Lois Dodd is not impressed with the word “retrospective.”
To her, the career-encompassing exhibition that opens today at the Portland Museum of Art, “Catching the Light,” is much like any of her other exhibitions — only more complicated.
“The paintings are so familiar to me that just even putting them together doesn’t feel so strange,” Dodd said by phone from her apartment in Manhattan’s Lower East Side, where she has spent most of the last half-century when not on the midcoast of Maine.
“But it is interesting,” she continued. “It was hard to hang it. The paintings are kind of at war with one another. You pick out the strongest images, which means they tend to do battle with one another.
“Since I have been painting all these many years and we are picking out one here and one there, there is a lot of jumping around. In a way, it’s not cohesive the way a show that covers a couple of years might be.”
But she is not complaining.
Dodd, who turns 86 this year, relishes the challenge of bringing together about 50 of her best paintings and hanging them together. Curated by Barbara O’Brien of the Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art in Kansas City, “Catching the Light” celebrates the career of a longtime contributor to the contemporary art scene in America and a major figure in Maine art during the last half of the 20th century.
Dodd’s distinction as an artist remains today what it was when she began painting as a young woman in the 1940s, during the early days of America’s post-war love affair with abstraction and later pop art and minimalism: She paints what she sees.
Her work is absolutely specific to quality of light, time of day, time of year and place.
“You can practically smell the flowers in her most generalized paintings of the landscape,” said art critic Karen Wilkin. “You know what the quality of air is. You know what the temperature is.”
Generally, the paintings in the show depict outdoor scenes from the woods and landscape around Dodd’s summer home in Cushing, along with city scenes from New York. The show’s title, “Catching the Light,” speaks to the nuances that exist within this somewhat limited, but not limiting, set of subjects.
The exhibition features no fewer than three images of a men’s shelter near her New York neighborhood, painted at different times of the year and in different years but from a similar perspective. Dodd and O’Brien include multiple interior views from her New York lodgings and many scenes from the woods of Maine.
The subjects and themes vary, but Dodd’s approach is precise and exact from one canvas to the next, Wilkin said. “She pays the same attention to both the specific and to fundamental pictorial questions.”
Dodd was born in New Jersey, and came to New York to study art at Cooper Union. In the 1950s, she came to Maine — first to Lincolnville, where she was chummy with Alex Katz, and later to Cushing, which has remained her part-time painting home and a personal touchstone.
Maine changed her life in obvious ways, she said.
Before coming to Maine, she rarely, if ever, painted outdoors. With a sense of freedom and adventure, she gathered up her supplies and trekked into the woods around her home to record whatever caught her attention.
Maine also gave her an important social outlet and a sense of belonging.
Certainly, as an educator and exhibiting artist in New York, Dodd had and still enjoys a large group of friends. But Maine was different. Here, she was and remains part of an active circle of New York artists who go north in the summer to get away from Manhattan and expand their creative horizons.
In the early days, Dodd helped foster an important social scene in Maine that remains active today and informs the art discussion on the midcoast and statewide.
“Alex got the place in Lincolnville, and I shared that place with Alex and his wife for quite a while. And I had other friends nearby,” she said. “We used to visit each other on Friday nights and have these social evenings together. There wasn’t a big art world back then, not like there is now. It just wasn’t there.
“Over the years, it grew and grew.”
Dodd remains active. She rarely misses an opening in Rockland and Rockport, because she likes to see her friends and also because the new exhibitions allow her to keep up with the art scene.
She appreciates the attention this exhibition gives her work. It opened last spring in Kansas City, and is accompanied by a large catalog that presents her career in a flattering light and includes testimonials from many of her friends, including Katz, Wolf Kahn and the late Will Barnet.
Dodd isn’t resting with “Catching the Light.” Last week, she opened an exhibition of new work at her New York gallery, Alexandre Fine Art. And she is thinking about the next painting.
In that sense, nothing has changed for her.
“When it is winter and terribly cold, I am peering out the window. I might do an interior once in a while. It’s what’s in front of me, pretty much,” she said, laughing at the notion that such an approach has sustained her all these years.
“I just open the door and wander around, or look around the room.”
Staff Writer Bob Keyes can be contacted at 791-6457 or: