I was at Catching the Light, Lois Dodd’s retrospective at the Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art, the August day I got the news that critic Robert Hughes had passed away at Calvary Hospital in the Bronx, New York. For many, myself included, Hughes’s prose did for art criticism what Shakespeare did for the stage. Hughes was sound and fury, speaking in a booming voice while just barely opening his mouth. If you were an artist in his crosshairs the words might have been:
Isn’t it a miracle what so much money and so little ability can produce? Just extraordinary. You know, when I look at a thing like this, I realize that so much of art — not all of it, thank God — but a lot of it has just become a cruddy game for the aggrandizement of the rich and ignorant.
(This is Hughes speaking in his 2008 documentary The Mona Lisa Curse. He is referring to the work of a 21st-century celeb-artist whom I will leave unidentified.)
It was possible to disagree with Hughes as he tried to dethrone much of the postmodernism of the 1970s, Neo-Expressionism of the 1980s, and kitschmeisters of today, but it was nearly impossible to not be entertained — and for many, entranced. Hughes’s criticism had poetic grit that could venerate the loved-ones with equal intensity. To him, exemplary work was informed by tradition and not overshadowed by theory. But more than that, it had some “Whitmanesque” quality that he said “inhaled the world around it.” Counted among the chosen were the 20th-century Maine painters, including Fairfield Porter and Neil Welliver.
That brings us, finally, to Lois Dodd (aged 85) and her first museum retrospective in a 60-year painting career that intersected with the Maine group. She was a friend of the late Welliver, and at times her canvases have a sensibility like his. The painting in the Kemper exhibit that shows this best is “Woods with Falling Tree” (1977), a view of woods near her Cushing, Maine, property. Hughes’s words about a Welliver painting, “Shadow” (also 1977), could speak to the Dodd painting as well: he writes in American Visions that in Welliver’s work “typically his spaces are shallow and entangled — if Pollocks can look like brambles, brambles reserve the right to look like Pollocks. The surface isn’t oppressively congested, but it puzzles the eye. You can feel the twigs plucking at your coat. Such landscapes are “all-over” paintings, slices taken from a boundless field of pictorial incident. They pay homage to the materialism of Courbet, and to the large-scale nineteenth-century American landscape and to Abstract Expressionism all at once.”
Welliver stayed dedicated to these “all-over” pure woods paintings throughout his career. Dodd’s scope has been wider, but she has done a great number of woodlot paintings. Unlike Welliver, her approach connects more to Corot’s devotion to leave plein air work under-refined so that some of the freshness of the initial impression remains. Under-refinement for Welliver was more machine-like simplification of detail as he painted from top down in one pass. Nevertheless, Welliver’s and Dodd’s woods paintings do share a similar feeling of compression due in part to lively surface marks and some negation of atmospheric perspective.
Only one such large “pure woods” painting is included in the Dodd retrospective, and I was left wishing that a gem like “Maine Woods – Back of Canvas” had been featured to demonstrate how Dodd, at times, challenged both the best of Welliver and Porter in one go. An inclusion like this would have given the show a richer dialogue with the Kemper’s Welliver painting “Lower Duck Trap,” on display in the permanent collection in a nearby room.
In an interview earlier this year, Dodd told me that in 1963 she was searching for a wilderness property in Lincolnville, Maine. She found something but ultimately passed on it for a different one in Cushing. She then brought Neil Welliver out to see the Lincolnville property, and he bought it on the spot (adding to this initial purchase over the years). In a real sense, Dodd found the subject matter that we see in all the splendid Wellivers. Though they never painted together — “Welliver was not that kind of person,” Dodd told me, they did “look at each other’s work.”
Both Dodd and Welliver made at least part of their work on site. Welliver did so by painting small studies outdoors that he then translated into eight-foot-square canvases in the studio. Dodd would go even further by taking the big ones on site, tying them down, and leaving them covered with a tarp until she returned. One should forgive slight buckles in some of the canvases for this reason. She doesn’t haul the huge canvases around like that anymore, but the September day I called her for an interview she had been out painting a smaller work in the spruces. She has used this direct method for sixty years.
Dodd is strongest when she comes closer to artist Fairfield Porter in a lineage that dates back to Edouard Vuillard. Hughes wrote that Porter was “lucid and gifted” as both a critic and painter. Dodd was a beneficiary of that gift in being reviewed with admiration by Porter and, as she said, through “looking at his work.” Much of what Hughes wrote about Porter could be extended to Dodd, for example: “Porter rejected the piety that the empirically painted figure or landscape was dead. It simply didn’t accord with his deepest convictions about how art relates to experience and conveys its ‘density.’”
Dodd’s painting “Woods (triptych)” (1975) has the spirit of a Porter. Flat color patches deny themselves by evoking light, space, and form. The work is by far the most demanding on the gallery space, as it extends 14 feet high towards the ceiling, anchoring the gallery like a monument. It’s one of the best works in the exhibit for its ability to just give the basic essentials and then shift to a protracted evocation of more complex pictorial experience as the brain spontaneously fills out the details.
“Woods (triptych)” also offers a solution to painting tall trees without distortion of that tallness: three panels are stacked on top of one another, capturing the size and height of the trees. Dodd explained, “I did the bottom panel first as a finished work; later I decided that more of the trees were needed so I added another panel, and then later I thought just a bit more and added a third panel.” In her solution, the trees feel like intimate portraits as much as the house in the painting. The shack was an abandoned structure adjacent to her current Maine property, the same one depicted in “View Through Elliot’s Shack Looking South,” which flips the view and shows us the trees through the house. This is possible, of course, with the inclusion of front and back windows. “Elliot’s Shack” achieves a complexity similar to that of Fairfield Porter’s 1966 “The Mirror,” a painting that Hughes included in his text American Visions. In Porter’s work, a mirror and a window work as Dodd’s two windows.
Windows feature in more than half of the 51 paintings in the Dodd show and span five of the six decades represented. Using the window to a good end is an attribute that she shares with the painter Pierre Bonnard, who knew that he was at his best when one space hatched into another by some kind of doorway or window. In both Bonnard and Dodd, the window works to organize rather than provide an easy cliché about transcendence of some kind. Dodd uses the window like Welliver used the water: to add a dynamic field of transparent matter that refracts and reflects reality and boosts pictorial complexity. Since Dodd lives and paints in New York City as well, the window also serves as architecture looking out onto architecture; strong examples of this are included in the show.
The retrospective also highlights Dodd’s interest in the figure in the landscape. Works from her early years, such as “Clam Diggers” (1958–59), contain some of the wildest mark making in the exhibition and evoke the feeling of a good San Francisco Bay Area painting by David Park. By coincidence, the date of “Clam Diggers” is contemporaneous with the best work of Park. “Clam Diggers” has the “sting” (a word Park used) of an abstraction in marriage with figuration, and though unmistakable in this painting, a close look at any of the pieces in the exhibit reveals them to be far from any kind of slavery to straight mimetic refinement. This is a trait of vitality that, without exception, Dodd’s work shares with both Welliver’s and Porter’s.
Robert Hughes never reviewed Lois Dodd’s work, but I do think he may have been pleased to see her finally get a deserved museum retrospective — something that also came late for Porter and Welliver. Hughes’s last significant film, The Mona Lisa Curse, was a lament about perversity and darkness in the blue-chip art world. The documentary is a call for something better, a theme he initiated over a decade ago when he ended American Visions with a reminder that even in decay we should remember the words of Scarlett O’Hara: “Tomorrow is another day.” One can imagine, then, Hughes’s final departure in the spirit of Goethe’s dying words: give me “more light.” Chances are Hughes would have found something to take heart in had he seen Dodd catching it.
Lois Dodd: Catching the Light was on view at the Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art (4420 Warwick Boulevard, Kansas City, Missouri) from May 18 to August 26. It will travel to the Portland Museum of Art (7 Congress Square, Portland, Maine) from January 17 to April 7, 2013.