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Lois Dodd has lived in a loft-studio on Second Street near the Bowery for over fifty years. When visiting her, one is struck by the independence of her lifestyle, as well as her work. She seems as unflappable about climbing the stairs to the top of her building, traveling to her homes in Blairstown, New Jersey, and Cushing, Maine, and working outdoors, as she is about talking about her work. As many have noted, there is a “no frills” attitude in the painting — both its subject matter and handling — and the way she presents herself in the art world.
The décor of her home and studio is equally plainspoken – it seems that only slight changes have been made over the fifty years. Her painting storage racks are utilitarian, and the floorboards are painted white. Her home is adorned by some potted plants, an oval mirror that appears in several paintings, a group of small works by other artists, sculptural objects by her former husband Bill King, and simple but handsome wood and caned furniture.
The subjects that recur in Dodd’s work include interior-exterior views from the window of her East Village home, and landscapes from her immediate environs in Maine and the Delaware Water Gap: the sides of clapboard houses and barns, window frames, ordinary paths through a field, geometricized, architectural flowers, curtains and hanging laundry blowing in a breeze. Less often she paints figures. Although Dodd is admired for understatement, there is a profound daring in her pursuit — to eke out every ounce of possibility and modulation from often ignored motifs. Nor is she afraid of dry humor — instead of a heroic self-portrait, she depicts herself as a green, grassy shadow. That sensibility extends to her nudes (neither idealized nor misshapen), engaging in quotidian chores amidst a fertile landscape.
Lois Dodd was born in 1927 and studied at the Cooper Union in the late 1940s. From 1971 to 1992, Dodd taught at Brooklyn College, and served for almost thirty years on the Board of Governors of the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture. In 1952 she was one of the five founding members of the legendary Tanager Gallery on 10th Street, one the first artist-run cooperative galleries in New York. She is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters and of the National Academy of Design. Since 1954 her work has been the subject of over 50 one-person exhibitions. In May 2012 the Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art in Kansas City held a retrospective exhibition of her work. She has been represented since 2004 by Alexandre Gallery, where she is the subject of a solo exhibition currently on view through April 4, and reviewed recently by John Yau.
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Jennifer Samet: You grew up in Montclair, New Jersey. Were any of your family members artists?
Lois Dodd: No, but I had family members who worked with their hands. One of my father’s brothers was an architect. My grandfather made furniture and had a workshop in his backyard. I remember the atmosphere and surroundings being wonderful — it smelled good because of the wood. The floors were covered with the shavings you get from planing wood.
The Second World War was going on during the years that I was in high school between 1941 and 1945. During that period my mother developed breast cancer and died, after which my father, who had stayed home to care for her, returned to his position as a captain in the Merchant Marines. His ship was involved in the Land-Lease program. His ship was torpedoed while transporting supplies to Murmansk and only half of the crew survived. He did not. So, my parents had both died by the time I was fifteen.
In Montclair High School there was an unusually good art program. The art classroom was a double-sized room with a banana tree in a large container under a skylight. We had two teachers, one about to retire, and the other doing her student teaching stint. One day, the young teacher spoke to us about art school options in New York City. She mentioned that Cooper Union was free if you passed their test. Another classmate and I got in. I commuted in from Montclair for the three years.
JS: Who did you study with at the Cooper Union? There is a certain economy of means that is present in your work, as well as that of Alex Katz, who was a fellow student. Was there anything about the teaching at Cooper Union that might have led to that?
LD: My painting teacher at Cooper Union was Byron Thomas. He started class by teaching us to make paint. We first made water-based paint and painted with it on large sheets of brown paper, then egg tempera, and finally we ground and used oil paint. I still have the sheet he handed out with all the recipes. I think it was a wonderful introduction —to know the materials before you started using them. He sent us to Fezandie & Sperrle to buy powdered pigments. We also bought glass mullers with which to grind the pigments into linseed oil and metal tubes to fill with our ground paints.
At Cooper Union, I met Bill King, who had come to New York City intending to study architecture at Columbia. But without adequate tuition money, he enrolled at Cooper Union instead, and moved into sculpture. At the end of the three-year program Bill received a scholarship to Skowhegan and also a Fulbright fellowship to Italy. We were married between his two scholarships and I went to Italy with him at the end of 1949.
I also met Jean Cohen, who became Alex Katz’s first wife. We all were very good friends and shared property in Maine. The friendships lasted longer than the marriages.
JS: Can you tell me about your time in Rome — what art you were especially interested in and looking at?
LD: 1950 was a Holy Year for the Vatican in Rome but Italy was still suffering from all kinds of shortages at the end of the war. For example, there were very few cars in the streets which meant we could wander throughout the city with minimal danger of being run over as we looked for and found architectural monuments, churches, public sculpture.
We got a Moto Guzzi to enable trips to some of the hill towns near Rome. An American film, Teresa, was being made in Bologna in the spring of 1950 by director Fred Zinnemann. Our friends rushed off to take jobs in the production and Bill was included as an extra portraying a G.I. We also went to Florence, Venice, Naples, Milan, Turin, and the smaller city-states. At that time, it was the 14th Century painters that everybody loved — the flat, design quality of that work.
I did some painting in Italy, but it was more about looking at other art for the year. It was the same when I returned ten years later, in 1959, with my son Eli. When I look at the paintings that I did there, they are not really worthwhile. I am not a travel painter. It just doesn’t work for me, though I enjoy it. I work best going back to the same places. I change, they change, or the weather changes. I used to think the subject would dry up, and I would have to make a move. But that never happened; it is the reverse.
Alex Katz and Jean Cohen and Bill and I went to Lakewood, Maine, in the summer of 1951 after returning from Italy. Being in Maine is what got us all working outdoors. You get habituated to it when you realize you don’t have to be inside to be working. We opened a little gallery, the Accent Gallery, in which to show our work and other friends.
JS: By 1952, you, along with four other artists, founded the Tanager Gallery, one of the early artist cooperatives. How did that happen? You have described the experience as like getting an MFA. What do you mean by that?
LD: Bill had met Charles Cajori at Skowhegan, and in Rome we met Angelo Ippolito and Fred Mitchell, who were there on the G.I. bill. When we all returned to New York, we wanted to show our work, but we certainly couldn’t show in any uptown gallery. De Kooning and others were just beginning to show on 57th Street at that time. That is when we got the notion to open up our own cooperative gallery. The Tanager Gallery was started by me, Cajori, Bill, Angelo, and Fred Mitchell.
We rented a small storefront on Fourth Street east of the Bowery in the summer of 1952. At that time the elevated train was running up and down Third Avenue and the neighborhood was very run down. A year later Philip Pavia told Angelo there was a cheaper, bigger place on Tenth Street. Of course, it wasn’t really big compared to the size of galleries nowadays. We were in the Tenth Street space for ten years, from 1953 to 1962.
The gallery was how we met every other artist in New York City. We visited studios, deciding who to show. It was great to become part of that world. The gallery scene on Tenth Street kept growing. We were the first one on the block, but quickly there were others there and around the corner.
Altogether over the ten-year period there were eighteen members: George Ortman, Joseph Groell, Philip Pearlstein, Perle Fine, Charles Cajori, Lois Dodd, Angelo Ippolito, Bill King, Fred Mitchell, Sidney Geist, Sally Hazelet Drummond, Ben Isquith, Alex Katz, Lester Johnson, Nick Marsicano, Raymond Rocklin, Sal Sirugo, and Tom Wesselmann.
For our first one-man show we invited John Grillo. We used to have enormous Christmas shows with one hundred small paintings, hung all over the walls. De Kooning would come into the gallery. He was a major figure on Tenth Street. Milton Resnick, Pat Passlof, Al Kotin, Kenneth Kilstrom, Gabe Kohn, Lester Johnson, Philip Pearlstein, Mary Frank, and Robert Krushenick all had studios on the block at one time or another.
JS: An early body of your work was paintings of cows. Why did that become a subject of yours?
LD: I had studied textile design at Cooper Union, so I was thinking about pattern. At that time I spent summer in Lincolnville, Maine. There were a lot of cows in the area. The subject of the cows answered to that — they seemed to be in a place between pattern and representation. They made a good shape: white with big black patches.
I would go outside, find cows and draw, and use the drawings in the wintertime to paint. That kept me busy for a while. Then I did my biggest cow painting, which was 72 inches square. That was it; I wasn’t going to do any more cows.
In 1976 I moved from Lincolnville to Cushing, Maine. It is closer to the water, so there aren’t people raising cows — there are lobstermen. Either you move or the subject moves. There are endless things — the house, the road, the barn, and the landscape out in the woods.
My neighbor Leslie Land, who wrote about food and gardens, planted a large garden. It became a resource — to paint what was happening in the garden. At first, I didn’t want to get involved with it — being a woman artist painting flowers didn’t seem like a good idea. Nancy Wissemann-Widrig, who lives in Cushing as well, wasn’t put off; she did great big paintings of the garden. I thought, “I will paint Nancy painting in the garden.”
One year Leslie worked like mad to get a plant called a cow parsnip going. It is six feet tall with a gigantic flower. As the flowers are architecturally simple, I could deal with them as a subject, and from that plant, I continued to paint others.
JS: You talk about de Kooning as a major force in the New York scene of the 1950s. Did Pop Art have any impact on your work?
LD: Yes, technique-wise. The Abstract Expressionists did a lot of dripping. And then along came Pop art and they were so clean, and the edges so neat. Meanwhile what I was doing was not too related to either one. But I felt like I couldn’t be quite as sloppy as I was earlier on, because everything was getting so clean. That is Pop Art’s only influence on my work: “Clean up your act a little bit.” It wasn’t the attitude or philosophy.
I admire people that can ladle on paint — it is delicious. But I can’t do that; it’s not me. I am stingy with the paint; it is very thin. I use bristle brushes. If I used brushes that were a little softer I could put more paint on, I guess. It’s all about the technique and tools.
JS: For a long time you were part of a figure drawing group organized by Mercedes Matter in New York, and you also had a drawing group in Maine. However, most of your paintings are absent of figures. Why is this?
LD: I love drawing the figure and have been part of drawing groups in both New York and Maine. In Maine, the same model has posed outside in the sun for our group for years. It’s just lovely. I have piles of figure drawings, but I rarely use them to paint. Anytime I did, I didn’t like the result.
I enjoy drawing the model because it keeps you wide awake, making instantaneous decisions. You know she is going to move, so you have to stay very focused on what you are doing. I don’t like long, static poses. I don’t care about making a beautiful figure. I’d rather be involved with how she is moving, what she is doing. In Maine, the figures would be involved with something interesting – climbing a tree, using an axe, working. She is not just lolling there. It is more alive that way.
JS: Is it the same with the places you have painted repeatedly — that you are painting the activity and changes happening in them? In addition to painting in your home in the East Village, you also paint outdoors in Blairstown, New Jersey, near the Delaware Water Gap.
LD: Yes, landscapes are different every day, and at night. There are always events — some natural and some manmade — that take place. In “Self-Portrait in Green Window” (1971), I was interested in the window. I saw my reflection but didn’t notice the plant in front of the window until I was almost done, and considered whether I should put it in or not. I thought if I put it in, it would push the window back a bit. It gives the painting a little more space to stand.
The painting, “Ice in Window” (1982), was an amalgam, in that I was not actually looking at the river through the window. I started the landscape painting and then decided to put the window frame, from another painting, on top of that scene. I wanted to see what the two would do for each other.
Sometimes I feel like a reporter. I had been painting by the Delaware Water Gap when the river froze. There was a rainstorm and the ice got broken up and thrown onto the banks. It was amazing looking, so I sat on the bank and painted a couple of little panels. I used these for bigger paintings. The painter Marcia Clark goes to the North Pole and paints glaciers. I’m not going there, so my North Pole will have to be at the Water Gap. If I can catch some exciting natural event, it is great.
I started doing nighttime paintings in the 1970s. For some reason in Maine, in 1975, there was a minimum of mosquitoes at night. You could stand outside and the moonlight was so brilliant certain nights that I realized I could paint in it.
JS: You’ve mentioned an architectural geometry as integral to your work. Your paintings seem so direct; how do you plan out the compositions?
LD: With the window paintings, the big decision is where to put the grid. I also decide how much I can include. Even with plants there is a kind of geometry that helps — where are you going to situate the square, triangle or oval that underlies their growth pattern. Usually I draw with pale yellow on the panel, because it can disappear — it is easy to rub off with turpentine, or I can scrub it around with the turpentine. It also gives me a base color.
JS: There is a confidence and singularity that characterizes your path, especially your choice of subject matter. How have you been able to maintain this?
LD: Well, you are always influenced by the people around you. How do you find out who you are if it isn’t from other people? But painting may be the only thing in life that I’ve been confident about.
You have to have something that you don’t ask anybody else about. I’ve always been aware of that with painting. No one else can really help you, or say whether it’s good or bad. It’s just you and it, and that’s great. You can handle everything else in your life much more easily, because you have that place where you are on your own.
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