The first exhibitions at the Hall Art Foundation, its first since the pandemic, are a blockbuster. Two lifelong painters, Leon Golub and Lois Dodd, are represented in the many buildings that make up the foundation’s campus, under the direction of Maryse Brand. The complex exhibits are arranged chronologically, by artist, and have excellent signage and presentation books with relevant information, which make the visit extremely user-friendly. There are also QR codes, which activate voice explanations for auditory accessibility.
The Golub exhibition moves seamlessly through three buildings. The first, his first works from the Chicago years when he was one of the “terrible children” of the Chicago school, truly reveals his evolution through the 1950s and 60s in a series of “portraits” which retrace his evolution. The first, “Skull”, a pencil tale from 1947, is a taste of what is to come – the feeling of gazing in horror at the universal nature of violence between human beings.
Golub painted in Paris for a five-year period from 1959-64, leaving New York’s Abstract Expressionist hegemony. Paintings like “Le Jeune Ephebe”, “Recumbent Youth”, 1961, and “Untitled Head”, 1960, show a classical influence and an almost sculptural presence. Numerous pencil and sanguine pencil studies of moving figures are key to the gestural and abstract figure paintings that follow in the 1970s.
When he and his wife Nancy Spero returned from Paris in the mid-1960s, they participated in the Artists and Writers Protest Group. Golub’s 1968 “Gigantomachy III” looks like naked humanity gone mad. The awkwardly deformed central figure with an oversized foot kicks a prone victim, surrounded by other attacking figures.
The 9ft by 17ft painting in expressionist acrylics, with paint scraped off in places with a meat cleaver, shows deeply disturbing aspects of human nature and one wonders if more people have been exposed to these images if anything would change.
In a series of “Portraits” painted between 1976 and 1978, Golub used unposed media photographs of public figures as source material for over 100 portraits. Kissinger, Le Duc Tho, Pinochet, Mao Tse-Tung, Fidel Castro, Brezhnev, Franco, Dulles are among them, all painted in acrylic on linen in an open and sober sketch style, as if the reality of the person is difficult to understand as the mask changes often. They are critical statements from men who have held public positions of power, disguising their often destructive acts with a uniform or a suit and tie.
The final series of paintings featured in this expansive exhibition speak to ongoing acts of coercive oppression around the world. The characters are now dressed. “The Arrest”, 1990, in which a smiling white figure slams a black man against the wall at gunpoint, while another black face watches helplessly from the left edge of the painting, seems eerily prescient of the recent arrest of George Floyd by Derek Chauvin. The background features more in fragmented planes of color as opposed to raw linen, and the intertwined sense of figure and ground alludes to the pervasiveness of racism.
Golub positions the viewer very close to the aggression – stating that “painting is static, it can be very insistent – it doesn’t go away, so the viewer may have to turn away.” “Two Heads II”, 1987, and “Three Heads I”, 1986, are austere and mysterious portraits of black men who stare directly into the eyes of the viewer as if trying to share their complex realities. Golub was one of the few white artists to be featured in the 1994 Whitney Museum exhibition titled “The Black Male: Representations of Masculinity in Contemporary American Art”.
Stepping into the work of Lois Dodd in the final two buildings that house the present exhibition, one enters the antithesis of the world painted by Golub, although many of their years of painting overlapped. Both artists are keen observers of various aspects of our complex world. Dodd focuses on the physical world around him in the Delaware Water Gap, Midcoastal Maine and his East Second Street loft.
“Men’s Shelter, March #2”, 1968, and “Night Sky Loft”, 1973, show two views of his city studio, the first in flattened geometric shapes, the second a dark cityscape with rectangular window punctuations. These contrast with her studies of “Broken Windows”, 1975, in Maine where she was fascinated by the patterns of broken glass that pierced the geometry of the panes. “Sun in Hallway”, 1978, gives an impression of sedentary space but always transports us on a journey, which is a signature of his work, whether the scenes take place indoors or in nature.
Dodd’s many wood paintings are arranged in rooms according to the seasons, and one enters an entirely different world depending on whether the scene is spring, summer, autumn or winter. Most of the five-foot tall summer paintings were done in multiple morning and evening sittings to keep the shadows relatively consistent. Dodd covered them in plastic and tied them to a tree so they wouldn’t fall over overnight. His dedication to an honest involvement in the moment brings an infinite freshness and liveliness to the work.
A series of paintings of snow scenes seem to be painted quickly, outdoors, even in the dead of winter. The strokes are often gestural and have an impression of immediacy rare in oil painting. We feel the freshness of the air, the brilliance of the sun on the snow, the movement of a half-frozen stream. Of “Moon Shadows,” 1992, one of many works painted at night, Dodd shares, “I worked in the dark, literally. It was totally touch paint, (like) finger paint. The pieces are mysterious and engaging, with the shadow play on the blue-gray snow.
In the final building that houses Dodd’s work, a love of domestic life is apparent, particularly in his laundry lines, which are a staple of country living. “Green Towel”, filled with wind, floats in space as if ready to take off. It’s a game of rectangles, with a parallelogram of a shadow below, complete with the curve of a hill and a blue sky.
“Step Ruin with Figure”, 1997-2001, is an exceptionally experimental piece for Dodd who usually paints what is right in front of her. A woman is seen from behind, climbing stairs to an open doorway filled with greenery, in the ruins of a historic house being demolished. There is a sense of history, of life old and new, a kind of possibility.
Dodd’s painting “Shadow with Easel”, 2010, is an unplanned “self-portrait” that she spontaneously began to paint when she noticed her own shadow on the uncut grass in the intense summer sun. The shadow and the easel are juxtaposed to the lawn, “stretched” in a semi-abstract way. She appears to be in front of us painting in silhouette, with blades of grass blowing around her.
The combination of these two painters definitely provides a very comprehensive visit to the Hall Art Foundation. They address two different perspectives on the world, which we humans continue to create, with its juxtapositions of beauty and cruelty, tragedy and everyday life. We are constantly bombarded in our homes, our cars, our television sets, with views of events far removed from the intimate banality in which many privileged people live. These exhibitions remind us that one reality does not cancel out another. We are left with the essential question of how to balance the two.