Ar­chive: James Doolin, by Paul McGil­lick


EV­ERY NOW AND THEN AN ARTIST ar­rives on the scene and dis­rupts it much like a me­te­orite il­lu­mi­nates the night sky in one in­tense, ex­tended mo­ment. Such was the im­pact of Amer­i­can pain­ter, James Doolin, in Aus­tralia in the mid-1960s. Yet Doolin’s con­tri­bu­tion may seem al­most apoc­ryphal. First, be­cause he lived in Aus­tralia for just a brief pe­riod (1965-67) and his in­trigu­ing ca­reer con­tin­ued on af­ter his re­turn to the US, last­ing un­til his un­timely death in 2002. Se­condly, be­cause the work for which he was known in Aus­tralia was largely mis­un­der­stood, caught up as it was in the then stoush be­tween “hard-edge” ab­strac­tion and the rest. Doolin was also “apoc­ryphal” in the sense that many of us at the time thought we knew Jim even when we didn’t. I think, at the risk of sound­ing trite, it was be­cause the work com­mu­ni­cated so strongly that we all felt that we were in the pres­ence of the man. Cer­tainly, I did – and yet I never met him. Sure, there were direct con­nec­tions through my brothers, Tony McGil­lick and John White, and through other artists such as Robert Jacks. And, yes, I helped hang the leg­endary 1970 Cen­tral Street Gallery ex­hi­bi­tion of the arched Ar­ti­fi­cial Land­scapes – ac­cord­ing to Doolin’s strict di­rec­tions con­cern­ing height and spac­ing. But my only direct con­tact with Jim (by phone and let­ter) was in 1993 when Tony died and later when I or­gan­ised a short tele­vi­sion doc­u­men­tary on him for SBS TV in 1994. It was in edit­ing this piece that I was jolted out of the time warp which had trapped me into defin­ing Doolin by the paint­ings of the mid-1960s – be­cause his cur­rent work wasn’t “ab­stract” at all, but con­sisted of in­tensely “real” ur­ban land­scapes. There had been an early warn­ing sign, of course – Doolin’s ex­tra­or­di­nary ‘Shop­ping Mall 1973-77 – A Con­cep­tual Perspective’ which toured Aus­tralia in 1978, the year in which Doolin re­turned for a three-month stint as visit­ing artist at the Vic­to­rian Col­lege of the Arts. The 229 x 229cm paint­ing, ‘Shop­ping Mall’ it­self, was ac­com­pa­nied by all four years of prepara­tory draw­ings, stud­ies and pho­to­graphs. The con­cept of the ex­hi­bi­tion was a clue be­cause it drew at­ten­tion to the im­por­tance of process. In­deed, Doolin once com­mented, “Paint­ing is about the process of mak­ing it.” But it also drew at­ten­tion to the way the ax­ono­met­ric paint­ing – an aerial view of an in­ter­sec­tion at Santa Mon­ica Mall or­gan­ised around the X formed by the two in­ter­sect­ing street axes – re­sulted from ex­tra­or­di­nary geo­met­ric com­plex­ity and rigour, rem­i­nis­cent of the work of one of Doolin’s great in­flu­ences, Piero della Francesca. ‘Shop­ping Mall’ made it clear that Doolin was and al­ways had been a land­scape pain­ter. As Tony McGil­lick said in the cat­a­logue, “He main­tained tra­di­tional val­ues of orig­i­nal­ity and craft while work­ing in an en­tirely con­tem­po­rary mode.” His first set of Ar­ti­fi­cial Land­scapes, seen in two solo shows in Melbourne then Syd­ney (1966-67), drew their im­agery from the ur­ban land­scape, while the metic­u­lously crafted Arched Land­scapes (Doolin said that he never touched these can­vases with his bare hands) were what he called an “il­lu­sory ob­ject win­dow”. In a let­ter he wrote to Tony McGil­lick he went on to say that “these paint­ings are com­pletely tra­di­tional and con­cerned with the things that land­scape paint­ing al­ways has been since its beginning.” This was not fully un­der­stood in Aus­tralia at the time. Doolin’s real im­pact was through his pro­fes­sion­al­ism. This im­pact was huge on a group of Melbourne painters – Robert Jacks, Robert Rooney, Robert Hunter and Dale

Doolin’s art was an in­ves­ti­ga­tion into il­lu­sion ... he said that he found ab­strac­tion too con­strain­ing, hence his re­turn to fig­u­ra­tion, ex­cept that his images ei­ther of the desert or bleak ur­ban land­scapes al­ways have a height­ened emo­tional in­ten­sity to them.

Hickey – even if the lo­cal crit­ics dis­missed him. The late Robert Jacks re­called that Doolin was the first artist he had met who had his own elec­tric drill and saw, who worked so hard and who ap­plied the same ob­ses­sive rigour to mak­ing his stretch­ers and crates as he did to paint­ing it­self. The nine arched paint­ings took a year to paint, while ‘Shop­ping Mall’, a sin­gle paint­ing, took four years.

Pro­fes­sion­al­ism, sen­su­ous­ness and metic­u­lous­ness. These are the hall­marks of James Doolin’s paint­ing. He was a “slow” pain­ter. And as we know from the Slow Move­ment, the more you slow things down, the richer the re­wards.

Es­sen­tially, Doolin’s art was an in­ves­ti­ga­tion into il­lu­sion. Re­turn­ing from Aus­tralia, he said that he found ab­strac­tion too con­strain­ing, hence his re­turn to fig­u­ra­tion, ex­cept that his images ei­ther of the desert or bleak ur­ban land­scapes al­ways have a height­ened emo­tional in­ten­sity to them com­bin­ing, if you like, the men­ac­ing at­mo­spher­ics of Thomas Hart Ben­ton and the sense of alien­ation found in Ed­ward Hopper.

This was first ev­i­dent in the paint­ings he did dur­ing his three years of liv­ing in the Mo­jave Desert in the early 1980s. But when he re­turned to live in Los An­ge­les the sense of mag­i­cal awe he saw in the desert be­came a kind of dark magic as his ur­ban land­scapes re­sponded to the loss of nat­u­ral land­scape, be­ing re­placed by the ar­ti­fi­cial­ity of the mod­ern built en­vi­ron­ment. In the words of

Los An­ge­les Times art critic, Christopher Knight, he had “a gift for en­dow­ing the ev­ery­day with a sense of es­trange­ment”.

In this re­gard Doolin had come full cir­cle: he was still paint­ing ar­ti­fi­cial land­scapes, but us­ing di­rectly per­ceived images rather than images ab­stracted from the “real” world.

Ab­stract or fig­u­ra­tive, the is­sues for Doolin were al­ways the same. As Roger Fry pointed out in his last lec­tures (warn­ing against all-out ab­strac­tion), fig­u­ra­tion served to an­i­mate the for­mal prop­er­ties of a paint­ing – what Doolin re­ferred to as pic­to­rial com­po­si­tion and the way all the com­po­nents of a paint­ing came to­gether in an ex­tended mo­ment of equi­lib­rium. In ret­ro­spect, we can see that the paint­ings which set the Australian art world talk­ing in the mid-1960s were much less ab­stract than they seemed – their im­agery was ac­tu­ally drawn di­rectly from the ob­served world.

All we needed to do was take the pictures at face value. It is al­ways use­ful to re­mem­ber Cle­ment Greenberg’s ad­vice and ask our­selves: What am I look­ing at?

I strive to make my paint­ings strong on the ab­stract level, clear on the de­scrip­tive level, and mys­te­ri­ous on the nar­ra­tive level so that view­ers can make up their own sto­ries and sym­bols.” – James Doolin (1983)


04 Shop­ping Mall, 1973-77, oil on can­vas, 229 x 229cm 05 LA Af­ter 2000, 1995-96, oil on can­vas, 305 x 700cm 06 Psy­chic, 1998, oil on can­vas, 54 x 36cm




Courtesy The Es­tate of James Doolin; Charles No­drum Gallery, Melbourne; The Autry Mu­seum of the Amer­i­can West, LA; and the Mac­quarie Uni­ver­sity Art Gallery, Syd­ney.

07 James Doolin the stu­dio, seated in front of Bridges, 1991, Alan Shaf­fer Pho­tog­ra­phy 08 Paint­ing T No. 2, 1966, synthetic poly­mer paint on can­vas, 123 x 67cm, pho­tog­ra­pher Effy Alex­akis, Pho­towrite

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