Simon Dinnerstein was not a painter when he went to Germany on a Fulbright Fellowship in 1970. He was a printmaker and a draughtsman, making what he called “extreme” drawings, jam-packed with detail. He would have preferred to go to Spain. That didn’t work out. He and his wife, Renée, packed up and moved to his second choice, the German city of Kassel, where Dinnerstein planned to study the Renaissance printmaker Albrecht Dürer.
They moved into an apartment he didn’t particularly care for and he sat in front of a pair of windows, laboriously engraving copper plates. One day, he stepped back, saw his worktable beneath the windows, and decided to make a painting.
That monumental piece, “The Fulbright Triptych,” is on view at the McMullen Museum of Art. It’s extreme: a strictly representational painting, bulging with detail, explicitly referential to art history. It was renegade, allusive, and accessible when the astringent, even tortured elusiveness of minimalism, land art, and performance art reigned.
It’s a strange, endearing, endlessly absorbing painting. Dinnerstein drew the entire thing, 14 feet wide, in pen before he painted it. He proved virtuosic with the medium, loose and evocative in some passages, dry and precise in others, changing textures to fit moods.
A black worktable sits at the center, with a luminous round copper plate rendered in gold leaf, surrounded by engraving tools — scrapers, burins, a hammer. Dark-framed windows look out on suburban Kassel. Portraits dominate the side panels: Renée, an everyday Madonna with their infant daughter on her lap on the left; on the right, the artist, bearded and stolid in work boots and a blue velvet shirt.
On the pegboard wall behind them hang children’s drawings, photographs, cultural references that remind us that the Dinnersteins are Jews in Germany a quarter century after the Holocaust, and reproductions of art. Dinnerstein and his wife sit beneath hanging plants, which serve as comical wreaths for art pictures. For Renée, the face of a teary Virgin from a Flemish Renaissance workshop. For Dinnerstein, the stern, angry nobleman in Jan van Eyck’s “Portrait of Baudouin de Lannoy.”
The triptych recalls Renaissance altarpieces, which usually prioritize figures. Dinnerstein places art-making at the heart of his — the copper plate that reads like the sun. Still, the whole work balances the forces that drive the life of a young married man. Femininity, motherhood, and domesticity on one side, masculinity and worldliness on the other.
Each small image on the pegboard is another window into the mythos that animates his imagination. A handy touchscreen in the gallery, created by Rachel M. Straughn-Navarro of the Spencer Museum of Art, University of Kansas, where the piece was recently shown, identifies each one. Indigenous carvings, Bellini, Degas, Vermeer, and more; a “Moby-Dick” citation that positions art as Dinnerstein’s white whale. Ahab declares, “He tasks me; he heaps me; I see in him outrageous strength.”
Dinnerstein painted “The Fulbright Triptych” in one-point perspective. Its lines funnel toward the windows and out to the horizon. But his figures, with exquisite contours akin to Botticelli’s, have a blunt frontality that recalls American folk art. The artist and his wife and naked baby staring out at us, and the flimsy, art-festooned wall behind them, abruptly halt our breezy hurtle through space. He forces us to stop, to be in 1971 in Kassel with the family.
But that moment, grounded and implacable as it feels, is not real. The painting took three years to complete. During that time, Dinnerstein and Renée returned home to Brooklyn, and had a daughter, Simone (now a celebrated classical pianist), who is the baby depicted on Renée’s lap. The space and the exterior landscape are from Kassel; the infant and the floor — red-painted pine boards, the better to slide toward one-point perspective — are all New York. Like all art, it’s a fiction. Another mythic window to peer through.
At the time, “The Fulbright Triptych” was a ridiculous enterprise, painted by an artist who wasn’t a painter, irrelevant in the context of contemporary art. A labor of love.
Yet, as it turned out, Dinnerstein was ahead of the curve. The great, swollen wave of postmodernism crashed, and in the flood that followed, art history was up for grabs again, and representation legitimate.
The Palmer Museum of Art at Penn State University purchased the painting in 1982. Not much was seen of it again until 2011, when it was exhibited at the German Consulate General in New York. Since then, it has been traveling.
During the Renaissance, altarpieces were made to tell holy stories, to imbue illiterate churchgoers with narratives and images that held up a moral code and a hierarchy of power.
Dinnerstein painted “The Fulbright Triptych” to tell the story of what was holy to him. It flew in the face of the art world’s hierarchy. But hierarchies tumble, and worthy art, it seems, remains.
SIMON DINNERSTEIN: THE FULBRIGHT TRIPTYCH
At McMullen Museum of Art, Boston College, 2101 Commonwealth Ave., through Dec. 8. 617-552-8587, www.bc.edu/artmuseum