazine of the arts which he co-founded in 2003) and elsewhere (he published at least 750 such articles), were notable for the breadth and focus of their observations, advocating a close, empathetic reading of materials, intention and context. No doubt his own work should be examined with similar sympathy and a careful, informed awareness of the disparate, sometimes surprising elements of style and the associative range that he brought into play in his paintings.


In many of his late compositions Tranberg assembled geometric shapes—rhomboids, trapezoids, squares, triangles—which he painted in colors ranging from flat gouache reds, blues, and greens, through a more private spectrum of subtly hand-mixed half- and quarter-tones. Then he layered his shades and shapes, or placed them so as to almost touch, leaving hair-breadth distances between the colors and textures, as if to take a long, narrow breath.


For the small works at Bonfoey’s he uses a few configurations over and over as basic patterns, varying only the colors and textures, but in such a way that the shapes are transformed. In several of these elegant paintings, two narrow, sharp triangles proceed down from the top and up from the bottom, headed directly toward each other then stopping an eyelash away, point to point. The triangles are usually black, cutting along a creamy white central space set between two blocks of a single color. This arrangement is a little like Barnett Newman’s monumental “zip” paintings of the 1950s, Vir Heroicus Sublimis most famously, which in their era posited a new American sublime. But clearly that isn’t Tranberg’s aim. On the contrary, he uses scumbling and blotting to mottle some of the surfaces, bringing the artist’s hand and sensations of intimacy (as well as ideas of randomness and decorative freedom) back into the severe precincts of geometric abstraction. He also uses materials and color combinations, like glitter and Rolotex and a metallic blue, which recall design elements from the popular culture of the 1950s and 1960s. Pointedly aerodynamic men’s necktie designs, vintage Chevys and narrow lapels pose and flaunt their styles in the associative background that Tranberg’s amazingly rich collages evoke as they drive slim black rectangles together, zipping a very different, postmodern sublime right back, up to the minute, where continuing relevance and artistic importance wait for this uniquely perceptive artist and critic.

Several other exhibitions and events celebrating Dan Tranberg are scheduled this fall. These include a small exhibition at Cleveland Institute of Art opening on August 30, an auction/fundraiser to support a Cleveland Institute of Art scholarship fund on September 30 at Bonfoey’s, and a memorial at C.I.A.’s Peter B. Lewis Auditorium on October 13.



Reception 6 – 9pm Saturday, October 14


The Bonfoey Gallery

1710 Euclid Avenue

Cleveland, Ohio 44115