Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Doel Reed: A Lifelong Love of the Figure (1983)

Doel Reed, who celebrated his 89th birthday on May 21, is currently the subject of a major retrospective exhibit at the Fine Arts Museum in Santa Fe on view through October.  To gain some perspective on his long career and to find out what he’s thinking and doing these days, we paid him a visit at his bright, memento-filled studio in Talpa, just south of Taos.  Reed is of medium height, slender, slightly stooped with age.  With his sparse, closely cropped hair, thick glasses and quizzical expression, he somehow reminded us of Igor Stravinsky.  He is the quintessential gentleman, dressed for the interview (indeed, we assumed he was always so dressed) in a blue shirt, red silk tie with small blue amoeboid forms, held neatly by a silver and turquoise tie clip, blue-gray trousers, grey suede shoes and black socks.  There is just a hint of Oklahoma accent in his speech, a vestige of some 35 years spent teaching and working in that state, a “Western” informality and sense of humor in conversation, and a clear recollection of incidents and conversations in his life.

Most prominent in the studio are about a dozen of his own paintings, aquatints, drawings, and etchings.  Otherwise the three-room space is dominated by a sizable, cross-handled press, and notifications of various awards and honorary memberships in professional organizations.  Just inside the door is a plaque from the National Society of Literature and the Arts.  “This is to certify that Doel Reed is a member of the society whose purposes are to recognize achievements in literature, music, and the fine arts, and to improve the condition of the creative arts in America.”  On one table is a stack of catalogs, the top one being the 59th National Print Exhibition of the Society of American Graphic Artists, at Cooper Union in New York late last year.  One of his works was prominently featured.

We started our conversation pretty close to the beginning.

You were raised in Indiana, and I read somewhere that your first exposure to art was at the Indianapolis Museum.  What is it that you saw there?
The school used to take all the kids to the museum every so often.  We went there, and went all around, and the teacher would ask us to pick out one we liked best.  I said I liked the one up there.  Well, they had a great big painting up there of some shipwrecked sailors and the mermaids in the water, and they’re reaching out to get ahold of the mermaids, and they’re big, juicy German girls, nudes, water running off their breasts (laughter). . . Hell, I thought it was a great picture.  I still think it was a good picture!  I was kind of ostracized after that, I guess.  It’s funny how people get such strange ideas about nudes.  I thought, after all, women go and pay a lot of money to get their portrait painted, and they go and buy a new dress, and then somebody comes and looks at it the next year and says, “My goodness, she’s got on last year’s dress.”  If she was painted in the nude, they wouldn’t say that.  She’d be in style forever.

You went to the Cincinnati Art Academy. . .
That’s where I really got interested in figure drawing, because it was a figure school.  That’s an old idea, from the Munich School and clear on back to the Renaissance, that you learned to draw the human figure.  And by that you got a great deal of knowledge.  It’s one of the most difficult things to do.  I’ve got a lot of respect for the figure – not as a pinup girl or something of that sort, but great respect for beauty and form, line, all that sort of thing.  Oh, we even had to do some anatomical things of muscles, the sort of thing that artists have done from the very beginning.

I saw a program recently with Henry Moore, and we tend to think of his abstract forms, but he said that his primary interest has always been the human form, and he showed all these sketches he had done of people in the tubes in England during the “blitz.”
I think that so many of the younger artists don’t think that drawing is such an important thing.  Well, I don’t think their things will be looked at 400 years from now.  We look at the old masters because they were great in terms of the subject.  Just like great music and great books.  Many of the young ones don’t think that’s necessary any more.  Well, I suppose if you’re just going to pour some paint over the canvas and add a few lines, it’s not necessary.

Did you start to see this kind of disinterest in drawing when you were teaching at Oklahoma State University?  (He taught at the Oklahoma A & M University, now Oklahoma State, for 35 years, retiring as Professor Emeritus in 1959 when he moved to Taos.)
No.  When I first went there, in ’24, I was the first artist on the campus.  I think I must have been a curiosity.  I’m sure I was.  But I’ll always be thankful to the state of Oklahoma.  No one ever told me how to teach.  They left the whole thing up to me, and in all the time I was there I was never questioned.  I turned out some darn good students, and I developed myself.  But there wasn’t any art around there to be affected by.  Nan Sheets in Oklahoma City was a professional artist.  She later became the director of the Oklahoma Art Center.  And Oscar Jacobson, who was director of the art department at the University.  We were about the only professional artists.  Boy, we had a bunch of amateurs!  But we got together and formed an association, kind of got things together, and now, by God, the place is full of all kinds of artists and it’s quite vigorous.  But it was a long, hard row, I’ll tell you.

Let’s go back a little bit.  From the Cincinnati Art Academy, you went into the army and the First World War?
Yes, I thought about going into the National Guard Engineers, but something told me not to do that, even though I’d had a little experience in architecture.  So I waited until my number came up and off I went to war.  The engineers went down to an old turpentine camp in Mississippi and stayed there for the whole course of the war.  Boy, I was glad that I wasn’t them.  I was in Camp Taylor in Louisville for one month before I was on the high seas on my way to France.  Can you beat that?  They were going to put me in the camouflage department, and I didn’t know anything about that, and one day they called off a list of names of men to go as replacements to the Fourth Division, and I wasn’t on that list.  Like damned fools, this friend and I went over and said, “How’s come we didn’t get called?” The officer looked at us like he thought we were crazy, and of course we were.  He told us to find a couple of fellows that didn’t want to go, and that wasn’t hard to do.  By George, the first thing you know, I was up in front.  I ended up as an observer, sitting in front of the line in a little hole somewhere.
That wasn’t too safe a place to be.
No, it wasn’t, I remember that.

 It seems that during both World Wars, a lot of Americans who went to Europe went through something of an artistic awakening by being exposed to that culture, the museums.  Did something of that nature happen to you?
Oh, I wouldn’t take anything in the world for that experience.  I have no regrets about it, though I was badly gassed and still have trouble.  I’m down here getting antibiotics every so often for the scar tissue in my lungs.  I was in the hospital in Tours for a total of about four months, and when I was able to get out I went to the museum in Tours.  They had moved some of the things from the Louvre down there and I saw them.  Tours is a very old city, and it has a very old cathedral that we loved.  We went to church there, though we weren’t Catholic.  But that didn’t make any difference.  We loved being in that enormous cathedral.

Were you always interested in architecture?
Oh yes.  When I was in high school I went down and apprenticed myself to an architect because I thought I wanted to do that.  I did that for a while, and then I just decided that wasn’t quite it, so I went to off to art school.  Drawing and painting were interesting to me, but the interest in architecture has been very beneficial to me.  I used to tell my students, “ I swear I’m going down to the lumberyard and have them send up a couple of window frames so you can draw them and know that a window has dimensions other than just up and down.”  You draw better if you know how something’s constructed.  At Cincinnati I studied with James R. Hopkins who gave me more ideas about the classical parts of art than anybody else.  The main idea in those days was to discourage anyone they didn’t think had any ability.  Get rid of them, there was no need their wasting the time.  One teacher once said to a guy, “Young man, is there anything else you can do for a living?”

Have we entered a time when there are too many school-taught artists, too many artists who should have found some other way to make a living?
I think people go to exhibitions and see a lot of modernist work and they say, “I think I can do that too,” and the first thing you know they’re in the business (laughter)! But if they had to go through the years of learning how to draw and doing it over and over, composition and color. . . Well, they just wouldn’t do that.  And I think one of the faults has been the universities.  Teachers don’t want to be classified as old-timers, so they push all the modern things.  I knew a teacher who came into class with an armload of books and he’d say, “Now we’re going to do Matisse or Picasso.”  Well, you’re not developing anybody.  The funny thing is they were imitating Picasso, and the next week he was doing something else.  If I’d asked one of my students in the early years who Picasso was, he’d have said he ran a pizza parlor.  They didn’t know who he was, and thank goodness for that.
Were you showing your own work while teaching in Oklahoma?
I was showing in exhibitions in New York. (Pause) I think one of the mistakes so many young people make is that they get so wrapped up in local shows.  Local shows won’t get you to first base.  I always told my students they could show in local shows but I don’t think that’s important.  Try a big New York show, and if you get kicked out you can say I’ve been kicked out of better shows than this.  And do it again and again.  The first thing you know you’re doing something they recognize and you’re in.
When did you begin printmaking?
Oh, I guess when I was in Cincinnati I did a few things.  I was a member of the old Cincinnati Men’s Art Club and they had a big etching press and I did a little plate to announce Martha Jane’s (Reed’s daughter) birth.  I did several things there, and then when we went to Oklahoma I got the department to buy a press, and many of my early things were done on that.  Later on, several of the engineering students built this press (the press in Reed’s studio).  They made the rollers out of a drill stamp for an oil well, they put an axle through it and welded it in there.  I did a special plate for the Museum of New Mexico for their 50th anniversary, and I was printing the thing, and I twisted the whole center out of the dern roller.  I was just sick about it.  I heard about this man, Werner Schultz, and was told I could find him any day after 5 at the Sleeping Boy (a legendary Taos watering hole).  He’d received his training in Germany where the first problem they give a machinist is a block and a file, and you make a ball bearing out of it.  (Laughs) I thought that was pretty good.  He came out and looked at this thing, took it all apart, and he said “I can make a new roller easier than I can fix this one.”  I said, “Fine, let me know when you’re finished.”  He said, “I don’t have to do that.  You come up to the Sleeping Boy tomorrow and I’ll have it ready and we’ll put it together.”  And he did it, all out of one piece of steel.  It fit together like a glove. I’ve used that press, I guess, 40 years.  It’s not a big press, but it’s not a mural medium.  I don’t know what they want those great big presses for.

One of the most distinctive things about your work is the mood.  Each one has its own mood, many of them are black.
I’ll tell you.  Years ago, I used to go outdoors and paint.  I found that not only are you fighting the wind, the bugs, and the snakes, but you find yourself matching the blue of the sky, somethin’ over here, somethin’ there.  So I quit that, and I go out and make a drawing, I look around and I finally find something that I think will have possibilities for a painting or a print, or maybe just as a drawing.  Then I organize the thing as I go.  And I try to think about the things that caused this landscape, the upheaval, the volcanoes.  The adobe buildings which are really part of the earth.  I try to get that sort of mood.  I like to think about mountains geologically rather than in terms of vegetation.  Many times I’ve been out sketching and seen a little procession moving through the fields, carrying a little statue of San Ysidro, blessing the fields and so on, and I think I kinda like that.  Those are the people of the earth themselves.  They farm the earth, they know the earth.  If someone doesn’t bless it, we don’t have rain and sunshine, we’re all lost.

So there’s a sense of history to your work, too, of how things came about rather than just how they are.
But there is that dark mood, the crosses, the campo santos. . .
Well, you know, I’ll bet you that the artists back in New York and people who go and visit the shows must wonder about me.  Maybe they think I’m a Catholic priest or a penitente.  But after all, this is a Catholic country.  The cross is everywhere.  It’s part of the country, and I want to get that feeling.  I’m not morbid about the country, I love it.  It’s part of the design, and the cross makes an interesting design patter itself. 

But there is the feeling that you live here and you’re affected by it as well.
Yes, I want to feel a part of it.  I did a special plate for the Society of American Graphic Artists in New York, and I got the nicest letter from a man who had seen it and he said, “You know, in Virginia we have no earthly idea about a landscape like this.”  Well, I did the thing down in Pilar along the river with those big headrocks up there, all that volcanic rock, and that sort of thing.  (Pause) So I’m sure they wonder whether I make up this landscape or not, but I don’t.   It’s here.

As opposed to this feeling of moody desolation, there is this painting here, An Afternoon in Summer, which looks almost like “New Mexico Gauguin”.  There is a sense of freshness and sensuality in it.  Do you like that one?
(Smiling) Yes.  It’s one of my favorite paintings.  And Rod Goebel bought it.  That’s pretty good when a fellow artist buys one of your paintings, isn’t it?

Is there a story behind that painting?  Or a story in it?
Well, no.  It’s just one of those idealistic things that I like to do.

Well, I suppose so, after all. . . (Pause) John Stebbins.  Did you know John Stebbins?  He lived up the canyon here.  He used to be a photographer for Time magazine for years.  He and his wife and I, we used to meet at La Dona Luz for lunch, had the greatest time.  And she’d say, “Now, Doel, do you actually see these women around out at your place?”  And I’d say, “Why, yes.  Haven’t you ever seen them?  They’re everyplace!”  (Much laughter)  And she would get so upset.  She wouldn’t come to the studio if there was a nude on the wall.  We’d have to turn it to the wall.  (More laughter) We used to have a lot of fun.

Do you think it’s important to draw from a model?
Oh yes!  Yeah.  I can draw very well without it. . . You need . . . I think drawing has to be anatomically correct.  I don’t object to El Greco making the legs a little longer or the arms a little longer.  They were still anatomically correct.  The joints were in all the right places. 

How much are you working now?
Well, not too much.  I’ve had these two eye operations, and I’m not doing too much.  I’m doing some caseins.  I’m still doing some printing.  I do that all right, but I just can’t get down to doing a fine line.  But those two caseins over there I’ve done this year. 
To change the subject back to your subject matter, just looking around your studio here it looks like the predominant subject you’ve worked with has been the female form. 
I think so. 

It’s an obvious question, but why do you paint so many nudes?
Oh, I love to paint nudes.  It’s a challenge.  They should always have a classical look that removes it from being personal.  That’s important.  And all of those that the great masters did were certainly not personal at all.  The great Titians, even Reubens.  All those big Flemish girls . . . I don’t know how they’d get along here.  They’d probably have to go jogging to get rid of all that . . . (Laughter) I thought it was one of the funniest things, all these style ads in the New York papers, and the magazines.  They got the skinniest, boniest women, their cheeks are all fallen in, and the eyes are dull, and they’re built like an ironing board!  Men don’t like women like that!

It’s funny what you said about the dress going out of style.  In nudes a certain body type has been going out of style.
It’s certainly gone out of style in this case all right.  But when you look at all the things from the early Greeks on up through the Renaissance and up through the Flemish painting, even the 19th century American painting, they were full-blown women!  There is a certain beauty about them.  (Pause) Well, I guess that’s the way I think about it.  I don’t know . . . I, ah, . . . (Phone rings and Reed answers.  Pause.)
Has your taste changed much over the years?  Do you still like the same things you used to like?
I think I like pretty much the same things.  I go to the exhibitions and find things I like.  But I don’t want to be influenced by it.  I try not to be influenced by anything but my own thinking.  Well, I don’t know, sometimes I think I ought to sign my name up along with Mozart’s and Beethoven’s and people like that because I like that too, which I think has the same sort of thing I’m doing. . .

Real harmony . . .

And that attitude carries over to your own view of art?  That it should be an expression of joy, of humor, of harmony, rather than . . .
Sure.  Yes.  You know I think so many times that these younger painters, who want to be abstractionists – I have nothing against abstract painting.  I’ve been on juries at times and I’ve given awards to good abstract painting.  But if they want to get good examples of fine abstract composition, they should look at the old masters, because that’s what they start with.  They start with great masses on their canvas, and then they had a theme which they developed within these masses.  But that big pattern is far superior to most of the abstract painting today. 
A change that seems to have occurred in art, in the last, oh, 20 years, is that the personality of the artist, in many cases, has become at least as important as the work that he does.  Certainly in terms of sales.
Oh yes.   I know it.  I know it is.  (Pause) The year before last I got a letter from the organization up in Denver that said they were inviting 62 American artists to this particular show, and I was one of ‘em.  Well, I thought, that’s pretty nice.  So I sent up a few things.  (Pause) Well, I guess I was kinda stupid . . . for one thing.  I didn’t realize it was one of those big moneymaking affairs.   It was run by the . . .

Denver Rotary Club.  Artists of America show.
Yeah.  And I sent up a few things.  And I had a moderate price on the things.  That’s where I think I made my mistake.  You can’t sell anything in a show like that for $4,000.  You have to have $60,000 to $80,000 on it.  And the one thing that sold for $225,000 was a landscape done in a canyon. . . Well, I’ve been in this business long enough to know when a thing is painted from a photograph!  And this was painted from a photograph.  I know it was because here in the foreground were some little rocks about the size of a grapefruit, with some careful shadowing.  No artist would be interested in those little rocks with a shadow cast when you’ve got a great canyon here and this sort of thing!  They were in the photograph so he put ‘em in there!  (Shaking his head.  To himself. . .)  $225,000. . . good grief. . .Now if I’d known that I coulda tacked on a couple of more zeroes . . . (Laughter) I’m a little conscientious about things like that, I suppose.  (Chuckling) I think that’s highway robbery.

So those paintings were overpriced rather than yours being underpriced.
I’m afraid so.  (Pause) Well, I’m sure there were good paintings in there.  But the man who did one for $225,000, I saw one of his paintings down here at the Gaspard House and, gosh, it wasn’t a painting at all.  It was just a little tinted thing on canvas.  It didn’t have any painting qualities at all.  I think a painting, and all the great works I know, had paint on the canvas.  And they were able to manipulate it in the right way.  It’s not just a matter of tinting a drawing, that sort of thing.  I’ll bet poor Mr. Gaspard about turned over in his grave.  (Laughter)

Did you know Gaspard?
Oh yes, quite well.  I loved that ol’ boy.  And he used to like for me to come over and talk, because he wanted to talk about certain American artists.  But, you know, he was a little difficult.  He’d go out and bring in a couple of glasses about the size of a jelly glass and a bottle of vodka, a bottle of vermouth, and a bottle of red wine.  No ice.  He’d pour that glass just about full with vodka, 4 or 5 drops of red wine to make it pink, ‘cause he loved pink.  (Laughter)  And he’d get mad at you if you didn’t drink two of ‘em.  Boy, you’d be practically horizontal.  (Laughter)  And he used to invite us out there in the summertime on Sunday for dinner.  And he was a good cook.  We went out there one time and Mrs. Fechin was there.  I don’t know if the Fechins and the Gaspards got along too well or not, but Mrs. Fechin, when Gaspard brought out the vodka, she said, “Vodka is for peasants.”  (Laughter) The Russians didn’t drink vodka, they drank the best French brandies.  They wouldn’t drink that old stuff. Some friends of ours went to Russia and said the vodka tasted terrible.  (Laughter)
Who were some of the other early Taos artists that you were close to?
I knew Blumenschein.  He was a character.  I knew Berninghaus.   I thought he was one of the best artists here.  And he was an absolute gentleman from the word go.  A fine man, I liked him very much.  Blumenschein – oh, he was a funny one.  You know, he used to be a baseball player.  He used to go on the narrow gauge railroad and go over to Tres Piedras to play baseball.  And he was a tennis player.  I guess he could do most anything.  And a bridge player.  He was so good they wouldn’t let him play, they wouldn’t let him stay in the room even. 

(We repair to the adjoining workroom where there is a bucket of ice, bottles of tonic water, gin, bourbon, sherry, Courvoisier.  He begins by showing us older aquatints and describing the settings and circumstances of them as we drink.)

This one I call Wedding Preparations because the girl was getting married.

Yeah, she’s cutting her toenails I see.
Yeah, she’s getting all ready for him.  The model was from Boston.  Her name was Murphy.
What did your father do, if I may ask?
My father was a commercial traveler.  He was a real gentleman, and I think I learned more about how to behave myself from him, just from watching him.  When I got home from the war he had a lot of extra time and the YMCA was advertising for secretaries.  He’d been a seller all his life, so he knew he could do that sort of thing.  So he went down to Indianapolis and they said, “Mr. Reed, we think you’ll do just fine.  And by the way, are you a praying man?”  My father said, “Hell no!” (Much laughter) He said, “I thought you fellows could do that and that I was going to do the work.”  (More laughter)  So he didn’t get the job.

I spent a little time with Andrew Dasburg just before he died.  He would drive his car around the house and park along the fence looking out across at Llano, and sit there in the front seat of his car all afternoon just using a straight edge and a pencil to define the landscape that is Llano Quemado.  It was an inspiration to watch him work.  He was then in his 90s, still every day. . .
Did you ever see him drive his car?

Coming down here he was turning into his place, so he turned way out on the left hand side of the road to turn, and he got hit by another car.  And he was so mad that the State Patrol didn’t know that you had to do that.  (Laughing) You had to turn out like that to get in the drive.

Did you visit with Mr. Dasburg much?
No, I didn’t.  I’d seen him in a gallery someplace.

I thought maybe living right down the road, as you do, you might have . . .
I’m afraid that we were as far apart as the North and South Poles.  (He continue rummaging through prints) Ah, there she is!  (Pulls out print of nude) That was published in a British publication as one of the finest prints of the year, in 1938.  It’s called Fertility.  (Pause) She was a beautiful woman with red hair.  I love red hair.  Just the kind of woman, as Thomas Hart Benton said of one of his models, “The kind of woman that causes a man to go around all day mumbling to himself.”  (Laughter) I met Benton one time.  He was quite a guy.  It was at an exhibition and reception and I didn’t have much of a chance to talk to him.  I saw him down the line a little ways and he yelled at me, “Hey!  Are you the guy who does those swell aquatints?”  I thought that was kinda nice.

Thom Collins, Stephen Parks, June 1983

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