Painter Lois Dodd, Overlooked by Era, Finally Is Fêted

Let’s face it: There’s a class of highly accomplished American painters whose work has been consistently rejected by the New York museum establishment when it comes to mounting full-scale retrospective exhibitions. Although otherwise diverse in style and spirit, these painters can generally be characterized as representational but not confrontational. They deal with recognizable subjects, but do not set out to shock or dismay; on the contrary, their work offers us aesthetic delight and intellectual probity. They shun the so-called “cutting edge,” and give us instead a deeply pondered personal vision of a world we can recognize as our own.

These painters are not discriminated against according to generation. I’m old enough to remember a time when Milton Avery (1885-1965) and Fairfield Porter (1907-1975) were both relegated to the class of talents denied museum retrospectives. Why? They were apparently considered insufficiently avant-garde by doctrinaire modernists and yet too modern to be embraced by doctrinaire traditionalists. So it was left to posterity: The museums granted them posthumous recognition.

The exhibition of paintings by Lois Dodd at the Alexandre Gallery is a reminder that at the age of 75, she too now belongs to this class of neglected talents. For close to half a century, Ms. Dodd’s work has been seen and admired in more than 50 solo exhibitions. One of her recent shows ( Women at Work , at the Caldbeck Gallery in Rockland, Me.), a rare (for Ms. Dodd) and often hilarious survey of naked female figures performing common household tasks, was a runaway sensation. It was the kind of show that visitors returned to again and again-as I did. The show was great fun as well as an experience of high-octane painterly virtuosity.

It’s unlikely, however, that a single New York curator ever bothered to see it, even though Ms. Dodd has been a presence on the New York art scene for decades. She studied at Cooper Union in the 1940′s; she was one of the founders of the Tanager Gallery in the 50′s; and she taught at Brooklyn College for many years. Like a great many other New York painters, past and present, she has found some of her best subjects in rural Maine.

As is often the case in New York these days, the galleries provide what the museums overlook or deny. While the exhibition at the Alexandre Gallery is hardy the Dodd retrospective we needed, it does have the great virtue of giving us a concentrated account of one of the artist’s most inspired inventions: the complex, highly poetic pictorial compositions based on the structures and settings and shifting light to be seen in and around the windows and doorways of old Maine houses.

To these pictorial inventions, Ms. Dodd brings a commanding mix of realism and abstraction. Fidelity to exact observation is tempered and elevated by the discipline of formal rigor. If there are identifiable affinities or sources for such a style, they are likely to be found in the precisionism of Charles Sheeler and certain other varieties of American Cubism, as well as the geometric abstraction of Piet Mondrian. Yet nature, too, is given its due, especially in the depiction of foliage and seasonal change. And it’s in her brushy, fragmented renderings of nature-often seen reflected in rectangular window panes-that Ms. Dodd also reminds us that she came of age as an artist in the era of Abstract Expressionism.

It’s interesting to observe how this range of abstractionist conventions and styles is adapted to the spatial ambiguities of her window and doorway subjects. Is there an allusion, perhaps, to the all-black abstract paintings of Ad Reinhardt or even the early abstractions of Malevich in the series of black rectangles to be seen in the painting called Barn Window with White Square (1991)? Probably not, but the comparison nonetheless leaps to mind.

On the other hand, there is certainly something Hopperesque in the haunting Night House (1975), even though Ms. Dodd’s use of realism differs in many respects from Edward Hopper’s vein of anecdotal melancholy. (In an essay for the catalog of the current show, John Yau makes a strong case for Ms. Dodd as “Hopper’s heir,” but I remain unpersuaded; the complexities in every development of her oeuvre are too distant from Hopper’s dour, unforgiving realism. No heir of Hopper’s could have possibly conceived of a show like Women at Work .) It is, in any case, in a painting like Falling Window Sash (1992) that the artist’s stunning combination of realism and abstraction is most elaborately developed.

Well, it’s clearly going to take a while for the New York museums to catch up with Lois Dodd’s fast-paced development-and it may not happen in her lifetime, or mine. But when such a retrospective does come to New York, it will be a smash. Meanwhile, Windows and Doorways: Paintings of Three Decades remains on view at the Alexandre Gallery, 41 East 57th Street, through March 1.