“In the elder days of Art,
Builders wrought with greatest care
Each minute and unseen part;
For the Gods are everywhere.”
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, The Builders
There are many things I’d like to say about Duane Paluska—about his friendship, his intellect, his dry humor, his art, his gallery, and how all of these (and more) were a nexus for so many of us. What will this summer be like (social distancing aside) without our monthly gatherings at Icon Contemporary Art, where the shows never failed to inspire and delight and where we could see one another and catch up over a never ending supply of sharp cheddar, crackers, and white wine, most often in the sweltering heat or the occasional rain storm outside the gallery’s 170-year-old windows.
Years ago I saw an assemblage in a show in Portland and recommended it to Duane, thinking it was something he might like. His silence told me he had some reservations about it (and he could speak volumes without opening his mouth). I asked what he didn’t like and he replied, “Have you seen the back?” Which is to say the artist’s outward show of craftsmanship (and care) was only skin deep. Aside from stupidity and mediocrity, for Duane there could be no greater offense than insincerity; both the personal kind and the artistic kind—which for him was tantamount to the same thing.
It’s the kind of shortcoming you would never find in an Icon show, much less his own work, both of which exude a deep love of making, and the implicit meaning and human expression to be found in things that are made with consummate care (even when they might be rough-hewn).
I have the good fortune of living with two paintings of Duane’s. In each of them is a small shape, a little “notch” different in scale from all the other shapes in the painting. I was drawn to both of these pieces precisely for these telling details. I’ve noticed them elsewhere in his painting, sculpture, furniture, and architecture as well; relatively small rabbets or indentations that serve as grace notes, throwing the rest of the composition into higher relief, or conversely, gathering into themselves a secret, quiet moment.
They are also the minute and unseen parts that Wordsworth would have recognized, and where I know I’ll find Duane every time I look.
Duane Paluska, 83, died on Jan. 28, 2020
Duane Paluska was a tall, slender angular man. I remember when I first met him years ago being impressed with how he was assembled. Somehow his physical structure, although never socially dominating, was always a touchstone feature of his presence. Another feature was his sense of observation, both serious and playful. I remember being in Portland with Duane and Martha Groome, having supper in a restaurant near the Museum. I ordered a Shipyard Blueberry Ale, which he thought was hilarious and awful, promising to tell everyone that I drank flavored beer. He was a man of standards after all.
That recognition of Duane’s structure was for me an awareness in part of his objectness. All human beings possess it, but most not quite so notably. Perhaps it has to do with writing this collection of thoughts about Duane, that I recall a physicality that is actually rooted in his art, particularly his sculptures.
I do not recall Duane talking with me about art as expression—he probably didn’t need to in that he didn’t seem to bother about obvious matters. His sculptures were, like his earlier furniture pieces, conceived and executed in wood—assemblies of harmonic forms that were often improbable but exquisite things.
I think Duane’s sculptures manifest a variety of observations about things, about how they are products of a joining of ideas and of physical parts; the physical parts contributing to context and content. Certainly that methodology is at the core of expression, but it is not an expression about the artist. Rather it is an expressiveness about the object being brought into existence by the artist. I’ll quote from my second sentence above, “I remember… being impressed with how he was assembled.” Artworks and persons are certainly objects, especially when we choose to situate them in our experience of reality, but of course they are not simply objects.
With attentiveness to how we experience things in the world, there will be occasions when certain art objects will engage us with their physicality: their materiality, surfaces, color, texture, size, and scale in relation to ourselves and to other things. I picture an old western movie at the moment when two armed cowboys face off, taking each other’s measure—scaling the immediate problem of existence or extinction.
Sometimes looking at art is both a kind of threat and a kind of reassurance.
I think Duane made art with its brilliance of joinery, the informed strategy from his furniture making, as a way to test and verify an independence of existence inherent
in artistic clarity. The joinery was in play as a manifestation of craft, but not as a showpiece for craft. It helped in the invention of forms but was always integrated and not the commanding point of his work. Duane’s paintings, mostly shaped, constructed canvases, took his thinking onto the plane. His large freestanding sculptures were poised, often elegant and at times cantankerous. They stood silent and enigmatic. His small pedestal and wall sculptures scrambled into space like fractious little aliens looking for trouble.
As a gallerist, Duane was always an artist taking on the task of the curator, from the initial selection of artists and artworks to the assembling of exhibitions of that work.
Artists wanted to show their work at Icon for a number of reasons. Duane had over the years demonstrated that Icon Contemporary Art was a gathering place for some of the best abstract art in New England. Artists and visitors to the gallery trusted Duane, not only for his eye, but his ability to design and install exhibitions that understood notions of juxtaposition and holistic vision. He was able to do this with expansive group shows and with solo shows. We all have ways of seeing art; Duane’s way was open, critical and honest.
For Duane, Icon was an extension of his art as a project of making and presenting worthy objects for communicating an ideal of human connectivity.
Richard Brown Lethem
It was a fortunate day when I stopped in the Icon Gallery and told Duane Paluska that I was looking for a studio. Little did I know that a space under his woodworking shop was available. A week later, we shook hands and I moved in shortly after that to share the ground floor studios with his wife, Ellen Golden. It was the beginning of friendships that carried me through a most difficult period in my life.
I had known Duane casually over my years in Maine but the friendship that commenced with that move quickly became more than just a professional arrangement. Ellen, Duane, and I shared lunch and good conversation at noon. We talked shop about mutual art ideas, shows, and literature. Often old friends and artists like Martha Groome and John Bisbee would drop in to join the conversations. On the first Thanksgiving, I was invited to share the occasion with several other friends at Duane and Ellen’s house. When Ellen was away, Duane joined me for baked salmon at my apartment. We took in several concerts at Bowdoin and a trip to an opening at Bates College.
In this short period of two years I grew to appreciate the many sides of Duane. First, his generosity and feelings for my needs in the work space, along with a clear honesty in where his principles lay. In curating the Icon Gallery he was demanding and tireless in his concern for excellence. His own sculpture and painting reflected these qualities, plus his far-ranging intelligence and educated sensibility was evident in everything he did. Seeing firsthand the work and dedication he put into his last shaped-canvas paintings was inspiring.
I will miss greatly working with Duane and Ellen in that dedicated space. The art world of Maine has lost an important dimension with his passing.
Sometime in the mid-nineties, I started showing my work at ICON, a gallery of contemporary art in Brunswick. I was lucky. A space reserved for makers, it became a place of arrival, without distractions, a destination. It was Duane Paluska’s space and for over thirty years was, perhaps, the most exceptional gallery in Maine. (Never generously promoted, if at all, ICON still, overtime, gained a national reputation.)
Several weeks before Duane died, I was at ICON, first in his shop/studio and then in the gallery space where he showed me what he was working on. There were paintings and in an adjacent room a scattering of three-dimensional work. Focusing on the paintings, he expressed, as usual, his doubts, and was dismissive. (Often there were rules which he worked within, and that meant honoring and stretching those rules all the time and all at once.) Then he began to point to what he felt was right in the paintings– what was right for him in that moment– heading towards his perfection. Perfection, continuity, a next step– DIFFICULT.
All the more so, because Duane was able to bring a vast array of understanding to that moment. There was his cohort Ellen Golden, his family, the knowledge of the highest end cabinet maker, the home he built in Days Ferry, the motorcycle travels, the outdoors, music, a grounding in literature, an english professorship, a routine of baking bread and pizza every week, the avid baseball fan and to my great pleasure someone who felt the dynamics of college hockey. All of this distilled, his presence was of someone deeply knowledgeable but still learning, always the passionate beginner. He seemed to know how to give space to things: everything contributing, but appearing lean, when really at its core there was an emotional fullness.
Before leaving he handed me a piece of wood, offering that while he had no use for it I might make something from it. (I already have.) I was reminded of something that Duane had told me several times–that if in a day’s time he had made something, then that day was a good one.
Tributes to Duane Paluska (1936–2020)
(quotes from various people who had something to say about Duane, compiled by his wife, Ellen Golden)
I so admired his standards of excellence—his visual truthfulness, his impeccable eye and touch and construction, and what I loved most of all—his wit. . . . There are so few examples today of a life well-lived . . . he embodied an honest purposefulness that is inspiring and has been a touchstone for me.
. . . what a huge loss for the art community in Maine. Duane was so central to the growth and vitality of art in Maine and so supportive of so very many artists.
What a joy he was—his talent, integrity, intelligence, humor—all matched by such gentleness.
I loved Duane for his honesty, his humor, his eye and his thoughtful purpose. He was a friend who knew when to laugh.
He did rather intimidate me with his gravitas and erudition. But at one Icon opening, . . . he asked me what I saw. I hesitated then gave an honest reaction. We looked at a few more pieces together. I felt included, my opinion valued, perhaps even of interest. That encounter changed my experience of viewing art and galleries altogether. What a wise man.
Duane was a stalwart presence in the Maine art scene and will be deeply missed by all who knew him. . . . He had a talent for drawing out the best of the artists he showed. I will miss his quiet wit, warmth and conversation.
From my perspective, and according to many who knew him better than I, he was a poet of nature, who was also gentle, thoughtful, warm, creative, generous, and kind, among his many wonderful qualities.
Duane was a mentor and artisan with high standards of resourcefulness, workmanship, and frugality. The ability to pursue an occupation that I find deeply rewarding is a direct result of time spent under his guidance.
It is punishing to us all when an artist is taken from this world to which he contributed so much. Duane’s furniture, sculpture, and paintings are all of the most deliberate and refined quality. His selectivity of shapes, colors and textures is so distinctly minimal and poetic. . . . How honorable it is that he put so much time, effort and discriminating thought into ICON in order to help promote the works of others. So many uplifting exhibitions over the years.
It’s a privilege to be among the artists that collectively through Duane’s vision are a part of ICON. Duane has been Maine’s treasure to the arts. His influence and generous spirit are an inspiration, and in ways he would probably dismiss, he has been a guiding presence in my work and my life.
I thought Duane was immortal. He really had an Olympian stature, a solidness, seriousness, intelligence, creativity, and kindness that will now be legendary. How sad for him and his family and friends and gallery artists and me.
Every single visit to the ICON Gallery was a special moment as Duane would put down whatever project he was working on in his studio and accompany me into the galleries to share dozens of outstanding exhibitions over so many years. The ICON Gallery was my art mecca for as long as he was in business. Both his loss of life and his gallery is profound. He enriched my life in so many ways.
Duane Paluska, 83, died on Jan. 28, 2020
The Maine Arts Journal and the Union of Maine Visual Artists are grateful to Duane Paluska and his contributions to the arts. We send heartfelt condolences to his family, friends and loved ones. We are thankful for Duane’s participation in the MAJ just last summer. Readers may want to re-read the feature: Duane Paluska and Ellen Golden — Art In Balance