Lois Dodd is arguably the most admired painter within the state of Maine. Although she was born in New Jersey and has spent most of her life in New York, she represents the fundamental ethics of Maine painting: common sense, intelligence, freedom from unnecessary decoration, work-honed skill, and humility.

Dodd’s exhibition at the Ogunquit Museum of American Art, “Drawings and Paintings,” is an excellent reminder of how work dedicated to these qualities, even from the 1950s, can remain ever-fresh and light.

Dodd studied at Cooper Union from 1945-48. Then, in 1952, she co-founded the historic Tanager Gallery, which, along with Brata Gallery, were the first artist-run cooperatives in the New York gallery scene. These two important 10th Street spaces changed things, and many more followed. At the moment, we’re witnessing a revolution that includes the internet and a shift toward the artist as entrepreneur. Some of it is without precedent, but much it we’ve seen before.

It is easy enough to see through her work (particularly these images of cows, chickens, humble houses and quickly-sketched models) that Dodd never got caught up in the ephemeral vicissitudes of the art world. In fact, Dodd’s work always appeared for what it was. This makes it particularly easy to look at but potentially tricky to discuss. Writers tend to use terms like “literal” and “simple” to describe it, but it is hardly simple, and it’s certainly not about the literal observation of life.

Well, sort of.

Take Dodd’s drawing of two cows, in which the cow on the left is facing away from the viewer/artist. Undoubtedly, this is the source for her 1958 painting “Yellow Cow.” Dodd’s drawings have a light touch and a flowing, organic sense of line. They feel accurate, but with their open forms (i.e., unclosed shapes) and lack of fuss, they were clearly never meant to be seen as anything more than sketches. “Yellow Cow,” however, is a painting. It seeks – and readily achieves – a sense of completeness. But here, too, the marks are spare, loose and economical. The shapes are flat with almost no modulation. The lines at the edges of the forms are sometimes visible and sometimes painted-over. Underpainting is visible throughout. The ground to either side of the cow is ochre or lemon yellow, sandwiching the buttery form of the cow. There is green grass, but only within a shape contained by the cow. The lemon yellow form stands as a vertical bar pressed up against the frame. Moreover, the cow is turned away so we don’t see its head. The only splash of literalism comes as an affront to realism: the four teats, not in the drawing, splay like the cartoonish fingers on an inflated surgical glove.

In other words, what might appear initially to the viewer as simplified is, in the hands of a great artist, sometimes anything but. Economy is only part of it. Dodd finds the proper form and fits it in the dual system – which is both legible cow and formally focused painting. Finding, placing and rendering these pieces are acts of visual intelligence. This kind of austerity is not the easy way out. It is an achievement requiring brains and skill.

“Chickens,” 1957-1958, oil on linen, 42 x 54 inches Courtesy of Ogunquit Museum of American Art

Dodd’s drawings are charming. Sweet and nimble, they are revealed by a closer look to be unexpectedly open and unfinished. Again, however, there are at least two critical currents happening with each form. Any given chicken in “Untitled (chickens, coop),” for example, might appear as impressively complete or as a partial pencil line. But as we move from the scene as a whole to each individual form, we are again brought back to the overall composition. Even while sketching chickens on a page, Dodd never entirely drops her dedication to compositional design. The white of the page, the negative space, open form, rhythm, line, shape, motion – these are all kept in play with every mark Dodd puts on the paper.

I noticed an unexpected sense of composition in her three long, horizontal sheets of ink sketches of nude models from life sessions in 2001-02. I asked Dodd if she made these from left to right (a writer’s assumption, maybe?), and to my surprise, she explained how she moved about on the sheets with pose after pose (these might have been 30-second gesture poses) to create, maintain and then improve the compositional sense of each sheet.

“Yellow Cow,” 1958, oil on linen, 26 x 20 inches. Hall Collection Photo by Peter Jacobs Fine Arts Imaging

In other words, however reductive an image might seem, Dodd seeks to maintain a sense of gestalt – overall unity. It could be said that she starts not with a shape, line or form, but with the intertwined ideas of design and composition.

“Drawings and Paintings” features mostly works from the 1950s and ’60s, with a few later pieces. The cow paintings and the chicken drawings lead the way for me, but Dodd’s newer paintings are not to be denied. A simple-seeming house is inviting at a glance, vividly green with jocularly jangling straight lines (rare for a Maine house, right?). But the scene soon becomes almost hallucinatory as we shift from recognizing the basic subject to parsing Dodd’s now almost symphonic linear austerity.

In her 2001 “Four Nudes and Woodpile,” Dodd presents a nude model completing four woodpile-related tasks. It’s a fine bit of witty cubism – hilarious, theatrical and eminently playful.

You don’t need to know about Dodd to appreciate her work, and I imagine she wouldn’t have it any other way. It succinctly (and affably) reveals itself. But we shouldn’t allow Dodd’s visual frugality to be an excuse for overlooking her accomplishments. However humble and commonsensical she is (and she is both in spades), Dodd is influential and important. We should never let anyone – especially Dodd herself – persuade us to ignore her accomplishments and artistic brilliance.

“Paintings and Drawings” is joined by a pair of conceptually rich shows. Photographer Jacob Hessler and poet Richard Blanco reprise their elegantly quiet but politically poignant collaboration “Boundaries.” This is joined by video great Bill Viola’s first-ever exhibition in Maine, “The Fall into Paradise.” This is an extraordinary short video installation that reaches to Viola at his transcendent best. The video runs on a loop and works well from anywhere, but it is most effective if you can manage to watch it from the beginning, a growing dot on a dark ground. While the Ogunquit museum isn’t (yet?) known for its depth with contemporary art, “The Fall” is very well-suited and perfectly well-sited.

In closing, I have to note that the museum’s Barn Gallery-sponsored space with its agonizingly tilted roof has been my least favorite museum space in the state. But, finally, it looks great. Apparently, new museum director Michael Mansfield’s team can work wonders with just a pair of portable walls and some dark paint.

Freelance writer Daniel Kany is an art historian who lives in Cumberland. He can be contacted at:

[email protected]

filed under: