About William Carlos Williams’s most anthologized poem, “The Red Wheelbarrow,” Robert Penn Warren and Cleanth Brooks said in their book, Understanding Poetry:
[…] reading this poem is like peering at an ordinary object through a pin prick in a piece of cardboard. The fact that the tiny hole arbitrarily frames the object endows it with an exciting freshness that seems to hover on the verge of revelation.
Had Warren and Brooks known of Lois Dodd’s paintings, I imagine they would have arrived at a similar conclusion, though I am inclined to think they would have revised the phrase, “arbitrarily frames the object.” That’s because there is nothing arbitrary about the way Dodd discovers her subject — the fusion of viewpoint and familiar object — in the routines of her everyday life. By framing these objects — a window, a clothesline, a cherry tree — in changing seasons and times of day, she finds ways to see her life anew, to celebrate the commonplace, while astutely probing the pressures modernism has placed on the picture plane.
In 1952, Lois Dodd, along with four other artists, started the Tanager Gallery on East Fourth Street, near the Bowery, one of the first artist-run cooperative galleries in New York. A year later the gallery moved into a larger space on Tenth Street, where it continued to operate until 1962. Dodd has been exhibiting for more than sixty years and, if her current show, Lois Dodd: Day and Night at Alexandre Gallery (February 25–April 2, 2016) is any indication, she is showing no signs of slowing down in her late eighties.
There are three large paintings in the exhibition, including “Moon & Shack” (1976), which is done on an unusual format measuring 72 x 18 inches. As Christopher B. Crosman writes in his catalogue essay: “The format is not simply eccentric; it is necessary.” This feeling of necessity is one of the abiding features running throughout Dodd’s work — her ability to merge viewpoint, image and format so that it all feels essential, which it is.
In an interview with Jennifer Samet, Dodd describes the source of her subjects, “There are endless things — the house, the road, the barn, and the landscape out in the woods.”
Dodd’s delight in the plain and the everyday is what she shares with the great American poet of the ordinary, William Carlos Williams. In an age of easy weekend getaways, selfies taken in front of spectacular views, and the mass media’s constant promotion of excess as a mark of success, Dodd’s choice of subject is both refreshing and ethical — though she would never make this latter claim because she would think it immodest.
Dodd paints with bristle brushes on a hard, resistant surface. In a typically dry, self-deprecating statement, she told Samet: “I am stingy with the paint; it is very thin.” Although it might not have been evident in the 1960s, when Dodd was coming into her own, she defined a path that rejected the loaded brush of the Abstract Expressionists, the pouring associated with stain painting, and the even coats of paint employed by many of the Minimalists. Nor did she enlarge her scale, as did many figural painters of her generation. Instead of aligning herself with any of the cutting-edge styles or with the various, so-called avant-garde positions of the day, she chose to find the unconventional in the commonplace. Dodd became radical without ever bothering to announce it.
In the recent, relatively large painting, “Shed Window” (2014), which measures 66 x 48 inches, Dodd takes up a subject she has explored on many occasions throughout her career: the window, in this case one set into a shingled, weathered tool shed, with some kind of fungus or plant life growing on the sill. The worn surface of each shingle is lovingly and matter-of-factly painted in varying tonalities of dark lavender and artichoke green. The thinness of the paint is perfectly attuned to the effects of time and weather on the wood. In her hands, painting becomes a commemoration of a specific time and light, acutely registering the subject’s physical condition, from the missing panes of glass (black rectangles) to the faint reflections in the ones still intact, to the washed-out brightness of the morning sun on the weathered wood and the soft shadows it casts.
The window is a loaded motif in painting that goes at least as far back as the 15th-century. In the 20th-century, painters such as Henri Matisse and Richard Diebenkorn translated the window into modernist masterworks. Dodd’s window paintings — and I count “Shed Window” among them, even though the view is opaque — add something fresh to this theme. Her views of broken and missing windowpanes in worn and tumbledown structures underscore both infinite and historical time, a threatened way of life.
Dodd’s sensitivity to light, atmosphere and color — and the way they complement each other — is understated and precise. This is because she largely eschews the dramatic moments of light favored by the 19th-century American Luminists, avoiding the deep, striking shadows that made the Luminists’ work so theatrical. Look at all the different greens, and their varying densities — punctuated by irregular red and reddish-orange circles (the apples) — that she brings into play in “Apple Tree through Barn Window, September” (2015), and you realize how formally sharp Dodd is in her work. And then consider the raindrops on the glass panes in “Rainy Window” (2014) — and how her tans, browns and grays complement each other and the subject – and you get a sense of Dodd’s mastery. Even when she is working with a circumscribed palette on modestly sized paintings, all less than 20 x 20 inches, as she does in the night views from her Lower East Side apartment window, there is so much she is able to convey through the varying densities of paint, from scumbled and brushy, matter-of-fact surfaces to the mixture of grays defining the sash and casing.
There has never been any hoopla around Dodd’s art. Like the tool shed in her painting, she has endured all kinds of changes in the art world’s weather without ever succumbing to the temptation to belong to a group or align herself with a tendency. Dodd’s independence is exemplary. Nearly 90, she is an American master.
Lois Dodd: Day and Night continues at Alexandre Gallery (724 Fifth Avenue, Midtown, Manhattan) through April 2.