Doris Lee, Unjustly Forgotten, Gets a Belated but Full Blown Tribute


Shipped off to boarding college as a teenager in 1920 “to get the edges polished off and prepare for college,” the artist Doris Lee reduce her hair to insurgent in opposition to her environment — “the least adventuresome and imaginative” in her life, with no entry to portray. This act of rebel was met with suspension and the college’s admonishment that “nice girls have long hair.”

Judging from the various images that stay of Lee (1905—1983), she by no means chopped off her hair once more. But she continued to chop a path of her personal for the following 4 a long time.

An completed Depression-era figurative painter and tremendously profitable industrial artist by means of the Nineteen Forties and ’50s, Lee realized at a younger age that to remain within the sport she needed to at the very least fake to play by the foundations. Her farm scenes and household gatherings would possibly summon a Rockwellian sentimentality or the wholesomeness of Grandma Moses (with whom she’s typically in contrast), but beneath the floor of her Americana is a simmering feminism.

Fearless and assured ladies star in most of her works, and they aren’t restricted to stereotypically feminine actions. We see them wrangling horses, capturing arrows, and taking pleasure. Vladimir Nabokov even referred to one in all her work in “Lolita.” It’s a perspective we don’t see elsewhere on the time — not in Thomas Hart Benton’s males within the fields, Grant Wood’s self-righteous small-town people, or Reginald Marsh’s silver-screen wannabes.

Lee confirmed with distinguished galleries, offered works to main museums and painted three murals for the W.P.A. Life journal despatched her around the globe as an artist-correspondent and he or she produced award-winning artwork for main promoting campaigns. But like many figurative painters of the period, particularly ladies, Lee fell into relative obscurity when Abstract Expressionism took over Twentieth-century style. Such artists working within the Nineteen Thirties and ’40s had been merely “marginalized by fashion,” stated the artwork seller Deedee Wigmore, who has represented Doris Lee’s property since 1991.

But a main new retrospective, “Simple Pleasures: The Art of Doris Lee,” touring nationally by means of 2023, is reintroducing her to the general public by means of greater than 70 examples of her high quality and industrial artworks. A companion present at D. Wigmore Fine Art in Manhattan, by means of Jan. 28, is presenting one other 40 works.

“She’s at this really interesting nexus of folk art, American Scene and Modernism,” stated Melissa Wolfe of the Saint Louis Art Museum, who curated the present retrospective with Barbara Jones of the Westmoreland Museum of American Art in Greensburg, Pa., the place it’s on view by means of Jan. 9. “But basically, she was seen as too unserious to take seriously. Her work is figurative, accessible, and could be decorative and these things were perceived as feminized and not taken seriously. I know the New York School wasn’t monolithic but work that was perceived as masculine — the active, big, aggressive, troubled, full of doubt — that’s what was taken seriously.”

Born Doris Emrick in Aledo, Ill., to a banker-merchant father and a schoolteacher mom, Lee grew up a self-described “tomboy” on her grandparents’ farms, skipping piano classes to color on her neighbor’s porch. She graduated with a B.A. in philosophy in 1927 and married Russell Lee, who turned an acclaimed photographer for the Farm Security Administration.

Lee studied portray in Paris with Andre L’Hote, a Cubist painter, and likewise in San Francisco with the realist painter Arnold Blanch. In 1931, the Lees adopted Blanch and his artist spouse, Lucile Lundquist, to the artists’ colony in Woodstock. Lee additionally took a studio on 14th Street in Manhattan. Lee left Russell for Blanch in 1939. They lived collectively but by no means married, spending summers in Woodstock, the place they had been central figures within the artwork world’s social scene and exhibited usually, and winters in Florida.

Woodstock was a progressive place, and Lee slot in. She joined the American Artists’ Congress, which aimed to fight the rise of fascism in Europe, and he or she made her opinions clear on inequality. In a speak in 1951 titled “Women as Artists,” she identified how “stupid” it was that younger ladies had been taught to seek out husbands, and advised the viewers, “We cannot afford to neglect or discourage any talent because of the artificial barriers of race, class, or sex.”

If her work wasn’t overtly political, she sneaked some messaging in there, usually diffusing any overt cultural critique with a playful and humanizing humorousness. In “Illinois River Town” (1937), one in all a number of works critics referred to as “Bruegelian,” figures buzz round a seashore as a girl lifts her drawers to alleviate herself. In “The View, Woodstock” (1946), a girl stands earlier than a blue home tending her kitchen backyard with a pitchfork as a man lazes close by. “Usually, it’s the man who introduces us to the estate,” stated Ms. Wolfe, who suspects that Lee is slyly quoting Grant Wood’s “American Gothic” (1930).

Lee first rose up with the American Scene painters — a motion that flourished in the course of the Depression, when artists like Wood and Benton forsook European modernism to develop their very own artwork type, recording no matter they imagined it was that made America American — its land, customs, beliefs, aspirations. Lee additionally introduced in people artwork, which she and Blanch collected, and which MoMA had acknowledged as a distinctly American artwork type. And she by no means forgot her European schooling.

Lee’s work was not for everybody. (She did nonetheless report that she acquired “lots of fan mail from people in prisons and asylums, long letters telling all.”) Public criticism catapulted her to the nationwide stage, when her portray “Thanksgiving”a busy kitchen scene of multigenerational ladies — received the distinguished $500 Logan Purchase Prize on the Art Institute of Chicago in 1935. If Lee’s cartoonlike figures channel the German Dada artist George Grosz, her focus — the depth of the ladies’s labor — feels a lot more true to life than the period’s extra typical depictions of the idyllic Thanksgiving desk.

The award’s donor, Josephine Hancock Logan, publicly referred to as Lee’s work an “awful thing” after which based the Sanity in Art motion to purge the “modernistic grotesqueries” of Surrealism and Dada from American artwork.The Art Institute of Chicago responded by shopping for the work. Lee, in the meantime, advised The Washington Post that “to paint beautiful pictures was not my aim” and that if among the faces appeared “like cartoons,” as had been steered by Time Magazine and others, “so do some people.”

That similar 12 months, Fortune journal wrote that “she particularly dislikes that the last word about her painting is ‘optimism,’” and quoted her saying that what she truly felt was “a sort of violence.” Life journal later interpreted her remark as a “comic sense of violence,” but Wolfe thinks in any other case.

“Many of her early works seem to be about this kind of inner churning or a desire for physical freedom,” the curator stated, referring to works like “The Runaway” (1935), which exhibits a girl on horseback dashing away from a farm.

Lee’s relative privilege helped her subsist as an artist in the course of the Depression, as did Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney. As the cultural historian John Fagg, who contributed to the “Simple Pleasures” catalog famous, the renegade heiress created the Whitney Studio Club, the place artists like Lee might present and promote their work.(Lee was included within the first Whitney Biennial, in 1932.)

Soon she caught the eye of artwork administrators and editors, too. Lee’s model had turn out to be crisper and flatter, with giant areas of juicy delineated colour, which made it simpler to breed. (She additionally had an eye fixed for design particulars — furnishings, structure, flora, expertise, jewellery — which lent itself effectively to illustrations.)

In 1941 she joined Associated American Artists, the buzzy gallery of entrepreneur Reeves Lewenthal, who aimed to earn a living by bringing high quality artwork to the plenty. As consumerism and the promoting age exploded, he produced her prints and landed her jobs with corporations like American Tobacco and General Mills, and likewise bought her designing cloth and ceramics and illustrating books, together with the Rogers & Hart Songbook. “She was so tenacious,” Jones stated. “She went after everything. She was often the only woman working with these groups of men, and she could really hold her own.”

Her first task for Life, in 1939, was to commemorate the musical “Showboat.” It was the primary Broadway manufacturing with a racially built-in solid, which she portrayed rehearsing. Life then commissioned her to color African American ladies in South Carolina “as a source of fashion inspiration” for a 1941 concern. She later reworked one of many 9 vogue plates into “Siesta” (1944) — a vaguely eroticized portray of a Dionysian Black girl — which received third prize within the Carnegie Institute present. Assignments in North Africa, Mexico, Cuba, and Hollywood adopted.

Lee didn’t differentiate a lot between her high quality and industrial artwork. One widespread thread is her persistent depiction of girls as completely satisfied and assured, whether or not on the farm or in Hollywood. “She makes no apologies for her women and their joy, which I think shows a great deal of liberation,” stated Emily Lenz, director and companion at D. Wigmore.

Her work turned extra streamlined and summary within the Nineteen Fifties and ’60s. Lee and Blanch had been shut with Milton Avery and his spouse, Sally Michael, and a few argue that she was below their affect. (Wolfe argues that it was reciprocal.) Lee was spending extra time in Florida, and her work replicate the sunny, nautical environment.

In 1968 Lee was recognized with Alzheimer’s. She died in 1983 in Clearwater, Fla. She didn’t have kids and in a 1951 speak mentioned the way it riled folks. “I remember hearing one woman say, ‘The most wonderful thing a woman can create is her family and home and you’ll never know that feeling’,” she recounted. Her rebuttal: “And you’ll never know the feeling of being an artist.”