In the summer of 1952, a handful of artists started the Tanager Gallery, the first artist-run cooperative on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. In the fall of 1953, the gallery moved a few blocks north, to 90 East Tenth Street, where Willem de Kooning had a studio. The Tanager Gallery ran for a decade, closing in the summer of 1962, around the time Pop Art and Minimalism began grabbing much of the art world’s attention. By then de Kooning had moved to another studio, and would soon move out of New York.
During the decade that the Tanager Gallery operated, a number of other artist-run galleries opened on Tenth Street, and many artists got their start in this vibrant, non-commercial scene. It was also during this time that Clement Greenberg came up with the derisive term, “Tenth Street Touch,” which he later claimed in his essay “Post Painterly Abstraction,” “spread through abstract painting like a blight during the 1950s.” Greenberg was speaking about “The stroke left by a loaded brush or knife.” In other words, anything that smacked of de Kooning, Franz Kline, or gestural abstraction. The problem with Greenberg’s memorable dismissal is that a lot of artists who showed on Tenth Street were doing something that bore little or no resemblance to de Kooning’s work, but for various reasons paid a price for it.
Which brings me to the subject of this review — the pairing of Lois Dodd and Sally Hazelet Drummond in adjoining solo exhibitions, Lois Dodd: Early Paintings and Sally Hazelet Drummond: Selected Paintings at Alexandre Gallery. The Dodd exhibition runs from January 7 through February 25, while the Drummond exhibition closes on February 11. Their joint exhibition is meant to coincide with Inventing Downtown: Artist-Run Galleries in New York City, 1952 – 1965 at the NYU Grey Art Gallery (January 10–April 1, 2017).
Both Dodd and Drummond, who are friends, exhibited at the Tanager Gallery and were part of the burgeoning downtown scene. Neither of them could be accused of using a loaded brush. In 1958, after seeing a retrospective of Georges Seurat’s work at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, Hazelet began to employ pointillism’s stippling to cover her surfaces with gradations of colored dots. While pointillism was about the optical, Drummond, in a passage quoted on the gallery’s website for her solo show in 2005, describes the effect of her work in terms of sound:
[…] like a humming, a drone, emanating from somewhere, a unified field, pulsing, energetic.’
The five paintings in her exhibition are dated between 1960 and 2010. All of them are monochromatic squares filled with a carefully controlled field of differently colored dots, a luminous center slowly dissipating as it moves toward the painting’s edges. If anything, these are the opposite of gestural paintings — they are about color becoming light and light breaking down into myriad particles or what the artist calls “a drone […] pulsing.” They are all-over paintings, but, like Yaoyoi Kusama’s “Infinity Nets,” they are not gestural. This is how Irving Sandler described them in an essay he wrote about Drummond for her show at Artist’s Space in 1989:
In fact, fifties painting was far more varied than it is now remembered to have been. And if there was violence, there was also lyricism — and contemplation, none quieter than Drummond’s abstract images. And yet, they were shocking, more shocking than most of the canvases which set out to shock. The reason was that Drummond’s pictures were monochromatic fields, coloristic and painterly to be sure but too minimal to be accepted by more than a few handfuls of artists and critics.
They were monochromatic and minimal, but not enough to satisfy those who favored Abstract Expressionism or those who would champion Minimalism. Instead of being praised for being different, she was overlooked to some degree for not being orthodox enough.
The paintings are mesmerizing and become more immersive as you move closer to their teeming surfaces. As I moved forward I kept trying to reach that spot where the dots pull away from each other and stand on their own. For all the calm these paintings embody, there is something deeply unsettling about them. Is it the calm, or the insistence, with which they were made?
Lois Dodd didn’t pursue the path of abstraction, which immediately disqualified her in many circles. There is a pencil drawing of a cow standing beside a tree from 1955 that is a knockout. By 1962, she is making drawings of the landscape out of small, calligraphic marks, perhaps influenced by Vincent van Gogh. Dodd’s marks are quieter, and she isn’t as systematic as van Gogh in her organization of them, but like her predecessor’s, they hover between abstraction and representation.
One of the first things you notice about Dodd’s paintings is how thin the paint is. It is practically the consistency of ink. An observational painter, she began working in the landscape in Maine in the summer of 1951, shortly after she came back from Italy. Most of the paintings in this exhibition were done between 1961 and ’63, with the earliest dated 1958 and latest 1966. By 1961, it is clear that Dodd could make a terrific painting, as demonstrated by the drily witty, “Cows and Clouds” (1961), in which the contours of the clouds and their interior forms are echoed by the black-and-white patterns on the two Holstein cows standing in a green field. It’s as if the world is drifting simultaneously towards abstraction and dissipation.
It seems to me that one reason for Dodd to use thin paint would be to work out the painting rather quickly. At least that is how I felt when looking at “Figure in a Landscape” (1962-64), which is made up of a variety of marks, often in clusters, rows, and patterns. If we concentrate on the marks, which is easy to do, we don’t see the landscape. At some point, Dodd stopped working on “Figure in a Landscape,” leaving much of the surface untouched, as she did with other paintings made around this time: she had gone as far as she could and saw no need to go further. It was not about making a product but about the process.
One thing that struck me about Dodd’s early paintings is that they diminished in scale as the years went by, while other representational artists, such as her friends Alex Katz and Neil Welliver, began to work bigger and bigger. But is bigger really better, or is it just bigger? Dodd belongs to a group of artists who refused to accommodate their work to the commercial and aesthetic pressures that crystallized in the 1950s and have held sway ever since: it must be big and it must treat the right subject in the right way. Dodd never complied with those pressures.
In terms of directly observing her subjects, Dodd paved the way for artists as distinct as Catherine Murphy, Sylvia Plimack-Mangold, and Josephine Halvorson: all of them make work that is plain spoken. In terms of scale, she seems to have anticipated Thomas Nozkowski’s problems with it: as a young artist a few years out of Cooper Union (where Dodd went twenty years earlier), he saw big paintings as:
[…] the 800-pound gorilla that sits wherever it wants to sit. I didn’t want to paint that way, and I decided I would paint at a size that was scaled to my friends’ apartments, that could hang in a three-room walkup tenement on 7th Street.
Dodd, it should be noted, lives in a walk-up on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. It’s radical to not make a work of art that is the equivalent of an 800-pound gorilla on steroids. Or, to put it another way, it’s political to not kiss the ass of the rich. What the exhibition of Drummond and Dodd proves is that the art world was more diverse in the 1960s than has been told, and that many of the narratives that have become commonplace in the art world are more about money than about art. Drummond wanted to create a “World of Silent Painting,” and did. That is something that we have a very hard time with. Why do so many of us pay attention to blabbermouths? Is it just because it makes good copy?
Lois Dodd: Early Paintings continues at Alexandre Gallery (724 5th Avenue, Midtown, Manhattan) through February 25.
Sally Hazelet Drummond: Selected Paintings continues at Alexandre Gallery (724 5th Avenue, Midtown, Manhattan) through February 11.