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James DOOLIN (b.1932; d.2002)

James (also known as Jim) Doolin was born in Connecticut, America in 1932. He moved to the suburbs of Philadelphia with his family when he was seven, an environment he found “monotonous” and “repressive” to the creative mind. He found happiness during summers spent in northern Vermont, intuitively learning about natural landscapes and the lush, pastoral settings of New England. He was always interested in drawing as a child and, with WWII taking place, he spent many hours mastering the principles of perspective whilst drawing military hardware and battle scenes. As a teenager, he was drawn to detective and crime stories and explored the subject of threat in comic strips. He won several youth art prizes and was interested in becoming a professional cartoonist. His parents discouraged his plans to become “maybe an artist” but when he won a full scholarship to attend Philadelphia’s University of the Arts, his father did not protest. He spent his summers travelling to the Rocky Mountains, Chicago, Yosemite National Park and San Francisco from which was born his love of diverse landscapes from urban to natural. *

Soon after finishing art school, Doolin married Patricia Clark, a friend from summer camp in Vermont. He was drafted into the US Army and trained as a stenographer. His first post was in a psychological warfare office in Heidelberg, Germany for 18 months. Whilst there, he and Patricia travelled widely through Europe and Doolin was influenced by seeing a major Van Gogh exhibition in Munich and early Renaissance painting at the Uffizi Galleries in Florence.

In 1957, after being discharged from the army and the breakdown of his marriage, Doolin moved to New York for four years, working as a commercial artist in advertising to pay the bills. Although Abstract Expressionism dominated the New York art scene at the time, Doolin felt disillusioned and blocked from becoming a serious artist. In 1961, he left again for Europe, travelling widely and then renting a house on the island of Rhodes in Greece, where he painted in a more permissive manner, as well as meeting Leslie Edwards, a young Australian woman who would become his second wife. After marrying in Athens in 1962, they returned to New York where Doolin began working on a group of geometric abstract paintings that would become known as his famous Artificial Landscapes – based on the man-made streetscapes of New York.

In 1965, they moved to Leslie’s hometown of Melbourne, where Doolin accepted a teaching position at Prahran Technical College and continued to paint cityscapes in bright, acrylic paints. Although he only lived in Australia for two years, Doolin’s influence on colour field painting and minimalist art was vast. Through his teaching and friendships, including with fellow colour field painter, Tony McGillick, he provided young Melbourne artists with a first-hand introduction to hard-edge style. These artists included Robert Jacks, Dale Hickey, Robert Hunter and Robert Rooney, who were to embrace colour field, minimal and geometric styles. **

In 1967, Doolin was accepted into the graduate program at UCLA to study a Master of Fine Arts and they moved to California. After graduating in 1971, he joined the UCLA faculty. In 1978, Doolin returned briefly to Australia for a three month stint as visiting artist at The Victorian College of the Arts. In 1980, after being awarded a Guggenheim Foundation fellowship to paint desert landscapes, and following the breakdown of his second marriage, Doolin moved to a cabin in a remote area in the northern Mojave Desert, where he lived very simply and in virtual isolation for three years. On his return to Los Angeles in 1983, he became an art instructor at Santa Monica College. He continued to paint and work in Los Angeles until his death in 2002.

Doolin’s first exhibition was a group show in 1964 at Seth Siegelaub Gallery in New York where several of his Artificial Landscapes were included. He secured his first solo exhibition at Gallery A in Melbourne in 1966 – however, neither the community nor the critics responded favourably to the work, which reflected New York aesthetics. Doolin’s break-through came when Tony McGillick arranged for Doolin to stage a solo exhibition at Central Street Gallery in Sydney in 1967. He was then invited to exhibit at The Field at the National Gallery of Victoria in 1968 and shipped three new paintings from his Artificial Landscapes series from Los Angeles to be included in this seminal exhibition – all of which were acquired by major Australian galleries. Despite not being in Australia, he held further solo exhibitions at Gallery A and Central Street Gallery in 1970, which were wildly successful and earned him much critical acclaim in Australia, Sydney art critic G.R. Lansell writing: “they are actually everything they are supposed to be - an extraordinary conjunction of classicism and romanticism - to add another polarity to Doolin’s list. They are first-class. The critic is stunned by their incandescence. ... Criticism is superfluous here.”* Doolin’s extraordinary Shopping Mall 1973-77 – A Conceptual Perspective toured Australia in 1978.**** Since then, Doolin has exhibited numerous times throughout the US and in Australia, including a retrospective of his work held at The San Jose Museum of Art in 2001.**

Doolin has won numerous awards including the Guggenheim Foundation Fellowship in 1980, grants from the National Endowment for the Arts in 1981, 1985 and 1991, a Los Angeles Cultural Affairs Department grant in 1997 and the Flintridge Foundation award for visual artists in 2001-2002. He was commissioned to create four murals for the Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s downtown Los Angeles headquarters in 1992.

Doolin’s first critical acclaim came from his Artificial Landscape series of painting - hard-edge works which reference the synthetic forms and colours of cityscapes. Compositionally, the canvases were often divided horizontally and compartmentalized into blocks of geometric patterns to reflect the flat, bold forms within the urban landscape. Rendered in harsh, inorganic colours absent from nature - black, grey, white, red, yellow, and lurid industrial greens, along with a variety of pastels and metallic colours - the artificiality of the images is heightened. Doolin himself has explained his inspiration for these paintings as: “From all this - along with the excitement sometimes felt on the surface - comes a sense of rigidity and oppressiveness, a lack of relief, a feeling of depersonalization and alienation, and an atmosphere of non-life which has no connection or relationship to nature. (A death landscape?) Since this is our true environment, one does not perceive this consciously. Its effects on the unconscious, however, are doubtless very profound. … The paintings attempt to bring to consciousness these qualities, the good and bad, in all their strangeness, ugliness, accidental beauty, absurdity, banality, silliness, oppressiveness, or whatever.” *

A sophisticated sub-group of ‘arch paintings’ that evolved out of this series, and which were exhibited at the Central Street Gallery in 1970, are characterised by an arched format and air-brushed bands of kaleidoscopic colour. One of the arch paintings was described by art critic Elwyn Lynn: “A floral or phallic stamen in iridescent, mainly prismatic colours, imperceptibly and illusionistically melted into one another in shifting clouds, juts into all the painting, meeting a similarly graduated area with a crisp edge; so crisp that sometimes the central area sinks giddily away and sometimes leaps forth.” In a letter to Tony McGillick, Doolin addressed the response to his ‘arch paintings’: “to all the questions as to whether they are ‘supposed to be‘ architectural, religious, sexual, metaphysical, mystical, ritualistic, floral, phallic, hard edge or colour field, mechanical or sensual, solid or atmospherical, ancient or modern, special or flat, the answer is yes.”***

Back in Los Angeles, Doolin moved away from abstract painting and into representational work. Beginning to feel too limited by abstraction, he found himself following a strong desire to make more ‘traditional’ illusionistic paintings from direct observation in a photorealistic style. Between 1973 and 1977, Doolin created his epic painting Shopping mall, a large-scale aerial view of the intersection of Arizona Avenue and Third Street in Santa Monica, inspired by Giovanni Bellini's St. Francis in the Desert (c. 1480). **

Despite the adaptions in his style throughout his career, Doolin himself recognised the importance of colour to his compositions: “Recently I have been filling some of my illusionistic paintings with sunsets. That is the vehicle I can use to get back to the kind of pure colour I used in my Artificial Landscape paintings, when colour itself was my first priority. Looking back on my life as a painter, I now believe that colour - and beauty - have always been most important to me.” *

Doolin’s works are held in Collections throughout the US and Australia, including the San Jose Museum of Art, the Art Gallery of New South Wales, the National Gallery of Victoria, the National Gallery of Australia and many other state and regional galleries, corporate, university and significant private Collections throughout the US and in Australia.

* James Doolin's Illusionistic Vision, Patricia Hickson, Urban Invasion exhibition catalogue, San Jose Museum of Art, 2001 ** James Doolin, The Field Revisited Artwork Labels, pp. 44-46 & 107 *** About: James Doolin, Art Gallery of NSW **** James Doolin, Paul McGillick, Artist Profile 2018


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