First, Make it Beautiful: Michael Dolen

“I sign on to the notion that in art, everything is permitted.”

Michael Dolen at work
Michael Dolen in his studio

Michael Dolen, a graduate of The Cooper Union in New York, with an extensive career as the lead designer at a communications and marketing firm, simply cannot be “boxed-in” to one category. The artist draws inspiration from his personal and professional life, consulting his sketchbooks from travels around the world, as well as his formal art education. The result is a seamless integration of different styles in one artwork a unique combination of text and graphic elements with classical and abstract figuration. Using a bold color palette and a variety of materials, each piece comes together beautifully as a true reflection of the artist’s life and experiences: free, yet disciplined.

Your artwork is always multi-dimensional in style as well as narrative. Tell us a little bit about your artistic process. How do you develop a particular work?

To begin with, I do not believe in joining the ranks of a particular style or label. Graduating from The Cooper Union, I was initially focused on Abstract Expressionism. My need to move to a more content-filled pictorial sensibility eventually became apparent. I have attempted to avoid any kind of orthodoxy, feeling comfortable moving from abstract biomorphic forms and shapes to more figurative elements. I often combine the two, since I sign on to the notion that in art, everything is permitted.

My process of developing a particular work varies. Throughout my development, I have gone through many stages that have been changed and modified. I often consult my many sketchbooks for concepts to completion; formal and informal.

Often, I do a rough sketch, drawing on previous ideation and imagery. I sometimes consult my art library for sources of inspiration. I prefer to have a more ”finished rough concept” before engaging in the “final work.” I find there are many accidents and changes that occur while completing a “final work.” (Some are happy accidents; some, not so happy.) Therefore, I try not to search or guess where I am going to end up. If I believe a particular work has potential to be expanded in concept, I will develop a series of works based on the same theme in order to flush out the pictorial possibilities.

Traveling, visiting museums and galleries here and abroad, have contributed to my repository of imagery which I draw upon.

Color choices are often flexible. I usually engage in full-tilt coloration. Subtle changes and color corrections are always occurring as I move toward completing a work. For the most part, my palette is primary, rather than light or subtle.

How do you choose your subjects?

I have always been drawn to the human figure as a source to be explored. I believe my abstract/biomorphic work seems to suggest sections of the human anatomy. Closing in, cropping, articulating suggested sections of the figure, are all part of what I believe to be the basis of abstract work.

My more figurative pieces are derived from historical western traditions, as well as biographical content. I often combine the figure (figures) with backdrops that create an emotional “weather.” That “weather” is my attempt to communicate my desire for the “beautiful.” My hope is that the viewers of my work will discover that beauty even when the compositions of the abstract or the figurative are disjunctive, ambiguous or enigmatic.

Grids and defined shapes are a recurring object in your work. What is the significance of these?

My art education began at The High School of Art and Design and was followed by The Cooper Union. Courses required the understanding and discipline of the grid as a device to organize visual information. The Bauhaus movement, founded in Weimar, was a pioneer in developing the grid. In my case, the figure, various abstract shapes, photographs, typography, contours of all kinds, can be made to interact with one another in a disciplined fashion. I have integrated the grid as a change of pace or visual relief from the more organic shapes or figures in my pictorial world. I find it provides a discipline; an architectural, almost mathematical interchange that helps the viewer digest the content of my work.

Michael’s works on view at the gallery

The color palette is a striking quality of your works. Is this developed along the process or do you choose your colors in advance?

Through the years, I have experimented with color as a fundamental factor in my works. Early on, I searched for a lighter, more muted and subtle coloration than I display now. For the last several years my palette has been oriented toward fuller primary colors.

I hope to surprise or shock by using full-tilt color. I usually choose the palette in advance, knowing there will be modifications down the road to the finished piece; but for me, the less experimentation working on the “final”, the better. I believe that primary coloration provides me with avoiding color constraints. I wish to provide the viewer with a tension in my works that is in keeping with the subject matter on the picture plane.

What do you want your viewers to take away from your work?

One of my favorite quotes by an artist I have greatly admired Helen Frankenthaler said, “First make it Beautiful.” Where I am drawn to abstract or biomorphic forms, I want them to seem compelling in themselves to the viewer. As I review my recent works completed over the last three years, I find them to be responsive to formal and conceptual restraints. I hope the viewer will not fail to sense the importance of these constraints, even when they elude definition. Are there particular characteristics in my recent work? I believe there are.

I hope the viewer will regard my works as serious exercises in the handling of illusionistic and abstract space, in which the goal, above all, is the creation of “beauty.” That is what I hope the viewer takes away from my work.

Do you have a favorite among your works?

I am blessed with three grandchildren. Asking me which one is my favorite is like asking me “Do I have a favorite among my works?” The answer is no.

Collecting art is a highly involving and emotional experience. The artist’s process and intention are some of the factors that make one fall in love with his or her piece. Learn more about our artists’ creative methods and fascinating techniques in the Artist Spotlight categories.

Read more about Michael Dolen’s art and process on his Agora Profile.

The artist is currently exhibiting twenty artworks at Agora Gallery in “The New Flux”, and recently presented a selection of works at the gallery’s booth in NYC’s Affordable Art Fair.


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