American artists loved abstraction until the Andy Warhols ambushed the Jackson Pollocks and started painting celebrities and Coca-Cola—or so it goes. But there is a group that, after the tumult of Abstract Expressionism, humbled observational painting more than Pop Art ever did.
Lois Dodd, from Montclair, NJ, is a prominent member of the plein air painters of the 1950s and 1960s who worked outdoors. Born in 1927, she graduated from the Cooper Union and started a co-op gallery around New York’s 10th Street. Her works are grounded in reality and vision like an Impressionists’ fleeting and subjective depiction of light on matter, but with long looking. As a result, Dodd’s paintings are still, but they are not hyperrealistic, only chewing on the essential parts of a lake, window ledge or flower (her subjects of choice).
On Wednesday, Nov. 20, Dodd discussed her static impressions in Taylor Hall. That day, she looked something like her paintings in the geometry of her clothes. She wore horizontal stripes on her shirt and vertical ones on her pants. Associate Professor of Art Laura Newman, who also studied at the Cooper Union, introduced Dodd as her painting hero and someone who exhibits “what it is to notice.” Newman commended Dodd’s insight into weather, temperature and light, and, more personally, her “unpretentious and gentle” demeanor.
When Dodd mounted the podium, she paused and said, “So the moral of the story is to live a long time. If you get to be 92, you’ll finally get some credit.”
The audience laughed—two sentences and everybody liked her.
First, Dodd gave us historical context. The 1950s saw an explosion of co-op galleries in the 10th Street area. Whatever was denied display space on Manhattan’s 57th Street (“Art Street,” home to “Billionaires’ Row”) sought refuge in a 10th Street co-op. Dodd co-founded the Tanager Gallery in 1952 and helped run it for 10 years. She looked back fondly on that busy decade in the Lower East Side.
Back then, like today, young artists struggled, made their own stuff and evaluated the works of their contemporaries, asking themselves, “Whose work should we put on display?” Unlike the hubs of high (expensive) art on 57th Street, spaces like Dodd’s Tanager Gallery, with the unassuming avian name, housed fledgling mid-century artists—the heart of avant garde.
Nowadays she is not as stuck to the city. In fact, most of the paintings she showed us were of plants and water, rural scenes. Over the years, she started focusing on nature painting. Traveling between her homes in New York, New Jersey and Maine, she also takes inspiration from architectural forms, windows and light-soaked interiors. Eventually she incorporated the clean squarish effects of the hard-edge painting movement, which responded to disordered Pollockian compositions, with a flatter, more geometric approach to abstraction.
Despite her attraction to perceptible environments, she called all drawing an “abstract exercise.” Before starting a piece, she begins by envisioning, How will this image fit onto the rectangle of the canvas? The edges of the painting must be determined first. For example, if she is making a still life interior, she rearranges furniture to suit her idea before laying down any paint.
Even her nature paintings have abstract roots. For example, her studies of the Delaware Water Gap are reductive in the best way, emphasizing light, shade and form over microscopic details such that these pictures of nature are more like assemblages of shapes. At the same time, she is adept at showing how natural light interacts with surfaces. She has mastered the colors of the sun. When sunset-light hits snow, it creates this color; when a tree casts a shadow on a dirt road in midday, the shadow and the road produce this contrast. She explained that, on one sunny day in Maine, the shadows were so pronounced and sharp that she had to paint them.
Her window paintings in particular speak to her love of light and shape. With her ledges, Dodd further flirts with abstraction by blurring the line between eye and imagination, or emphasizing the hallucinatory quality of a real view. When she was replacing the wallpaper in her home, she painted the woods on the plaster. Then she painted a picture of the painted wall, whose window revealed actual brush. The product was a little mind-boggling.
“When you start looking at things that are wrecks, you begin finding a lot of them around,” she said, deadpan. Once, as an exercise, she captured a house burning down. Hot red, orange and purple issue from the black skeleton of the house.
“Whatever’s out the window, it’s right there,” she reflected. “Dished up, offered to you.” Essentially, Dodd takes a tiny, transient or overlooked thing and crystallizes it on a Masonite panel with a thin coat of paint. A tulip “announced its presence” and impelled the artist to pay attention. She painted a scene of her barn in spring because the view is never quite the same, and she is different every year she returns to it. Coming home from an art show in Maine, she found someone’s door wide open, revealing a staircase, and she painted that. For another interior, she took advantage of the certain way light bounces off her loft wall “not more than once or twice in the spring.” Lately, Dodd has painted a lot of close-ups of flowers.
Keming Yan ’22, who attended the talk for his drawing class, appreciated the painter’s frankness, both visual and verbal. “Every time she showed us a painting, she just explained what it was of and how she came to paint it. It was very simple and straightforward, and I liked that. She made the act of drawing and painting more approachable.”
In the front row were artist Catherine Murphy and Professor of Art Harry Roseman, both of whom met Dodd in the co-op period. Murphy said avidly, “[Dodd’s work is] figuration that talked to what was. Formally, it’s in harmony. It’s so strong.” Her and Roseman reflected on the 1960s New York art scene lovingly. I imagine it was difficult then, but fun too—Why else would Dodd be painting so prolifically at 92?