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MICHAEL DVORTCSAK (1938-2019), Asolipsi #119, 1981

How does anyone make serious art in Santa Barbara?

The sun, the ocean, the beautiful people, the fresh produce … it’s a good-time kinda place, according to Nathan Vonk, owner of Sullivan Goss-An American Gallery.

“In a locally notorious essay from 2000, famed critic and teacher Dave Hickey called Santa Barbara, ‘a hellish paradise … where one doesn’t really need art … if one is comfy there.’ His essay is both hilarious and galling and not entirely incorrect. But there are now and always have been very serious artists in this small, seaside hamlet,” said Mr. Vonk.

Two of them are Ken Bortolazzo and Michael Dvortcsak, whose serious abstract art is featured in the current exhibit, “The Life of the Party,” in the gallery in downtown Santa Barbara. It is on view through April 25.

From the late ’70s and through the ’90s, these two artists tried to balance their love of music, surfing and running, good conversation and great company with their desire to make art that could hold up on the big stage.

“Both liked a party. Both were great fun at a party. But they worked hard to build their own language of shape and material. They were abstract when people told them that there was no market,” Mr. Vonk said.

“They nurtured ambition even when the beach’s siren song called. Early on, they got out and showed in other cities, where their art found a receptive audience. This exhibition celebrates their determination. It will also offer an opportunity to look at serious abstract art that dates from the late ’70s and early ’80s by Mr. Dvortcsak and from the mid ’90s to the present day by Mr. Bortolazzo.”

Mr. Vonk pointed out that “national and international careers have been born here, and many operate under the radar here. There have also been serious collectors, as well as two art schools and three university-level art programs, one of which offers an MFA.

“The difficulty has always been for artists to forgo the pleasures of the place for the rigors of a committed studio practice. Many have found a way; many more have failed, and some, like Ken and “Mickey,” have struggled on their way to success.

Mr. Bortolazzo, a Santa Barbara native, was trained at Santa Barbara City College and apprenticed with Kenneth Noland and Julio Agostini. He worked as the West Coast studio assistant to George Rickey for a dozen years and is currently the principal conservator for Mr. Rickey’s work.

Mr. Bortolazzo is associated with kinetic sculpture, minimalism and the light and space movement. His work is held by the Santa Barbara Museum of Art, Museum of Outdoor Art in Denver and the Microsoft Corp. headquarters in Seattle. He currently lives and works in Santa Barbara. 

Born in Buffalo, N.Y., Mr. Dvortcsak moved to Southern California as a child. He earned his bachelor’s degree at UCSB in 1961 and his master’s of fine arts from UCSB in 1968. His important teachers were Howard Warshaw and Rico Lebrun in the art department, and he attended when giants like authors Aldous Huxley and Christopher Isherwood were around in the English Department. He eventually became a teacher at UCSB but gave up teaching when he’d found enough success in the gallery world.

For decades, Mr. Dvortcsak, who died in 2019, showed his work in New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, San Diego and Buffalo. Today, his work can be found in the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles; Walker Art Center, Minneapolis; Frederick R. Weisman Foundation, Los Angeles; Santa Barbara Museum of Art; San Diego Museum of Art; Fischer Gallery at USC; and UCSB Art, Design and Architecture Museum, in addition to other public and corporate collections around the world.

“In both cases, it was these artists’ industry — their love of making  — and their exposure to outside artists who brought a seriousness of purpose. In the case of Mickey, it was Italian artist Rico Lebrun and New York artist Howard Warshaw who showed him that art was philosophically profound, morally grave and historically important,” said Mr. Vonk. 

“In Ken’s case, it was exposure to Washington Color School artist Kenneth Noland and, especially, the kinetic sculptor then associated with New York, George Rickey. Their lived example showed that art was serious business.” 

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