Dreamscapes of the everyday

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Painting the uncanny, quiet truths of personal experience. Lois Dodd, a forerunner of the 1950s New York art revolution, in conversation

The artist Lois Dodd paints visions of humble beauty that are at once abstract yet representational, simultaneously rooted in the everyday yet remote from our prosaic environment. Her touch makes the ordinary extraordinary. Living in New York and Maine, Lois Dodd has painted and exhibited since the early 1950s, was part of the New York School (a group of reactionary American poets, painters, dancers and musicians – included in this circle were the artists Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning) and the only female founder of the Tanager Gallery, one of the original artist-run 10th Street Galleries – a breakthrough alternative to the Madison Avenue and 57th Street galleries which were at the time both highly conservative and highly selective.

1950s New York was no easy place become an artist. How could a young painter hope to find their voice without becoming an encore to the era-defining heroic gestures of the Abstract Expressionists that had so recently made NY the new centre of the world for art? In making her own artistic journey, Lois Dodd found her voice in bold, poetic simplicity, dreamlike and haunting. Dodd recounts her journey thus far and captivates with a manner redolent of her paintings, frank, humble and beautifully bewitching.

Could you tell us a little about your family background and where you grew up?
I grew up in New Jersey, not far from the city really. My father was a sea captain – he died in the Second World War. I was about 14 at the time. My mother had already died with cancer the year before that. I guess that’s why my father had decided to get involved [with the war] because he’d been home with her, watching over her, then the war had started and he felt that it was time to do something.

Did you have any brothers and sisters?
Yes, sisters – I am the youngest of four. We stayed home and my eldest sister took care of stuff. She was in her twenties and very grown-up. Nothing really changed until (at 18) I got in to Cooper Union art school in New York, and I commuted there for three years.

How did you get interested in painting?
Actually, my sisters drew, so I drew because they drew – they stopped and I kept going. In high school we had a very good art department, so that was what I loved best.

Which artists interested you at this early stage?
I had a book of John Marin’s abstract landscapes and watercolours, an early American Modernist from New Jersey; the Maine coastline was one of his favourite subjects. I also liked George Inness, the American landscape painter influenced by the old masters and the theology of Swedenborg. He too had lived in Montclair, New Jersey, and so that was who I was looking at in high school. When I went to Cooper Union it was all about Picasso and Matisse and people like that at the time.

Did you see their work at the MET and MOMA?
Yes exactly. Also, the Abstract Expressionists were starting, but I wasn’t that aware of them yet. I did go to the museums but I wasn’t that sophisticated.

You were the only female founder of the Tanager Gallery at the heart of the emerging avant-garde scene of the 1950s.That was after we graduated from Cooper Union. I married one of my fellow students Bill King (sculptor), and he got a Fulbright award which gave us a year in Italy. When we came back in 1950 we became very conscious of people like De Kooning, Rothko and Kline. They were older than me, a generation ahead really, but they had begun to be shown just then. So a group of us thought – we’re not going to be showing anywhere unless we do it ourselves. So that’s why we set up the Tanager at that point. The gallery lasted for ten years, and other people joined us over time, but the five founding members were Bill King, Fred Mitchell, Angelo Ippolito, Charles Cajori and myself.

The second exhibition you had at the Tanager was a joint show with Alex Katz. I felt that your work shared some similarities. How did you meet?
He also went to Cooper Union, Alex and his first wife Jean Cohen. She and I were very good friends, so that’s how I got hooked up with them. The first place that we all had in Maine we bought together. Yeah, so I definitely always saw Alex painting and he saw me painting too.

How did your practice begin in earnest?
That’s interesting, because at Cooper Union I was studying to be a textile designer, but I didn’t really expect to be a painter. I thought, you know, “you gotta be practical, you’re not going to go and spend your life painting”, but then Bill King was doing sculpture and getting by, and Alex and Jean were painting like mad. All the people that I knew were painters … then there was a bad spell with textiles, the market was doing badly and it wasn’t working out, so I thought why not paint? That’s what I preferred to do anyway. I kind of backed into it, I wasn’t at the age of 4 and thinking I am going to be this painter, it just didn’t happen that way.

What was it like in 1950s New York? It must have been an incredibly exciting time to be a young artist?
It was, and it was a much smaller art world. You could just about know everybody that was involved in it. It seemed to me there were two art worlds: there was the Abstract Expressionists and Modern Art world, then there was the academic art world, and they were like two different groups of people, but that was all there was! There was the artists club in the fifties, and then the Abstract Expressionists had their club, and so the figurative artists opened their own club because they weren’t allowed in the Abstract club (laughs)… so I began going there…

But what was the connection with Maine, because it seemed like many of the figurative artists painted there?
You’re right. You see there was the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture right there in the middle of Maine. Jean, Alex and Bill King all got scholarships, and the person who ran it also owned the property across the Lake from the school, a place called Lakewood. After they had finished studying we started renting cottages there. That’s when I started going to Maine. They were all raving about what a wonderful place it was and we had this old car, and we all got into it and drove to Maine.

Where any painters inspiring you at this time?
Well, the people I looked at were the Abstract painters…

Any heroes?
People like De Kooning. I looked at the work and was bowled over by it, yeah! But I could never get away from having to look at something to paint. I couldn’t just start painting on a blank canvas with nothing in front of me. I think that might be because the teachers that I had in Cooper were both representational painters, so maybe it was as simple as that – no one said, “Now this is how we work abstractly and this is what you have to think about”. There was always something there, so that’s the way I proceeded.

Even so, I was looking at Abstract painters and being influenced by them, but while working from drawings that I’d made. Later on I was just going outside and working ‘directly’, and that’s what I’ve continued to do more or less. And that’s where Maine comes in because the people that came here started working directly from the landscape. It’s kind of overwhelming, you almost have to. (laughs)…

What kind of process and approach do you take? Do you have projects in mind, or is it more organic?
Occasionally, there are times when I get hooked on something – when I was painting windows from the outside, for instance, I got hooked on the idea. So I knew what I was going to be doing and for a couple of summers. Then there were another couple of summers when I was painting the woods here, so I was hauling canvases in there and setting up.

For several years it was just a subject that kept drawing me in, then that was it, it wasn’t interesting to me anymore. A lot of times, I’ve gotten my masonite panels and my folding easel – I just pick up, wander around and find something. I don’t really drive that far to look for things. I’ve always thought, I’ll have this place used up and I’ll have to move (laughs)… to find a new set of motifs or something, but of course that’s not what happens. Every year is different anyway, and every year I am different.

You’re a very prolific painter too.
That’s true. I don’t spend forever on any given painting. They get done sooner rather than later. I don’t have the impulse to keep pushing them forever, because I don’t seem to improve them – I can kill them pretty easily doing that.

Do you want to express any specific ideas in your work?
It’s about shape, pattern, and flatness, otherwise I don’t have any lofty philosophical idea. We’re in an odd time really, which is good for me – I kind of never quite fitted in with anything anyways, so, you’re just on your own you know?

by James Miller

From the Glass Archive – Issue Five – Dreams