Untraditional American Traditionalists
This article is from the archive of The New York Sun before the launch of its new website in 2022. The Sun has neither altered nor updated such articles but will seek to correct any errors, mis-categorizations or other problems introduced during transfer.
Lois Dodd and Jake Berthot are two painters who respond to landscape within what could be deemed American traditions. Neither would mind being called maverick in terms of individualism or a willingness to buck trends. And each in his or her way could be called conservative, painting rural places in which they live and work, drawing on forms that elicit warm feelings of comfort and familiarity. And yet they look like — indeed are — fundamentally different kinds of artists.
Ms. Dodd is the subject of a survey, at Alexandre Gallery, of paintings from 1975 to the present that deal with working properties at two locales: Maine, where she has painted summers since the 1950s, and the Delaware Water Gap, where she also keeps a place — she is a native of New Jersey, born in Montclair in 1927. Her style has remained remarkably consistent across her career, though on the evidence of the works in this show there has been a slight loosening of the tight, slow, meticulous handling of the 1970s, to the present, more succulent, brushy painterliness, redolent, as it happens, of her earliest style. The defining characteristic remains a light, fresh, keenly observed realism, in a touch that is personal without resorting to expressionism.
At the Betty Cuningham Gallery, Mr. Berthot is showing new paintings and drawings within what is now his familiar idiom: tree-scapes in wistful, muted tones that seem at once ethereal and closely observed. These are executed on his land in upstate New York. Mr. Berthot, who was born in 1939, forged his initial reputation as an abstract painter before a surprise turn to landscape in the mid-1990s. Bridging the divide between his abstraction and his return to depiction is a highly restricted palette of grays and browns that is earthy and somewhat lugubrious. Another unifier of his two modes is a sense of tight construction. Geometry, a strong force in his abstraction, continues to inform his realism, most overtly in the drawings in which the page is divided into grids of elaborate and fluctuating crisscrossed lattices.
The distinct difference of surface between these two artists is telling. Hers are essentially open — more so in recent paintings — with brushstrokes allowed breathing space. His, on the contrary, are sealed in, quite literally, with dollops of varnish rendering the surfaces treacly, tricksy, ambiguous.
The pervading sense in Ms. Dodd, both in the nature of marks and the quality of her perception, is of honesty. The quintessential Americanness of her vision has to do with what fellow painter Robert Berlind compared to the Shaker notion of the “gift to be simple,” making for images that are homely and plainspoken. Mr. Berthot, on the contrary, is conjurers a visual wizardry. There is a metaphysical quality to his work, as if his trees are stand-ins for a quasi-religious vision of nature, of a higher order.
This is not to say, however, that Mr. Berthot is a mystic and Ms. Dodd a humdrum pragmatist . In fact, there is, if anything, a much stronger sense of the true mystery of nature within Ms. Dodd’s close observations of it — both its quirks and the overriding interconnectedness of growth patterns, including the relationship of nature and human structures — than in Mr. Berthot’s neo-Romantic tree worship.
Both artists engage in a significant degree of abstraction within their realism in the sense of excluding extraneous detail and homing in on what they take to be essences. But with Ms. Dodd, the essence is always linked to stuff that is actually observed, to sensations experienced. With Mr. Berthot, the mystery is a priori; the point of the painting is to hammer home the artist’s visionary status.
Ironically, while Ms. Dodd takes greater liberties with form, producing paintings that are proudly Modernist in their celebration of their own flatness, insisting on being surfaces covered in gestures and materials that have life of their own, her brushstrokes and color decisions are always perceptual, linked to things seen. You really sense that her vision comes from a lifetime of seeing. His, on the other hand, is conceptual, making manifest its maker’s origins in abstraction. This is not in any way to diminish the integrity of his depictions of specific places on his estate, made clear from titles like “Old Logging Road Off Mills Wetland” (2007), which has a credible sense of space, of actual trees in their actual locations. But the local decisions all feel studio-bound, and linked to a bigger vision of what his painting means, rather than of what this specific painting depicts.
Ms. Dodd’s style is familiar to followers of American painting for its similarity to other strong painters — it is tempting to say that she has found a niche for herself between older artists such as Milton Avery and Fairfield Porter and her better-known contemporary Alex Katz. This niche can be defined in terms of a clean, fresh palette, open brushstrokes, a fondness for American vernacular scenes, and an addiction to strong light. But to imply that these male artists necessarily forged this style and Ms. Dodd merely adopted it would be a submission to prejudices of gender and reputation. And it would be to overlook that Ms. Dodd has found as personal and distinctive a way to work within this style as the others, which has to do with an inexhaustible curiosity about the myriad textures, shapes, and forms of the perceived world. The gap between reality perceived and the artifice of her adopted means of capturing it generates, in Ms. Dodd’s work, an endearing mix of humility and humor.
Cézanne clearly looms large over Mr. Berthot’s style. From the French master, he takes feathery brushstrokes, a correlation of nature and geometry, and a close-knit palette. As an abstractionist, Mr. Berthot had been led from Cézanne to Cubism; as a neo-Romantic, in his landscape idiom, he reverts to French and American pastoral modes. While there are hints of Turner, Corot, or Pinkham Ryder in some of his quiet flourishes, his somber, heavily worked, obfuscatory, elusive surfaces are more likely to trigger memories — painful or happy depending on one’s taste for the Victoriana — of American tonalists such as Blakelock and Innes. And Mr. Berthot’s work in this anachronistic mode is entirely in earnest, free even of the kind of irony that might give his anachronistic idiom a radical twist. These two artists represent the difference between wholesome and dubious conservatism. Ms. Dodd chooses a frank, straightforward, accessible — for her and us — painterly language that opens up the perceived world for fresh description, whereas Mr. Berthot, on the other hand, taps a safe, received taste for 19th-century romanticism which short-circuits in favor of mystification.
Berthot until May 10 (541 W. 25th St., between Tenth and Eleventh avenues, 212-242-2772).
Dodd until May 30 (41 E. 57th St., 13th floor, at Madison Avenue, 212-755-2828).