A Commuter’s Paradise Nudes in a Maine Garden

A couple of years ago, in the summer of 2001, the Caldbeck Gallery in Rockland, Me., mounted an exhibition of new paintings by Lois Dodd that caused quite a sensation. The show was called Women at Work , and it consisted entirely of paintings of naked women doing routine country chores in the open air-hanging out the laundry, chopping wood, removing brush in a wheelbarrow or taking breaks from these workaday labors. It was an exhibition that cheerfully mocked almost everything usually associated with its very traditional subject-female nudes in a landscape-and did so with high-spirited humor and great painterly panache. It was an exhibition that people felt compelled to revisit many times, and they talked it up to their friends.

In the Observer column I devoted to the show, I expressed some regret that Women at Work wasn’t scheduled to be shown in New York. This struck me as a pity for a number of reasons, mostly because of the sheer quality and originality of the exhibition. But it bothered me, too, that an artist long associated with New York, who had studied at the Cooper Union in the 1940’s, who in the 1950’s had been one of the founders of the Tanager Gallery-the most famous of the New York artists’ co-op galleries-and who is today a member of two distinguished New York institutions (the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters, and the National Academy of Design), should be denied a showing here of one of her most remarkable exhibitions.

(There’s ample precedent for American artists dividing their time between Maine and New York, an arrangement some people consider the best of both worlds. I may be prejudiced, however, since I, too, am nowadays a commuter between Maine and Manhattan-a routine I very much enjoy except in blizzard conditions, which, alas, seem to have become a regular occurrence in the month of December.)

We owe it to the initiative of David Cohen, director of exhibitions at the New York Studio School, that an expanded version of Women at Work has now come to New York. Handsomely installed in the first-floor gallery of the Studio School, the show is called Lois Dodd: Nudes in the Landscape .

The artist is best known for landscapes and other motifs drawn from nature and weathered domestic architecture-and by a happy coincidence (if that’s what it is), there’s a delightful selection of this more familiar aspect of the Dodd oeuvre in the Small Paintings exhibition currently on view at the Alexandre Gallery. Some of the snow pictures in this show are so fresh and engaging that they look as if they could have been painted during last week’s blizzard-which, of course, they weren’t. It would surprise me, however, if this latest snowfall to hit the East Coast hasn’t already yielded Ms. Dodd yet another cycle of snow paintings.

As Mr. Cohen reminds us in the brochure for Lois Dodd: Nudes in the Landscape , “The inclusion of figures in the landscape represents a departure for Dodd.” But though the introduction of nudes is a recent development, it derives from a much longer history of the artist’s concentration on drawing from nude models. In the Nudes in the Landscape show, as in Women at Work , all of the female figures are in fact based on drawings from a single nude model who posed for Ms. Dodd in the model’s Maine garden, where all the props to be seen in the figure compositions-the clothesline with laundry, the wood pile, the house and garden-were already in place. As Mr. Cohen points out, “The compositions of two or more figures comprise multiple views of the same sitter.” In other words, they are aesthetic inventions.

As rich in invention as both of these current exhibitions are, it would be a mistake to think they encompass the entire range of Ms. Dodd’s recent accomplishments. In still another solo exhibition in Maine a few years ago, this one at the Round Top Center of the Arts in Damariscotta, a series of really small paintings on metal plates-each smaller than the size of an automobile license plate-revealed a vein of expression unlike anything we have seen in Ms. Dodd’s work in New York. In these brilliant landscapes, an affinity with the darker shades of feeling we commonly associate with Albert Pinkham Ryder and certain aspects of Marsden Hartley gave us a glimpse of something we hadn’t suspected-a romantic quality, sometimes verging on the tragic, that’s very different from the sunlit world we know so well in the landscapes.

All of which is a reminder that this remarkable artist, whose work has been exhibited and admired and written about for half a century, has never been given a retrospective exhibition in a New York museum. And when you think of some of the things that have lately been the focus of solo exhibitions at the Whitney, the Guggenheim and other museums hereabouts, this is surely a scandal that cries out to be addressed. Meanwhile, the shows not to be missed at the moment are Lois Dodd: Nudes in the Landscape , at the New York Studio School, 8 West Eighth Street, through Jan. 17, 2004; and Lois Dodd: Small Paintings , at the Alexandre Gallery, 41 East 57th Street, through Jan. 14.

A Commuter’s Paradise Nudes in a Maine Garden