Lois Dodd: The Greatest Painter of Windows Since Matisse?

The first, long-overdue European survey of work by the East Coast painter opens at Modern Art, London 

Before permitting herself to tackle flowers and – as she said in a 2017 interview – absolutely ‘“crazed” to use red’, Lois Dodd found her opportunity in 1972’s Night WindowRed Curtain. Five years later, embarking on a series of works depicting clotheslines, Dodd hung the same pair of red curtains out to dry. The Japanese film director Yasujirō Ozu also had a late-flowering mania for red when, in 1958, he finally embraced Agfa colour film; he also had a similar attentiveness to the blankly lyrical presence of laundry, recycling favourite textiles. Both Dodd and Ozu instil inanimate objects – houses, laundry, bottles – with the capacity to mutely return our gaze in epigrammatic compositions exploring the symbiotic tension between fixity and flux.

Lois Dodd, Night House with Lit Window, 2012, oil on linen, 122 × 183 cm. Courtesy: Modern Art, London and Alexandre Gallery, New York 

The curtains reappeared, ‘props, really’, critic Faye Hirsch notes, when Dodd returned to The Yellow House, Lincolnville (1979). She had previously co-owned the house with her Tanager Gallery colleague and fellow painter, Alex Katz, whose practice of making plein-air studies on portable masonite panels Dodd gradually adopted. One of the first paintings you encounter in the discreetly beautiful spaces of Helmet Row, Red Curtains and Lace Plant (1978), also appears to be the most swiftly executed. The reds – ranging from signal Coca-Cola to judicious strokes of burgundy – induce the chlorophyll greens of the foliage to sizzle and slide around, like butter in a pan. 

‘The greatest painter of windows since Henri Matisse,’ my friend, the artist Oliver Osborne, messaged me when this show, the first European survey of Dodd’s work, was announced. Her windows are ludic and staunchly elliptical. Something deep and resonant happens when painters with the requisite nerve address fundamental grids; I am reminded of Sigmar Polke’s Seeing Things as They Are (1991).

Lois Dodd, Fading Amaryllis, 2014, oil on Masonite, 38 × 23 cm. Courtesy: Modern Art, London and Alexandre Gallery, New York 

In the second gallery, a prime selection of Dodd’s paintings appear absorbed in almost intractable riddles of reflection, shallow depth and dilapidation. Rainy Window, NYC – a rare foray, here, to Manhattan (Lois’s base since studies at Cooper Union, in the mid-1940s) – and Fading Amaryllis (both 2014) hang snugly together. Dodd has no truck with ordinary illusion, making intimate studies analogously true to life. Plump droplets shimmy down a windowpane with the feeling of an intensely observed scene recalled, only the most salient details making the grade. 

Don’t many of the best paintings invite you in, only to turf you out? Door Staircase (1981) depicts an inviting threshold in lilac and subtly luminous blond. But a sense memory of dashing indoors to retrieve a forgotten item discloses something ominous: the stairs are awfully precipitous. Burning House, Night, with Fireman (2007) depicts managed risk – one of the fire department’s regularly staged practice blazes. Trying to remember the last time I saw fire painted in such a way that it evoked both fear and serenity, I recalled Raphael’s Vatican fresco Fire in the Borgo (c.1514–17) – perhaps Dodd saw it when she visited Rome in the 1950s.

Lois Dodd, Burning House, Night, with Fireman, 2007, oil on linen, 117 × 163 cm. Courtesy: Modern Art, London and Alexandre Gallery, New York 

Dodd’s painted forms are elegant, tersely poetic, yet never balk at the memorably awkward: they are solutions that stop you in your tracks, rather than slip down easily. Digesting complex gradations of light and surface, she commits to idiosyncratic profiles, like the torn-envelope shadow of Front Door Cushing (1982), whose serration echoes the jaunty vegetation beyond the threshold. Night House with Lit Window (2012) scrutinizes the cast of a security light across clapboards and onto a lawn – a sagging balloon of buff titanium, a transition of sweeping pigeon grey – until it peters out in green umber blotches to a night garden, which has more echoes of the late-19th-century Les Nabis period and Édouard Vuillard than of Edward Hopper’s early-20th-century realism. Dodd’s economic acuity often leaves her pictures marvellously open: the slope of Y-shaped trees picked out in Headlights and Hillside (1992) suggests a primordial shore.

Lois Dodd, Front Door Cushing, 1982, oil on linen, 152 × 91 cm. Courtesy: Modern Art, London and Alexandre Gallery, New York 

Heading home from the show, two shadows catch my eye: the rhomboid edge of a balcony and a diffuse stippling of birch leaves shanking across bright grass. It is Dodd’s paintings, I immediately realize, that have pointed this out to me.

Main image: Loid Dodd, Red Curtain and Lace Plant, 1978, oil on Masonite, 38 × 46 cm. Courtesy: Modern Art, London and Alexandre Gallery, New York 

Nicholas Hatfull is an artist based in London, UK. His solo show ‘Thermals of the Heart’ runs at The Club, Tokyo, until 24 August 2019.

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