Remembering James Doolin (1932-2002)


James Doolin (1932-2002): Photo by Richard Whittaker

Artist James Doolin, who would have been 80 this June, passed away on July 22, 2002 from complications of pulmonary fibrosis. Jim, a great guy, and an amazing painter is very much missed by his family and friends: can it really be almost been ten years since he left us?

After arriving from Australia in 1967, Doolin established his reputation in Los Angeles by devoting four years in the early 1970s to painting a detailed aerial view of the intersection of Arizona Avenue and 3rd Street in Santa Monica, "Shopping Mall," now in the collection of the Oakland Museum.

 In the years that followed, his visionary images of the Mojave desert and stylized views of Los Angeles -- which have an aesthetic somewhere between Canaletto and Toontown -- made it clear that he was one of the most original and ambitious painters of his time. In 1994 Doolin took on a monumental project: four murals for the Metropolitan Transit Authority depicting the astonishing development of Southern California's transportation systems. The project drained Jim's energy -- he worked on it ten hours per day, six days a week for a year -- but also left legacy of great public art.

 In a review published in 1998, Christopher Knight of the LA Times noted Doolin's "gift for endowing the everyday with a sense of estrangement." Knight also wrote that Doolin's urban work could "stop in its tracks the steady freeway flow or ever-changing landscapes of billboards, rendering them mysterious and spectral."

 "His paintings were successful in a way that is rare and precious," commented critic Doug Harvey after Doolin's death. "They enabled us to see the places we overlook every day and to recognize that, in spite of its ominous industrial overtones, the city is shot through with a luminous, electric vitality and a psychological potency verging on the mythic."

 To mark the ten years since Jim's passing here are some comments by critics and curators, tributes from those who were close to him, and a scrapbook of images.

Tributes to Jim Doolin

The hallucinatory quality of Jim Doolin's paintings captures the delirium of the southern California landscape. As such, it has helped set the tone for the new pictorialism now driving the region's "painting renaissance." Los Angeles, which never fetishized painting, has always fetishized pictures; it took a painter like Doolin, sensitive to light and space, sunshine and noir, to demonstrate that LA could play itself in something else besides filmic media.
- Peter Frank, Art Critic

Jim Doolin in downtown LA: Photo by Jim Zver
The photo above was taken in 1988 while Doolin gathering data and taking photos for "Bridges," now in the collection of the Autry National Center

Regretfully, I never met Jim. I've however long been captivated by his work; he was able to see 20th century Los Angeles in ways that somehow capture the bustling city and its massive infrastructure without losing sight of the wilderness it once was. I think this is perhaps because nature and humanity got equal play in his work, he did not favor the presence of one over the other or moralize the clash between the two. By graphing grand landscape concepts -- from the romantic sublime to the aerial view -- onto the postmodern city, Doolin straddled art historical worlds. For this he retains a unique place in California and Western art.
- Amy Scott, Marilyn B. and Calvin B. Gross Curator of Visual Arts, Autry National Center

The "Trinocular Society," in the Mojave desert, 1982 photo: Janice Tidwell Sigal

My longtime great pal Michael McMillen introduced me to Jim and Lauren in 1982, just in time to attend Jim's epic 50th birthday and lunar eclipse party at their cabin in the Mojave Desert. We all became dear friends and Jim, Mike and I acquired identical rubber-clad combat binoculars and christened ourselves The Trinocular Society. The group was made complete by Lauren's great and talented friend Janice Tidwell who I fell crazy in love with. She took the attached photograph which captured the spirit of our innumerable desert adventures that included explorations into beautiful, desolate areas and abandoned mines, pyrotechnic exhibitions, amateur rocketry experiments, moonlight cocktail parties with my accordion accompaniment in half collapsed desert buildings, naked Frisbee in 120° summer temperatures and encounters with the deadly Mojave Green Rattlesnake.
- Jay Teitzell, Friend and Co-Founder of the Trinocular Society

Jim Doolin in his studio in 1996 with two of his four MTA murals
"Los Angeles After 2000," (left) and "Los Angeles, circa 1870," (right): Photo: Lauren Doolin

Jim Doolin is the only artist to paint the vastness of Los Angeles. His paintings look like a kind of realism but he had the grace and poetic sensibility to offer us a personal fantasy that makes it all seem whole as if we are part of something that has a pattern, a wholeness that somehow explains how we can live in such an ugly place. He was such an optimist, and worked long hours to prove it. A dedicated friend whose value cannot be replaced.
- Les Biller, Artist and Friend

Jim Doolin, Lauren Richardson and Janice Tidwell in the desert in the early 80s

Jim was my painting teacher at U.C.L.A.  I was 19.  He was deliberate and committed.  He changed the way I looked at things.  He was very important to me.  A few years after I graduated, I often drove up Highway 14 to the remote Mojave Desert one-room cabin he then shared with my best friend, Lauren Richardson, his girlfriend, who he would later marry at my apartment.

We did a lot of crazy things during Jim’s three years in the desert, though no one would ever call Jim an impulsive person.  His approach was to think everything through, like a scientist.
Once we took an excursion in his covered pick-up truck up the Walker Pass to the Owens River and Lake Isabella.  Five of us camped by a creek and one of us said, “hey let’s take our clothes off, tie a rope around our waists, and one by one, jump in.”  Jim went first into what turned out to be a rapid, freezing, agitating whirlpool of a current – incredibly dangerous.  This lanky, stoical American Gothic Vermont guy, strips down to his skinny ass, ties the rope around his waist – Geronimo! and the men heave ho his butt out -- Jim whooping and screaming.  

He liked it when his friends – anyone – extracted him out of his Vermont, son-of-an-insurance man character.  That he could take that risk, communicated to the rest of us, a confidence – a trust – that we wouldn’t drown.  He had that kind of authority.

I loved Jim Doolin.  He is still a big part of my life.  No one painting ever sums up an artist, but for my money, his Last Painter on Earth, is a masterpiece.

- Janice Tidwell,  Friend
Jim's work always embodied wonder, dedication, and dignity; attributes mastered by the man himself. He was such a good artist that he could have gotten away with being arrogant, but he was remarkably considerate and supportive. We met in the early 80s. Jim was 25 years my senior, well known and very accomplished, yet he treated me as an equal. His sense of wonder and curiosity made him seem much younger. I was struck by something he told me he was aiming for in his paintings: he said he wanted to capture the initial radiant impression that you get when you first open your eyes. He put a lot of value on the sense of heightened reality born of unencumbered perception. It made you want to see the world through Jim's eyes. Urban blight, transportation corridors, the parched desert, or excessive Las Vegas were all transformed into magnificent visual feasts. We were lucky to know him, for his art, and for his humanity.
- Peter Zokosky, Artist and Friend
I have fond memories of Jim Doolin sitting on our deck overlooking the Anderson Valley and talking about the vulnerable place that you put yourself in to make art. Jim had the unique ability to surrender himself to the moment. He could always find something insightful to say about any work of art. He knew how hard it was to be an artist in our society and felt deeply for anyone pursuing that route. Even with his immense abilities, he shared the same insecurities. I still miss Jim and think about him often.
- Steve Rubin, Artist and Friend
In the arc of time I knew Jim, home and studio visits were many, each one of them vivid, filled with insights and the sharing of the struggles unique to the creative life. Jim was both a gifted artist and an honest human being. I treasure equally his creative devotion and his enduring friendship. His ability to direct his intensity, compassion and vision into the shining brilliance of his work has left an indelible mark. Without a doubt, he is an artist well deserving wider recognition.
- Sandra Mendelsohn Rubin, Artist and Friend

Above: An aerial view of Lippincott Road, where Michael McMillen and Jim Doolin shared an adventure.

One of the many things that I remember about Jim in the desert was that he was fearless. We had been visiting his old desert neighbor Chuck (Sad Sack, to use his CB radio name) who was in a nursing home in Lone Pine and Jim suggested that we drive back via Death Valley and see the Ubehebe Crater. Good idea. I recall a bullet-peppered sign as we entered the Saline Valley: NO SERVICE NEXT 50 MILES.
The sign was right, in fact we passed no one the entire drive in.
Stopping to eat lunch at the Racetrack Playa, we spotted in the distance; three guys on mountain bikes disappear around a bend at the south end of the dry lake. "Lets follow them", Jim suggested as it was getting later in the afternoon. Off we went. Easy driving for a mile or so and then suddenly a sharp right turn.
We had come to the end of the plateau and were staring down at the dry valley far below. The only way down was on a narrow switchback road, barely wider than Jim's Ford pickup, which didn't seem to faze him a bit. The road had been scraped into the side of the cliff many decades earlier by miners but hadn't been maintained for several years. Sketchy driving for sure.
It seemed that every hundred yards we had to stop the truck and roll stones into wash outs and cavities along that tenuous lip of dirt. With just inches to spare, he masterfully coaxed that truck over the rocks and avoided a dusty roll into oblivion.
Two hours after sunset and under a rising full moon, we finally rolled into the camp of the bikers who had preceded us down the trail. They were amazed and impressed. "We were taking bets that you wouldn't make it", volunteered one of the campers. Jim just smiled and said, "Well, looks like we did."
- Michael McMillen, Artist and Friend

Jim Doolin painting in the Mojave Desert

Jim Doolin came to one of my openings in LA. I was excited to meet him and flattered that he came. He was friendly and unassuming and I had the privilege and pleasure of making a couple of studio visits. In the studio he was frank and open about his process -- I'm organized about my palette and found some of the similarities affirming -- he was taking it further than I was and tubing his mixes for different areas. I do that now for some things. His rigorous process made it clear what a colorist he was. A continuing investigation into color and complex lighting ties together his body of work and reminds me of Rackstraw Downes' observation that working from life is a good challenge to a painter's resources. There are things I would have liked to ask him. The paintings are left to answer my questions.
Thank you Jim.
- Marc Trujillo, Artist and Friend

Jim and Lauren Doolin painting off Mulholland Drive: Photo by Barrie Mottishaw

There's a hill in the Santa Monica Mountains, accessible from Mulholland Highway, that turns an almost neon green under the California spring rains. For a few years during the early nineties Jim and Lauren and I would work there on and off, from about mid-March through early May, before the grass faded to a dull yellow. We would station ourselves at about ten feet apart along the top of the ridge -- the perfect distance for private focus, but close enough for talk.
I was just coming over to oil painting after a career as a water color painter and to me the oil medium was daunting, a complicated mystery. So I watched Jim carefully for guidance. Jim seemed so easy in his practice, yet at the same time methodical. He would appear to take his time with a study, but then it would all come together quickly at the end: the composition unusual, the colors sometimes natural or sometimes a bit wacky, but always just right for that particular piece.
I miss Jim terribly. I think of him when I am driving around Los Angeles looking at the city, when I am in the studio confronting a problem, when planning a painting expedition out into the landscape. Sometimes expressions he'd use will come back to me unexpectedly. "Bye for now," he'd usually say, ending a phone call. "Bye for now." So you'd know it was just a temporary break in the ongoing conversation. That conversation stopped suddenly ten years ago. I still find it difficult to accept.
- Barrie Mottishaw, Artist and Friend
Two Chapters
I met Jim in 1960 in New York, when I'd moved after my stint in the army. Jim was then a graphic designer, a very good and successful one, but not very happy with his chosen profession. He seemed to feel that fine artists, painters especially, were following a "higher calling" and doing something much more satisfying and worthwhile. I could sense his frustration and longing to move in this direction.
A few years after that Jim moved to Australia and I lost touch with him. Many years later in 1989, I discovered through a former student of his from UCLA, Jessica Dunne, that he was now living in Los Angeles. Enormous changes had taken place during those almost thirty years. Jim had moved to Los Angeles from Australia, raised a family, went to graduate school, began teaching at UCLA, divorced, remarried (to Lauren Richardson), fathered a daughter, Eve, and become what he so wanted to be: an artist.
A few years later I relocated to Los Angeles from New York and was able to reconnect with Jim. His work ethic, focus and dedication to his art was as strong as it had been in graphic design, but he was now doing something he was happily committed to. I'd seen two very different chapters in someone's life, one where the way forward was unsure and undecided, the other clear and focused.
My contacts with Jim in Los Angeles were usually long, leisurely lunches, sometimes coupled with seeing a museum exhibit or looking at a particular landscape or cityscape that he wanted to see because of a painting he was planning. Lots of our conversation was about art and I especially want to mention this because it was such an informed and sympathetic pleasure. For an artist to be able to talk to another artist with real visual understanding is a rare and special kind of communication. I absolutely had that with Jim.
- Jim Zver, Friend and Artist

Jim Doolin by F. Scott Hess, 1993

Jim Doolin was a great friend. I first met Jim and Lauren in 1985, when they came to a show of mine downtown. I'd just seen a painting of Jim's in a group show, the one looking down a stairwell at a doorway with an Exit sign above it. It gave you a great sense of vertigo, which was something I was also aiming for in painting. From that point on we always had a lot to talk about when we met.
In the early '90s a group of us went out to the Mojave desert with Jim and Lauren. We stayed in their little house, and during the day we toured the desert. The beauty of the place made me realize why he'd stayed out there so long, but the real surprise was the color variations. I'd assumed that Jim had greatly exaggerated the colors of the rock formations in those desert paintings of his, but there they were in all their glory.
What I miss most about Jim is his voice. Over the years we talked about many subjects, but painting was always the backbone of those conversations. He came from abstract art, and had a great appreciation of Modernism, so we had a lot to disagree about!
The tone of the discussion was always energetic, but measured. Jim had a calm assurance about him, borne of the rich experiences of his life and the skill needed for those magnificent huge paintings of Southern California. He gave advice freely, and it was always good. I still hear him talking sometimes when I paint, especially if it is an LA landscape I'm working on, or when an unusual color combination suddenly comes together unexpectedly.
- F. Scott Hess, Artist and Friend

Jim Doolin in Greece: Photo by Leslie Doolin

I met Jim Doolin on a street in the town of Lindos on the Island of Rhodes in Greece. Jim had come to spend time getting away from his commercial art background and begin his life as an artist. Lindos was a perfect town to settle down in at the time. He began to paint and sketch. People really responded to the sketches he did of the locals in tavernas, recognizing people from one town to another. Travel was a big influence. We traveled north to Turkey and later when we left Greece, we traveled on a motor scooter through Yugoslavia, Italy, Spain, Morocco, France and England before leaving for New York. We visited museums everywhere so a great deal of art was viewed. Back in New York he began hard edge geometric paintings along with commercial art for money.
Later, while living, teaching and doing commercial work in Australia, the hard edge paintings caused some interest. Jim found a group of painters who were influenced by him so that by the time he left he had some shows and a sort of following. We left Australia for Los Angeles with the promise of the GI Bill. Jim became a graduate student at UCLA and later a member of the faculty.
- Leslie Doolin

Jim Doolin in 1971

One of my fondest memories of my father was in the summer of 1977 when our family went on a three-month camping road trip in our family van. From Topanga Canyon in Southern California we traveled up the west coast to Northern British Colombia and Alberta, then across Canada to relatives in Vermont and New York City and eventually back across the Southern U.S.
This amazing adventure was one of many. We went on California camping trips and backpacking trips in the High Sierras often. My dad loved adventures and experiencing the wilderness and painted many oil studies while on these trips. These experiences forged our relationship.
When I was very young my dad would give me many pointers and teach me techniques for the cartoons I was doing. He helped me make an animated short film which I drew and he filmed. Dad took me to work with him to show me the studios and introduce me to the students at UCLA. There have been so many times in my life where I have heard from his former students about what an amazing drawing and painting teacher he was.
When I was in art school, I would look forward to showing Dad my latest oil paintings and I would always be so amazed to see his latest master- pieces he was creating. When art teachers asked me who my favorite artist was, I would always write down his name. He helped me to not only look at things, but to really see things. I learned more about art from him than anyone.
- Paul Doolin
When I think of my Dad I think of light and contrast. I think of interesting angles and intriguing perspectives. When I'm out in the city or out in nature I have visions of scenes much like his paintings. I always think of him and see him in the sky. And his angles and perspectives were not just in his artwork but in his conversations and his ideas. He always had these ways of being and it has had a great effect on me, opening up my mind and my life and experiences.
He was very much into the details and worked a lot on them. And even though his work is so technical in many ways you never feel that when looking at his paintings, instead you just feel like you are there in it. And for all the light and life in his paintings I was always so surprised to see how thin the paint was on the canvas as if he was just tinting the light bouncing off of it.
I always knew he was a great painter and through the years he taught me so much. And not just about art but about life and learning. We had so many adventures and experiences out camping in nature and also in the city examining things and society. I think about these things a lot in my life and when I think of them I think of my Dad.
And when I think of my Dad, I miss him. Happy Birthday Dad! I'm thinking of you.
- Matt Doolin
Some of my earliest and fondest childhood memories involve driving to the middle of nowhere and sleeping in the back of a truck. When the sun rose the next morning, my parents and I would traverse vast desert expanses in the same truck, and take in the spectacular landscapes as my dad scaled extreme grades, always with a huge amount of confidence and calculated agility. I can't ever remember being scared, or doubting his ability. Without fail, we would arrive safely at our destination to eat sandwiches on some rocky precipice while Dad showed me the exact route we had taken through a pair of massive binoculars.
My dad navigated through the city with the same calculation and skill. He regarded the landscape with equal parts respect, fascination and disdain that I've come to realize I've inherited, along with his strong appreciation for the extremes of both environments.
I only spent thirteen years with my dad, but he'll always be an integral part of who I turned out to be. I constantly find myself influenced by his attention to detail and fundamental love of seeing, both of which are apparent in his paintings, sketches, and the hand drawn map that I still use to find my way back to the desert.
- Eve Doolin

Lauren and Jim Doolin with their daughter Eve at Koplin Gallery, March 14, 1992

We began our twenty-two years together in the Mojave Desert with no electricity, no drinking water, no phone but many hours to paint, play and explore.
I have heard Jim's time in the desert described as a self- imposed exile, a retreat from society, a spiritual quest.He may have used these clich├ęs himself to justify or dramatize the decision to live and paint off the grid for three years.As it turned out, he was there for the glorious good time! And if the staunch reserve of the Vermont gentleman had a hard time admitting this, the delirious beauty of his desert paintings told the whole truth.
I painted River of Stars for Jim a couple of years ago, from memory and with the help of Jim whispering in my ear.
- Lauren Doolin

Lauren Doolin, "River of Stars"