Lois Dodd has been painting her everyday surroundings for sixty years. Her current exhibition, from February 26 through April 4, 2015 at the Alexandre Gallery in NYC shows twenty-four recent small-scaled paintings that depict familiar motifs such as gardens, houses, interiors and views from windows. Dodd, now eighty-seven, is an iconic figure of the early New York Tenth Street art scene, along with her contemporaries, such as Alex Katz and Philip Pearlstein. The Alexandre Gallery has the current exhibition online as well as many earlier works for view that you can view from this link.
The late painter Will Barnet talked about Lois Dodd in an interview with Barbara O’Brien. (From the Kemper Museum catalog, Lois Dodd Catching the Light)
…”What she has is something that belongs to the language of painting that actually only a very few artists really understand and know about. She has that feeling that the flatness of the canvas, and the verticality or the horizontality has to be met in a certain dynamic way. And she can arrange her forms so that the verticals become alive in relationship to the horizontal. So there is a certain wedding of the two. And so her work has a structure that you miss in most painters. In other words, you have a feeling of solidity and that the forms really belong to each other, where they’re in the distance or in the front. They combine in such a way that they come together and form a whole picture, and that’s what is exciting about—one of the exciting things—Lois.” –Will Barnet
With a career that spans six decades, Dodd is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters and the National Academy of Design, and a past member of the board of governors for the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture. Among many honors, she recently was awarded the Benjamin West Clinedinist Memorial Medal in 2007 from the Artists’ Fellowship, Inc. and Cooper Union’s Augustus Saint-Gaudens Award for professional achievement in art in 2005. Her works can be found in museums, including the Portland Museum of Art, Maine and the Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art, Kansas City, Missouri, among others.
The excellent catalog, Lois Dodd Catching the Light can be purchased from the Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art from this link. This catalog is from her Kemper Museum retrospective where more than fifty paintings were shown from 1955 to 2010.
I wish to thank both Lois Dodd for agreeing to the phone conversation and for her time and thoughtfulness with answering my questions and to share her experience and ideas with our readers.
I would also like to thank Elizabeth O’Reilly for the many ways she helped make this possible.
Larry Groff: Do you spend a lot of time looking and thinking about the subject before you start to paint?
Lois Dodd: It’s more about what I see when I’m walking around looking for something. Then after that it a matter of what size I want to work with and the proportion it will fit into. Then I try to isolate something that would make a good painting, a good subject. I look through my pile of gessoed panels that are different sizes and different proportions. They are all rectangles or squares and I always take a few of those when I go out so I have a variety of panels to choose from because that is the first decision. If you’re looking at something you want to paint and it looks exciting, the lighting is good and then you have to decide what size what shape of a panel will it fit onto; you ask yourself, is it a horizontal thing or vertical or square. Those are the first choices.
LG: How do you start a painting? Do you make studies or thumbnails first? Do you use a viewfinder of some sort?
LOIS DODD: I don’t really use a viewfinder but I can put my hands up to frame the view or something like that. I don’t make thumbnail sketches, I’m more interested in starting right on the panel. I start with thinned out yellow paint and draw with the brush. So it’s pretty minimal, general and not tight. You asked me if I scrape off, I don’t use a scraper but I don’t use heavy paint either I really paint rather thinly so we never get to the point where I can scrape. But if I don’t like what I’ve done I can rub it off with a rag with turpentine and rub it all around and then I have a nice colored ground to work into that I can use.
LG: When you find the motif that interests you; do you form the composition in your mind before you start? Or is it something that evolves from your prolonged looking at the thing?
LOIS DODD: I do see a geometric breakdown of space of the rectangle so it has an underlying geometric structure so that is pretty basic to what I’m looking at.
LG: but the rest of it: the color scheme, the mood, the positions of things; they sort of evolve?
LOIS DODD: No, the position of things, that configuration, is what attracts me and what I find exciting to begin with, so I don’t move things around. They’re either already where I want them or I might get up and move my chair and easel, it might be a little better a couple feet this way or that way. What I’m looking at more or less dictates the composition. I don’t really take any liberties with the subject, if it’s no good to begin with, that’s it.
LG: Do you measure things to get everything right in terms of the relationships between things?
LOIS DODD: No, Did you see that film about that painter in Madrid, Antonio Lopez Garcia? Speaking of measuring?
LG: Victor Erice’s Dream of Light http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dream_of_Light
LOIS DODD: Yes, do you remember where he’s standing in front of the tree and marking where his feet are going to be and where the leaves are and all of that? I’m certainly not doing that but I’ll move few inches this way or that before I start if I don’t like what I’m getting at. Standing or sitting down makes a big difference too. Once my position is set it’s usually fine.
LG: So it isn’t as important for you to pursue getting the underlying grid of horizontal and vertical geometric relationships? Is it more that you want to get the overall feeling or pictorial expression of the thing you first saw, your first impression of why you were attracted to the motif?
LOIS DODD: Yes. It’s the way the light is hitting the subject and is creating the composition. The big thing is my paintings are done in one sitting; partly because of the light and partly because of the weather. I can only be there a couple of hours because after that the light changes the whole composition. The sun will have moved and everything is different in two or three hours so my paintings needs to be done in that time.
LG: Do you use larger brushes and smooth surfaces so you can work quickly and broadly?
LOIS DODD: My panels are up to 15 by 20 inches or smaller panels that are 12 by 18 or 12 by 12. I have a whole pile of gessoed panels, they’re not huge, 20 inches is largest I would go, as larger Masonite panels tend to warp or be weird. They aren’t reliable when they get too big. Once the painting is bigger I paint on linen.
LG: You also work on aluminum panels?
LOIS DODD: The little tiny ones are aluminum step flashing that you can get in the hardware store.
LG: Step flashing? I’m not familiar with that.
LOIS DODD: Step flashing is for putting flashing down the bottom of a chimney where it goes under the roofing material to keep water out. That’s what they’re made for and they come in these really small sizes. You can buy big bundles of the stuff for very little money.
LG: What a great idea! Do you gesso these?
LOIS DODD: It’s a very good idea. I sand them like mad because I think they’re too smooth and then I gesso them.
LG: What kind of gesso do you use?
LOIS DODD: I use Liquitex usually. Step Flashings are very convenient when you see something and you’ve got 20 minutes. I do a lot of them at night when the moon is full.
LG: You must simplify things a great deal to get everything in one sitting.
LOIS DODD: Of course, I’m not looking for details or surface description that’s for sure. But I am looking for the light, how it hits volumes. I am looking for the light and the color.
LG: Is what you’re looking at the main concern or do you also think about how other art might relate to your scene? For instance, if you were painting a scene and thought ‘this reminds me of an Arthur Dove painting’ or someone like that would you ever push it in that direction a little? Or does all that great art history in your head come through more intuitively?
LOIS DODD: I think so, sometimes you see things that are like somebody else’s painting so you stay away from it. Have you ever had that experience where you think, ‘oh my god this looks like something so-and-so would paint’? So I’m not painting it. It’s somebody else’s subject matter.
LG: Interesting. So you wouldn’t want to do your take on that subject?
LOIS DODD: Well, if you don’t notice that it’s someone else’s subject, definitely, you’re always doing your own take. Sometimes I see things that looks like other people’s paintings but that’s not interesting to me to begin with. It’s not for me.