Finishing the Hat: Dorothy Braudy’s Artistic Journey

by Selma R. Holo
Director, Fisher Gallery
University of Southern California

Dorothy Braudy’s life as an artist is made up of a number of adventurous journeys of discovery leading to answers about what being a painter “meant”- not to the critics or to the consumers of culture, but what it meant to her. Always fully and even oppressively aware of current artistic trends and fashions, she acknowledged their importance, absorbing what was valuable for her own growth but at the same time resolutely adhering to her purpose: to arrive at a personal vision of the nature of painting. This retrospective allows us to consider in depth an oeuvre that radiates the personality of an artist who has arrived at a place in her life-long engagement with art that she can claim as her own.
How did Dorothy Braudy’s career begin? In our many conversations while she was preparing for “Finishing the Hat,” we spoke at length about the early stages. Not so much about her years at the University of Kentucky where she painted straightforward still lifes such as “Jar,” and never met a single other painting major.
What Dorothy passionately refers to as her true artistic beginnings were the years she spent in New York in the late fifties and sixties. In that dynamic cauldron of a city she attended the Art Students League and studied with the influential abstract painter Richard Pousette-Dart, whose first effect upon her was profound. She was impressed especially by the moral imperative he preached that an artist must work in an abstract style an struggle against copying the object. The impact of that philosophy is clear in “Color Abstract,” the purest abstraction of that period, with most of its powerful orange gestural forms plunging into a receptive black mass, while others encounter more resistant and gradated gray material. But as early as 1959 in “Moon Abstract,” her paintings begin to assume land/skyscape implications: moonlight seems to be piercing the blackness even as crimson light insists on its presence, perhaps announcing dawn, perhaps some sort of hell.
Already she was seeking her own vision, separating from the dominant modes of abstraction. “Intellectually I believed in abstraction but it left out too much for me. I needed the object.” By 1965 the object and, increasingly, the figure as well- although by now highly abstracted and carefully placed within patterned or dynamic spaces- had reasserted their primacy in her art. Whether a table, a nude, or a figure carrying a bunch of flowers, the representation is never photographic but rather about the act of reclaiming the physical world through her own artistic prism. Her interest is never in surrealizing her surroundings, in hyper-realizing them, or in fantasizing objects. She hated the banalization of pop art, its mocking stance toward the world of the familiar. Rather, she worked toward rescuing recognizable moments from the world she inhabited, even as she fought against anecdotalizing them or using them to express mood.
By now, Dorothy’s historical heroes were decidedly the intimist and domestic colorists, Bonnard and Vuillard, and her contemporary inspiration came less from the mainstream abstractionists and more from the insistently reality-based visions of Fairfield Porter and Richard Diebenkorn. From this point onward, the great body of Dorothy Braudy’s work inhabits that “parallel or shadow twentieth century” that Peter Schjedahl described while ruminating on Porter’s reinvention of realism. It was a countertrend to the wave of abstraction that Schjedahl predicted would “appeal to more and more people as time goes by.” Dorothy’s progress toward her own creative posture came at a time when the New York art world was not yet comfortable with such a “traditional” vision of painting as a legitimate expression of contemporaneity. But it was two museum shows in particular that inspired her fashioning of her own expressive means: New Images of Man at the Museum of Modern Art in 1959, which included Diebenkorn, Leon Golub, Wayne Thiebaud; and Diebenkorn’s one-man show at the Jewish Museum in 1964.
The seventies were a period of enormous progress for Dorothy. Her 1973 “Moon Nude” proclaims her now fully consolidated faith in the figure as subject. In it she fully accepts that to evoke a human being with her brush is not to “copy” in the derogatory sense of the abstract painters, but rather to expand on the infinite fresh shapes and fresh patterning, giving pleasure to spectator and painter alike. By the late seventies the “Colleen and Heather” series reveal her unequivocal commitment to her work as summoner of sun and shadow, patches and patterns, by focusing on the almost musical arrangements that real bodies can assume by virtue of the painter’s skill and imagination.

Whether in pictures of family and friends, or in those canvases where water is the true subject, such as those in “The Pool Show,” her commitment to making art based in a familiar world is unwavering. Sometimes she is more interested in portraying a domestic paradise, as she does in “Near the Pool.” But her imagery is always ultimately about capturing a vision of beauty through painting. Never only document, anecdote, or instrument of therapy or catharsis, these paintings celebrate civilized existence, filtered through color and light and informed by a deep understanding of the history of art. Dorothy’s glowing self-portrait, painted in 1982, is powerful evidence of the artistic mastery and maturity she had achieved. Sitting solidly in the center of the canvas she claimed and secured her own territory as a painter. The old dilemma of the morality or immorality of representing the real has been resolved and discarded. She can clearly say that being a painter was “all about what light could reveal and what light could glorify,” especially when light transformed and ennobled the most commonplace and ordinary subject matter as in “Alison’s Window.”
The eighties were a period of plenty for Dorothy. The variety in her work stemmed from the immense range of visual experience she enjoyed. She became fascinated by capturing people in transitory moments and, notably, in ambiguous scenes of rescue. Animals became featured stars, as they interacted with humans, or in watery scenes in ever more mysterious moments, as in “Three Yellow Dogs” or in “Round Randolph.”
After moving back from the East Coast to Los Angeles, where she was born, Dorothy found herself again in an environment that gifted her with sun and highly saturated color on a daily basis. She also traveled in Italy and Greece, where she found a light even more clean, clear, and brilliant. There, she began to experiment with stripes of light and shadow to create patterns that revised her vocabulary for the illumination of form, enhancing the ambiguity of figure and ground, and de-narrativizing scenes that, in lesser artists, would only be vehicles for story telling. The title of one of her exhibitions at the time, “Breaking Light,” summarized it all. The light was both breaking up the mundane subject and simultaneously itself subjected to being broken up by its counterpart, the shadow. The “stripe” canvases we have are, however, more than paeans to light. They also become the vehicles for Dorothy to reintroduce abstraction to her painting-but this time, on her own terms.
Dorothy continued to experiment in that decade with photography and printmaking as well, techniques she had not used for some time. “Animal Rites,” her exhibition at the USC Fisher Gallery in 1994, combined her passion for animals and for scenes of rescue in a unique way. In one series, she displayed a series of tiny photos that forced the viewer to look closely at the imprisoned zoo animals through magnifying glasses. This peering made him or her conscious of the voyeurism attendant in going to a zoo; it also brought to the fore the essential passivity of their lives before the human gaze.
From animals, which for Dorothy are the pure made visible, she went on to create her photographic series “Sacred L.A.,” visiting places of worship all over the city. Through these dignified photographs of people in their temples, we are reminded of the ravishingly beautiful and spiritually rich worlds we pass by daily and of which we normally know nothing. Viewing that series, our curiosity is piqued, our sympathies awakened, and our sense of the visual beauty of what we take for granted becomes enlarged.
Now, in the year 2000, we have the sense that Dorothy is, once again, redirecting her work. Reclaiming her paintbrushes, as she always does after any exploration into a byway of artistic expression, she is today looking at landscape in a manner unprecedented for her: lusciously using thick paint for the first time, she has taken the opportunity to produce another kind of surface. Still preoccupied with light and its glories, but now more atmospheric, more moody, and more proleptic, these paintings are, simply, gorgeous evocations of nature and country life.
Yes, Dorothy Braudy always knew she was a painter. She may not have known what that meant when she was a girl in Kentucky. But she is certainly sure now. She has taken her journey to and from abstraction, even to and from painting itself. But her true anchor has always been the creation of beautiful work based on visible reality. Her wanderings have always brought her home. And, as T.S. Eliot reminds us in the Four Quartets, this should not be an unexpected outcome in a full and adventurous artistic life:

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end  of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.