In the Studio: Lois Dodd
Unlike in some other professions, time is truly on one’s side in the field of painting. The accumulation of years of knowledge and practice yield rich results as a painter advances into the later stages of his or her career. Artists may feel as though a lifetime isn’t long enough to master their craft, but once they’ve reached their eighties or nineties, they are likely carrying a wealth of artistic experience far beyond articulation. Few people exemplify longevity in art better than the prolific painter Loid Dodd, who at the age of ninety-one is still active in her studio and, according to those who know her, is as mentally sharp as ever.
When my managing editor Sasha Sanderson suggested I interview Lois Dodd for this month’s In the Studios, I was eager to learn more about this artist I have heard mentioned through the years, both from representational artists and those working in modern styles. The more I learned about Dodd, the more I appreciated the way she makes her own distinctive mark on the world through simple observations and organic expression. Using realism, abstraction, and design—with a hint of calligraphy in her line and a touch of illustration in her storytelling—Dodd simply paints what she sees in her everyday surroundings, in an unpretentious and honest manner as straightforward as her responses to the questions on this page.
Reading various articles on Dodd—both those published by major newspapers and magazines, as well as blogs by her students and fellow artists—also gave me a better sense of her contributions to the community at large and how she is perceived by the public. As a pioneer of the New York Tenth Street art scene, Dodd helped form one of the first co-up galleries in 1952 called Tanager. The artist-run gallery was active for ten years and showed the work of Alex Katz, Philip Pearlstein, Lennart Anderson, and Herman Cherry, as well as Dodd herself, among others. Known for its grassroots organization and “un-Uptown” approach to exhibiting art, the neighborhood attracted up-and-coming painters and soon the likes of Willem de Kooning, Milton Resnick, and Lutz Sander were setting up studios nearby. From that point forward, Dodd seemed to always be close to whatever was sweeping the art world at the time, and yet somehow she remained a slight outsider, perfectly content to tell her story from the rural periphery rather than keep her hand on the pulse. It is, in my opinion, part of what gives her work from the 1950s through today an unmitigated sense of timelessness and authenticity.
When trying to locate Dodd to set up this interview, I reached out to Pennsylvania artist Catherine Prescott, who has been friends with Dodd since the 1980s and who painted a portrait of her in 2005. “I have always loved Lois’s work, her words, and her attitude toward what it means to make art,” says Prescott, who counts Dodd as a close colleague and exemplar. After sharing that Dodd is still splitting her time among New York City, Maine, and New Jersey, Prescott gave me her phone number at each studio and I was able to reach her at her New York residence. We talked briefly on the phone and Dodd asked that I send her the interview questions via mail, as she is hard of hearing. She immediately mailed the questions back, answering them in small scribbled sentences that seemed to suggest she was short on time, but still willing to participate.
Although this Q+A offers just a glimpse into Dodd’s mind and work, there are numerous articles, catalogue essays, and books available with further information and insight about her life and process. I encourage you to read more about this artist, who is sure to be included among the important painters of our time. If you are near New York, you can also see her paintings in person at Alexandre Gallery, which is currently showing the exhibition Lois Dodd: Flashings. In observing and researching, you will find that the work Dodd created throughout her life and the wealth of wisdom she shared is well worth the investigation.
AM: As someone who has had a studio in New York City over several decades, it must have been interesting to watch many changing movements, influences, and “art scenes” come and go. I know you were an important part of the New York Tenth Street artist community in the East Village in the 1950s, and helped open one of New York’s first co-op galleries, Tanager Gallery. During the 1960s, I bet you also shared the area with several Abstract Expressionist neighbors, such as Willem de Kooning or Pollock? How much did those artists and that movement influence your work?
LD: During the 1950s, the Tanager was located on 10th Street between 3rd and 4th Avenues. De Kooning’s studio was a few doors away. On that block were also the studios of Milton Resnick, Esteban Vicente, Lutz Sander, Pat Passlof, as well as March Gallery, Camino Gallery, and Area Gallery, to name just a few of the more recognizable names. I spent a good deal of time there, and since it was my daily environment it certainly had an influence. My studio was not on 10th Street but it was nearby in the neighborhood.
AM: I would imagine that, although you appreciated and employed both abstract expressionism and realism, your work was probably not “representational” enough for the realists and not “modern” enough for the abstract expressionists. And yet, we can now see that you married both worlds naturally and harmoniously, in very honest and real ways that have stood the test of time. How did you manage to not follow one particular “style” or “school” or be influenced by the surrounding “isms” of the day?
LD: You are right. I fell right between the two. At the Tanager Gallery we managed to appreciate and exhibit artists across that divide. From Lennart Anderson to Herman Cherry! After 1962 when we closed the Tanager, I was not represented by any gallery for about seven years. There were group shows to be invited into, but no solo shows. Around about 1970, Lucienne Day, a representational painter himself, opened the Green Mountain Gallery in SoHo, and I began to show there. I think that “isms” frequently, but not always, are attached to art and artists by art historians and other outside observers. During or after the fact of the work. It is not something to worry about while you work.
AM: Moving into the 1970s and 1980s, when the SoHo-centric art scene included Andy Warhol, Basquiat, and others...were you friends with/influenced by Pop artists?
LD: By the 1970s and 1980s I was already into my forties—a little late to pick up on Pop Art, although the cleanness of their painting technique influenced me away from a more expressionistic application of paint on board or cloth.
AM: In some respects, in retrospect, we can view the 10th Street Art Community you helped build in the East Village in the 1950s as a precursor to the SoHo art scene of the 1970s/1980s, which was in a way a precursor to today’s Chelsea Art District. When you walk through Chelsea today, does it remind you of the 10th Street or SoHo scenes of yesterday or has some of that co-op spirit been lost?
LD: The Chelsea scene is so much larger and spread out, somewhat like SoHo; but 10th Street was more condensed, and didn’t include any commercial, Uptown-type galleries as both Chelsea and SoHo have. The co-op galleries that migrated from SoHo to Chelsea took their artists with them and at any given opening the sense of community continues there.
AM: Regardless of whether you paint abstract, realistic, or both, you seem to always start from the simple standpoint of the observable world in your immediate surroundings, and you always work from life/reality. So even your abstract paintings are rooted in something you’re actually seeing, not something invented or imagined. How do you determine whether you will paint something realistically or abstractly or both? Does the subject dictate the style?
LD: To my mind, all painting is abstract. If it appears realistic, it has developed to a more finished, perhaps more detailed, state.
AM: I know that you split your time among three locations and studios: New York City, New Jersey, and Maine. Do you live in three locations because you need the change of scenery, so to speak, to stay inspired or is it for other reasons?
LD: Just the accidents of life’s journeys. All contain communities of artists. One gets there by invitation...likes it...finds a place to stay. New York is essential. Maine is great and cool in the summer. New Jersey is a great getaway from the city! I like to paint in all of them. All are loaded with visually strong motifs.
AM: Unlike some other artists who have worked in realism in New York City in the 1950s and 1960s, you seem to have had relatively positive critical feedback, with some favorable articles in such publications as The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, ARTNews, The New Criterion, and others over the years. Why do you think your style of realism was more palatable to the mainstream than some other realist artists of your time?
LD: I actually don’t think it was.
AM: Who are some of your influences?
LD: I look to Burchfield, Hopper, Porter, Hartley.
AM: Suppose you didn’t have the good fortune for your talents to have come together with the right timing, support, and opportunities that ultimately led to your lifelong vocation of painting. What do you think or wish you might have otherwise been?
LD: Some kind of environmentalist.
AM: What achievement are you most proud of as you look back over your life and career? What advice would you give your younger self from this vantage point
LD: I’m just grateful that I was able to work independently and for myself and not have to do work that I despised to get through this life. Generally speaking, I would say don’t take advice—you’re on your own!