In the heart of Bushwick, where the M train grinds overhead and tracks cast shadows down on bodegas, discount stores, and gold-decked barbershops offering quiffs and fades 24/7, is a special show. Travel there on a warm day and you’ll hear the beat of salsa in the air and see old people pull up chairs along Myrtle Avenue to pass time that seems to run in a somewhat slower fashion. Turn down Wilson and you’ll find the bright Arcadian space of Outlet Fine Art where Judith Dolnick: paintings is on view through June 29.
Inside the gallery, a sense of peace descends, the urban jungle fades into a mythic grove; color and form, shadow and light, abstract as notes of music, play on in timeless space. The opening on May 15 drew the usual art-scene crowd, but at the center of it all was a unique and elegant woman in pearls, the artist Judith Dolnick. Though showing her work in Bushwick, Dolnick is not your average hipster.
Dolnick was born in Chicago in 1934, to a family that considered the making of art “gauche.” But she loved to draw, and despite advice from her father to pursue a teaching career, she earned a B.A. in art from Stanford and an MFA from the Illinois Institute of Technology-Institute of Design. In January 1957, she met painter Robert Natkin, and three months later they wed and settled down into bohemian life.
But Chicago was not kind to young artists, especially those interested in abstraction, and offered few opportunities. So along with other creatives in the area, Natkin and Dolnick signed a lease for a rundown storefront and opened Wells Street Gallery. Late-Fifties Chicago yielded echoes of Bushwick: a rough neighborhood, cheap rent, rebellious artists taking the reins. There was the same mingling of talent, with the folk singer Odetta living upstairs, and the same “can do” spirit. “We did everything ourselves,” said Dolnick, charging $13 per show to cover the cost of printing announcements. Wells Street Gallery also organized loaner exhibitions featuring the work of established artists such as Willem DeKooning, Franz Kline, and Jackson Pollock, and they gave Chicago sculptor John Chamberlain his first one-person show. The gallery won critical acclaim and a champion in art writer Franz Schultze, but sales and recognition from collectors were not forthcoming.
When the lease expired in 1959, the artists chose not to renew, and one by one, made their way to New York, the center of abstract art, where they found representation and a more welcoming community. For Dolnick, the New York art scene of the Sixties was authentic and alive. “Everybody knew everybody,” she said. “There was a lot of talk about painting.” Then came the birth of a son in 1960 and daughter in 1962, followed by a move to Redding, Connecticut, in 1970.
Whatever art may be, life is never abstract, especially after children, especially for women. It is fraught with multiplying responsibilities, great and small, and Dolnick’s was no different. Though encouraged by her husband to “keep painting,” she often felt in the scheme of things that she “took third or fourth or fifth place.” On a resume that lists the collections of major museums, gaps began to appear: the first as she raised her children, then another as she cared for husband, who died in 2010. There was also a grandson born with Asperger’s syndrome, and cross-country, then transatlantic flights to help with his care. The art world moved on, and Dolnick found herself without representation, painting for herself, alone. Yet through it all, she continued to produce work.
Such perseverance takes a special kind of courage. It also takes a special kind of courage to step off trend and explore the lesser-known by-roads of art as Jason Andrew and fellow curators Julian A. Jimarez Howard and John Silvis often do. Andrew organized the 2015 retrospective on American expatriate Edith Schloss at the Sundaram Tagore Gallery, and Jimarez Howard said simply that “women are a large part of our program. It’s impossible not to be aware of how underrepresented they are in the art world.”
Dolnick’s is an artist’s story, a woman’s story, and a human story, filled with digressions and plot lines sketched in by a higher hand. Yet if time cycles ever on, it sometimes circles back in mysterious ways. The grandson who struggled is now prepping for university entrance exams. He is flourishing, and so, for that matter, is Judith Dolnick. She is selling her Connecticut home and moving to New York City where she can enjoy the multitude of museum and gallery shows—and, we hope, with more of her own to follow.
Judith Dolnick: paintings and Lucy Mink: comes in the moment so please stay in touch will run through June 28, 2015, at Outlet Fine Art, located at 253 Wilson Avenue, with viewing hours Saturdays and Sundays, 12-6PM or by appointment