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Robert Korenberg

Robert Korenberg sits with some of his abstract paintings recently at the Dana Gallery in Missoula. Korenberg, a longtime Missoula dermatologist, has been painting since the early 1980s.

Early one morning when Robert Korenberg, then 33, was working an overnight shift as part of his medical residency at a hospital in Miami, two poems began floating around in this head.

They "welled up" at 3 a.m. in the intensive care unit, where he was in the midst of caring for deeply ill patients.

"I just kept thinking of those poems until I had a break about at 6 in the morning," he said. While most residents headed for some rest, he went over to a nurses' station to scribble them down.

Korenberg said he followed a conventional arc for a career in medicine. Concurrently, he's experimented with writing, music and painting, the latter on display at the Dana Gallery this month: large-scale color abstractions, a sharp contrast to rigidity required of his day job.

"The average patient doesn't realize how formal medicine is," said Korenberg, a longtime Missoula dermatologist. By design, the process is algorithmic. The room for creativity in a medical practice is found in the interactions with patients, not the practice of medicine itself, he said.

And so, since the early 1980s, Korenberg has been painting. He's tried his hand at landscapes — he knew the late Montana painter Freeman Butts and admired his work. Recently, his main focus has been on abstract canvases — he likes the expression and freedom of it, particularly in minimal abstract art.

Only a few of the paintings at the Dana are more than a few years old. In the 1980s, when Korenberg had a practice in Butte for more than six years, he amassed approximately 70 or 80 pieces and stored them in a heated warehouse space. The building was lost to a fire, all of his work gone. He stopped painting for almost a decade. He dipped back in for a few years and then took another long break until 2015, when an orthopedic surgery left him with spare time to start again.

He works in series. Some are largely dominated by a bright red, with a deliberately varied surface, accented by small wedges or lines of white. His preference for red pops even more in a red-on-gray series, where the colors float on forms of muted gray.

He's interested in finding ways that two main elements, proportion and color, can "capture emotion."

Another large canvas, "The Abyss," sets a deep crevasse of off-white in a field of aqua. It has a careful off-kilter symmetry, as he described it.

He likes "the tension of the one color interspersing and penetrating into the other color and the dynamic of that," he said. It's a subtle way for a seemingly simple form to transfer a larger message and content.

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