Doris Lee, unfairly forgotten, receives late but complete tribute


Sent to boarding school as a teenager in 1920 “to polish the edges and prepare for college,” artist Doris Lee cut her hair to rebel against her surroundings – “the less adventurous and imaginative” of his life, without access to painting. This act of rebellion ended in a suspension and the school warning that “nice girls have long hair”.

Judging by the many remaining photos of Lee (1905-1983), she never cut her hair again. But she continued to make her way for the next four decades.

An accomplished Depression-era figurative painter and hugely successful commercial artist in the 1940s and 1950s, Lee learned at a young age that to stay in the game she had to at least pretend to play by the rules. Her farm scenes and family reunions may invoke a Rockwellian sentimentality or the wholesomeness of Grandmother Moses (to which she is sometimes compared), but beneath the surface of her Americana hides a quivering feminism.

Intrepid and confident women are the stars of most of his works, and they are not limited to stereotypical feminine activities. They are seen competing for horses, shooting arrows and having fun. Vladimir Nabokov even referred to one of his paintings in “Lolita”. This is a prospect we didn’t see elsewhere at the time – not in Thomas Hart Benton ‘the men of the fields, the self-righteous people of the small towns of Grant Wood or the aspiring cinema of Reginald Marsh.

Lee has exhibited with leading galleries, sold works to major museums, and painted three murals for wpa Life magazine sent her worldwide as an artist-correspondent and she produced award-winning works of art for major advertising campaigns. But like many figurative painters of the day, especially women, Lee fell into relative obscurity when abstract expressionism took precedence over 20th century taste. Such artists working in the 1930s and 1940s were simply “marginalized by fashion,” said art dealer Deedee Wigmore, who has represented Doris Lee’s estate since 1991.

But a new major retrospective, “Simple pleasures: the art of Doris Lee”, traveling nationwide until 2023, presents her to the public through more than 70 examples of her fine and commercial works of art. A complementary exhibition at D. Wigmore Fine Art in Manhattan, until January 28, presents 40 other works.

“She’s in this really interesting connection of folk art, the American scene and modernism,” said Melissa Wolfe of the Saint Louis Art Museum, who hosted the current retrospective with Barbara Jones of the Westmoreland Museum of American Art in Greensburg, Pa., where it is on view until January 9. “But fundamentally she was seen as too insignificant to be taken seriously. Her work is figurative, accessible and could be decorative and these things were seen as feminized and not taken seriously. I know the New York School was not monolithic, but work that was seen as masculine – the active, the big, the aggressive, the cloudy, the doubtful – that’s what was taken seriously.

Born Doris Emrick in Aledo, Ill. To a merchant banker father and mother teacher, Lee grew up as a “tomboy” on his grandparents’ farms, skipping piano lessons to paint. on his neighbor’s porch. She graduated with a bachelor’s degree in philosophy in 1927 and married Russell Lee, who became an acclaimed photographer for the Farm Security Administration.

Lee studied painting in Paris with Andre L’Hote, a cubist painter, and also in San Francisco with the realist painter Arnold Blanch. In 1931, the Lees followed Blanch and his artist wife, Lucile Lundquist, to the artists’ colony of Woodstock. Lee also took up a studio on 14th Street in Manhattan. Lee left Russell for Blanch in 1939. They lived together but never married, spending summers in Woodstock, where they were central figures in the art world’s social scene and exhibited regularly, and wintering in Florida. .

Woodstock was a progressive place and Lee was adjusting to it. She joined the American Artists’ Congress, which aimed to combat the rise of fascism in Europe, and she made her views on inequality clear. In a 1951 lecture titled “Women as Artists,” she stressed how “stupid” it was to teach young women to find husbands and told the audience, “We can’t afford it. to neglect or discourage a talent because of artificial barriers. race, class or sex.

While her work wasn’t overtly political, she introduced a few messages into it, often spreading any open cultural criticism with a playful and humanizing sense of humor. In “Illinois River Town” (1937), one of many art critics called “Bruegelian,” figures buzz around a beach as a woman lifts her drawers to relieve herself. In “The View, Woodstock” (1946), a woman stands in front of a blue house tending to her vegetable garden with a pitchfork while a man is paring nearby. “Usually this is the man who introduces us to the estate,” said Ms Wolfe, who suspects Lee is slyly quoting Grant Wood’s “American Gothic” (1930).

Lee first rose with the painters of the American scene – a movement that flourished during the Depression, when artists like Wood and Benton abandoned European modernism to develop their own art form, recording all that ‘they imagined that was what made America American – its land, its customs, ideals, aspirations. Lee also brought in folk art, which she and Blanch collected, and which MoMA had recognized as a distinctly American art form. And she never forgot her European education.

Lee’s job was not for everyone. (She did report, however, that she had received “a lot of fan mail from people in prisons and asylums, long letters telling it all.”) Public criticism catapulted her onto the national stage, when her painting “Thanksgiving “an animated kitchen scene of multigenerational women – won the prestigious Logan Purchase Prize of $ 500 at the Art Institute of Chicago in 1935. If Lee’s cartoon characters channel German artist Dada George Grosz, her goal – the labor intensity of women – feels much more true to life than the more typical depictions of the days of the idyllic Thanksgiving table.

Prize giver Josephine Hancock Logan publicly called Lee’s work a “horrible thing” and then founded the Sanity in Art movement to purge the “modernist grotesques” of surrealism and Dada from American art. The Art Institute of Chicago responded by purchasing the work. Lee, meanwhile, told the Washington Post that “painting beautiful pictures was not my goal” and that while some of the faces looked like “cartoons,” as had been suggested by Time Magazine and others. , “Some people too.

That same year, Fortune magazine wrote that “she particularly hates that the last word on her painting is ‘optimism’,” and quoted her as saying that what she was actually feeling was “some kind of violence.” Life magazine later interpreted his comment as a “comedic sense of violence,” but Wolfe thinks otherwise.

“A lot of her early works seem to be about that kind of inner churning or a desire for physical freedom,” the curator said, referring to works like “The Runaway”. (1935), which shows a woman on horseback walking away from a farm.

Lee’s relative privilege helped her survive as an artist during the Depression, as did Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney. As noted by cultural historian John Fagg, who contributed to the “Simple Pleasures” catalog, the renegade heiress created the Whitney Studio Club, where artists like Lee could show and sell their work. (Lee was included in the first Whitney Biennale, in 1932.)

Soon she also caught the attention of art directors and publishers. Lee’s style had become sharper and flatter, with large areas of juicy outlined color, which made it easier to replicate. (She also had an eye for design details – furniture, architecture, flora, technology, jewelry – which lent themselves well to illustrations.)

In 1941, she joined Associated American Artists, the bustling gallery of entrepreneur Reeves Lewenthal, which aimed to make money by introducing the fine art to the masses. As consumerism and the advertising age exploded, he produced his prints and landed his jobs at companies like American Tobacco and General Mills, and also had him designing fabrics and ceramics and illustrating books, including the Rogers & Hart Songbook. “She was so stubborn,” Jones said. “She’s gone after all. She was often the only woman to work with these men’s groups, and she could really get by. “

His first mission for Life, in 1939, was to commemorate the musical “Showboat”. It was the first Broadway production with a racially integrated cast, which she portrayed rehearsing. Life then asked her to paint African American women in South Carolina “as a fashion inspiration” for a 1941 issue. She then reworked one of the nine fashion plates in “Siesta” (1944 ) – a vaguely eroticized painting of a black Dionysian woman – which won the third prize in the Carnegie Institute show. Postings to North Africa, Mexico, Cuba and Hollywood followed.

Lee didn’t differentiate much between his fine art and his commercial art. A common thread is his enduring portrayal of women as happy and confident, whether on the farm or in Hollywood. “She doesn’t apologize for her women and their joy, which I think shows a great liberation,” said Emily Lenz, director and partner at D. Wigmore.

Her work became more pared-down and abstract in the 1950s and 1960s. Lee and Blanch were close to Milton Avery and his wife, Sally Michael, and some claim she was under their influence. (Wolfe argues it was reciprocated.) Lee spent more time in Florida and his paintings reflect the sunny marine environment.

In 1968, Lee was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. She died in 1983 in Clearwater, Florida. She had no children and, at a conference in 1951, explained how it annoys people. “I remember hearing a woman say, ‘The most wonderful thing a woman can create is her family and her home and you will never know that feeling,’ she said. Her rebuttal: “And you’ll never know what it feels like to be an artist.” “


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